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A “Destructive” Love Affair: Empathy for Lord Alfred Douglas

ImageLately I find I am  fascinated by Lord Alfred Douglas.  (This may be the only thing I will ever have in common with Oscar Wilde.)

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?

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What Time Forgets

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This is a photo of my great-grandfather, William Jewell, when he was a child actor in Michigan.

I’ve been working a bit on my family history.  By pouring through old census records and city directories you can learn quite a bit about your ancestors.  You can discover their parents’ names, their occupations, with a bit of research you can imagine them in a context, how did people dress then?  What were the rituals of their church?  What were the big events in their communities?  If you’re really lucky you will find an obituary that notes something about the person’s life.

Yet as much as you discover, there is always a big hole in the center.  There is something vital, something that gets to the heart of who a person is, that never makes it into a genealogical database.

Yesterday I came across an old letter written from my great-uncle to his sister, my grandmother.  As I read his memories of his father, I realized what is missing from the records.  Everything that the person did not do. Their unrealized potential.

The goals that seem just beyond one’s grasp that we can’t help chasing, these are what animate a life and give it meaning.  When a person dies we mourn not for what they did but for what they could have done and never had the time.  The world may see your resume, but only those who know you best know what lies behind it, what you wish to accomplish and haven’t, not yet.

When you examine the census records in your search for William Jewell, you will find his occupation listed as “salesman” but his business card said, “Wm. F. Jewell,  Fine Arts.  Theatrical Work a Specialty.”

His sister Ada, just two years older, had become a Vaudeville star with her husband Dick Lynch.  Bill, as he was known, made a poor businessman when he tried to run a family candy store in Detroit.  He did better selling ads for the Detroit Journal.  In his free time he would pick up extra cash and drinks by doing recitations in the local bar.  Even the members of his family, who bore the brunt of his legendary temper, admired the acting talent he showed when he recited the old stories.

The story of his life lies in what drove him, what fueled his ambition, what he was never able to achieve.

“He needed only the opportunities that I gave you children,” said his wife, the woman who has been dubbed in family lore “Saint Clara.”  “To me he was truly a successful man.”

And what of her dreams?  Clara was “a practical, pragmatic, wonderful lady,” who wanted a stable home and family and who had the fortune or misfortune to fall in love with a man with big dreams and big disappointments. His dreams and her dreams crashed into each other.  And that is the story of a life.  It is not what we manage to accomplish that makes us who we are. The real work of a life is bridge building.  It is the story of the bridges we try to build to cross the distance between our dreams and the reality of our lives.

Debunking Debunking

There was recently an episode of the television series House in which an ailing novitiate comes in to the hospital for a diagnosis. One of the doctors on House’s team came to medicine after dropping out of the seminary.  He tries to test the faith of the aspiring nun by asking her questions about the Bible.  He quizzes her on stories that are told differently in different books of the Bible.  For example, “How many times did the cock crow before Peter denied Jesus?”  

It seems unlikely that someone who attended seminary would have such a superficial understanding of faith that the whole thing could be unraveled by one extra crow.

It got me to thinking about this whole idea of “debunking” the Bible.  The idea that the Bible is something that can be “debunked” by showing factual inconsistencies assumes that the book is a certain type of thing.  You can debunk junk science.  You can debunk false journalism.  You can debunk bad history.  But the Bible is not science or a history text book or journalism.  It is art. 

You can’t “debunk” Picasso by saying human noses don’t really go there.

Nor would you debunk Shakespeare, even though he wrote plays based on history.  You might point out that the real Henry V did not give the marvelous St. Cispan’s speech before the battle of Agincourt, but that hardly “debunks” the play. 

Shakespeare was capturing the essence of how the English people felt about this episode.  He was illustrating (not reporting on) the drama of the nation’s cultural history.

That is the same type of story telling that occurs in the Bible.  It illustrates and dramatizes the moments that shaped the culture of the Jewish people and their religion and later of the proto-Christian people and their culture. Much of what is written is based on history, but it is not told in the voice of the historical scholar.

Debunking the Bible because it is bad science or history and reading the Bible as though it were literal historical scholarship and science are two sides of the same coin. 

The purpose of religion is to inspire, to invite wonder and contemplation, to give people a sense of common community and to teach us how to ethically relate to one another in the here and now.

If the Bible was a perfectly factual, scholarly report on historical events it would fail as scripture.

When you read the page on the Battle of Agincourt in your British history class (if you had one) did you want to cheer, or were you doodling on the back of a note pad and waiting for the class bell to ring?

Henry V may not have said “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers,” but he should have.  It took a poet to capture the dramatic truth.  That is the type of truth that one can find in the Bible.

Losing My Religion

“It is an age of nervousness… the growing malady of the day, the physiological feature of the age,” said a New York Tribune editorial.  “Nowhere are the rush and hurry and overstrain of life more marked than in this much-achieving Nation…  Inventions, discoveries, achievements of science all add to the sum of that which is to be learned, and widen the field in which there is work to be done.  If knowledge has increased, we should take more time for acquiring it…  For it would be a sorry ending of this splendid age of learning and of labor to be known as an age of unsettled brains and shattered nerves.”  The article was written in 1895.

There is one thing that you can count on throughout history.  People are nostalgic for an earlier age, one that was less busy, one in which young people took the time to read books, and when people still believed in that “old time religion.”

As for reading, that golden age in America, when every person had his nose in a book is as much a myth as the memory of an age when no one felt pressured and rushed. 

“If you grew up in a rural area, you have seen how farmhouses come and go, but the dent left by cellars is permanent,” Paul Collins wrote in Sixpence House.  “There is something unbreakable in that hand-dug foundational gouge into the earth. Books are the cellars of civilization: when cultures crumble away, their books remain out of sheer stupid solidity. We see their accumulated pages, and marvel – what readers they were! But were they? Back in the 1920s, booksellers assessed the core literary population of the United States, the people who could be relied on to buy books with a serious content, at about 200,000 people. This, in a country of 100 million: a ratio of about 500 to 1. It was this minuscule subset spread out over a three-thousand-mile swath, this group of people who could fit into a few football stadiums, that thousands of books released each year had to compete for. Perhaps the ratio has gone higher since then. You see, literary culture is perpetually dead and dying; and when some respected writer discovers and loudly pro­claims the finality of this fact, it is a forensic marker of their own decomposition. It means that they have artistically expired within the last ten years, and that they will corporeally expire within the next twenty.”

Which brings us to that old time religion.  I was reading on the blog Made in America today an article by Claude Fisher, Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley.  His article, Faith Endures, opens with a scene from 1907 when a group of ministers met with president Theodore Roosevelt to discuss the crisis of declining church attendance.  Yet church attendance did not decline, and was booming in the 1950s.  Fisher describes a complex history of Americans relationship to church-going from the nation’s founding- the good old days when most of the founding fathers were “unchurched” to the present day.  The history is not a straight line (oh but we love to see history as linear!) Rather church attendance has waxed and waned.

“Since time immemorial, it seems, people have described – some have decried – the loss of that ‘old time religion.’” Fisher writes.  “Modern scholars call it secularization. With the coming of science, industry, and urbanization, faith had to crumble, they argued. There must have been a time when everyone believed deeply and that time has presumably passed.”

The article presents a graph that shows a surprisingly consistent level of church attendance throughout our history.

Importantly, we see this consistency in expressions of faith even though the early surveys include many respondents who had been born around the end of the 19th century and in the later surveys these elderly folks are replaced by respondents who had been born in the 1970s and ‘80s. Swapping the World War I generation for Gen X’ers hardly changed average levels of faith.

Faith among Americans endures, surprisingly so to many casual observers — even to professional observers…

Had the ministers who visited Teddy Roosevelt in 1907 known that a century later this would be the level of American faith, would they have been less alarmed? I suspect not.  Except when the evidence is too overwhelming — for instance, during the Great Awakenings around 1800 or during the 1950s — people just assume that faith is one of those things we are always in the process of losing.

So the loss of those old time values and a simpler way of life have always been and will always be decried even as things remain, to quote that great thinker David Byrne “same as it ever was.”

Talking Heads – Once In A Lifetime by hushhush112