I appreciated hearing everyone else’s opinions of De Profundis this week in class. I tend to get bogged down in the sadness and the tragedy, particularly in this part of Wilde’s story, and ignore the other parts of the piece — those that are confusing or contradictory. Though tragic and self-reflective, yes, it’s still important to interrogate how much Wilde really owns his faults and takes upon himself the moral revolution he seems to be outlining in this piece, rather than falling into the trap of martyrdom that even he seems to be outlining for himself. What does he recognize as his own faults or wrongs and what does he lay instead at the feet of Bosie or even the aesthetic lifestyle more broadly? It’s kind of amazing that a text can be both so self-reflective and blind at the same time. Revisiting some of the lines about prophecy from my last post, Wilde writes that he doesn’t regret the life he lived for pleasure, but that a change from that lifestyle was necessary: “I don’t regret for a single moment having lived a life for pleasure. … But to have continued the same life would have been wrong because it would have been limiting, I had to pass on. The other half of the garden had its secrets for me also” (1026). In this depiction of his aesthetic life, there is no explicit remorse — in fact there is an explicit lack of remorse and rather a desire for novelty, new experience. He is detailing an almost natural passing from one extreme of life to another, as if he is suggesting: what better way to really appreciate aestheticism than to experience its opposite, and then know its highs all the more? This attitude, the desire for a novelty of experience (that still feels strongly informed by aestheticism) instead of a remorse for the destruction created by his aesthetic life, feels particularly poignant when considered within the context of the fall-out of Wilde’s immediate family and the way he maintained his relationship to Bosie even after denouncing him in the text. Did he really learn from these experiences or make any lasting change? Further, in a text that seems to release the mask of Wilde the contradictory, performative author, there still is that note of contradiction that suggests instead a Wilde that didn’t know himself very well. What is revelation, what is denial? He writes at one point that “most people live for love and admiration. But it is by love and admiration that we should live” (1034). It’s a classic Wilde one-liner in a sense, and contains what feels like a real, valuable, easily palatable insight into how we should live life. But in the tone that De Profundis is written and, as it is a criticism leveled at Bosie, this revelation seems to beg an extra line about Wilde, something recognizing how he too lived, almost grossly at times, for love and admiration as much as anyone else — the lack of such a line feels, frankly, ridiculous given the project of this letter. The text is littered with these aphorisms about life, nature, and Christ, but they are without the bite of satire, without the cut of self-awareness. What then do his “one-liners” from De Profundis even say? Or, to return to my usual focus on tragedy, does this all just serve to highlight once more, and sort of finally, another aspect of the tragedy of Wilde’s life. That perhaps he was unmoored from self-hood when faced with the realities of prison, that even in this stripped down moment, he maintained a pervasive, and tragic, lack of self-knowledge.
When I visited Dublin, I took the attached photograph of a plaque designating Oscar Wilde’s childhood home, which describes the man with the three titles of “Poet,” “Dramatist,” and “Wit.” I always found that description of him quite unique, as it would seem to imply that, when it comes to understanding Wilde, it is just as critical to understand his wit as it is the art he produced; in other words, ironically enough, it seems that Wilde has become a person particularly difficult to detach from his art. This, of course, goes against Wilde’s own beliefs (or, at least, his stated beliefs) that one must ignore the artist and criticize the art they produce independent of its creator. I think it is fair to say that, if Wilde’s goal was to create art which his audience could fully comprehend while ignoring the man behind the words, he failed, in two distinct respects. For one, very few of his works (specifically his plays) do not have characters the audience immediately understands to be a surrogate for Wilde himself. Here, we come to an impasse, as Wilde’s wit is torn between contributing to his art, and being a personality trait of his, no reader of any of his plays would complain that it is full of witticisms Wilde would likely say in real life, but how can Wilde expect the audience to disconnect the artist from the art, if his own art is such an overt reflection of his own personality? Furthermore, it’s not as if Wilde makes any real attempt to separate his art from his own life, that much is evident when reading his trial transcript, where Wilde (I do not think it is a stretch to say) acted remarkably similar to characters one might find in his plays, specifically the witty characters who do not take anything seriously. How then, can I, as a reader, be expected to separate the art from the artist, when Wilde treats the real world as if it were his own personal stage? I do not think Wilde is wrong to insert himself into his stories, all artists do, in some way or another, but I do think he is being unfair if he expects the audience to ignore his presence. I understand the desire for one’s art to be evaluated strictly on its own merits, independent of the artist behind it, but Wilde (perhaps not entirely unintentionally) makes it quite literally impossible to do so, as I think the existence of classes like this proves definitively.