23 December 2009

'I Have Nothing to Declare but My Decadence!'—Thoughts on Oscar Wilde

The passing reference to notorious wit, Sodomite, and writer, Oscar Wilde, as an object of GKC’s moral critique in this post led to the following exchange on Facebook with Fr Mark Christian:

Fr Mark> Amongst the villains of (post)modernity at whom GKC took righful aim, the one who gives me pause is Wilde. Through my work on Terry Eagleton, I’ve really come to rethink my perceptions of Wilde’s life and work. Granted, his early life and work is replete with the hedonism and biting sarcasm that should appall us, but there is a perceptible turn after his imprisonment. The sinner doesn’t become a saint, but his heart was broken and there is some sense of remorse and repentance. Joseph Pearce’s literary biography of Wilde is worth pondering.

Me> I understand what you mean about Wilde. I actually have a soft spot for him. And to be fair, Sheridan doesn't suggest GKC went after him too badly—she just quotes a typical Chestertonian remark on the hedonism. Actually, I may quote your message to me here to do a follow-up where I discuss, at least in part, the witty Sodomite himself.

I'd love to read Pearce’s biography, though my admittedly superficial impression of the latter is that he’s just out to claim writers he happens to like for papism!

Fr Mark> Oh, that’s exactly what Pearce is doing. And when they’re inadequately papist, he says so—as in his study of CS Lewis!

Eagleton embraces Wilde for reasons pertaining to his decidedly Irish take on post-colonialism, hence his play, ‘Saint Oscar’. It’s an intriguing read, but only if you're really into post-modern/post-colonial rhetorical gymnastics. There was a time that I was, or tried to be. That was another life!

I’m especially intrigued by a conversation Wilde had not long before his death (and provisional Baptism as a Catholic) with Anna, the Comtesse de Bremont (a friend of his mother).

Before they parted, he said to her:

’Would you know my secret? I will tell you... I have found my soul. I was happy in prison... I was happy there because I found my soul.’

and then

’Contessa, don't sorrow for me, but watch and pray-it will not be long-watch and pray.’ (Pearce 393-394)

And finally, consider these concluding stanzas in The Ballad of Reading Gaol:

And thus we rust Life’s iron chain
Degraded and alone:
And some men curse, and some men weep,
And some men make no moan:
But God's eternal Laws are kind
And break the heart of stone.

And every human heart that breaks,
In prison-cell or yard,
Is as that broken box that gave
Its treasure to the Lord,
And filled the unclean leper’s house
With the scent of costliest nard.

Ah! happy they whose hearts can break
And peace of pardon win!
How else may man make straight his plan
And cleanse his soul from Sin?
How else but through a broken heart
May Lord Christ enter in?

And he of the swollen purple throat,
And the stark and staring eyes,
Waits for the holy hands that took
The Thief to Paradise;
And a broken and a contrite heart
The Lord will not despise.

The man in red who reads the Law
Gave him three weeks of life,
Three little weeks in which to heal
His soul of his soul’s strife,
And cleanse from every blot of blood
The hand that held the knife.

And with tears of blood he cleansed the hand,
The hand that held the steel:
For only blood can wipe out blood,
And only tears can heal:
And the crimson stain that was of Cain
Became Christ's snow-white seal.


In Reading gaol by Reading town
There is a pit of shame,
And in it lies a wretched man
Eaten by teeth of flame,
In a burning winding-sheet he lies,
And his grave has got no name.

And there, till Christ call forth the dead,
In silence let him lie:
No need to waste the foolish tear,
Or heave the windy sigh:
The man had killed the thing he loved,
And so he had to die.

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!

So here is the pertinent note from Sheridan in Ballad:

VIII.296. By life a leaping mire: Since Oscar Wilde was a notorious decadent, this phrase could refer to him. Chesterton comments: ‘Oscar Wilde said that sunsets were not valued because we could not pay for sunsets. But Oscar Wilde was wrong; we can pay for sunsets. We can pay for them by not being Oscar Wilde.’ (1908, 104 [GKC’s remark is in Orthodoxy]). [1]

Incidentally, I have a book in Greek that I haven’t yet read entitled (my translation), Art & Ethics in the ‘Picture’ of Oscar Wilde: An Aesthetic-philosophical and ethico-religious approach to the life and work of O. Wilde, particularly in the Picture of Dorian Grey, by one Michalis K. Makrakis. [2] Unfortunately, a quick scan of the bibliography suggests the author is not particularly engaged with the Church Fathers (of these, I see only St Augustine), though there is an article on Dostoevsky in there by Fr Justin (Popovich), and a few works by Berdyaev. The rest is Kant, Freud, and Croce.

One last comment on the famous homosexualist: since I have been on rather a C.S. Lewis spree lately, I thought this worth mentioning. Humphrey Carpenter, speaking of Tolkien’s and Lewis’s hearty attire, writes:

This preference for plain masculine clothing was in part perhaps a reaction to the excessive dandyism and implied homosexuality of the ‘aesthetes’, who had first made their mark on Oxford in the age of Wilde and whose successors lingered on in the nineteen-twenties and early thirties, affecting delicate shades of garment and ambiguous nuances of manner. Theirs was a way of life of which Tolkien and the majority of his friends would have none; hence their almost exaggerated preference for tweed jackets, flannel trousers, nondescript ties, solid brown shoes that were built for country walks, dull-coloured raincoats and hats, and short hair. Tolkien’s manner of dress also reflected some of his positive values, his love of everything that was moderate and sensible and unflorid and English. But beyond that his clothes gave no idea of the delicate and complex inner nature of the man who wore them. [3]

So perhaps we arrive at ‘We can pay for sunsets by wearing tweed jackets and flannel trousers.’ I’ll buy that!

[1] G.K. Chesterton, The Ballad of the White Horse, illust. Robert Austin (SF: Ignatius, 2001), pp. 222-3.

[2] Michalis K. Makrakis, Τέχνη και Ηθική στο «Πορτραίτο» του Oscar Wilde: Αισθητικο-φιλοσοφική και ηθικο-θρησκευτική προσέγγιση στη ζωή και στο έργο του O. Wilde, ιδιαίτερα στο Πορτραίτο του Ντόριαν Γκρέυ (Athens: Tinos, 1991).

[3] Humphrey Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography (London: HarperCollins, 1995), p. 128.


Matthew said...

"...his love of everything that was moderate and sensible and unflorid and English. But beyond that his clothes gave no idea of the delicate and complex inner nature of the man who wore them."

Not a bad way to live one's life, I think!

orrologion said...

Any more detail on his "provisional Baptism as a Catholic"? What does that mean exactly?

I read something on the life of Keynes recently talking about him also as being a notorious and profligate homosexual in his early days. However, this changed after his marriage to a Russian ballerina. His friends seemed to have never really forgiven him for turning his back on dandyism and homosexuality. I wonder if there was something of a fad going on in that day to play the homosexual - or, to play the heterosexual afteward.

Anonymous said...

The version of the title quote I know is, 'I have nothing to declare but my genius!' Hmm...


Anonymous said...

Tolkein's and Lewis' preference for manly clothes as a means of declaring the demarcation between themselves and the "dandies," puts in a mind of my college buddy ("The Fish") and I who always wore the worst Levis and sleeves-cut-off-of-sweatshirts-worn-inside-out on the days when all the fraternity boys wore their blazers and ties! Who knew then we were in such exalted company as the Oxford lions?


Papa John said...

This quote from OW appeared in my "Quote of the Day" blip on Google this morning:

In America the young are always ready to give to those who are older than themselves the full benefits of their inexperience.

Oscar Wilde

aaronandbrighid said...

Matthew> I quite agree!

Mr Orr> Good question. I was hoping Fr Mark would come across this comment thread and answer it for you, but so far no luck I guess. I'll try to remember to ask him.

It certainly does seem to have been a faddish thing. It seems like I remember E. Michael Jones mentioning the issue at some point.

M.> Not being sure who you are, and given the limitations of online text-based communication, I can't certain whether you've detected my attempt at humour here. So at the risk of explaining the obvious, yes, it was 'genius' that Wilde mentioned, but since the subject of this post was his decadence I thought this title would be amusingly clever.

Dad> It's just too bad you and Fish didn't produce a brilliant body of scholarly and imaginative writing!

Papa John> More true than ever!

Anonymous said...

No brilliant body of scholarly and imaginative writing, but I did a couple of nights in the Oscar Wilde suite at a hotel on Merrion Square in Dublin some years ago. Shouldn't that count for something?

St. Matthew the Apostle Orthodox Church said...

Just back from our Vesperal Divine Liturgy of St. Basil - please indulge those of us laboring under the yoke of the New Calendar as we say, "Christ is Born! Glorify Him!"

Wilde clearly had a fascination with ultra-montane Catholicism throughout much of his life, having approached conversion any number of times, only to shy away from reception. Recall his famous quip, "I am not a Catholic. I am simply a violent Papist." Regarding Wilde's provisional Baptism, most accounts indicate that he was in a state of delirium on his deathbed when his RC friend Robbie Ross called for a a priest. My guess is that the priest couldn't verify whether Wilde had been baptized as an infant into the RCC and apostatized, or had never been baptized. Thus, he administered the Baptism conditionally - meaning it would be valid and effective only if he had not already been baptized.

Interestingly, some recent historical investigation has proposed that Wilde had, in fact, been baptized privately as an RC when he was a very young child - which is a curiosity since though they were Dubliners, neither of his parents were RC. Nonetheless, Wilde apparently emerged from his delirium a day or two after his provisional Baptism and indicated a lucid desire for reception into the RCC.

I rather like Andrew McCracken's assessment of of him: "writer, wit, voluptuary, gay man, failed father and husband, sensitive soul, laughing stock, broken heart, eleventh hour Catholic Convert."

May God have mercy upon him and grant him peace!

- Fr Mark

aaronandbrighid said...

Thank you, Father. Excellent quote!

I hope you have a blessed feast. I'll be working on a post, hopefully, for St Herman!

John Sanidopoulos said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Oops! Sorry, Aaron. I should have realised :)


Maxim said...

One of Wilde's most brilliant bon mots: "The Catholic Church is for sinners and for saints; all respectable people should be Anglican".