Oscar Wilde

Oscar’s Wife

ImageI recently finished reading Franny Moyle’s book Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs. Oscar Wilde.  Constance Wilde is generally given short shrift in biographies of her husband. This book provided a much different perspective on the playwright’s life, and an important one. One of the things I took away from this book was just how many demands were being placed on Wilde in the years before his trials.

He was trying to capitalize on his new success as a playwright, he was courting the emotionally demanding Lord Alfred Douglas,  taking part in dinners and social events not to mention a notorious secret night life (seriously, don’t mention it), all the while maintaining his domestic role as a husband and father.  The domestic vantage point adds new dimensions to other, more well known, parts of his biography.

For example, in 1893, Wilde and Douglas had a series of arguments over Douglas’s translation of Wilde’s play Salome.  Wilde’s memory of the events were recorded in De Profundis.

“After a series of scenes culminating in one more than usually revolting, when you came one Monday evening to my rooms accompanied by two male friends, I found myself actually flying abroad next morning to escape from you, giving my wife some absurd reason for my departure, and leaving a false address with my servant for fear you might follow me by the next train.”

Most of the biographies I have read of Wilde or Douglas which deal with this episode go on to describe the tensions in the relationship between the two men. After these rows (and the threat of a scandal involving some indiscretions by Wilde, Ross and Douglas) Wilde determined that Bosie should take a trip to Egypt and he wrote to Lady Douglas asking her to send him abroad.  Without the perspective of Constance, Wilde’s reasons for wanting some space from Douglas seem to be entirely about the young man’s character.

What Moyle makes clear is that Wilde was being pulled in two directions. The demands placed on him by family life were just as strong as those placed on him by his lover.  His quarrel with Douglas was followed hard upon by an equally draining quarrel with his wife. When Oscar flew off to Paris to escape Bosie, he bailed on a wedding he was supposed to attend.  Constance was furious.  This is when Oscar decided he could not live this double life any more. He refused to see Bosie, arranged for him to be sent away, and for a while he tried to be the “ideal husband” he had seemed to be early in their marriage.

It didn’t last long, of course.

The beginning of the book contained a bit more background on Constance, and especially  on her wardrobe, than my level of interest supported. As the book reached its climax and tragic end, though, it is riveting.  After society had torn the family apart in the name of protecting the nation’s morals by sending Wilde to prison, they did it again with a severe penal system. Prisoners were allowed few visitors and only one letter a month. Friends and family had to compete for available slots. Because of this, Wilde’s well-meaning friends and Constance’s well-meaning advisors could only guess as to Wilde’s true wishes. Each tried to act on his behalf, and at cross purposes.  It would be comic if the consequences were not so tragic.

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A Universalist Talks Sin

There is an article in today’s Huffington Post “Pope Francis, You Had Me at Hello, and Lost Me at Sinner” written by Rea Nolan Martin.  Martin expresses her admiration for Pope Francis with the exception of one thing.   She does not like it when the pope refers to himself as “a sinner.”

“…I ask him to think twice before he identifies himself or really any of us, as sinners first…So if not sinners, then who are we really? We are noble creatures endowed with a wealth of holy spiritual gifts that we are charged to develop and share generously with each other, the animal kingdom and the earth. If we see ourselves that way, maybe we’ll behave that way. Who we tell ourselves we are, matters.”

As a Universalist (Universalists believe in universal salvation) you would probably expect me to agree with this statement.  As a Unitarian Universalist, a partial outsider to the Christian faith, I had good reason to have a fully negative reaction to the entire concept of sin. Growing up in my pre-teen and early teen years in a fairly conservative, largely evangelical, community  the notion of sin was often directed toward people like me.  It took me a long time to find value in the concept of “sin.”

Martin’s article is founded on a number of unquestioned assumptions.  The first is that thinking positively about ourselves is, by definition, a positive and better for us and society.  The second is a dualistic view of our nature as human beings.  Western people, Americans in particular, tend to think of the self as largely separate from society and consistent no matter what the context. It is dualistic, binary.  If you are a sinner you cannot also be a saint.  If you are noble you cannot also be a sinner.

When the pope says he is a sinner, he is not necessarily making “sinner” is his identity.  Saying you are a sinner does not mean you are only a sinner.

My view on sin and the self is this: In our essential nature we are neither saints nor sinners. We are saint-sinners, people who, to put it in Christian theological terms, were created in the image of God, who retain sparks of something divine and who also have the capacity to do terrible wrongs. Being blind to either aspect of our human natures causes problems. Believing you are only noble is as unbalanced, unhealthy and potentially dangerous as believing you are only sinful.  To sin literally means “to fall short.” A sinner is not a category of person. A sinner is any person given the right (wrong) circumstances.

As St. Paul said in Romans, “I do not understand the things I do, for I do the very thing I hate.”

The Gospel of Mark, while not placed first in most Bibles, was the first of the Gospels to be written. When you read the gospels in this order the first thing Jesus is quoted as saying is:

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (“The Gospel” here, of course, is not the Bible which didn’t exist yet.  Gospel means “good news.”  Repent and hear the word of God.)

So the first time we hear the voice of Jesus he is saying, “repent.”

This is probably not the first thing liberal religious folk would like to hear him say.  We would like him to open with “Do unto others…” or “What you do to the least of these…”  He says “repent.”

Nowhere does he say, “Feel good about yourself because having good self-esteem makes you a better person.”

The idea that we have one nature– good or bad– leads us to all kinds of crazy behavior in order to bolster and preserve our images of ourselves as the “good people” we want ourselves to be.  The things we do to preserve our self-esteem are not always the healthiest for society.  Just to be clear, I am not saying that self-esteem is bad, I am saying that it should be realistic and based on real behavior and achievement. There is no great moral value in  feeling good about yourself when you have done a wrong.

A few days ago I happen to have been reading the book The Myth of Moral justice by Thane Rosenbaum.  In this critique of the moral dimensions of the legal system, Rosenbaum includes two chapters on apology.  “One of the dirty little secrets of the legal system is that if people could simply learn how to apologize, lawyers and judges would be out of work,” he wrote. “…The healing power of an apology is morally vital, but seldom seen. In his essay in the New York Times, Bill Keller observed how Americans have ‘refined the art of the apologetic-sounding non-apology to near perfection. I’m sorry if I’ve offended you.’.. In the United States, apologies are cynically applied, given as an excuse or justification for less than exemplary conduct, and not as sincere gestures of contrition.”

This is overstating the state of affairs in America a bit, and yet there is a ring of truth to it. In a culture that attributes most behaviors to inner qualities and makes them one’s unchanging identity, the stakes are very high to think of yourself as a good person and to get to work explaining away your misdeeds– as much for your own sense of self as for the other person.

Maybe it would not hurt, though, for more secular and liberal religious folk to embrace the language of sin.  I think of that rung on AA’s 12 steps:  the fearless moral inventory.  How often do we allow ourselves to do this?  More often people get to work covering up their faults, making excuses and justifications for them or pointing at other people and telling them to repent.

This past year I did a lot of reading on the life of Lord Alfred Douglas, the poet and lover of Oscar Wilde.  He was one of many of the gay men in Wilde’s circle who converted to Catholicism.  This was initially hard for me to understand.  The Catholic church then, as now, considered sexual activity between males to be a sin. Why would homosexuals be attracted to such a religion?

What was different in Christianity, and Catholicism, then and now was a matter of focus.

The authors of Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes (E. Randolph Richards;Brandon J. O’Brien) explain the cultural shift within the church this way: “…at least since the sexual revolution of the 1960s, majority Western culture insists that sex is always good. Christians naturally desire to resolve the tension. Marriage gives us a way to do that. We can affirm that sex is bad-in the wrong context. We can affirm, too, that God wants us to have a gratifying sex life, albeit in the right context: marriage. In this way we are able to affirm both statements. It could be that American Christians privilege marriage over singleness and celibacy because it eases the tension that exists between traditional Christian and secular views of human sexuality.”

In the 19th Century Catholic church any sexual activity besides reproductive sex (in its most extreme form, even this was limited to the missionary position) was sinful. Those who sinned , whether with their own sex or another were not types of people. There was sin and people transgressed it or did not. Thus the homosexual was not alone in wanting to purge himself of this body and all of its lusts and the pain that came with them. Outside the church walls this was an isolating feeling, inside, it was a collective one.

I am not suggesting that this is the way we should approach “sins of the flesh” now. My point is only that the sense that we are all sinners, that we all fall short, can be unifying.

The question is not whether we sin, but what is “sin” and who gets to define it?  The problem is when people (and these tend to be people who are determined they are the good people) are bold enough to speak for God.  There is a video that Stephen Fry made for Proud2Be which sums this idea up fairly well.  Fry is an atheist and does not use the language of sin, but speaks of “pride” and “shame.”

“Part of life is learning what to be ashamed of and what to be proud of.”

So who are we in our natures? What does it mean to be human?  We are people who strive to be mirrors of the divine.  We are flawed. We fall short. We try to be better. That is beautiful.

Money’s Invisible Influence: The Cases of Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas

There is something strange about money.  The need for it is one of the main drivers in most people’s lives.  With the exception of the incredibly wealthy, a very small minority, people need to do things in order to make a living.  During their lifetimes most working artists struggle constantly to keep money coming in. Yet when we look at the works of artists of the past, money and marketplace concerns tend to fade from the picture.

This is why I enjoyed reading Guy and Small’s Oscar Wilde’s Profession which presented him as a working writer.

“Wilde never formed a permanent association with any theatre or company,” the authors wrote.  “His basic problem, at least during the early part of his career, was that his books did not sell particularly well, and that successive publishers were understandably unwilling to continue to invest in an unsuccessful author. His problems with the theater were more basic: he found plays difficult to write, and some of the refusals he experienced were caused by his constitutional inability to meet contractual deadlines… Moreover, there is evidence that he was happy to tailor publications to the requirements of particular markets; Wilde was remarkably willing to take account of ‘public opinion,’ even if he was not always successful in pleasing it… Most importantly, we confirm the suspicions of some critics and theatre historians that Wilde’s career was substantially shaped by the hands of other professionals, from theatre managers, book designers and publishers to the new phenomenon of the literary agent.”

Although Wilde’s output was shaped by the need to make a living, when readers, biographers and scholars talk about his work, they discuss it as if he was entirely in charge of his literary destiny.  He expressed what he wanted to as a writer and a thinker.  The truth is more complex.  He expressed what he wanted to and was able to as a writer within the context of what was possible in his world both culturally and financially.

Now let’s consider his younger friend Lord Alfred Douglas. There is a common perception that the tragedy of Douglas’s life was that he cheated the world out of his poetry because he became so obsessed with setting the record straight about his relationship with Oscar Wilde. Lord Alfred Douglas wrote four autobiographical works, all of which focused to one degree or another on his ill-fated relationship with the playwright.

Even Douglas’s published correspondence with George Bernard Shaw has an undercurrent of Wilde, but this is partly because they were working on revising an Oscar Wilde biography during the correspondence. All of this creates an impression, especially so many years later, that Douglas never focused on anything else.

Indeed, he did spend a great deal of energy fighting what he saw as misconceptions about this formative experience, and he might have been able to put that energy to better literary use. But the sense that Douglas had no life outside the memory of Wilde is created, in part, by our own focus as an audience.

Douglas didn’t need an insane obsession to inspire him to write about Wilde. He wrote four books that dealt with his relationship with Oscar Wilde for a straightforward reason– it was what the public wanted to hear from him and what he could sell. He was a lord without money. He needed to make a living. These books got more attention than the others he wrote, celebrity memoir always sells better than sonnets.

Although we may encounter them all at once, the various books Douglas wrote about the relationship with Wilde spanned a thirty year period. The first was written when he was in his early forties. The last when he was 70 years old. Over time the poetry faded away, as most poetry does, but the juicy gossip still interests readers.

In his lifetime, Douglas published more than a dozen collections of poetry, satire and nonsense verse and The True History of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. When his writings for publications such as The Academy are counted, he was by any fair reckoning quite prolific.

Oscar Wilde wrote “The Importance of Being Earnest” in an attempt to get some fast cash to fund his expensive habits and to give him enough leisure to produce a serious, edgy work that he thought was more artistic.  (It was never finished.)

Lord Alfred Douglas thought he would be remembered to future generations for his poetry long after the scandals of his life were forgotten.

“A Disreputable Person”

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I’ve been thinking about the expression “disreputable person.”  It has come up in my reading about Lord Alfred Douglas and Oscar Wilde.  After Wilde was released from prison, he wished to be reunited with Alfred Douglas, but when the lawyer for his wife got wind of it they cut off Wilde’s allowance.  A term of his divorce agreement was that she would pay him some support as long as he did not associate with “disreputable persons.”

“I do not deny that Alfred Douglas is a gilded pillar of infamy,” Wilde wrote to his agent, “but I do deny that he can be properly described in a legal document as a disreputable person.”

It struck me what a strange expression this is.  It implies that being “disreputable” is a quality inherent to a person.  In fact, it is other people’s gossip that gives someone a reputation.  The person himself has little control over that. Only the people who accuse and judge have the ability to determine if someone is “disreputable” or not.  By claiming Douglas was a disreputable person, they made him so.  There was only one thing necessary for Douglas to stop being “disreputable” and that was for other people to shut up.

By the way, if you’d like to read some of my past posts where I mused on the words we use try this one about the word “lovers,” this one about the expression “struggling with” and this one about “the lifestyle.”

Oh, and another “by the way,” according to my word press logs, my most popular posts are the ones I’ve done that mention Lord Alfred Douglas.  Not sure why.

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That Which is the Man Left Unrecorded

img_5085After Oscar Wilde was released from prison, he lamented the loss of his library, and relied on friends to give him books as gifts.  His friend Vincent O’Sullivan gave him a copy of Baudelaire’s letters, but Wilde didn’t like them: “They are all about publishers and money.  His real self was in his poetry.”

The same could be said for Oscar Wilde’s Complete Letters, which I also finished reading recently.  Most of the writer’s correspondence was taken up with quite mundane and often depressingly familiar matters for anyone trying to make a literary living.

Was Wilde’s real life made up of his writings and the dramatic episodes have become part of his mythology or was his real life the one that is too dull to read about?

To get an idea of what he might have thought was his “essence” here is an excerpt of Wilde reviewing a biography of Coleridge.  This from the article Great Writers by Little Men from the Pall Mall Gazette March 28, 1877.

“The real events of Coleridge’s life are not his gig excursions and his walking tours; they are his thoughts, dreams and passions, his moments of creative impulse, their source and secret, his moods of imaginative joy, their marvel and their meaning, and not his moods merely but the music and the melancholy that they brought him; the lyric loveliness of his voice when he sang, the sterile sorrow of the years when he was silent. It is said that every man’s life is a Soul’s Tragedy. Coleridge’s certainly was so, and though we may not be able to pluck out the heart of his mystery, still let us recognize that mystery is there; and that the goings-out and comings-in of a man, his places of sojourn and his roads of travel are but idle things to chronicle, if that which is the man be left unrecorded.”

I have been reading a lot of biographies lately, mostly of Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas.  They have left me wondering if “that which is the man” can ever be captured in a biography.

In life you never experience a person the way you do in a biography.  You never get an overview of a whole life– the same person in his context as a worker, a family man, a lover, a friend, a debtor, in all of his moods: when he is up, when he is down.  You have impressions of people.  You know parts of them.  A biographer tries to harmonize all of the impressions he or she can collect from people who caught these glimpses, who knew the person in part.

Who has the truth? Is the opinion of a person who dislikes you, colored by the memory of a bad experience less “true” than the memory of the person who was delighted by you? Is the truth the middle ground of these two poles or are you actually both things at the same time– a thoughtless person and a thoughtful person, depending on the context?

A biographer has the question of memory to contend with, of course.  As I learned when I was writing the book Arlo, Alice and Anglicans, if you interview one person about an event from the past you know what happened.  If you interview two you start to doubt and once you’ve interviewed five you no longer have any idea what went down.

After Oscar Wilde died, a number of friends from his circle of poets and writers put out biographies, and many of them spent years arguing with one another about the truth of their accounts.  I suspect that “true” and “not true” is not quite the right way to look at these early biographies written by Wilde’s contemporaries.   I would rather say that each of them tried in his own way to capture “that which was the man” based on what he was able to glimpse, what Wilde was willing to show him.

Numerous biographers have said that Wilde’s real talent in conversation was not that he could hold forth on any topic, but that he brought out the other people in a conversation.  He was interested in the topics that interested them.  His wife called him “a great actor.”  Reading the Complete Letters it becomes clear that he often had edited versions of the truth for different friends.

In particular, Wilde tried to downplay his interest in reuniting with Lord Alfred Douglas in his letters to his literary executor Robert Ross who would go on to assist many of the early biographers.  Ross believed that Douglas had always been the pursuer, because this was the impression Wilde wanted to give him.  He told the truth about what he knew.  It happens to have been quite different from Lord Alfred Douglas’s truth, because Douglas knew what Ross could not:  That at the same time Wilde was writing to Ross about how Douglas was bothering him with letters and requests to meet, Wilde was encouraging him, and could not resist writing to Douglas every day and expressing his love, as some of he few surviving letters between Wilde and Douglas testify.

(The fact that few letters between Wilde and Douglas have survived skews the picture of the Wilde/Douglas relationship for present day of biographers of both men. Douglas burned about 150 letters of Wilde’s.  I suspect that if they survived, they would be full of Wilde’s thoughts on art, books he thought Douglas should read, and a lot of every day observations along with the at that time incriminating articulation of romantic feeling.)

“[Wilde] had all the gifts necessary: an imposing presence, a pleasant voice, a control of language, charm, and an extraordinary tact in choosing subjects which would suit his listeners, and in judging his effects,” O’Sullivan wrote. “He did not try to enforce his moods; he gave the impression of adapting himself to the moods of others.”

He was a different Wilde to different people (as we all are to some extent).  This means that when one biographer tells his truth he belies someone else’s memory.

Lord Alfred Douglas, Wilde’s “intimate friend,” spent the better part of his life writing responses to other people’s versions of the story of his life with Oscar Wilde.   He even wrote one biography that he later came to repudiate entirely.  Oscar Wilde and Myself was written (largely ghost written) at a time when Douglas felt great bitterness about Wilde’s prison letter De Profundis and the prison-tainted version of their story it presented. So you have the strange spectacle of Douglas arguing against his own biography of another biography.  Because of his changing moods, memories and versions of the history, many people consider him to be at best unreliable, at worst a damned liar.

Is it reasonable to expect that Douglas could give a “true” account of what his relationship with Wilde had been? Was he ever really in a position to formulate some kind of overriding “truth” about that?  Was his mellowed perspective of the later years the most true?  Or was his anger the truth?  Did they love each other as they did in their most passionate moments, or hate each other as they did in their most combative, did they bore one another as no doubt they did from time to time? What did they want their future to be? Surely that changed from day to day, mood to mood.

The 1997 edition of Frank Harris’s Oscar Wilde was published with an introduction by Merlin Holland.  Harris’s early Wilde biography has long been considered unreliable and largely made up.  Holland suggests that besides Harris’s literary style, which bolsters his own importance, and his habit of telling the story by inventing direct quotes, the picture Harris paints is essentially truthful.  “His sin would appear to be embellishment rather than outright fabrication.”

Lord Alfred Douglas hated Harris’s biography.  He fought to keep it from being published in England, and he worked with Harris and later George Bernard Shaw as the writers tried to come up with a version Douglas would find satisfactory.

Holland considers Douglas’s attempts to get the Harris book edited in his favor “devious” and underhanded.  I don’t believe this is fair. I believe Douglas felt his version of the past was the truth.  He was not trying to cheat, he was, from his perspective, trying to get justice.

One particular incident in the book offended Douglas the most.  Shaw could not understand why Douglas objected to it.  Shaw was certain (though he had not been there) that the facts of the episode Harris recounted had to be essentially what happened.  Even though they had opposite positions on the scene, I believe that both Shaw and Douglas were right about it.  It happened, but it is still not true.

To make it as simple as possible, Douglas and Wilde had a falling out over money and both complained to Harris about it.  The basic recounting of this is probably not that far from what happened.  On the other hand, his direct quotes of what Wilde, Douglas and he said were “embellished.”  Only a few surface details and matters of interpretation are added.  Embellishments?  Or does it fundamentally change the meaning of the events?

If you’ve ever had an argument with someone and heard them say “All I said was” and repeat the same words in a new tone you will have an understanding of how reported events can be true, and the overall effect can still be a lie.  As it appears in the book, Wilde generally says kind things about Douglas, and comes across as entirely reasonable, while Douglas says fairly horrible things, and comes across as unreasonable.  Harris also contextualizes the argument so it is framed with what had to be his own point of view (which he attributes to Wilde)– that Douglas, as an English Lord, could always get more money.

The events become part of a narrative about sweet Oscar Wilde, who was utterly reasonable to request a small thing from a spoiled rich Lord.  Harris didn’t much like Douglas, and this was no doubt the truth as he saw it.   It was a complete smear as far as Douglas was concerned.  This was what Douglas found objectionable– the tone, not the song.

More than a century later, it hardly matters who was right and who was wrong, who was reasonable and who was not.  Unless, that is, you want to use the episode as a metaphor for a bigger point you want to make about someone’s character.

If I could sit down with Oscar Wilde and ask him myself what he thought the meaning of his life had been, would he have an answer?  And would it be the same one he would give if you asked him a week later?

In spite of all of the biographies of Wilde available today, I still have the feeling that “that which was the man” has been left unrecorded and that is the only way it can possibly be.

WWW Wednesdays: The W is for Wilde.

ImageIt is time for WWW Wednesdays hosted by Should Be Reading (and indeed you should).

To play along, just answer the following three (3) questions…

• What are you currently reading?
• What did you recently finish reading?
• What do you think you’ll read next?

ImageWhat am I reading?

I am very much enjoying Josephine Guy and Ian Small’s Studying Oscar Wilde: History, Criticism and Myth.  I identify very much with the figure of Wilde these authors present– Wilde the writer as opposed to Wilde the mythical figure.  Between this book and the book by the same authors that I will mention next Wilde emerges as someone who was successful at branding himself as a social figure but less successful, until his society comedies became relative hits, at branding himself in the literary world.  His work was too eclectic, and he straddled the worlds of popular fiction and elite artistry for the highly educated.  He was a working writer, looking to make a living, writing in any genre that paid.  Although Dorian Gray is now thought of as a classic, the book edition did not sell well.  Publishers didn’t know what to make of him, and didn’t see him as particularly bankable.  (I am an un-marketably eclectic writer myself and I sympathize with this.)

What Did I Recently Finish Reading? 

ImageI just finished this insanely green book.  Oscar Wilde’s Profession, by the same authors.  It covers a lot of the same territory but is more academic and less for a general readership.

9780375703683What do I think I’ll read next?

I’m very excited that my copy of The Decline and Fall of The British Aristocracy by David Cannadine has come in through inter-library loan.  You can read the New York Times review here, if you like.

Teaser Tuesdays: The Uncollected Oscar Wilde

ImageIt seems that Tuesday has come again.  And so I will pick up the book that is nearest to my left hand and tell you a bit about it.  Here’s how Teaser Tuesdays works:

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:

• Grab your current read
• Open to a random page
• Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
• BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
• Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

Today I was reading The Uncollected Oscar Wilde edited by John Wyse Jackson.Image

The selection is from a lecture to art students delivered in June 1883.

“To begin with, such an expression as English art is a meaningless expression.  One might just as well talk of English mathematics.”

If you would like a couple of bonus lines (the conclusion of this paragraph):

“Nor is there any such thing as a school of art even.  There are merely artists, that is all.”