Feasting with Oscar: from De Profundis to Post-Queer
In cell number “C.3.3” — it almost sounds like an e-mail address, C-dot-3-dot-3 — on the third tier of Reading Gaol, a prison about 60 km. west of London, in the early winter months of 1897, 42-year-old Oscar Wilde, serving a two-year sentence for the curiously named crime of “gross indecency,” began to write what would become one of the remarkable documents in the history of prison literature as well as one of the most memorable testaments in the annals of homosexual life. The work is known to us under the title of De Profundis, or “From the Depths,” and is addressed to Wilde’s then 26-year-old, blond-haired, blue-eyed boyfriend, Lord Alfred Douglas, better known as “Bosie.” (“Bosie” is a version of the affectionate Scottish term, “boysie,” for “boy.”) The centenary of the letter’s first, partial, heavily-expurgated, posthumous publication in 1905, by Wilde’s Canadian-born literary executor Robbie Ross, provides the occasion for revisiting the text of De Profundis and for reconsidering the fate of “the Love that dare not speak its name” in the more than a century since Wilde’s death in 1900.
De Profundis is many things at once: it is, as one of the best of Wilde’s many biographers, Richard Ellman, asserts in Oscar Wilde (1987), above all, a great love letter. It’s also a love-letter-from-Hell, in both senses of that phrase: a letter written from a literal human hell, prison, and also a letter from hell in the sense of savagely flaying its recipient and dissecting its author. It’s the letter everyone (or at least me) has wanted to write to his rotten, no-good, extravagant, reckless, terminally shallow boyfriend, who, for reasons beyond human ken, one still loves. But it’s more than that: it’s also Wilde’s defense of Art against Life; it’s an account of his own ruined career (an Apologia pro Sua Vita); it’s a meditation on, of all people, Christ, not as a god but as the quintessential figure of the Artist; and finally, it’s an effort by Wilde to understand his own experience of punishment and how to come to terms with it through a concept of humility, one of the ideas furthest from our image of a man whose notorious pride went before his fall.
In re-reading De Profundis, as well as in reading the numerous biographies and watching the various films about Wilde — the most recent is director Brian Gilbert’s Wilde (1997), starring Stephen Fry and the blond-haired, blue-eyed Jude Law — the part I find most challenging is to imagine Oscar Wilde. That is, the difficulty is less intellectual than characterological. Intellectually, we have available all of Wilde’s texts, his testimony at his trials, and a good selection of his letters, including this most famous one. What’s more, we know a significant number of facts about Wilde’s life, down to the intimate details of who put tab A into slot B, and even the condition of the hotel sheets after various sexually athletic romps that sometimes featured not only Bosie but also the young men with whom Wilde had adventures that he dubbed “feasting with panthers.” So, the problem is not the facts, even though new ones have emerged as recently as the latest biography, Neil McKenna’s The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde (2003). Rather, the intellectual problem is the framework or context in which to understand Wilde.
The intellectual context poses both personal and political puzzles. Why, for example, did Wilde launch a doomed legal suit for libel against Bosie’s father, the Marquess of Queensbury, a lawsuit that began the process that ended in his present incarceration? And why, after the failure of that suit and before Wilde was charged himself, or even when Wilde was briefly released on bail between his trials, did he not flee to France, as most other sensible legally-endangered homosexuals did? The day of Wilde’s sentencing, it is said that the ferry boats to Calais, Dieppe and other French ports were jammed to the gunnels with gay men. Why wasn’t Wilde on board long before the denouement? Equally or more important are the social and political riddles. What was “the Love that dare not speak its name,” a phrase that appeared in a line of one of Bosie’s poems, about which Wilde testified at his trial? How did men who had sex with young men conceive of themselves? Was Wilde, in addition to being a prominent writer and a genuine celebrity, also a proto-gay activist? Was there a nascent gay political movement in the closing years of the Victorian Era in England?
The intellectual issues can, I think, be resolved. What is difficult is to imagine the person of a man who more than once quipped, “I put merely my talent into my work; I put all of my genius into my life.” And imagination, Wilde argued, is the human faculty that is “the basis of all spiritual and material life,” the necessary beginning of both love and art. There are earlier representations of Wilde by actors Robert Morley and Peter Finch, but I’m tempted by the portrayal offered by Stephen Fry, who imagines Wilde as avuncular and gentle in all his relations, who retains a soft-spoken melancholy even amid the pleasures “in the mire,” as Wilde described his debaucheries. But I can’t know for sure. Perhaps Fry’s performance is but another well-intentioned, though sanitized portrait. Anyway, the truth of personality is, as we know, pluralistic, as are many other truths.
So, the desire to have Wilde in the room, sitting in a chair, legs crossed, smoking a tipped cigarette, about to speak, must be the undertow in any meditation. If I can’t fully imagine Wilde, there are available glimpses. I’ve seen photographs of cell C.3.3, with its high-up, recessed window, its thick door. Upon entering Reading Gaol, partway into his two-year sentence, Wilde was a ruined man. In his last letter to Bosie as a free man, on the eve of his conviction, he wrote, “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 the love I bear you.” But in reality he was very nearly engulfed by those bitter waters. Prison and its “hard labour” almost killed him, both mentally and physically.
In fact, his sanity had only been saved by a recently appointed and kindly Governor of Reading Gaol, Major James Nelson (the appointment may have been the result of political pressure by Wilde’s loyal friends). Nelson allowed Wilde to have a broad range of books (we have the list of Oscar’s book requests) and, for the first time in 18 months, writing materials beyond those permitted him for simple letter-writing. Now, in the winter evenings of early 1897, in his cell, beneath the light of flaring gas jets, on a makeshift table constructed from a plank bed and two trestles, Wilde began to write his letter. We can partially see, in imagination, his broad back, his convict’s garb, his prison-cropped hair.
Of course, De Profundis is a marred document. Some of it is based on misinformation (especially about Bosie’s efforts to rescue Wilde), some of it is self-aggrandizing (Wilde’s declarations of his own “genius”), much of it is lost in the fog of self-deception, and yet Wilde’s love everywhere seeps through the litany of recrimination. At the end, he comes close to turning the bitter waters sweet.
From its opening lines, we hear the inimitable tone and see the direction of Wilde’s missive. “Dear Bosie,” Wilde says,
“Our ill-fated and most lamentable friendship has ended in ruin and public infamy for me, yet the memory of our ancient affection is often with me, and the thought that loathing, bitterness and contempt should forever take the place in my heart once held by love is very sad to me . . .
“I have no doubt that in this letter which I have to write of your life and of mine. . . there will be much that will wound your vanity to the quick. If it prove so, read the letter over and over again till it kills your vanity. If you find in it something of which you are unjustly accused, remember that one should be thankful that there is any fault of which one can be unjustly accused. If there be in it one single passage that brings tears to your eyes, weep as we weep in prison where the day no less than the night is set apart for tears. It is the only thing that can save you. . .
“Do you still say… that I ‘attribute unworthy motives’ to you? Ah! You had no motives in life. You had appetites merely. A motive is an intellectual aim. That you were ‘very young’ when our friendship began? Your defect was not that you knew so little about life, but that you knew so much… With very swift and running feet you had passed from Romance to Realism. The gutter and the things that live in it had begun to fascinate you. That was the origin of the trouble in which you sought my aid.”
Wilde is referring to the beginning of their friendship in 1892. They had actually met the previous year, when a young poet with whom Wilde had slept, Lionel Johnson, brought Bosie, his distant cousin and then a 20-year-old student at Oxford to Oscar’s house, where Bosie was presented as another adoring reader of Wilde’s novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. But the real relationship began when Wilde received a desperate message from Bosie at Oxford asking for Wilde’s help. Bosie was being blackmailed by a young man, he was frantic, and could think of no one other than Wilde as the person who might rescue him from the mess. It was Bosie’s helplessness that perhaps first ignited the erotic spark for Wilde, as it was later Bosie’s repeated and tearful pleas for forgiveness that overcame every attempt Wilde made to break off their affair. In any event, at the very outset, Bosie’s blackmailing young bedmate was paid off by Oscar and Bosie was saved. Although Bosie’s sexual interests were mostly confined to agemates and adolescents, his considerable experience in bed by the time he was 20 and his pleasure in being adored by important people meant that there were few obstacles to a relationship with Wilde that included Bosie’s beautiful body. But now, writing his letter, it was a different operation on Bosie’s flesh that Wilde is thinking of.
In these early passages of De Profundis, Wilde urges Bosie to “read this letter straight through, though each word may become to you as the fire or knife of the surgeon that makes the delicate flesh burn or bleed. . .” Wilde reminds Bosie “that the fool to the eyes of the gods and the fool to the eyes of man are very different. . . The real fool, such as the gods mock or mar, is he who does not know himself. I was such a one too long. You have been such a one too long. Be so no more. Do not be afraid. The supreme vice is shallowness. Everything that is realised is right. Remember also that whatever is misery to you to read is still greater misery to me to set down.”
Those two sentences, “The supreme vice is shallowness. Everything that is realised is right,” is the mantra of the letter, to be repeated several times in its course. The first, shallowness as the supreme vice, is principally applied to Bosie, and the vice is often accompanied by a fatal defect of character, namely, lack of imagination, which is the insuperable barrier to love, and the wellspring of hatred. The second, more mysterious half of the mantra, “everything that is realised is right,” is Wilde’s way of advocating, as he later puts it, the “frank acceptance of all experience,” of denying conventional measures of morality, and insisting that the point of self-examination is not excoriation of sin, but full recognition of, and responsibility for, one’s acts.
Wilde says to Bosie, “I blame myself terribly. As I sit here in this dark cell in convict clothes, a disgraced and ruined man, I blame myself.” This self-laceration is slightly disingenuous, since it launches the detailed litany of recriminations directed at Bosie, and the recital of the history of bad scenes mainly caused by Bosie. But Wilde’s relentness chewing over of the quarrels, bad scenes, and senseless arguments of their love affair is forgiveable. In a sense, it’s all he has. As Wilde himself writes later in the letter, the “wearisome iteration” of the story of their love “makes all sleep abandon me till dawn, and at dawn it begins again: it follows me into the prison yard and makes me talk to myself as I tramp around: each detail that accompanied each dreadful moment I am forced to recall: there is nothing that happened in those ill-starred years that I cannot recreate in that chamber of the brain which is set apart for grief or for despair: every strained note in your voice, every twitch and gesture of your nervous hands, every bitter mood, every poisonous phrase comes back to me.” However, his rants against Bosie aside, Wilde’s self-accusations are not entirely a rhetorical trope, and later in the letter, they become pertinent.
The road to the depths of Reading Gaol was a descent from considerable familial, social, and artistic heights. Born in Dublin, Ireland in 1854, Wilde was the son of a distinguished surgeon and more importantly for his aesthetic sense, the son of a woman who was a revolutionary Irish nationalist poet, who wrote under the nom de plume of Speranza.
Wilde was schooled at Portora prep, Trinity College, and Oxford, where for all his flouncing about, and for all his devotion to Aestheticism, as the emerging philosophy of the era was known, he nonetheless took a rare double first, in “moderns” and “greats,” as these two subject areas were called, and won the Newdigate Prize for best undergraduate long poem. When Wilde says to Bosie, “there was too wide a gap between us. You had been idle at your school, worse than idle at your university,” he’s pointing to an actual intellectual divide between himself, the most brilliant of his generation of students at Oxford in the 1870s, and Bosie, two decades later, who was “sent down,” as they say, without a degree at all.
Bosie hadn’t been entirely idle at school, but his activities, rather than schoolwork, were from mid-adolescence on mostly focused on having in bed almost every schoolmate he wanted. Naturally, Wilde would not have counted that a fault in Bosie, or anyone else, if it had not kept him from his books.
In the Wilde scandal, there was an explicit issue of class. What was almost as shocking to the Victorian sensibility as the acts of which Wilde was accused was his (and Bosie’s) consorting with working class and lumpen-proletariat youths. Wilde regarded this disapprobation as pure British hypocrisy and even on his way to trial managed to quip, “The working classes are with me — to a boy.” Among the objects of Wilde’s affections were blackmailing rent boys, office clerks and shop assistants who had risen from families of manual labourers, and aspiring artists of humble origins, none of whom, Wilde thought, ought to be disparaged for their intellects or habits, but the distinction Wilde made within his own social class was the difference between those Oxford youths with something on their minds and those who dissipated their promise with the pursuit of nothing more serious than games, the hunt, and other undergraduate frivolities. Bosie was, for all his talents and his ability to turn a sonnet, alas, among the latter, at their time of their love and, as it proved, long afterwards. That was the “too wide a gap” between them.
It might be, and has been asked, What did Oscar see in Bosie? The extant photos of Bosie do not flatter him. He was, I should note, a particular type which many men have found sublimely attractive. His beauty was ethereal, delicate and golden, almost but not effeminate, but in bed, he was the active sodomist, from his mid-teens on. The photos show Bosie slumped in fashionable ennui, wearing the uniform of his generation, blazer, white ducks, straw boater, faintly attractive, but hardly riveting. What we want to see (well, what I want to see) is the sort of picture made ubiquitous by 21st century technology, Bosie in the all-together, the seemingly frail torso conjoined to a powerful lower body acquired in those field games at which he was surprisingly good. It’s this mixture, this reversal of expectations, a dynamic of domination and submission, that some men who love young men find to be a source of ultimate desire. In bed, Bosie was not unlike some of the rent boys in the streets that both Bosie and Oscar took to their bed, separately and together. Those boys for whom, when Wilde describes scenes from his life with them, he uses the phrase “feasting with panthers.” One of Bosie’s attractions was that once out of his lamb-like haberdashery, he was really one of the panthers, and like some other panthers, one who enjoyed feasting with Oscar, especially since Oscar was paying for the feast.
It is sometimes asked, mistakenly I think, whether Bosie was really in love with Oscar. There’s no doubt, by all the evidence, that Oscar was in love with Bosie. But it’s probably less to the point to define Bosie’s attraction to Oscar. The 21-year-old, whose panoply of feelings for a glamorous 36-year-old man included intellectual and social dazzlement, the pride of being seen as “Oscar’s boy,” the certainty of forgiveness, and being able to rely on a father figure (as he wasn’t able to rely on his unstable, mad real father), called it “love.” It’s enough to say that Bosie made himself available to Oscar, in bed and in companionship, that he was kept by Oscar, that he sometimes bored Oscar by his obsessional conversation about boys, but that in the long run he was loyal in his fashion, whether the loyalty was inspired by love or by a desire to admire his self-image.
More interesting are Wilde’s own sexual preferences and their possible relation to his proto-gay political interests, which is partly the focus of Neil McKenna’s biography, and one of the reasons that it is “new.” According to the legend, Wilde’s homosexual desires were first aroused some years earlier, in the mid-1880s, when he was over 30, shortly after Wilde had been married and fathered two sons. The source of the erotic flame was a 17-year-old Canadian, Robbie Ross, then living in England, the son of a deceased former Solicitor-General of one of the Canadas. It was Ross, an apparently untroubled young homosexual, who unhesitatingly seduced Wilde, had a brief affair with him, became his friend, and who will reappear much later in the story as Wilde’s literary executor. He was followed by a series of equally presentable young men in Oscar’s life right up to the appearance of the fatal Bosie.
Well, that’s the legend. But as Wilde eventually told his friend Frank Harris, a journalist, editor, and well-known libertine himself, Wilde’s “sex awakening,” as he called it, had occurred in adolescence at prep school. He had “sentimental friendships” there, as was common among boys, and on the day of his leaving school, at the railway station, a boy a year younger than him with whom he’d had endless walks and interminable conversations came to the station to say his goodbyes, and as the train for Dublin was about to depart, the boy suddenly turned and cried out, “Oh Oscar!” “Before I knew what he was doing he had caught my face in his hot hands and kissed me on the lips. The next moment he had slipped out the door and was gone.” On the train, Oscar became aware of “cold, sticky drops” trickling down his face. They were the other boy’s tears. “This is love,” Wilde said to himself. “For a long while I sat, unable to think, all shaken with wonder and remorse.”
Wilde was one of countless middle-class Victorian men, raised in the company of boys, who emerged into adult life sexually undefined, and sought what was known as the “marriage cure.” The matter was perhaps more urgent for Wilde in that his early fame came from a stylistic dandyism and aestheticism that included a foppishness in dress and manner, a kind of homosexual camp before its time. There were unwelcome insinuations of effeminancy that went with his devotion to a fantasy of the Greek mode of life and to art, a notion not so much of art-for-art’s-sake, as it’s sometimes described, but a devotion to art because it was spiritually superior to life. In any case, Wilde married Constance Lloyd, dutifully fathered, put rumours of sexual irregularities temporarily to rest, and began his career as a critic and essayist, but even as he walked through London’s Piccadilly, where available rent boys loitered, he was not unaware of the icy splinter that rent his heart, as he put it.
With respect to Wilde’s affections, it’s only fair to mention that there is some biographical controversy over Wilde’s relations with Constance. While biographer McKenna claims, with some evidence, that Wilde quickly recognized that he’d made a “terrible mistake” in getting married, partisans of Constance like to believe that Oscar truly loved her, and deeply valued familial life. It’s certainly true that even as Wilde was writing De Profundis in prison, he was still negotiating with Constance (now exiled on the Continent) and her lawyers about a possible reconciliation upon his release. While Wilde’s feelings for Constance vacillated (he may have liked the idea of marriage and family life more than he liked actual domesticity), there’s little doubt that she remained besotted with him. In any case, why not give Constance the benefit of what doubts there are, and at least credit her with living up to her name in matters personal and financial? She travelled all the way to prison to personally deliver the news to Wilde of his mother’s death, thereby softening the blow. Certainly, there’s no contradiction in the possibility that Wilde loved his wife and preferred to sleep with young men.
Up to the moment of his imprisonment, Wilde was the undoubted literary celebrity of his era. His name was spoken in the same breath as those of such late-Victorian contemporaries as Arthur Conan Doyle, Joseph Conrad, George Bernard Shaw, and Henry James. Wilde regarded the work of the latter as lugubrious; the sentiment of distaste was mutual, since James thought Wilde’s productions empty froth. But the point is that Wilde was taken seriously, and justly so. Wilde was first of all a brilliant literary critic whose essays, collected in an 1891 volume called Intentions, had offered an aesthetic theory that declares that art, far from merely imitating life, in fact creates life.
In Wilde’s “miraculous year” of 1891, as it’s called, he also published a controversial novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, a book that worshipped the transient yet eternal beauty of youth, and that many, both devotees and the scandalised, took to be the introduction of homosexuality as subject matter into English language literary works. As if the accomplishments of critic and novelist weren’t enough, Wilde was as well the enchanting teller of tales, and published two volumes of short stories that year, to go with two volumes of children’s stories already in print, stories he had invented for his own sons.
Finally, 1891 was the year in which he wrote his debut play, Lady Windermere’s Fan, the first in a series of successful drawing room farces that were at the same time merciless satiric revelations of what really lay at the heart of respectable British social life. (Henry James was in the audience one night, hating every line of it, while his own debut play was bombing a couple of theatres over.) Wilde’s annus mirabilis was one of the most remarkable literary debuts of the Victorian era. At the time of his arrest, 4 years later, in 1895, two of Wilde’s hit comedies, The Importance of Being Earnest and An Ideal Husband, were both playing to packed audiences in London theatres. Wilde’s claim in De Profundis that “the gods had given me almost everything. I had genius, a distinguished name, high social position…I made art a philosophy and philosophy an art,” was no empty boast.
There was more. Perhaps Wilde’s remark that he put his talent into his work, while he put his genius into his life, was intended to get people to notice the genius in his work as well, but the life was, indisputably, spectacular. Its props included gold-tipped opium flavoured cigarettes; silver cigarette cases which were casually distributed as gifts to the young panthers; much champagne, too much; late-night banquets; and the rumpled beds of expensive hotel suites, where the green carnations worn in one’s lapel faded toward the dawn.
At the center of that life was Bosie. Bosie was the son of Lord Queensbury; Bosie’s sanest brother Percy was a Member of Parliament; and his slightly older brother, Francis, Viscount Drumlanrig, was a protégé and most likely the boyfriend of Lord Rosebery, the Foreign Minister, and later Prime Minister of England. The only personage we have to take note of here is Queensbury, who was decidedly not sane. A redneck aristocrat, given to hunting, drinking, horses, boxing and fits of violent, frothing rage, he was vulgar in manner and speech, had two broken marriages behind him, and fatally for Wilde, he became fixated upon the friendships of his sons, Drumlanrig and Bosie, respectively, with Lord Rosebery and Oscar Wilde.
In the end, after demands and threats of physical violence that both relationships be permanently ended, Drumlanrig died in his mid-20s by gunshot wound, most likely a suicide, and Queensbury then pursued Wilde, hounding him from restaurant to theatre to club. It was at Wilde’s club that Queensbury left his card, “To Oscar Wilde, posing as a sodomite,” or possibly, “To Oscar Wilde, ponce and sodomite,” but in either case, with “sodomite” mispelled. That was the action that precipitated the denouement of the affair, and led Wilde, urged on by a ferocious Bosie, anxious for revenge on his father, and against the advice of every sensible friend, to launch an ill-considered criminal libel suit against Queensbury. Wilde lost the suit, was promptly charged with “gross indecency,” and while the first trial ended in a hung jury, at his second trial he was easily convicted. There is some evidence, cited by McKenna, that the vigour of the prosecution against Wilde was inspired by Queensbury’s threats to expose others in the government of the day, a damaging political prospect.
One of the mysteries of Wilde’s life, investigated by friends and biographers ever since, is, why did he let himself be inveigled into the disastrous suit? There were, of course, some misperceptions and some hubris on Wilde’s part. It was not until De Profundis that Wilde realized that “all trials are trials of one’s life, just as all sentences are sentences of death.” He at first thought the trial would be a literary affair, that it would be an urbane debate about the morality or otherwise of his writings — Dorian Gray, a few poems in praise of “Greek love,” a purloined, purplish love letter or two — and he thought he could easily disarm his opponents and tormenters. He may have thought he was untouchable, a delusion no one should entertain, not even the author of The Importance of Being Earnest.
But Queensbury was playing by his own, more pragmatic set of rules, later enshrined to regulate the barbarities of the sport of boxing. In preparing his defence of justification, Queensbury hired private detectives at considerable cost, and they, without much difficulty, turned up a posse of rent boys who had dallied with Oscar; a brothel and its proprietor, who was charged along with Wilde; and even the linen maids from various hotels to testify as to the condition of the sheets, upon which, they claimed, were found semen, vaseline, and “soil.” The reliability of much of the evidence is shaky, but that’s immaterial — the boys were clearly coerced, threatened with prosecution, and paid off — and no doubt many of the acts attributed to Wilde belonged to Bosie, whose name was carefully left out of the court proceedings, at the wishes of both Wilde and Bosie’s mad father.
It’s not until you re-read De Profundis that this crazy act of self-destruction becomes comprehensible. At every turn, the answer is Wilde’s love for Bosie, which may be a thing beyond comprehension. Wilde himself says, “For my own sake, there was nothing to do but to love you.” After the initial passages of De Profundis, Wilde settles in to a lengthy literal accounting of his affair with Bosie, literal in the sense that it comes to down to shillings and pence, and includes, just before Wilde’s trial, a description of a bizarre week-long gambling holiday in Monte Carlo that Bosie had insisted upon when Oscar should have been consulting his lawyers.
The account of their sweet-bitter relationship takes up half or more of Wilde’s letter. Wilde writes, “I gave up to you always. As a natural result… your claims… your exactions grew more and more unreasonable. Your meanest motive, your lowest appetite, your most common passions, became to you laws…” Wilde is the hunted stag when he cries out, “At the one supremely and tragically critical moment of all my life, just before my lamentable step of beginning my absurd action, on the one side there was your father attacking me with hideous cards left at my club, on the other side there was you attacking me with no less loathsome letters… Between you both I had lost my head. My judgment forsook me. Terror took its place. I saw no possible escape, I may say frankly, from either of you.” If not a hunted stag, then, as Wilde says, “Blindly I staggered as an ox to the shambles.” And when you read these passages, you may find yourself saying, as I do, Yes, I can see how it might have happened, how Wilde ended up risking all.
As for the second mystery, why did Wilde not flee to the Continent, either just before his arrest, or when, between his two trials, he was on bail, the answer is explicitly given in the letter Oscar wrote to Bosie on May 20, 1895, in the midst of the trial that would almost certainly convict him. Wilde writes, “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 or a deserter.” This is the effusive love letter where Wilde also says, “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 the love that I bear you.” Since “noble” was a term regularly used in defence of “Greek love,” Wilde’s more recent biographers see in Wilde’s decision to stay, and I think rather persuasively, a political act on behalf of “the Cause,” which was another of the many names of the Love that dare not speak its name. Wilde also says that to stay is “more beautiful,” which is reasonably read as part of a self-conception that embraces martyrdom on behalf of his love of Bosie. Of course, the mood of De Profundis, written almost two years after the love letter penned on the eve of prison, was considerably more experienced.
In the passage of De Profundis where Wilde offers one of several summations of his life, the passage beginning, “The gods had given me everything,” he goes on to say, “I treated art as the supreme reality and life as a mere mode of fiction… I summed up all systems in a phrase and all existence in an epigram… Tired of being on the heights, I deliberately went to the depths in the search for new sensations. What the paradox was to me in the sphere of thought, perversity became to me in the sphere of passion… 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… I ended in horrible disgrace. There is only one thing for me now, absolute humility… Now I find hidden somewhere in my nature something that tells me that nothing in the whole world is meaningless, and suffering least of all. That something hidden away in my nature, like a treasure in a field, is humility… It is the last thing left in me, and the best: the ultimate discovery at which I have arrived.”
Wilde’s concept of humility provides the transition to his meditation on Christ as Artist, of which I only want to cite a few lines. “Humility in the artist,” says Wilde, “is his frank acceptance of all experience just as love in the artist is simply his sense of beauty that reveals to the world its body and its soul…” and then Wilde continues, “I see a far more intimate and immediate connection between the true life of Christ and the true life of the artist… the very basis of his nature was the same as that of the nature of the artist — an intense and flame-like imagination. He realised in the entire sphere of human relations that imaginative sympathy which in the sphere of Art is the sole secret of creation.” Wilde adds, “In reading the Gospels” — which he calls “four prose poems about Christ” and which he was reading in his cell in Greek — “I see the continual assertion of the imagination as the basis of all spiritual and material life. I see also that to Christ imagination was simply a form of love, and that to him love was lord in the fullest meaning of the phrase.” I’m not necessarily recommending Wilde’s aesthetics here, but simply citing his notion of imagination as the beginning of love as a clue to understanding why Wilde’s contemporaries took him seriously as a man with something more on his mind than his ceaseless stream of cutting epigrams and alluring paradoxes.
Wilde writes at the conclusion of De Profundis, “Of course to one so modern as I am, enfant de mon siecle, merely to look at the world will be always lovely. I tremble with pleasure when I think that on the very day of my leaving prison both the laburnum and the lilac will be blooming in the garden.” To Bosie, he says, “I will, if I feel able, arrange through Robbie [Ross] to meet you in some quiet foreign town like Bruges, where grey houses and green canals and cool still ways had a charm for me years ago.” And, in the last lines, he reflects, “How far I am away from the true temper of the soul, this letter in its changing uncertain moods, its scorn and bitterness, its aspirations and its failure to reach those aspirations, shows you quite clearly. But do not forget in what a terrible school I am sitting at my task. And incomplete, imperfect, as I am, yet from me you may have still much to gain. You came to me to learn the pleasure of life and the pleasure of art. Perhaps I am chosen to teach you something much more wonderful — the meaning of sorrow and its beauty. Your affectionate friend, Oscar Wilde.”
There is much more in De Profundis. I think all of it is worth reading — the story of the love affair; Wilde’s reflections on art and artists, including Christ; the idea of humility he propounds toward the end; even his deluded hopes of a reunion with Bosie.
On the evening in May 1897 that Wilde left Reading Gaol, to be transported to London for release the next morning, Major Nelson was at the gate and handed Wilde a bulky package. Although Wilde was not permitted to send it before his release, Nelson had saved Wilde’s pages and upon his departure, returned to him the manuscript of De Profundis.
It was this large envelope that Wilde handed to Robbie Ross a few days later when he arrived by the night ferry at Dieppe, where he would spend his first days of freedom. He had already instructed Ross, in a letter that we possess, to make two typed copies of De Profundis — typed copies were still a new-fangled technical advance in 1897, and he assured Ross that listening to the typist was no more painful than to have to hear one’s sister practice the piano in the next room. Once the copies were prepared, one for Wilde, and one for Ross as Oscar’s literary executor, the original was to be sent to Bosie, who was somewhere nearby on the Continent. The typing wasn’t finished until August, and Ross sent one of the typed copies to Bosie, and wisely retained the hand-written original. Bosie, though urged in the letter to read it again and again if need be, stayed true to character and didn’t read it at all. Or perhaps he read a few pages and threw it in the river Marne as he once claimed.
In any case, by early autumn, despite the admonitions of friends, solicitors, and all others, Oscar and Bosie were living together in a small villa outside of Naples, at Posillipo. It lasted about three or four months, but the myth of their love quickly wore off for both of them, and they may have been happy when economic necessity forced them apart. Both Wilde’s wife Constance and Bosie’s mother cut off Oscar’s and Bosie’s respective allowances once the women learned they were together again, attended by the sunnier Italian version of English panthers. But well before that, Wilde had evidence that time eroded beauty more completely than prison destroyed the body or mind.
At Posillipo, Wilde polished a final version of The Ballad of Reading Gaol, which he’d mainly conceived in prison. It was published to some acclaim under the signature of his cell number, “C.3.3,” but everyone knew it was by Wilde. It is considered one of Wilde’s great works, and its famous refrain is still occasionally recited: “And all men kill the thing they love, / By all let this be heard, / Some do it with a bitter look, / Some with a flattering word, / The coward does it with a kiss, / The brave man with a sword!” Though the lilting rhythm of this horrific ballad is Wilde’s most celebrated work, I tend to prefer, among Wilde’s poems, the more economical “Harlot’s House.” It was a favourite of my poetry teacher, Jack Spicer, who often made me read it to him (so he could hear the words aloud), and it served as my introduction to Wilde:
We caught the tread of dancing feet, / We loitered down the moonlit street, / And stopped beneath the harlot’s house. / Inside, above the din and fray, / We heard the loud musicians play / The “Treues Liebes Herz” of Strauss. / Like strange mechancial grotesques, / Making fantastic arabesques, / The shadows raced across the blind. / We watched the ghostly dancers spin / To sound of horn and violin, / Like black leaves wheeling in the wind, / Like wire-pulled automatons, / Slim silhouetted skeletons / Went sidling through the slow quadrille. / They took each other by the hand, / And danced a stately saraband; / Their laughter echoed thin and shrill. / Sometimes a clockwork puppet pressed / A phantom lover to her breast, / Sometimes they seemed to try to sing. / Sometimes a horrible marionette / Came out, and smoked its cigarette / Upon the steps like a live thing. / Then, turning to my love, I said, / ‘The dead are dancing with the dead. / The dust is whirling with the dust.” / But she — she heard the violin, / And left my side, and entered in; / Love passed into the house of lust. / Then suddenly the tune went false, / The dancers wearied of the waltz, / The shadows ceased to wheel and whirl. / And down the long and silent street, / The dawn, with silver-sandeled feet, / Crept like a frightened girl.
Though my teacher Spicer taught me to favour this nightmare of love over the more celebrated funereal ballad, in any case, The Ballad of Reading Gaol proved to be Wilde’s last literary work. Though there were increasingly faint attempts in his last three years, apart from correspondence, often to beg money, Wilde never wrote again.
When Wilde and Bosie parted, Wilde went off to visit to visit the homoerotic photographer Baron Wilhelm von Gloeden, who was based in Taormina, Sicily, and Bosie continued to traipse around Europe before ending his exile and returning to England. The two of them saw each other from time to time, but were more enamoured of the legend of their past love than their present casual friendship.
Wilde’s wife Constance died in 1898, so Wilde’s allowance was restored but it was never enough for him to live in more than an increasingly alcoholic penury; Queensbury died in early 1900; and Wilde himself died at the end of November 1900 in Paris. And of course Queen Victoria’s death in 1901 made way for Edwardian and Georgian moments in a new century. Robbie Ross was at Wilde’s deathbed, Bosie was the chief mourner at the funeral.
It was Ross who took charge of Wilde’s estate and literary remains, with both skill and care. In 1905, he took Wilde’s long letter from Reading Gaol, and gave it the title De Profundis (Wilde originally titled it Epistola: In Carcere et Vinculus, “Letter: In Jail and Chains”). More important for his purposes, Ross removed absolutely all reference to Bosie, edited it down to about a third of its original length, and saw to its publication, the publication whose centenary is marked in 2005. And there the matter might have remained. Ross went on to edit a several volume Collected Works three years later, in 1908; Wilde’s literary reputation was posthumously restored, thanks to the diligent Robbie; and Wilde’s sparkling plays again amused audiences on London stages. In 1909, Ross deposited the original of De Profundis in the British Museum with instructions that it be sealed for 50 years. However, there’s one more turn to this little bibliographic tale.
A few years later, in 1912, a writer named Arthur Ransome produced a biography of Wilde. Indeed, bios of Oscar had started appearing as early as two years after his death. But Ransome, who knew Ross, had seen Robbie’s copy of Wilde’s letter, and very obliquely referred to it and to Bosie, without naming him, in a single line, as someone who might be thought of as the source of Wilde’s painful prison woes. Bosie was still around — he would live a very long and undistinguished life, not expiring until 1945, at age 75. Between Wilde’s death in 1900 and the appearance of Ransome’s biography in 1912, Bosie had undergone a transformation. He renounced the love that dare not speak its name, converted to Catholicism, married, though it only lasted for a few years, but long enough to have a child (who came to an unhappy end in a mental institution), and in general Bosie, who was really no longer Bosie but Lord Alfred, dabbled at various non-quite-occupations.
As is well-known, hell hath no fury like an apostate of an older creed who has been born again in the church. By age 42, Bosie had acquired much of the temperament and litigious habits of his late father, and not a little of Queenbury’s madness. Upon hearing of the passing reference to himself in Ransome’s biography, Bosie promptly sued for libel, Ransome offered justification as a defence, and that’s how it came about that Wilde’s letter was retrieved from the dust of the British Museum, brought to court, and read aloud. A servant of the Crown, i.e. a judge, rather than a servant of the Muse, the shade of Oscar, compelled Bosie to listen to a text that offered a corruscating portrait of his soul as thoroughly revealing as The Picture of Dorian Gray. The jury promptly found Ransome not guilty of libel, and Bosie went on his erratic way, the tedious details of which can be left aside. De Profundis was not released to the public in a reliable, unexpurgated edition until the early 1960s, but that this remarkable work has reached us at all we can mainly credit to our Canadian compatriot Robbie Ross.
At Wilde’s first trial in April 1895, the prosecutor cited two clearly homosexual poems by Alfred Douglas, including “Two Loves,” in which the narrator finds two youths in a garden, and asks one of them:
What is thy name? He said, ‘My name is Love.’ / Then [the other youth] did turn himself to me / And cried, ‘He lieth, for his name is Shame / But I am Love, and I was wont to be / Alone in this fair garden, till he came / Unasked by night; I am true Love, I fill / The hearts of boy and girl with mutual flame,’ / Then sighing said the other, ‘Have thy will, / I am the Love that dare not speak its name.’
The prosecutor turned to Wilde in the witness box. “What is the ‘Love that dare not speak its name’?” he asked. And Wilde, who in the face of the testimony of rent boys, linen maids, and the rest, had been forced into lies, denial and shifts, suddenly found his voice.
He replied, “The ‘Love that dare not speak its name’ in this century is such a great affection of an elder for a younger man as there was between David and Jonathan, such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of Michelangelo and Shakespeare. It is that deep, spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect… It is in this century misunderstood, so much misunderstood that it may be described as the ‘Love that dare not speak its name,’ and on account of it I am placed where I am now. It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it. It is intellectual, and it repeatedly exists between an elder and a younger man, when the elder man has intellect, and the younger man has all the joy, hope and glamour of life before him. That it should be so the world does not understand. The world mocks at it and sometimes puts one in the pillory for it.”
For once, Wilde spoke not wittily but well, Wilde’s biographer Richard Ellman notes. As one of Wilde’s friends, Max Beerbohm, who attended the trial, described the scene, “Oscar has been quite superb. His speech about the Love that dares not tell his name was simply wonderful and carried the whole court quite away, quite a tremendous burst of applause. Here was this man, who had been for a month in prison and loaded with insults and crushed and buffeted, perfectly self-possessed, dominating the Old Bailey with his fine presence and musical voice. He has never had so great a triumph, I am sure, as when the gallery burst into applause.”
Wilde’s defense is straight out of his reading of Plato’s Symposium, but there’s a misunderstanding, I believe, about “Platonic Love.” As the prosecutor intimated when the applause was shushed, surely this apologia could not also apply to relations with rent boys. The misunderstanding is that Platonic love is chaste. Though its emphasis is on the spiritual aspect of such a love, and though it could be thoroughly debased, the Love that dare not speak its name is also sexual, and yes, might even be applied to rent boys, though Wilde generally preferred to provide material gifts of silver cigarette cases to his panthers, which were probably more appreciated than the merely spiritual.
If we had no other evidence, that speech would be enough to establish Wilde’s claim as the first modern homosexual. In addition to Wilde’s philosophical advocacy of the imagination, and his articulated style of life (rather than mere lifestyle, as we have it today), there is his writing which brought homosexuality for the first time into literary discourse in English, and his variegated erotic adventures, his feasting with panthers. What makes the claim modern, I think, is that it is sealed by a public political speech in defense of the naturalness of a form of homosexual love.
This is not to confuse the modernity of Wilde’s homosexuality with the term “Modernism” as applied to literary and other artistic movements. Although Wilde is casually included in the standard text, Malcolm Bradbury’s and James McFarlane’s Modernism (1976), perhaps on the strength of his French-language play, Salome, and his relations with poets like Mallarme, he is probably more accurately thought of in literary terms as a Late Victorian Romantic, and he himself used the term Romance in opposition to mid-19th century Realism. When modernism emerged in the early 20th century in the work of Proust, Joyce, Pound and Eliot, Wilde’s epigone didn’t understand it and generally hated it.
But with respect to sex and politics, we have considerable other evidence, as laid out in the most recent biographic work about Wilde, of something that we can call a proto-gay political movement in England, of which Wilde was a conscious member, and whose political aim was the repeal of the “gross indecency” law of 1885, under which Wilde was convicted. Wilde knew the work of John Addington Symonds, who had written about “Greek love” in the 1890s; he had exchanged frank conversation and a kiss with Walt Whitman, whom he had visited on his American tour in the 1880s; he was a friend of George Ives, who founded a secret gay order in the 1890s, and who went on for three decades to campaign discreetly but openly against the “gross indecency” law.
Wilde was also aware of the work of the German theorist Karl Ulrichs, who in the last third of the 19th century, offered a complete defense, up to and including marriage, of what he called Uranian love, the name taken from the Platonic notion of Uranos or heavenly love. Uranian was one of the many names, along with Greek love, the Cause, and others, by which the Love that dare not speak its name went. The word “homosexual” had already been invented in the late 1860s and was coming into usage. In Berlin, in 1896-97, as Wilde languished in jail, the first formal gay rights organization, the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, was founded by a gay sex researcher, Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, who was associated with the psychiatric circles of Sigmund Freud. So, I think it’s fair to say, as biographer Neil McKenna does that “Oscar’s place in the history of the small but courageous band of men who strove to bring about the legal and social emancipation of men who loved men has rarely been acknowledged.”
Nonetheless, there’s an irony to be observed a century or more later. “The Love that dare not speak its name,” which Wilde eloquently defended at his trial in 1895, the love of men for young men and adolescents (male youths from mid-teens to early 20s), the love whose name is also pederasty, is in our era, in which homosexuality has become a public fact, still the Love that dare not speak its name, even among homosexuals. In an age when homosexuality has succeeded in becoming “the loving union of two people,” the other Love, the one that dare not speak its name, remains an embarrassment, an unease, and a source of “bad publicity” among gays; it’s a near-crime within the law (especially in the most recent Canadian law of “sexual exploitation” as it applies to relations between adults and youths); and it is often classified as a form of “child abuse” by legions of psychologists and the ever-present evil media. The practices of that Love, more than a century after Wilde’s death, are almost as furtive now as then. It is intellectually spoken of, and gossiped about, only among the initiates, but is permitted, now as then, an underground commercial existence, since we live in an even more relentlessly commercial culture than that of England at the end of the Victorian era. Though Wilde’s defense of the Love that dare not speak its name is taken today as a general statement about homosexuality, its actual definition is more specific.
The story of the gay movement and social life, from Wilde’s day to now, is increasingly available to us. It is uninterruptedly chronicled in works such as George Chauncey’s Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World 1890-1940 (1994) and Matt Houlbrook’s Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis, 1918-1957 (2005). There is an historical anthropology, which includes such representative books as Gary Leupp’s Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan (1995), and Khaled El-Rouayheb’s Before Homosexuality in the Arab-Islamic World, 1500-1800 (2005). As well, the bibliography of gay literature since Stonewall, the 1969 marker of contemporary “Gay Liberation,” is voluminous. We have passed from the homophile movements in the 1950s and 60s that finally saw the repeal of legislation like the “gross indecency” law and its equivalents in countries around the world, to the gay liberation movement and beyond.
What I’m interested in is how to conceptualize the present situation — not so much to propose a political agenda as to understand where we are. In contrast to Marx’s famous dictum that rather than merely understanding the world, we need to change it, I remind myself that first you do have to understand it if you want to change it. My current conceptualization is based on another Marxist notion, one usually applied to economic affairs, and known as the Law of Uneven Development. I think the Law of Uneven Development also can be applied to cultural circumstances, such as the status of homosexuality. The idea is simple: what we find in the economic world at one and the same time are completely different ways or modes of producing things, such that feudalism, raw capitalism, social democracy, and other forms of production, all exist simultaneously and can only be explained by examining the specific historical circumstances, cultures, and power structures of particular nations. I think something similar holds for how we might think about homosexuality.
What I see, and I’m intentionally over-simplifying, is a tri-partite global situation. In various countries, which I’ll call Pre-Gay, homosexuality is still illegal, often punishable by death, and cannot be spoken of much less named. Yet, in all of these pre-gay places, there is a considerable amount of homosexual activity. It generally takes three forms: 1) traditional pederasty operating within well-understood but unspoken conventions, 2) sexual relations involving often specifically-designated categories of effeminate men or transexuals, and 3) in countries which are visited by global travelers, sex tourism. Though some of the participants in those acts, usually the “top,” or active partner, certainly doesn’t think of himself as a homosexual or gay or whatever, and doesn’t even think of the act he’s participating in as homosexual or gay or whatever — rather they think of themselves simply as “men,” and of active anal intercourse merely as “sex” — nonetheless we would register all of this as homosexual sex between males. What isn’t permitted in contemporary pre-gay societies is discourse about homosexuality and in that sense, it literally remains a relation that dare not speak its name.
In other countries, such as the United States as a prime example, they’re still in the midst of gay struggles — religious denunciations of homosexuality, referenda banning gay marriage, rollbacks of sexual preference anti-discrimination laws, all jostle with gay characters on TV, commercial gay pornography, increasing and/or declining public sympathy for various gay causes. But the U.S., in the midst of a strange period of religious revivalism, to say nothing of bellicosity, is clearly still in the Gay Struggle mode. Other countries, such as Thailand, present a more hybrid situation that combines traditional pre-gay modes with sex tourism and a vigorous debate about the conceptualisation of modern gay identities.
Third, there are countries like Canada, as well as various countries in Europe, which I would describe as Post-Gay or Post-Queer. What I mean by that is that being gay is no longer a contested identity, legislation has been passed that protects gay human rights up to and including gay marriage, and public sentiment has clearly moved to the side of people who identify themselves as gay, if they feel the need to identify themselves in sexual terms at all. Indeed, in post-gay societies, work on self-identity tends to move in directions that make the notion of gay somewhat obsolete, as reflected in the discussions of the last decade over the use of the term “queer.”
All of these modes of homosexuality exist simultaneously and, using a loose notion of the law of uneven development, can be traced to specific cultural histories, but Post-Gay is the term that makes people, particularly those who have been involved in the history of gay struggles, uneasy. People working in gay organizations, gay-oriented businesses, or simply gay consumers may worry that they’re going to be talked out of a job or an activism by success. But I don’t think that’s the case, even if we recognize a notion of Post-Gay.
First, it really is important to know when to declare victory, or else one tediously lives in a past that no longer exists, or worse, persists in a tribalism that is already all too prevalent in the world. Second, the Law of Uneven Development applies not only to entire cultures, but operates differentially within countries. So, while Post-Gay clearly obtains in places like Vancouver, Toronto, or Montreal, in various provinces, and in various specific communities, the issue of being gay or queer remains problematic, and “coming out” is still a major personal event.
Third, and finally, the condition of Post-Gay doesn’t mean that there’s nothing to do. As we know too well, crimes like gaybashing continue to occur; anti-gay organizations like the U.S.-based Canadian branch of Focus on the Family continue to press for repeal of rights; and the plight of various individuals, such as teenagers in regressive school board districts, is an abiding concern. Furthermore, having achieved a Post-Gay condition doesn’t mean it can’t be reversed. And one more sociological point: given that homosexuality looks like a more or less permanent minority preference, in which there are ongoing concerns about finding like-minded or like-desiring people, or finding support in the development of one’s own identity, whether as a teenager or as an adult in particular communities, all of that ensures there is no End of Gay in Post-Gay. Although the Love that dare not speak its name, as Wilde meant it, is perhaps doomed to marginalisation, the Love that just won’t shut up, as we jokingly dare to describe it today, will continue to be heard.
* * *
As Oscar Wilde remarked at the author’s curtain call on the opening night of Lady Windermere’s Fan in 1892, in which he appeared onstage smoking a cigarette (the only act of his public or private life that would be more shocking to us today than it was to his Victorian audience):
“Ladies and Gentlemen, I have enjoyed this evening immensely. The actors have given us a charming rendering of a delightful play, and your appreciation has been most intelligent. I congratulate you on the great success of your performance, which persuades me that you think almost as highly of the play as I do myself.”
Vancouver, November 2005. An earlier version of this essay was delivered as the Oscar Wilde Lecture at the Vancouver Public Library on Oct. 20, 2005. My thanks to librarian Ross Bliss for organizing this event and providing the emblematic green carnation. In its print form, this is the first of a series of occasional pieces called “Reading Homo.”