As a lifelong connoisseur and occasional purveyor of the well-crafted line, my admiration of Oscar Wilde knows few bounds. My intention this week was to offer you a quick tour of is formidable wit, but this episode has turned into a biography of some tragedy. But then, such was his life.
Wilde said, that, “Biography lends to death a new terror.”
But then he also said, “There is only one thing worse than being talked about and that is not being talked about.”
So, the Glory and Tragedy of Oscar Wilde:
Wilde, as befitted his time and station, married. But he liked men. And this was no good in Victorian times. Sex was taboo enough, homosexual sex? Well, that was right out.
Depending on the account, in mid-1891, Wilde was seduced or seduced by (and really, why can’t it be both?) Lord Alfred Douglas, a young undergraduate at Oxford.
The problem with this affair, was that Alfred’s father was the Marquess of Queensberry. And if that name sounds familiar to you, that is because he created the modern rules of boxing, the Marquee of Queensberry Rules. And the Marquee didn’t take kindly to their relationship. The loving relationship between an older man and a younger boy. That sort of thing was known in Victorian England as “The love that dare not speak its name.”
I’m no historian, but the way I read the incidents that followed is that The Marquess couldn’t deal with the fact that his son was gay sexuality and took it out on Wilde.
He confronted Wilde, at his home and told. ”I do not say that you are it, but you look it, and pose at it, which is just as bad. And if I catch you and my son again in any public restaurant I will thrash you.”
Wilde’s response was, “I don’t know what the Queensberry rules are, but the Oscar Wilde rule is to shoot on sight.”
The whole thing came to a boil in 1895 in the politest way imaginable. An incident that would not be out of place in a Wes Anderson movie — and is out of step with the savagery of what would follow. The Marquees left his calling card at Wilde’s gentleman’s club — and by this I don’t mean strip joint, I mean as actual Club of Gentlemen with overstuffed leather chairs and pipes and snifters of cognac and cravats and everything — on his card the Marquee wrote. “For Oscar Wilde, posing sodomite.”
Wilde against the advice of the Marquee’s son, his lover, Lord Alfred, had Queensbury arrested for criminal libel, a charge which carried a sentence of up to two years in prision.
Libel, it is worth noting here, is a false statement that is damaging to the repution.
So Wilde had the boxer on the ropes. Under the law at the time, the only way the Marquees could get out from underneath the conviction was by demonstrating that what he had said was true and that there was some public benefit to making his shocking assertion openly.
This was a problem. As Wilde once said, “Questions are never indiscreet, answers sometimes are.” And what did, was force the Marquee of Queensbury to answer the question of whether Wilde was a gay.
Of course, he was. But proving that alone was not enough to get the Marquees of Queensbury off the hook. So to meet the public benefit criteria, the Marquees legal team decided that they would portray Wilde as a depraved older man who habitually seduced naive youths into a life of vicious homosexuality.
Wilde realized the spot he was in and tried to withdraw his claim of libel as the Marquees’ defense began. But it was to no avail. The trial continued and it was ruled that the Marquee’s statement was true. And that led to Wilde being charged with gross indecency.
I don’t know if this is what he meant when he said, “We are each our own devil, and we make this world our hell.” but, twill serve.
The whole thing got unimaginably ugly. Detectives brought male prostitutes, cross-dressers and homosexual brothels under the scrutiny of the harsh Victorian gaslight they could find. There were two trials and at the end of all of it. Wilde was sentenced to two years hard labor.
Was Wilde a depraved older man who seduced naive youths? . While I have my doubts about the naievte of the youths in question — after all, only seduce the willing — I think he probably was. And I can read confessions of, well, something like this, in his work.
I may be wrong. After all, Wilde also said,
I am so clever that sometimes I don’t understand a single word of what I am saying.
But I read confessions of depravity in two places. In De Profundis, the letter he wrote from prison and in the Portrait of Dorian Grey.
The first place I read a confession of depravity is in the Portrait of Dorian Grey. Whe I read it, I was unaware of Wilde’s life, but immediately saw it as a moral seduction of an impossibly beautiful younger man by an older.
The second confession, I find in De Profundis — meaning from the depths — which is the title he gave to the letter he wrote from prison to Lord Andrew. In it he comes to grips with what had been done to him and what he himself had done.
The gods had given me almost everything. But I let myself be lured into long spells of senseless and sensual ease. I amused myself with being a FLANEUR, a dandy, a man of fashion. I surrounded myself with the smaller natures and the meaner minds. I became the spendthrift of my own genius, and to waste an eternal youth gave me a curious joy. Tired of being on the heights, I deliberately went to the depths in the search for new sensation. What the paradox was to me in the sphere of thought, perversity became to me in the sphere of passion. Desire, at the end, was a malady, or a madness, or both. I grew careless of the lives of others. I took pleasure where it pleased me, and passed on. I forgot that every little action of the common day makes or unmakes character, and that therefore what one has done in the secret chamber one has some day to cry aloud on the housetop. I ceased to be lord over myself. I was no longer the captain of my soul, and did not know it. I allowed pleasure to dominate me. I ended in horrible disgrace. There is only one thing for me now, absolute humility.
“Spendthrift of my own genius.” A damning accusation to point at one’s self. And something worse than the moral outrage of Victorian England, which, from the same letter, we can see he cares not about.
Morality does not help me. I am a born antinomian. I am one of those who are made for exceptions, not for laws. But while I see that there is nothing wrong in what one does, I see that there is something wrong in what one becomes. It is well to have learned that.
He died shortly after he was released from jail in room 16 of the Hotel Alsace in Paris. Of the room he remarked
“My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One of us has got to go.”
Of the hotel he said, “I am dying beyond my means.”
I trust that the wrongness of prosecuting a person for their sexual orientation is sufficiently apparent to everyone listening to my voice. But, because I truly don’t care who sticks what to whom or where — so long as a) consentual and b) not my wife — I think the real tragedy here is depriving the human race of such a wit before his time.
So let me invoke the spirit of Oscar Wilde from beyond the grave and present to you some of my favorite lines of his. It is, perhaps, no coincidence that for a man so wronged, the bulk of these are insults.
Mr. Henry James writes fiction as if it were a painful duty.
She is a peacock in everything but beauty.
The English country gentleman galloping after a fox – the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable.
“The world is a stage and the play is badly cast.”
“Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.”
“He has no enemies, but is intensely disliked by his friends.”
“America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between.”
“If one hears bad music, it is one’s duty to drown it in conversation.”
“A thing is not necessarily true because a man dies for it.”
“I think God, in creating man, somewhat overestimated his ability.”
“Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.”
“It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious.”
“This suspense is terrible. I hope it will last.”
“Laughter is not at all a bad beginning for a friendship, and it is far the best ending for one.”
“I don’t want to go to heaven. None of my friends are there.”
“Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.”
“Hear no evil, speak no evil, and you won’t be invited to cocktail parties.”
“Youth is wasted on the young.”
“Quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit.”