A life of pleasure will eventually catch up to you. As we know Wilde learned that the hard way, and gave us a complete reflection on the metamorphosis he underwent during his time in prison. De Profundis read very similarly to the sentiments of another imprisoned artist, Dwayne Betts, although he did not begin his artistry until after his release. Both men are painfully aware of the issues of the prison system, but both experienced indescribable growth within the system and dug deep into themselves to become great men. As I worked through the long pages of Wilde’s letter, I could not help but be engrossed in the artistry of his metamorphosis. Even though the frame of his art is inevitably shifted by this change, the ever ostentatious Wilde lives on. His description of Christ as the first true artist and individual put the Bible into a completely new light for me. I began to think about it as a piece of art rather than simply the stories we hear over and over in mass. Comparing himself to Christ may have been a little irreverent, but nonetheless he makes a good point about the importance of viewing Him not only as the Prophet, but the second form of the Creator as well. An artist lives to create and challenge the status quo. Christ was sent down to Earth for that exact purpose. Within the lines of this letter, Wilde is challenging Bosie and the larger audience to see the art in the mundane and the beauty in the ugly parts of life, which is basically the foundation of Christianity. Ideas like these about Christianity intrigue me immensely because it adds a new layer to the religion preached to us from childhood. It invites the audience to interpret these ideas for themselves, instead of simply accepting what we are told in school and at mass. Religion means community, and with a community comes differing perspectives, which invites conversation. Laws are made to be broken, and Wilde is sure to point out how Christ broke did just that. To go a little bit deeper into the grey area, by doing this, Wilde is also solidifying the idea that religion is art with the Creator as the ultimate artist, giving new meaning to the aesthetes who worship art for art’s sake. If religion becomes art, then it gives them every right to idolize the aesthetic and devote their life to art because the most widespread theology in the world basically does the same thing, according to Wilde. When you boil it down to a simple formula, his words are telling the audience to emulate Christ, but in a different way than normal. He wants the world to be a place for the rule breakers and the freaks because that makes the world worth living in. After enduring two impossible years in prison, Wilde emerges more of an artist than he ever was. His external brilliance now burns brighter then ever on the inside, and he himself is now the art. De Profundis provides the step by step retelling of how to truly know yourself. Wilde desperately wants his special reader to understand this, and though the rest of the world wasn’t in mind when he wrote it, it is a beautiful example for us too. Art is the avenue to find yourself be it through religion, aesthetic, or simple nature. It is there to guide us.
After reading De Profundis, I was shocked to learn about the extremely toxic and nonreciprocal nature of Wilde’s relationship with Bosie. This chaotic romance/friendship reminded me of a concept from my Economics of Innovations class last year. In the course, I learned about how one’s quality of peers can greatly influence his or her life. A good peer can inspire a friend to reach their fullest potential by sharing knowledge or increasing joint productivity while a low-quality peer provides the opposite effects. I would argue that Bosie is a low-quality peer for Wilde as he helped to destroy his art and career. This negative influence was clearly recognized by Wilde himself when he describes the result of his “unintellectual friendship” (874) as being “intellectually degrading” for Wilde’s art (875). Additionally, Bosie did “not understand the conditions requisite for the production of artistic work” and would hamper Wilde’s artistic process by dragging him to incessant dinners and social outings – instead of giving him the space and time to write (874). A good peer would have faithfully supported Wilde’s artistic process by reinforcing the behaviors/traits that had allowed Wilde to have such great success throughout his career. One the other hand, Bosie was the “absolute ruin of [Wilde’s] Art” (876) partly because “[Bosie’s] interests were merely in [his] meals and moods…[while his] desires were simply for amusements” (876). In this way, Bosie was nowhere near Wilde’s intellectual or creative equal and his distractions did seem to have a sizable negative effect on Wilde (both artistically and financially). Wilde even appears to define Bosie as a low-quality peer by stating that “ultimately the bond of all companionship…is conversation, and conversation must have a common basis” (880). Here, “a common basis” most likely refers to having intellectual ability as a truly great conversation must be stimulating to both sides. From Wilde’s account, Bosie did not bring much substance or excitement to deeper conversation, which would have not enriched Wilde’s life academically or creatively. If Wilde had spent more time with his higher-quality peers (i.e., other great literary minds), he may have been pushed to reach even greater heights through competition and inspiration; however, Wilde was trapped in this toxic relationship with Bosie, which slowly poisoned his artistic ability until he was eventually thrown into prison.
De Profundis is by far the most raw and emotional of Wilde’s works. The piece is unique in not only its emotional tone but the way Wilde discusses religion. In his scathing letter to Bosie, Wilde touches on many of the themes that occur in his poems and plays; he meditates on God, the meaning of art, the dangers of overindulgence, love, and most significantly, predestination. Out of all of these themes Wilde is the most consistent in his views of predestination. He criticizes Bosie for his abuse and the role he had in his financial ruin, but Wilde recognizes how his own flawed actions brought about his downfall. He says, “I must say to myself that neither you nor your father, multiplied a thousand times over, could possibly have ruined a man like me: that I ruined myself: and that nobody, great or small, can be ruined except by his own hand… Terrible as what you did to me was, what I did to myself was far more terrible still” (1017). Predestination is typically described in a religious context, as a sort of divine prophesy that all events are willed by God, but Wilde maintains the role one has in their own fate.
I found this to be especially interesting when considering the theme destiny and fortune telling in Lord Arthur Saville’s Crime and “The Harlot’s House.” When discussing these two pieces in class, we talked about how Wilde emphasizes the class differences at play in one’s destiny. Particularly in the case of Lord Arthur, Wilde presents a commentary on the boredom of the upper class. The chiropodist reads Lord Arthur’s palms and foretells his future as a murderer, but Arthur’s ridiculous actions that follow as he attempts to get the act over with serve as a commentary on how he has control of his fate all along. This contrasts with “The Harlot’s House” where the people inside move like “strange mechanical grotesques” and “wire-pulled automatons,” lacking any autonomy or control over their lives (867). In terms of his class status and his views on free will, Wilde falls somewhere between the Lord Arthur and the figures in the poem. He recognizes his level of culpability in his downfall: “Desire, at the end, was a malady, or a madness, or both. I grew careless of the lives of others… I forgot that every little action of the common day makes or unmakes character, and that therefore what one has done in the secret chamber one has some day to cry aloud on the housetops” (1018). While Wilde condemns his former lifestyle of pleasure and decadence, he maintains many of his other life views and expands on his religious life. It’s fascinating reading perhaps his most revealing work and questioning if Wilde has really changed that much or if similar threads can be read in the rest of his works regarding religion and free will.
It’s hard not to feel the depth of sadness that pervades “De Profundis.” Like we’ve been talking about in class the whole semester, there is a sense of mythologized, perfect tragedy to Wilde’s life in popular culture. “De Profundis,” however, feels like a particularly personal look into that tragedy — it’s not Wilde’s literature made for public consumption at this point, but a reflective space for Wilde to explore and express how he’s changed, the wrongs of his life, the dehumanization of the prison experience, to his abusive lover. One of the most quoted (and misquoted at that) lines that I know of from this piece is the declaration: “with freedom, books, flowers, and the moon, who could not be happy” (1039). Taken out of context, this line prescribes a moving, charming sort of carefree, simple, earthy, artistic appreciation of life. But that section of the text begins with “If after I go out” (1039), framing Wilde’s new outlook on life by his imprisonment and removal from freedom, books, flowers, and the moon. It’s an ode to what he now recognizes he misses and cannot have, not a light-hearted prescription for how to live life. Taking the particular contexts of Wilde’s writing this letter into account, this letter is a much more intimate space of Wilde’s writing and gives, what feels like, an even more immediate sense of the author than many of his other texts, witticisms, and one-liners, a much deeper appreciation of the deep nuances of his sadness and self-searching.
One aspect of this text in particular that lends itself to the pervasive sense of tragedy and personal-destruction is Wilde’s attention to prophecy, predestination, and fate throughout the whole work. Wilde’s sense of predestination and prophecy in “De Profundis” is informed by his relationship to art and to his own works. He writes that “Every single work of art is the fulfilment of a prophecy. For every work of art is the conversion of an idea into an image. Every single human being should be the fulfilment of a prophecy.” (1032) Such personal revelations as these make it feel particularly hard to separate Wilde’s works from the tragedy of his life. Earlier in the letter Wilde writes that he doesn’t regret the life he lived for pleasure, but that a change from that lifestyle was necessary: “I had to pass on. The other half of the garden had its secrets for me also. Of course all this is foreshadowed and prefigured in my art. Some of it is in ‘The Happy Prince’: …. a great deal is hidden away in the note of Doom that like a purple thread runs through the gold cloth of Dorian Gray.” (1026) Wilde was aware of the way his writings spoke to the tragedy his life had become. It is worthwhile to wonder if Wilde is rereading these tragedies into his works, as we do, because of the way his life turned out, or if it was all truly as inevitable as he seems, in jail, to feel it was — that no matter what a change was going to come, the thread of Doom was inescapable. If every human being is the fulfillment of a prophecy, it begs the question, what prophecy did Wilde have in mind for himself, what was he fulfilling by his ruin and reform in jail? Was it the destruction of who lived only for art, a narrative many of his works seem to suggest? Or something about the realization of a deep set self-hatred from years of forced sexual masking? Regardless, at the end of the section on foreshadowing in his works, Wilde writes that “Art is a symbol, because man is a symbol” (1026) and there could be no truer words for Wilde’s life and works — that the art became a symbol because the man, the artist, became, or maybe always was, a symbol first.
As we discussed Moises Kaufman’s play Gross Indecency, I kept coming back to the question posed about why people have latched onto Oscar Wilde as an icon or idol. It is clear to modern audiences and represented in the play that what Wilde did was problematic, even if it was not problematic in the way that people thought at the time. There is something almost insidious in Wilde taking men as young as sixteen out for dinner and buying them gifts, presumably with the understanding that they will then sleep with him. Even so, Wilde has become an icon largely because he was imprisoned for his identity. That development raises an interesting question about how we engage with celebrity.
When I first set out to write this blog post, I planned on critiquing Wilde and arguing that, in the modern day, his behavior would not be accepted–not because of his sexuality, but because of his use of power. However, I then started to think about our society and the kinds of things that we let men get away with. In particular, it is relatively easy to name successful male celebrities who date or have dated very young women with little criticism or impact on their lives and careers. Leonardo DiCaprio and Jake Gyllenhaal are only two examples of men who repeatedly date women who are considerably younger than they are to that point that it is creepy. And they are two of the most successful actors in Hollywood. Clearly, we don’t care that much about inappropriate men as long as they do not go so far as to be abusive. I wonder if Wilde’s case occurred today, what would happen. I had a hard time thinking of an example of gay male celebrities who engage in similar behavior, in part because the sample size is smaller. The closest example I could think of was the 2017 film Call Me By Your Name. The characters in the film have a seven year age difference, and the actors in the film had an even larger age difference. More importantly, the younger character is only 17, making the dynamics in the film feel predatory if you stop to think about it. There was considerable backlash against the film–Queer Eye star Karamo Brown said that the movie appears to be “glorifying” a sexual assault kind of relationship–but the film still was nominated for the Oscar for Best Picture and won for Adapted Screenplay. It seems as if there is still a part of our society that is willing to accept inappropriate age differences like the ones that existed between Wilde and the men that he slept with.
We are left with a bad taste in our mouths when we read the lines about how young the people involved with Wilde were, but we as a society have not actually moved that far forward in our criticism of these kinds of relationships. I wonder if that made it easier for Wilde to become an icon for the queer liberation movement. The fact that he was imprisoned for “gross indecency” has a large role to play in how he is remembered–he was one of the few famous people during that time that was open about who he was and was punished for it. That makes him a prime candidate for remembering fondly and holding up as an idol. When a person is punished for their identity, that identity becomes a rallying cry, so it makes sense that Wilde became an icon in the way that he did. After reflecting on our own society, it also makes some level of sense that people didn’t care enough about the specifics of his relationships with men. He was a talented writer in his own right beyond his queer identity, and I think that the common denominator in how we dismiss creepy behavior in men is that people who are talented have an easier time receiving forgiveness.