Ideas On Trial

During Wilde’s cross-examination in the first trial, Wilde’s work seems on trial more than Wilde himself. Each time the opposing attorney references Wilde’s artistic allusions to homosexuality, Wilde flips the narrative to address the craftsmanship and artistic beauty rather than the content. He champions the message that resonates throughout his work: art cannot be moral or immoral, but it can be artistic or crude. He is focused on style. 

Wilde does not seem to care what people think of the content of his work except in denying that it incriminates him. Instead, he urges the audience- for this seems to be a performance- to appreciate the beauty he creates. Regarding a letter he wrote to Bosie, which the cross-examiner presents as evidence of an improper relationship, Wilde states: “This is a beautiful letter. It is a poem. I was not writing an ordinary letter. You might as well cross-examine me as to whether King Lear or a sonnet of Shakespeare’s is proper.” Wilde maintains that even his letters are artistic rather than purely functional. When he brings up another homosexual story, The Priest and the Acolyte, Wilde refuses to address the content but condemns it for poor writing. Each time the cross-examiner attempts to address homosexuality in various written works, Wilde returns to form. 

However, this reframing does not deter the cross-examiner, who shifts his focus away from homosexuality and instead on Wilde’s artistic philosophy. Instead of looking for what he calls “perverted content,” he briefly attacks Wilde for his amoral view of literature. He presents Wilde’s philosophy as dangerous because it does not condemn immoral content; thus, a perverted book might be “good.” There seems to be underlying anxiety that if people consume art merely because it is well written, its content may corrupt them. Society presents a rigid sense of what is unacceptable, and Wilde’s flippant attitude about content rattles that construct, at least as it appears in art.

I think that the first trial was a fight over artistic ideals and ultimately came down to the questions that Wilde himself poses in Dorian Gray: Can art corrupt? Can art be dangerous? Should those who view art only look at the surface? Wilde seems to anticipate the controversy over his work years before it is brought up in court. 

Oscar Wilde: Fighting for Freedom

I found myself wondering what Oscar Wilde would think about our current state of society in regards to LGBTQ rights after reading this play. As the play itself is set in the very late 19th century, when homosexuality was illegal, we see quite directly, an accurate depiction of the trails against homosexuality and the views society carried for individuals that were homosexual. While society has made many strides in regards to justice for the homosexual community, as evidenced by the accounts and details of the play, the story of Oscar Wilde also acts as a reminder that we still involve our own prejudices and judgement towards the lives of individuals in our society quite unfairly. Along with such, I thought the play also acted as a vessel that showed us more about the character of Wilde. As much as Wilde was a resolute individual that supported his own self and the “status” of homosexuality, he also brought great deals of pain and misfortune to others. Lord Alfred Douglas, a former lover of Wilde, would be a prime example of such. The play overall along with the character of Wilde had me wondering just where the boundaries lay in terms of carrying a purpose. As much as Wilde was a victim of a blasphemous law that persecuted homosexuals, he also carried a sense of determination that ended up harming those around him. If anything, the play was a question as a whole, one that had me asking just what the boundaries or stakes were in terms of fighting for justice. It seems unfair for me to criticize the actions of someone struggling through something I could never fathom, but thinking about those that were affected by his fight for freedom forces me to empathize to certain degrees.

Wilde Wilding in His First Trial

Throughout this semester, we’ve discussed how Oscar Wilde attempted to live as art through the way he presented himself, from the way he dressed to the way he spoke. Wilde’s modus operandi of living as art is extremely apparent through the way he behaved during his first trial in Gross Indecency. Throughout the first trial, Oscar Wilde behaves in his typical Oscar Wilde fashion: as the most intelligent and witty person in the room. It’s almost as if Wilde believed that just based on the virtue of being clever he could get out of any trouble. 

Wilde living as art and entertainment is most plainly exhibited when he is examined by Edward Carson. Carson brings up excerpts of Wilde’s letters and works to prove that Wilde has had relations with men, making Queensberry’s claim fact as opposed to libel. However, for every excerpt that Carson brings up, Wilde only has a witticism to say in response. When Carson reads out Wilde’s romantic letter to Bosie, Wilde responds that the letter is art and is therefore meant to include beautiful phrases. Only an artist such as Wilde could have written that letter. Carson replies, “‘Your slim gilt soul walks between passion and poetry.’ Is that a beautiful phrase?” (35). Wilde only responds with, “Not as you read it, Mr. Carson. You read it very badly” (35). Wilde has enough confidence in this trial to directly insult the lawyer examining him. It’s as if he believes this trial is just another stage to entertain his audience and that he won’t face consequences as long as he’s entertaining.

Wilde getting questioned about his work is where he triumphs in this trial. Here, he proclaims that no art is moral or immoral, it is only well or poorly written. He also claims, “I rarely think that anything I write is true” (39). He reiterates the ideas we have read in other works of his, and through this, he makes a convincing case that nothing he has written can really be used against him. This part of the trial reminded me a lot of “The Decay of Lying” where Wilde makes a case that lying is essential to being entertaining. That’s what this part of the trial is: a string of entertaining lies. 

However, where Wilde falters is when the questioning moves away from his works and towards his relationships with young men. He can’t make up pretty lies when the evidence is staring him in the face. He’s forced to give up this libel suit when the young men that Wilde has had relations with are threatened to be brought in. Being art wasn’t enough to save Wilde in the end.

“Women Don’t Do Such Things”

I have been increasingly fascinated by the ways in which feminism plays a role in Wilde’s work and life. I do not think, like Kiberd, that Wilde had any sort of “lifelong commitment to feminism,” however, I find that his work includes a diversity of roles for women that I haven’t found in other classic works by male authors (40). Wilde’s women are not as confined to tropes, and while they do not actively fight against societal standards, they often work from within the system to make their own agency.

But as we continue reading, I have been thinking more and more about how the threads of feminism in Wilde’s work connect to his own identity as a decadent and as a queer man. We have talked a bit about how many decadents had the tendency to focus on the beauty of the male form and disregard the female form, but after reading “Gross Indecency,” I have been thinking more and more about how queer men and women would’ve interacted and related to each other.

This inclination was mostly stirred by Queen Victoria’s lines in the play, relating to the punishments for homosexual relations. The fact that the law only applied to male homosexuality was surprising to me, and even more so was Queen Victoria’s statement that “Women don’t do such things” (Kaufman 68). I would think that this law and the statement by Queen Victoria about it, especially considering the greater context of it being enacted by a female ruler, figurehead or otherwise, would cause a great deal of anger and strife between queer men and women. While queer women were confined in other ways, in this area, they had less pressure to conform and mask their queerness than their male counterparts.

But this type of anger is not really present in Wilde’s work. Sure, there are a lot of emotions of anger and grief at society and the double standards it contains in his writing, but he never targets these emotions onto women. And to me, this feels like a really cool aspect of Wilde’s strange feminism that I would like to explore more of.

My Frustration with Wilde

The more I read of Gross Indecency, the more progressively annoyed I got with Oscar as the play went on, for a number of reasons. For one, his wit, which is delightful in small doses, grew rather tiresome as the play wore on, and I started to understand somewhat why Wilde was someone who was both widely admired, and rather despised by the people of his time. I understand that this play is an artistic rendition of real events, but from what I understand it is a rather accurate one, specifically in regards to how Wilde acted in the courtroom.

The play paints Wilde as someone who is steadfastly determined to be a martyr, despite the harm that may befall those close to him. After all, Douglas was essentially forced to flee to Paris, and his wife and kids had to change their last names because of the verdict. Before being fully aware of the events, I thought of Wilde as a victim of an unfair justice system that punished him for his sexuality, and while that certainly is a side of the story, I find it hard not to perceive Wilde as the engineer of his own destruction. There were just so many ways for him to avoid imprisonment, from not suing the Marquess in the first place to fleeing to France on any number of occasions, at some point, him going to prison becomes somewhat of a conscious decision on his part. While I do very much feel for Wilde, it seems overwhelmingly selfish on his part to choose depriving his children of a father, and the love of his life of a lover, all to make a point about art that, at least in my opinion, is not all that clear. It seems to me that Wilde believed he was forced into choosing either to defend his art, or give in to those who opposed it, but I honestly question if that was ever the case, and I seriously question whether him going to prison accomplished whatever it is Oscar wanted to accomplish. 

A Trial Concerning Reputation

I really enjoyed reading Kaufman’s Gross Indecency. The author’s decision to create his trial narrative using excerpts from various historical accounts was a little jarring at first, but, once I read further into the play, I found this structural decision to be quite inventive and stimulating. On a plot level, I found Wilde’s involvement in the Douglas family drama to be quite tragic as, in many ways, Wilde seemed to be caught in the crossfire of a father-son feud. Obviously, his sexuality was also on trial, but I would argue that this whole problematic event was more focused on a father’s hatred towards his son because of concerns about his own reputation. As George Bernard Shaw noted, Queensberry’s “real objective was to ruin his son and to finally break the heart of his ex-wife” (23). The play mentions the extreme level of toxicity and ill-will that was harbored on both sides of the Queensberry family divorce, and, as the concept of divorce was much more scandalous in the Victorian Age, I could see how Queensberry might have been ashamed of this initial affront to his own personal reputation. Once rumors of his son’s homosexual activity gained traction, I can also see how Queensberry might have been concerned that his reputation would be further tarnished. Furthermore, I think that Queensberry was less enraged about his son’s acts than he was about being associated with someone with a well-known nonheteronormative lifestyle. This idea may relate to Queensberry’s decision to initially accuse Wilde of “posing sodomite” rather than of sodomy itself (26). In Queensberry’s own words, Wilde “looks [like he is having a homosexual relationship] …and poses as it, which is just as bad” as actually being gay in the first place (21). Here, the verbs “look” and “pose” connote a sense of visibility, which could suggest that Queensberry is ashamed that the public may suspect that his son is nonheteronormative. If Wilde and Bosie were more secretive about their romance, the public would be less aware of this relationship, and Queensberry’s reputation may not be criticized as much. Additionally, if Bosie’s father really cared about the flawed more code of the age and wanted to “save his son” like he claimed, I feel like he would have used a much more diplomatic and pleading tone in his letters in order to try to return his prodigal son home (22). Instead, Queensberry is very combative and violent in his letters – repeatedly threatening to “shoot [Wilde and Bosie] on sight” (18 & 20) while also desiring to “thrash” his own son (19 & 20). This tonal consideration adds further evidence to the idea that Queensberry is really primarily concerned with his own reputation because he seems to be actively trying to widen the rift between him and his son through threats, which would also help to further separate him from Bosie and Wilde in the public’s perception (makes it clear that he does not condone their relationship).  

Identifying and Orientalism

I did not enjoy Salomé when I first read it. Something about it felt spare and maybe stilted compared to the other Wilde pieces we’ve been looking at this semester that come off as so quintessentially Wilde — it doesn’t tease and taunt the reader in the same way. Upon closer inspection, however, and after talking it over in class, Salomé does seem just as elusive and nuanced as other Wilde works. I especially appreciated the way our conversations about Orientalism and Wilde’s queerness intersected in this play, conflating the two ways of thinking about subversive or non-normative identities. Wilde taps into a particular, sexualized narrative of the biblically unnamed Salome, using tropes of the East to heighten her sexuality for the play, while also giving her a dark sense of agency.  A lot of this hinges on her outward expressions of her desire for Jokanaan. In response to her advances, Jokanaan calls Salomé, “‘the wanton! The harlot! Ah! The daughter of Babylon with her golden eyes and gilded eyelids’” (596). His attention to her gilded eyelids seems particularly significant here, as tied to her sexuality, as they suggest a sort of rich, outlandish otherness, resonant of other Orientalist descriptions of “heavy-lidded foreigners” and the like, a description that fits with the visual tradition and artistic representation that exists for this story, presenting similarly gilded Salomés as we looked at in class.  The Beardsley illustrations go even further to solidify the engagement with these narratives of Otherness. Though made independently of Wilde’s influence, Beardsley’s illustrations also use styles and imagery from Eastern cultures (as an extraordinarily broad and nuanced grouping) to represent hyper-sexualized, gender-ambiguous, and bizarre figures as a response to Wilde’s text and narrative. The use of the exotic and the other allows both men a space to explore and represent the other in different ways, bending gender representations and sexual expectations. 

It is interesting then to try to parse the ethics of such an engagement in Orientalism on Wilde’s part, considering his own multiple marginalized identities, being Irish and queer.  Clearly a focus on the Other, and the pronounced difference and exoticism of Eastern cultures, allows Wilde access what he feels is a useful dichotomy for presenting other sorts of differences, a relationship similar to that which Kiberd articulates in his article, about the reciprocal constructing of Irishness and Englishness, defining the self as what the other is not — the same is happening in this play and is what allows us a queer reading of the narrative. However, just because Wilde can understand being the cultural or sexual other in England, does that give him the license to so egregiously use another Other, another binary, to think around the dynamics of his own marginalized identities?  I do think there is a way to think about Wilde’s particular Orientalism, as informed by his own place amongst “others,” as different from those within an English heteronormativity doing the same, but that doesn’t mean his use of Orientalist tropes is in any way above critique (plus it happens in a lot of his other works, beyond just Salomé). Salomé still feels distinctly different from Wilde’s other plays, but it’s easier to see now how it functions in a particular way to allow him a different sort of identity exploration, one that hinges on constructions of the East.

The Consequences of Confession

In the spirit of Lent, reading this play about the three trials of Oscar Wilde made me think about the sacrament of confession. While I was sitting in mass today, the priest gave his homily on the confession and how unique of a sacrament it is. Most of the other sacraments are concerned with something physical, like the washing in baptism or the body and blood when receiving the Eucharist, but confession is strangely void of these physical aspects because the completion comes with the receiving of forgiveness. Getting our sins off our chests provides a catharsis that comes to completion with hearing the words “you are forgiven”. In the same way, though Wilde denied his relations with these young men, he brings about his own demise to experience the relief of letting the truth come out. In the excerpts of “De Profundis” littered throughout the play, the audience learns how Wilde admits himself to be the author of his own destruction. 

His life, obsessed with pleasure, was finally catching up to him, and the way to cleanse himself of the sins he committed was by bringing about his own destruction. Throughout the play, it is obvious that Wilde is in an intellectual league of his own, from his responses to the examiner to the excerpts from his writings. If he so pleased, he had ample opportunities to flee his fate of imprisonment. That fact that he stayed seems to imply he was tired of suppressing his true self, and wanted the relief of letting everything come out before him. In his own decadent artistic way, Wilde has created a confessional booth open to the public, where he is on display, via the defense chair, and all his maltreatment of his relationships is being laid out before him. Even though does not believe his actions to be grossly indecent, he does assert that he has taken advantage of countless young men with no regard for the effects he had on them. Wilde is coming to terms with himself in a way that only he could. The publicity of his confessional may have sparked controversy, and Wilde may have regretted his actions in hindsight, but his initial attitude of come what may has these telltale symptoms of a man tortured by his actions ready to come clean and receive the relief of letting the mask fall. We all experience the crushing weight of guilt no matter the magnitude of our actions, and Wilde, being wholly imperfect himself, fell prey to the desire to relieve that weight. He sought forgiveness from society as a whole. He was fully aware how the upper class engaged in the same activities as him and got away with it all the time. What he sought was their forgiveness and acceptance when his skeletons came out of the closet, but ultimately, it was all in vain and he eventually lost his life to their decisions to make him an example. Only in God is forgiveness necessary, and if he had simply done his penance in private maybe we would have more Wilde writing to discuss today. But we all know Wilde was a pioneer for the queer identity. Whispered confessions behind a screen would never have the same effect on us as these trials do. Wilde gave his life for his art, and nothing is more dramatically artistic as a stubborn man falling from grace like Icarus from the sky.

Gross Indecency vs. Murder

One instance of intrigue in Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde is how judges and prosecution alike equate the crime “gross indecency” to be worse than murder. It reminded me about our conversation last Wednesday in class when we talked about how Wilde might have “created” the death ending for queer people in media with The Picture of Dorian Gray. But then we also emphasized how this narrative may have manifested because there is no other outcome for queer people but death when they end their bloodline and go against society’s heteronormative model. Placing the act of “gross indecency” above murder interested me based on our conversation.

            Narrator 4 says: “I would rather try the most shocking murder case that has ever fallen to my lot to try than be engaged in a case of this description” (125). The judge also directs to Wilde: “…the crime of which you have been convicted is so bad that one has to put a firm restraint upon oneself to prevent oneself from describing, in terms I would rather not use, the sentiments which must rise to the breast of every man of honor who has heard the details of these three terrible trials… People who can do these things are dead to all sense of shame, and one cannot hope to produce any effect upon them” (126). In this closing statement by Justice Wills, who delivered Wilde’s sentencing, I found more said in the transcript through the link, which further aides the argument that gross indecency is elevated as a crime, viewed as worse than murder. So why exactly is “gross indecency” worse than murder? Wilde’s “influence” and “corruption” have to be a significant component of this view. Gross indecency entails a sexual deviation towards something more focused on pleasure and sensuality. Justice Wills states that Wilde “has been the center of a circle of extensive corruption of the most hideous kind among young men,” placing Wilde in the occupation of ringleader who yields all the influence. To deviate from the sexual norm towards something which does not have a reproductive purpose and is seen solely as an activity of pleasure is equivalent to murder: the murder of duty, of normative sexuality, of reproduction, of sex’s purpose. It is a bad thing that Wilde has submitted to pleasure, according to the trial, even when pleasure elicits happiness. The trial believes that Wilde has committed several acts of murder based on the several men he has committed gross indecency with.

Doubles in Salomé

Since our discussion on Kiberd’s Inventing Ireland, I have been thinking about the ways his interpretation of doubles in The Importance of Being Earnest could apply to Salomé. The Importance of Being Earnest explores the consequences of the double lives of Jack and Algernon. The theme of a double life can be interpreted as Wilde coding a play about homosexuality, but Kiberd instead reads the doubles in the play as symbolic of the relationship between England and Ireland. He says, “… the Double is a close relation of the Englishman’s Celtic Other. Many characters in literature have sought to murder the double in order to do away with guilt (as England had tried to annihilate Irish culture), but have then found that it is not so easily repressed, since it may also contain man’s utopian self” (Kiberd 42). In Salomé, the audience witnesses the absolute downfall of Salomé, and following Kiberd’s model, she can be read as the double of both Herod and Jokanaan. Salomé is the epitome of desire, both in her actions and how other characters view her beauty.

While Salomé is the “femme fatale” of the play, Herod is equally, if not more, morally corrupt. Kiberd says, “If the English were adult and manly, the Irish must be childish and feminine. In this fashion, the Irish were to read their fate in that of two other out-groups, women and children; and at the root of many an Englishman’s suspicion of the Irish was an unease with the woman or child who lurked within himself” (30). Therefore, Salomé is the Herod’s double in the sense that he villainizes the emotions and desires that she expresses because he recognizes the same desires in himself. She says to Jokanaan, “Jokanaan, I am amorous of thy body! …Let me touch thy body” (590). Her desire is parallel to the incestuous desire Herod expresses for her during the Dance of the Seven Veils. Salomé represents the “Celtic other,” within Kiberd’s paradigm because of her femininity, childishness, and the orientalism associated with her character, and therefore, Herod represents her English double. He pleads with Salomé, offering her any gift in replacement for the head of Jokanaan. He says, “Your beauty has grievously troubled me, and I have looked at you too much. But I will look at you no more. Neither at things, nor at people should one look. Only in mirrors should one look, for mirrors do but show us masks” (601). When Herod looks at Salomé he is essentially looking at a mirror, and what is reflected back is his own wicked desires; his mask of righteousness is removed, exposing his immorality.  

I believe Jokanaan serves as an English counterpart to the Celtic Salomé as well. Wilde’s writing constantly criticizes the rigid morality of Victorian English society, and Jokanaan is the voice of judgement in this play. He actually has very few lines in the play, but he constantly speaks of the wrath of God that will come down upon Salomé and Herod. He says, “He shall be seated on this throne. He shall be clothed in scarlet and purple. In his hand he shall bear a golden up full of his blasphemies. And the angel of the Lord shall smite him. He shall be eaten of worms” (598). Herod vehemently denies that this prophesy is about himself. Despite Jokanaan’s condemnation of the other characters, he suffers the most gruesome death as he is beheaded. What does Wilde suggest by giving the voice of religious judgement such a violent end? As Salomés seizes the head of Jokanaan, she says, “Art thou afraid of me, Jokanaan, that thou wilt not look at me…? Thou didst reject me. Thou didst speak evil words against me. Thou didst treat me as a harlot” (604). Returning to Kiberd’s paradigm, the English compulsion to annihilate their “Celtic other” is motivated by fear. As Salomé asks if Jokanaan is afraid of her, Wilde suggests that the English perhaps fear the Irish, the people on whom they project their emotions and immorality, because they represent a repressed side of themselves.