It began when I read his correspondence with George Bernard Shaw. Douglas was in his 60s at the time, his beauty faded, his infamous temper cooled a bit. Yet I have rarely encountered a personality that asserts itself with such force from beyond the grave.
Bosie (as he was called) has a Peter Pan quality which Shaw dubs his “infantile complex,” a term that Bosie embraced.
He has tantrums, he flatters, he is vain and easily hurt, he begs to be loved and appreciated as much as he appreciates his own worth. Although he is self-aggrandizing, he is also witty and self-aware. He has a sense of humor about his prodigious character flaws.
What I loved most about the correspondence between the far right Douglas and the far left Shaw is that it is a story you don’t hear much these days, the story of two people who disagree on everything and who continue to hold great affection for one another. I found the correspondence to be uplifting for this reason.
Recently I was driving, and in front of me was an SUV covered in bumper stickers espousing the opposite of everything I believe to be moral and good. My first thought was “I hate that person.” After a moment’s reflection I realized that I probably would really like the person if I met him. There are a lot of people who I love who have views that oppose my own.
Arlo Guthrie put it this way: “I came out of that whole time (the 1960s) thinking I’d only met two kinds of people, that’s people who give a damn and people that don’t. And the truth is you could find both of those kinds of people on every side of every issue, and in the long run I thought you might even have more in common with people who care about stuff than you have with people who side with you on an issue or two as they’re going through time.”
Douglas and Shaw were two people who were bonded in affection as a pair of souls who gave a damn about stuff.
Without falling into complete fuzzy moral relativism, the triumph of love over ideology is an important and compelling story, as compelling as the triumph of the right over the wrong. If we were reminded of this more often, maybe the world would be a better place.
After I wolfed down the Shaw/Douglas book like a bag of cookies, I wanted to know more about Bosie. As I read more I found myself in a love/hate relationship with him. There are sides of him that are distasteful and sides that are noble, romantic and beautiful. He seems to be everything at once and all of it in the extreme.
He had a fierce judgmental streak which is easier to recognize when he is arguing from the conservative side, but it was always there even in his youth when he was proclaiming, to the extent that Victorian society allowed, the beauty of same sex love and carnal pleasure.
His most notable flaws are his vanity and arrogance. It was easy to get on his good side, just complement his poetry and he would be impressed by your wisdom. I can’t tell you why, but I find his arrogance amusing and charming.
In his day, there were those who detested Oscar Wilde for his pretension, vanity and arrogance. We love him for saying “I have nothing to declare but my genius.”
Bosie does not get off so easy.
Wilde must have had a certain wink, a certain tone, that made these boasts seem charming. Contemporary accounts before the trial that brought Wilde down seem to suggest that Bosie had a similar vain charm. Many people describe them as being mirror images of each other.
This is from The Green Carnation, a novel that satirized Bosie as Lord Reggie and Wilde as Mr. Amarinth:
“I want you to tell me which is original, Mr. Amarinth or Lord Reggie?” “Oh! they both are.” “No, they are too much alike. When we meet with the Tweedledum and Tweedledee in mind, one of them is always a copy, an echo of the other.” “Do you think so? Well, of course Mr. Amarinth has been original longer than Lord Reggie, because he is nearly twenty years older.”
Together the two men partook of the illicit pleasures of London’s seamy underworld of male prostitutes. If it was Douglas who introduced Wilde to this risky pass time, there is no reason to suppose Wilde went kicking and screaming.
Wilde often wrote about how he wanted to experience everything in life, that all experiences were material for his art. If Bosie was more reckless and bold (all evidence suggests he was, as he was protected by his social class) that had to be a big part of the attraction.
I have to admit that the more I read, the more of a love/hate relationship I have with Oscar Wilde as well. His character flaws are dismissed much more easily because of his literary ability. Every artist may be driven, on some level, to become appreciated enough for his art that his sins are forgiven in time.
In case you are not familiar with what happened to Oscar Wilde, here is a quick summation. Lord Alfred Douglas’s father was known for his violent temper and his vindictiveness. He was so incensed at the relationship between his son and Oscar Wilde, who had long been whispered to be a sodomite, that he made it his mission to keep Bosie away from the playwright. He basically stalked Wilde and his son until Wilde made the disastrous decision to sue him for libel for calling him a sodomite, something that in this time was considered a horrible crime punishable by a long prison term. It seems obvious in retrospect that it was insane to sue him for libel over something that was true. But this was the only thing they thought would get him to leave them alone, and they seem to have believed that Wilde’s wit and charm could win over any jury and that social class would protect them. Nothing could be proven about Douglas and Wilde’s relationship and the prostitutes were without power and status and speaking about what they did would implicate themselves. They counted on a code of silence, and underestimated Bosie’s father’s determination to turn up evidence. The Douglas family squabble set this all in motion, but Wilde was not imprisoned for his relationship with Bosie but for his activities with prostitutes.
People always describe the relationship between Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas as a “destructive love affair.” The implication is that the love affair itself was at fault. That it was Wilde’s weakness for his young lover, an obsession, that led him into this snare. I don’t believe this is a fair way of looking at things.
It is certainly possible to believe that Bosie was not a good match for Wilde and that he could have done much better for himself. They fought and broke up and came back together time and time again, but many couples relate this way.
It would have been the easiest thing in the world for Wilde to say, “Your father is making my life hell and this relationship is not worth it.” He wasn’t willing to do that. Through all sorts of external pressure and private conflicts of their own, they were determined to stick together. With Oscar Wilde and Bosie Douglas we call this destructive obsession. Yet in a straight couple wouldn’t we call it something else? Wouldn’t we call that commitment?