Literature, Quote of the Day

Oscar Wilde on Suffering

Oscar WildeSomehow (I’m still not quite sure how), a recent conversation with a friend turned to the topic of Oscar Wilde.  You know, the guy who said “I can resist anything except temptation,” and “A man’s face is his autobiography.  A woman’s face is her work of fiction.”  That Oscar Wilde.

But the quote that my friend cited was of a quite different nature:

…while to propose to be a better man is a piece of unscientific cant, to have become a deeper man is the privilege of those who have suffered.  And such I think I have become.

I’ll admit that Oscar Wilde’s best known works never ranked at the top of my “must read” list, and that I vastly prefer most other Victorians when it comes to literary studies.  Still, I admire his ability to turn a fine phrase, and as often happens, I set off on a hunt to track that one down.

The central event of Wilde’s adult life is well-known. A brilliant student, and a celebrated writer of poetry and plays in both France and England, he ruined himself in the 1890s by prosecuting the Marquess of Queensberry (yes, that one) for libel.   The Marquess had discovered that Wilde, married with two sons, had recently begun a homosexual affair with Lord Alfred Douglas, the Marquess’s son.  Determined to ‘out’ Wilde, the Marquess left a calling card at Wilde’s private London club which read “For Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite [sic].”

Wilde’s prosecution of the Marquess was a complete disaster.  During the trial, details of his private life emerged which proved the Marquess’s accusations true, and–homosexuality being a criminal offense in Britain until 1967–voided the charge of libel, and themselves resulted in Wilde’s own arrest, trial, and conviction for gross indecency.  He was sentenced to two years in jail, and began to serve his sentence in London’s Pentonville and Wandsworth Prisons, and was subsequently moved to Reading Gaol to serve out his term.  Conditions in all three institutions were brutal, and Wilde’s physical and mental health suffered as a result.

Several months before his release, the new governor at Reading Gaol gave Wilde a reprieve from daily physical labor, allowing him to write every day.  Since the production of literary works was prohibited, Wilde was allowed to write a letter.  One which he didn’t finish (if he had, it would have been sent) but which was returned to him each day for revision and extension.  As he still hadn’t finished it when his sentence ended, it was given to him to take with him out of the jail, and, subsequently,  parts of it were published, although not until  1962 did the complete version appear.  All of the versions, however, bear the same title: De Profundis–Out of the Depths.

And it’s in that “letter,” one ostensibly written to Bosie–Lord Alfred Douglas–that I found my quote. And decided to read the whole thing.

I listened to the Audible version of De Profundis yesterday on my way to and from Greensburg PA, where I met my stepdaughter and granddaughter for a combined Mother’s Day and Birthday (stepdaughter’s) brunch, followed by a viewing of the new Downton Abbey movie.  Lord, it’s good.  Spoiler Alert: Happy endings (in the old fashioned sense) for all except one, and that one handled with her usual vinegar wit and aplomb.

But I digress.  Back to suffering.

De Profundis is quite short–a couple of hours if you’re listening, and about eighty pages  or so if you’re reading.  I’ll backtrack to the print edition sometime and take it in again, as my attention sometimes wanders when I’m listening while doing something else (in this case, driving). But I’m pretty sure it relates an extraordinary personal and transformational journey through some very dark times.  In fact, I almost gave up on it about a quarter of the way through, in the midst of what seemed like a bitter, angry, unenlightened, self-pitying slog with no end in sight.

What turned it around for me?  This passage:

While I was in Wandsworth prison I longed to die.  It was my one desire.  When after two months in the infirmary I was transferred here, and found myself growing gradually better in physical health, I was filled with rage.  I determined to commit suicide on the very day on which I left prison.  After a time that evil mood passed away, and I made up my mind to live, but to wear gloom as a king wears purple: never to smile again: to turn whatever house I entered into a house of mourning: to make my friends walk slowly in sadness with me: to teach them that melancholy is the true secret of life: to maim them with an alien sorrow: to mar them with my own pain.  Now I feel quite differently.  I see it would be both ungrateful and unkind of me to pull so long a face that when my friends came to see me they would have to make their faces still longer in order to show their sympathy; or, if I desired to entertain them, to invite them to sit down silently to bitter herbs and funeral baked meats.  I must learn how to be cheerful and happy.

The last two occasions on which I was allowed to see my friends here, I tried to be as cheerful as possible, and to show my cheerfulness, in order to make them some slight return for their trouble in coming all the way from town to see me.  It is only a slight return, I know, but it is the one, I feel certain, that pleases them most.  I saw R— for an hour on Saturday week, and I tried to give the fullest possible expression of the delight I really felt at our meeting.  And that, in the views and ideas I am here shaping for myself, I am quite right is shown to me by the fact that now for the first time since my imprisonment I have a real desire for life.

There is before me so much to do, that I would regard it as a terrible tragedy if I died before I was allowed to complete at any rate a little of it.  I see new developments in art and life, each one of which is a fresh mode of perfection.  I long to live so that I can explore what is no less than a new world to me.  Do you want to know what this new world is?  I think you can guess what it is.  It is the world in which I have been living.  Sorrow, then, and all that it teaches one, is my new world.

“I see it would be both ungrateful and unkind of me to pull so long a face that when my friends came to see me they would have to make their faces still longer in order to show their sympathy…I must learn how to be cheerful and happy. I saw R— for an hour on Saturday week, and I tried to give the fullest possible expression of the delight I really felt at our meeting.  And…now for the first time since my imprisonment I have a real desire for life.”

Simple as that.  What turned life around for Wilde, to the point where he–once the apostle of superficiality–could proclaim that “the supreme vice is shallowness,” was the realization that self-absorption, wallowing in his own misery, dragging others down into the Slough of Despond with him in order to force them to prove their affection for him, really wasn’t helping; in fact, it was having the opposite effect on his psyche, pulling himself deeper into the vortex of his own despair.  He discovered that, by changing his focus, and by acting in ways “cheerful and happy,” he could energize his own suffering and sorrow and use it as a springboard to learn how to become a “deeper man.” The rest of De Profundis is a disquisition on spiritual growth which, if nonconformist in many ways in its structure and matter, is deeply Christian.

I found myself rooting for Wilde in his spiritual journey, although I already knew that Wilde’s outer life after jail didn’t match his newfound inner depth and joy.  He died of meningitis, in poverty, in Paris, three short years after his release.  He was, however (like the Dowager Countess) not going without a final bon mot.  Reportedly, Wilde’s last words, shortly after he was received into the Catholic Church, were “This wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death.  Either it goes, or I do.”

The wallpaper won.

Wilde died on November 30, 1900.  He was forty-six years old.  One-hundred-seventeen years after his death, Oscar Wilde and about forty-nine thousand other Britons were posthumously pardoned for consensual same-sex offenses by the British Government under the terms of the Alan Turing Law.

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