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Book Review: De Profundis by Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde, De Profundis, Dover Thrift Edition (Kindle), 2013, 98 pgs.

De Profundis, a 55,000 word letter from disgraced author Oscar Wilde addressed to his love, Lord Alfred Douglas, who had spurned him, is at times more compelling due to its history, form and intended purpose than its actual substance. In 1897 Wilde was languishing in Reading prison on a conviction of gross indecency when the reformist and compassionate warden, Major Nelson, agreed that writing could prove therapeutic for the celebrity inmate whose mental and physical health had declined considerably in two years of incarceration.  During his final months of imprisonment, Wilde worked daily in his cell on a rambling letter addressed (but not sent) to Douglas. Wilde’s letter is rife with sentimentality, frustration and bitterness, as well as a haughtiness and classism that appears to be how the author attempts to restore his sense of dignity after much public humiliation and a torturous time in prison. It’s when he finds his way out of the labyrinth of self-pity and explores concepts of faith, art and incarnation that his letter shows itself to have much depth.

Like Wilde’s life, the fate of De Profundis was a complicated one. Originally, Wilde entitled his letter to Douglas as Epistola: In Carcere et Vinculis (Letter: In Prison and in Chains). After his release from prison, Wilde gave the letter to his close friend Robbie Ross — a Canadian-born journalist, art critic and later the author’s literary executor. Ross had been Wilde’s companion too, and his urn is buried in Wilde’s tomb in Paris’ Père Lachaise Cemetery. In contrast to Wilde, who caused scandal when his “double life” came to light and who tried to portray his relationship with Douglas as something other than sexual, Ross himself was openly gay. After his release from prison, Wilde handed over the manuscript of his letter to Ross. The letter was published posthumously in various forms and with major edits, under the new title De Profundis (From the Depths), which Ross, a practising Catholic, had given it. Both the G.P. Putnam’s Sons edition of 1905 published in New York and the Methuen & Co. edition appearing in 1911 in London have been expunged of many personal references to Lord Alfred Douglas and his family. In fact, these early editions omit the first dozen or so pages of Wilde’s manuscript, where the author’s scathing commentary on Douglas begins.

De Profundis is an apt title — more so than the original that Wilde had chosen. A reference to Psalm 130 (or Psalm 129 in the Douay Rheims Bible), De Profundis is a Catholic penitential prayer often recited at burials. Wilde was fascinated by the ornamental liturgical aesthetics and the artistic tradition of Catholicism. In 1900, during a trip to Rome shortly before his death, Wilde explained memorably: “I am not a Catholic: I am simply a violent papist.” Wilde was not drawn to the legalism of the Church nor the popular piety that would have been prevalent in Irish society and culture. His fascination, and one present in the ornamental language of works like the The Picture of Dorian Gray, was with the perceived decadence of the Catholic Church, especially as expressed in its rich ritual and sacramentality, in the implicit sensuality that is inherent in Catholicism and its imagery, and in what he understood as being the imaginative, artistic nature of Christ — where Christ’s life and death itself becomes art.

In De Profundis, Wilde writes that he cannot accept a religion based on a faith in the unseen: “The faith that others give to what is unseen, I give to what one can touch and look at. My gods dwell in temples made with hands; and within the circle of actual experience is my creed made perfect and complete,” Here is where we see the basis of his attraction to Catholicism: the divine mediated through tactile matter. He depicts Mass and the Eucharist as a powerful play — a work of art, writing: “One cannot but be grateful that the supreme office of the Church should be the playing of the tragedy without the shedding of blood: the mystical presentation, by means of dialogue and costume and gesture even, of the Passion of her Lord.” Christ’s life and death, in Wilde’s reading, was the incarnation of the message that it was “only through love that one could approach the heart of the leper or the feet of God” and that Christ’s purpose in the world was that “as he passed by on the highway of life people who had seen nothing of life’s mystery saw it clearly…” In a reflection on the Gospel, found in the last third of De Profundis, Wilde suggests that it was not Christ’s goal to “turn an interesting thief into a tedious honest man…He Would have thought little of the Prisoners’ Aid Society and other modern movements of the kind.” To Wilde, Christ embodied much of 19th Century Romanticism. Looking ahead to the end of life, Wilde once commented: “Catholicism is the only religion to die in.”

Showing his characteristic wit, Wilde has few kind words for respectable, law-abiding and proper “Christian” society, for whom mankind is made for the sake of rules and form, rather than the other way around. At one point, he notes: “…there were Christians before Christ. For that we should be grateful. The unfortunate thing is that there have been none since.” He then qualifies his statement, agreeing to one exception, namely St. Francis of Assisi. Wilde also adds that Christ, whose entire life and being was art, transforms all who come into contact with his presence, without him having to explicitly teach anything at all. Wilde notes: “Once at least in his life, each man walks with Christ to Emmaus.”

Amidst the self-pity, the acerbity of language and Wilde’s status as a jilted lover which dominates the first half of the letter, De Profundis certainly has a philosophical and reflective side. Sometimes it is surprising. One of Wilde’s pithy observations is that the “supreme vice is shallowness.”  He raises this within the context of Douglas wanting nothing more in life than extravagant earthly luxuries and carnal pleasure. He found his joy in shallow, immediate gratification. I can’t read these descriptions of Douglas and the concept that shallowness represents the supreme vice without drawing parallels to the jarring shallowness of the characters in Wilde’s novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. It’s not only the hedonism and all-round pleasure-seeking that seems so similar to what Wilde now condemns in Douglas, but also the very philosophical underpinning of the work, namely the concept of l’art pour l’art. How is art for art’s sake itself not a shallow vice? If it is not inherently that, then it is certainly fertile ground for a type of hubris that does nothing to bring one self-awareness and self-reflection.

There is a certain lack of self-awareness in De Profundis, especially in the first half of the work. His imprisonment and disastrous fate was strictly the fault of his lover and the fact that he had allowed himself to get drawn into the long-standing personal conflict that Douglas had with his gruff father, who Wilde ultimately sued for libel, which then inadvertently exposed the celebrated author’s homosexuality for all to see. Wilde sees himself as the man who was once the “arbiter of the style in art,” who is then dragged down into the dirt and corrupted by a much younger, less cultured man. He let himself be “lured into the imperfect world of coarse uncompleted passion, of appetite without distinction, desire without limit, and formless greed.” Presumably, he is speaking euphemistically of his visits to brothels and male prostitutes. Wilde, although older and more sophisticated, was a hapless and naive victim — and now he suffers. He sat in a prison cell as a broken, bankrupt and abandoned man. At one point he writes with stinging tone: “Such was the irony of things that your father would live to be the hero of a Sunday school tract: that you would rank with the infant Samuel: and that my place would be between Gilles de Retz and the Marquis de Sade.” Wilde then adds with bitter humour: “The leper of Mediaevelism and the author of Justine will prove better company than Sandford and Merton.” The book Justine was a reference to Marquis de Sade’s erotic novel, while Sandford and Merton was the title of a collection of children’s stories focused on how a young boy can grow into a true gentleman by embracing a virtuous lifestyle.

The value of suffering appears in De Profundis and it is presented as a higher, more mature form of life than that which seeks only earthly pleasure. Wilde writes: “Where there is sorrow there is holy ground. Some day people will realise what that means. They will know nothing of life until they do.” Wilde then provides his friend Robbie Ross as an example of someone who grasps both the holiness of suffering and the meaning in reaching out to the afflicted.

When I was brought down from my prison to the Court of Bankruptcy, between two policemen, Robbie waited in the long dreary corridor that, before the whole crowd, whom an action so sweet and simple hushed into silence, he might gravely raise his hat to me, as, handcuffed and with bowed head, I passed by him. Men have gone to heaven for smaller things than that. It was in this spirit, and with this mode of love, that the saints knelt down to wash the feet of the poor, or stooped to kiss the leper on the cheek.

Wilde, having fallen from grace so dramatically, addresses the concept of fame and the tendency to respect and revere humans who stand on pedestals. He notes numerous times how Douglas seemed only interested in him when he based on the glory of fame, reverence and power. Wilde offers: “It is a very unimaginative nature that only cares for people on their pedestals. The pedestal may be a very unreal thing. A pillory is a terrific reality.”

While in De Profundis we see an example of Wilde’s wonderful use of language and imagery — even after nearly two torturous years of incarceration — we also see a man struggling with poor mental health who attempts to use writing as a form of therapy. The epistle is meant to be a way for Wilde to rid his system of the bitterness he feels towards Douglas and also the attachment he clearly has, as well as to forgive him, and to retrieve his own sense of dignity and self-worth following so many humiliations.

It does not appear as though Wilde succeeds in accomplishing these goals. Once released from prison, he maintains an on-and-off relationship with Douglas. And rather than finding his human dignity, his letter reveals that he also discovers self-aggrandisement and denial. He writes: “I let myself be lured into long spells of senseless and sensual ease. I amused myself with being a flâneur, a dandy, a man of fashion. I surrounded myself with the smaller natures and the meaner minds.” Wilde suggests that through his suffering, he had discovered humility, but his writing does not suggest the same. Sometimes, Wilde comes across as plainly delusional, such as when he writes of his potential homelessness upon release: “I would not a bit mind sleeping in the cool grass in summer, and when winter came on sheltering myself by the close-thatched rick, or under the pent-house of a great barn, provided I had love in my heart.” In all of this, there is a romanticised and condescending portrayal of the poor and of poverty from a highly classist man. This is perhaps best expressed when Wilde writes, immediately after embracing abject poverty: “I know that to ask for alms on the highway is not to be my lot, and that if I ever lie in the cool grass at nighttime, it will be to write sonnets to the moon.” Wilde knows that he can count on close friends like Robbie Ross to see to his well-being.

Of the things that I note in both De Profundis and in Wilde’s other works is how his writing is at times Bohemian in a way that is quaint and dates him, while sometimes seeming so modern and contemporary, that he could just as well be writing it today on his laptop. At one point, he dismisses an expression that we see used today about the value of hardship: “I will not say that prison is the best thing that could have happened to me.” Wilde’s writings offers us both an ornamental linguistic trip to the end of the nineteenth century, while at other times it is plainly modern. Perhaps Wilde’s staying power as a literary and cultural icon is not only his mastery of words, but the relevance of the themes he explores, coupled with his flawed humanity — all of which is at the very heart of De Profundis.

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