Out of the Depths: More on Oscar Wilde
I keep telling myself that I’m going to take a break from the blog, but I find it a soothing distraction from having to process feelings. I’m in Edinburgh now. The way the city is lit at night — castle windows draped in lamplight, church statues carved out in shadow — reminds me of Macbeth. I feel as if I should change my name to Duncan, grow a beard, and pretend I’m a ghost.
One crucial mistake I have made on this trip is choosing to read Oscar Wilde’s Prison Writings. I think it might be the worst book in the world to consume whilst sad. Remarkable as it is as a meditation on art and suffering, the entire trajectory is, obviously, downward and desolate. There is no escape for writer or for reader.
Before and immediately after entering prison, Oscar wrote to Bosie about how their love would carry him through his incarceration.
Dear boy, among pleasures or in prison, you and the thought of you were everything to me. Oh! keep me always in your heart; you are never absent from mine (10).
Our souls were made for one another, and by knowing yours through love, mine has transcended many evils, understood perfection, and entered into the divine essence of things (11).
My sweet rose, my delicate flower, my lily of lilies, it is perhaps in prison that I am going to test the power of love. I am going to see if I cannot make the bitter waters sweet by the intensity of love I bear you (11).
Those letters were written before Oscar knew what two years hard labor and imprisonment would do to his body and mind. Before he turned himself in, many people encouraged him to flee, including some of his closest friends. But his mother, whom he loved dearly, and others closer to him told him to stay and honor his sentence. Early on in his letters, it’s clear that he was (note the past tense) willing to endure all that was brought upon him.
I decided that it was nobler and more beautiful to stay. We could not have been together. I did not want to be called a coward and a deserter. A false name, a disguise, a hunted life, all that is not for me, to whom you have been revealed on that high hill where beautiful things are transfigured (12).
And yet, it took only a few months for him to revert on all of the things he wrote and believed. The more he endured the physical and emotional isolation, the more he began to regret every literal moment that he and Bosie spent together. He blames Bosie, hypocritically, for preventing him from fleeing to France before the verdict. He blames Bosie for ruining his art, for not understanding their relationship. And he writes in awfully precise detail how Bosie meant nothing more to him than any other schoolboy he might have met. He even goes so far as to name certain other young men whom he met and had “better” relationships with. If I were Bosie and if De Profundis had been addressed to me, I would have thrown myself off a bridge after reading the first half of it. The sentences are that troubling to read.
When I compare my friendship with you to my friendships with such still younger men as John Gray and Pierre Louÿs I feel ashamed. My real life, my higher life was with them and such as they. Of the appalling results of my friendship with you I don’t speak at present. I was thinking merely of its quality while it lasted. It was intellectually degrading to me. You had the rudiments of an artistic temperament in its germ. But I met you either too late or too soon, I don’t know which. When you were away I was all right (48).
Oh, it gets worse.
You were my enemy: such an enemy as no man ever had. I had given you my life, and to gratify the lowest and most contemptible of all human passions, Hatred and Vanity and Greed, you had thrown it away. In less than three years you had entirely ruined me from every point of view (82).
Now, it must be said that Bosie did not communicate with Oscar for a very long time while Oscar was imprisoned, and the lack of communication surely wrought havoc on the writer’s mind. How could the man he loved, the man who loved him, not even attempt to get in touch? It was cruel on Bosie’s part, I think. One can assume that the genesis of De Profundis came out of simply not hearing from the boy for years. But, just as in vino veritas, in silentium veritas.
Your silence has been horrible. Nor has it been a silence of weeks and months merely, but of years; of years even as they have to count them who, like yourself, live swiftly in happiness, and can hardly catch the gilt feet of the days as they dance by, and are out of breath in the chase after pleasure. It is a silence without excuse, a silence without palliation (97).
(Off-topic: If I ever write a set of sentences like those above, I’ll have achieved all I could hope for as a writer.)
Ultimately, Oscar did forgive Bosie. He went further and said that the two still might have much to teach each other, albeit lessons of a different nature than earlier in their relationship. But those harsh initial words were still written. The horrors were unleashed. Even sentences as lovely as these, in the latter half of the letter, don’t do much to take away from the despair and bitterness of the first half:
And the end of it all is that I have got to forgive you. I must do so. I don’t write this letter to put bitterness into your heart but to pluck it out of mine. For my own sake I must forgive you….I cannot allow you to go through life bearing in your heart the burden of having ruined a man like me (99).
He still cared for Bosie, that much is evident in his prose. But once he saw the truth of their relationship, a highly subjective and battered truth, there was no going back. He had other, newfound priorities in his life — most of them relating to God. There’s a long section of the letter, which I won’t quote from, in which he claims God is the master artist, able to see the truth in all people, to give them a voice through divine expression. Beautiful as that sentiment may be, I suspect it came only from having religion forced down his throat every day by the prison chaplain.
Another thing that Oscar did while in prison, one that rarely gets mentioned, is portray his homosexuality as a mental disorder. He wrote to the Home Secretary in 1896, about a year into his imprisonment.
…such offenses are forms of sexual madness and are recognized as such not merely by modern pathological science but by much modern legislation, notably in France, Austria, and Italy, where the laws affecting these misdemeanors have been repealed, on the ground that they are diseases to be cured by a physician, rather than crimes to be punished by a judge (16).
Despite his previous claims that his love for Bosie was the only real and true thing in his life, he admitted, openly and aggressively, that he was wrong in the head and thus should be removed from prison at once. He would have done anything to get out of that ten-foot box. I believe he would have renounced Love if it had ensured his release.
And who can blame him? Love is complex. It comforts us, it fools us, it soothes us, it leaves us. Bosie was not a perfect person. Until Oscar went to prison, he was able to look past Bosie’s faults; another explanation is that he was, simply, blind to them. But after going through so much physical and emotional pain, it was surely all too easy for him to lose hold of the things that once mattered. At a point, I think it’s all one can do to just hope that they go numb. It’s easier than having to tackle the pain head-on. We’re given anesthesia to prevent physical pain, why not an emotional equivalent? Unfortunately, because of who he was (and because there was no Xanax in 1896), a numbing was impossible for Oscar. Even at his worst, his failing hearing and eyesight, lack of books, lack of pen and paper, he could not help but feel — bitterness, hatred, and still love — for his Bosie.
All of that reading coupled with various events and reflections in the past few weeks has left me feeling more upset than not. I do not think that is necessarily a bad thing. We all need to be reminded of how the world works and how we operate in it. To forget that is more dangerous than any sort of pain, upset, or hurt we might pick up along the way.