The discussions we have had in this class have led me to some surprising places, but none more surprising than the number of times I have thought about Lil Nas X, A.K.A Montero Lamar Hill. Although Lil Nas X has not made any mention of Wilde (at least, that I am aware of), his place as a queer black rapper and singer in the contemporary American context does remind me a lot of Oscar Wilde’s place in Victorian society. Of course, Lil Nas X did not serve two years in prison for gross indecency, but he has received his share of criticism for being queer.
This connection is interesting to me because I think it shows us something about queer art in society, particularly art that can be considered ‘mainstream.’ As we have talked about in this class, as much as the ways in which society treats queer people has changed, much of it has still stayed the same. While this is most graphically shown through acts of violence and hate such as what happened to Matthew Shepard, it also shown through pop culture and art. And while representation in these areas is getting better, it is still laughably bad. As a bisexual woman, I am still surprised every time I hear an earnest song about queer love or queer experience on popular radio stations.
But Lil Nas X and Oscar Wilde are both mainstream and both of their art speaks to queerness. Both artists also include an element of subversion in their work: Wilde kills Dorian Gray because he cannot conform to societies heterosexual expectations, and Lil Nas X depicts himself as a sinner descending into hell for just the same reason in his MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name) music video. It seems like this subversive element is what allows there art to succeed in the hostile times and spaces it occupies. This leads me to wonder if there is a future for non-subversive queer art in a mainstream context, or if it is stuck on the outside.
Wilde’s audience in De Profundis is ambiguous. While this letter is addressed to Alfred Douglas, he often disappears from the letter entirely as Wilde reflects on personal philosophies and religion. At times, Wilde seems to use De Profundis as a diary, while at other times, he seems to be appealing to an audience beyond Bosie to justify his actions and philosophies. Regardless of who Wilde was originally writing to in De Profundis, his decision to publish it widened the letter’s audience significantly, making the world privy to intimate details of Wilde and Bosie’s relationship. This immortalized Wilde and Bosie not only as historical figures but as queer characters.
In my research for my final paper, I read an article by Alan Sinfield arguing that Wilde “constructed” homosexuality through his work and his public life. In the Victorian era, there were no clear-cut ideas about same-sex attraction. Our modern terms and ideas about queerness did not exist to shape Victorian thought about same-sex passion. Sinfield argues that as an “outed” queer figure, Wilde became symbolic of same-sex attraction. His philosophies and characteristics became associated with queerness and served as marks of queerness in later years.
Considering Sinfield’s argument, De Profundis likely had a significant impact on how people viewed same-sex love. By publishing what essentially serves as a memoir documenting his relationship, Wilde added his personal life to his body of work. This puts intimate details of Wilde’s life up for literary interpretation. As people looked to Wilde’s fiction and philosophy retrospectively with knowledge of Wilde’s same-sex attraction, Wilde and Bosie became literary “types.” They can be likened to Basil and Dorian, or Lord Henry and Dorian, depending on how one reads their relationship. Their relationship calls back to the boy-love of The Symposium and prefigures novels like Giovanni’s Room, where the wealthy and aging Jacques pays attractive boys for company, and beautiful Giovanni’s relationship with the older and more powerful Guillaume proves fatal.
De Profundis puts Wilde’s life and loves up for literary interpretation, placing real people in literary history. Wilde accomplishes what he proposes in Phrases and Philosophies For the Young: to “become a work of art.”
Because I’m going to write my paper on De Profundis and Wilde’s interaction with the prison system, I decided this week to read his two letters to “The Daily Chronicle,” respectively titled “The Case of Warder Martin: Some Cruelties of Prison Life” and “Prison Reform.” Both letters are Wilde’s attempt to draw public attention to prison experiences by writing to the editor—highlighting ways to stop the three punishments of hunger, insomnia, and disease (965). Searching for scholarships, Julia Wood states in “WILDE THE EXILE: A LIFE LIVED IN LETTERS,” an article in The Wildean, that “there is an invariably underlying drama in Wilde’s expression [of his letters about prison], and this drama is his need to play out the role of the wounded hero” (44).
A lot of our comments in class slightly align with this perspective. We spoke about how Wilde was classist in De Profundis, acting “holier than thou” as he was a middle-class artist in prison amongst people of another class status. This might well be the case in De Profundis, but Wilde being a wounded hero disregards the actual content of his letters to “The Daily Chronicle.” It should be noted that in the letters, Wilde does not speak of himself and his own experiences; he mainly takes up the role of an observer of injustices he witnessed in prison, such as with the young boy in “The Case of Warden Martin” and the lunatic man in “Prison Reform.” He doesn’t center himself in these interactions, which goes against the “wounded hero” portrayal of Wilde. The narrative space of the letter focuses on punishment, how prison can become a reformed system (if it ever can become one), and the portrayal of prisoners suffering who lived alongside Wilde. If anything, Wilde does not individualize himself in prison; he instead becomes part of a collective force, where the “really humanising influence in prison is the influence of the prisoners.” (961).
Wilde takes upon himself the role of being the voice of the voiceless. Although this grants Wilde the agency to portray his agenda, whatever it is, in the letters to “The Daily Chronicle” he focuses on prison as a system and how it wounds—not specifically wounding him but wounding prisoners, the most sympathetic class.
While thinking about my final paper topic, I found myself thinking a lot about morality and social classes in terms of Oscar Wilde and his works. We came across morality with The Picture of Dorian Gray through the corruption of Dorian Gray as well as the characters of Basil Hallward and Lord Henry. Also with these characters, we were able to see Wilde’s perspective on the differences of social class, with Hallward representing a certain innocence and artistry of the lower class whereas Lord Henry of the higher class indulged in hedonism and actively corrupted Gray. The Importance of Being Earnest once more offered Wilde’s commentary on class through the portrayal of Jack and Lady Bracknell. Along with the snobbish arrogance they carried as members of the higher class, Wilde imbued a pretentiousness and the injustice of class as a whole. The characters of Gwendolen and Cecily are also mocked by Wilde as he ridicules them and their characters as superficial and ignorant. He derides the upper class by exaggerating their fixation and enjoyment of superficialities such as style or food. Through De Profundis, we once more see this entitlement and hedonism through Wilde’s portrayal of Lord Alfred Douglas. He also mentions Douglas’s mother extensively in convincingly creating this image of Douglas. As shown through his two works, as well as De Profundis, there is a certain obsession Oscar Wilde carries with hedonism and arrogance, especially concerning the wealthy upper class that he is always eager to shun. It seems that his works utilize the portrayals of certain characteristics he sees in the upper class heavily to show larger themes of morality and ethics; as a whole, these works do actively illustrate Wilde’s own mentality on the subject.
This week during class I couldn’t help but keep coming back to when we talked about Orientalism. Talking about religion and how society tends to over emphasize the characteristics that suit its needs seemed very similar to the idea of the other and the Orient, which is simply the created version of the culture as perceived by the Occident. Society tends to do this to anything that doesn’t fit the traditional constructs of the culture as we have constantly seen this occur with Wilde. What I kept coming back to was Wilde’s own artistic style that strove to bring these elements that society desperately tried to hide, and put them at the forefront of his works no matter how veiled they were. We see it in Salomé with the perverse depiction of Salomé and Herod being absurdly driven by their desires leading to the climax of the play. It is also explicitly confronted in De Profundis where Wilde takes the conventional approach to Christ and Catholicism and turns it on its head. The upper class of England obsessed with their own perfection were being called out for their dirty little secrets hiding behind the mask of a happy marriage and decadent lifestyle.
Wilde himself is a perfect example of someone obsessed with presenting himself as the norm in high society. As we discussed, though Wilde is an Irishman through and through, he was always obsessed with hiding that side of himself because he would be alienated by those in the upper echelons and unable to rise to the status he achieved. Beyond the fake accent and the fancy British values, lied a homosexual Irishman desperate to hide the truest parts of himself behind a quick wit and beautiful art. After being convicted of gross indecency and having the mask violently ripped away from him, Wilde eventually comes to terms with his true self and lays everything out in his letter to Bosie. Since the curtain is split, the only option was death or true acceptance. Writing this confession to Bosie, the one who ruined his life, highlights his shedding of the past and embracing his otherness despite the stereotypes surrounding it. Just like with Christ, who we assume was this perfect person who did no wrong, but in reality, he was a rebel who constantly challenged the rules and hierarchy of society to save us from our sins. Wilde similarly challenged the status quo, although his comparison to Christ is quite narcissistic. Catholicism is integral with the Irish identity, and although Wilde was not a practicing Christian, he obviously knew much more than the average member of the Church. He uses that knowledge to set the average member on edge and question their black and white perceptions of their religion. This is apparent in Salomé because the story of John the Baptist’s death is perverted into a tale of a child’s naive romantic fantasies. Salomé is determined to love John and kiss him, even if it means severing his head from his body to have total control over him. It is already a tragic story of a saint’s death, but taken to a new level by giving Salomé her own manipulative voice in the matter. Society wants to assume a simple story where good always wins, but here we see a complex and messy end with no one winning because of hatred. I believe this was a veiled argument by Wilde to highlight the destructive nature of assumption of character and the pressures of society. In the same way society stereotyped the Orient, we see homosexuality and Catholicism characterized in a way that suits the constructs of society. Since same sex attraction is not biologically compatible, society decided it was disgusting and tried to hide these feelings from the public eye. Wilde revealed the nature of these attractions and normality of being caught up in those feelings beginning with Dorian Gray as the impressionable young lad with an acute narcissism attracted to anyone who fueled those feelings and piqued his interest. There was nothing inherently wrong with him or Basil Hallward. They were simply interested in creating or experiencing beautiful things, which led them to their own demise. Furthermore, Wilde delves into the double lives these others are forced to lead with The Importance of Being Earnest when he created Jack’s Earnest and Algernon’s Bunbury, which allowed them the freedom to live as they wanted, although this is veiled at the end when everything works out for them to keep their happily ever after. In De Profundis, even though Wilde never admits to his homosexuality, it is obvious he has come to terms with society’s view of him. But he does not care about that anymore and wishes simply for the acceptance of his friends, which is a true development of character because these differences should not be ostracized, but celebrated.
Throughout De Profundis, Wilde’s distinction between the Love within himself and the Hatred within Bosie showcases Wilde’s lack of self-awareness. He argues extensively about how hatred causes blindness but seems thoroughly unwilling to analyze how his love for Bosie might have blinded him as well. In class this past week, we talked about how Wilde can’t see past his own narcissism. He calls out Bosie thoroughly in De Profundis, but he doesn’t take the blame to the same extent. He analyzes the situation, but can’t see where he needs to change.
One of the most scathing call-outs in De Profundis is when Wilde tells Bosie, “In you, Hate was always stronger than Love” (999). Wilde acknowledges that Bosie loves him. He believes that Bosie doesn’t just love him for his fame and wealth; he thinks there’s something more to Bosie’s love for him. However, any sense of love that Bosie might have for Wilde is far outstripped by Bosie’s hate for his father. Therefore, Wilde becomes a pawn in Bosie’s plan to hurt his father. The plan to land Bosie’s father in jail was doomed from the start, but Bosie couldn’t see that. Wilde writes, “Love can read the writing on the remotest star, but Hate so blinded you that you could see no further than the narrow, walled-in, and already lust-withered garden of your common desires” (1000). Although I agree with Wilde that Hate does blind people, Wilde exhibits a lack of self-awareness of how Love blinded him as well. He claims that “Love can read the writing on the remotest star” and therefore he could see the flaws in Bosie’s plan from the beginning, and yet, he still went along with taking Bosie’s father to court. All of Wilde’s friends were against this idea, but he just goes along with Bosie’s advice instead. This behavior reminded me of the Love in a Dark Time reading. Since Wilde loved Bosie in a time when their love was forbidden, that made the love more intense. It made him blindly follow Bosie. However, Wilde doesn’t acknowledge his own faults in this situation.
Wilde villainizes Bosie and paints himself as a victim of Bosie’s hatred. Wilde writes, “The aim of Love is to love: no more, and no less. You were my enemy: such an enemy as no man ever had. I had given you my life, and to gratify the lowest and most contemptible of human passions, Hatred and Vanity and Greed, you had thrown it away” (1005). Although it is tragic that Wilde wasted his love and had his life ruined, if “Love can read the writing on the remotest star,” he should’ve seen this coming. Wilde doesn’t seem to realize that he was complicit in having his life ruined. Perhaps if he were more critical of his own choices, his life wouldn’t have been the tragedy that it was. Perhaps he wouldn’t have gotten back together with Bosie after he got out of prison. Perhaps he could’ve made changes in his life. However, Wilde let prison destroy him. He predestined himself for tragedy.
For my final paper, I have decided to examine Salomé through the lenses of colonialism and orientalism. I wanted to use this blog post as a method to attempt to connect these ideas to Wilde’s Irishness (a test-run).
The first interesting parallel to British-Irish relations in the play relates to its setting in “colonial” Judea. The Romans seem to share a similar role to the British as both empires conquered a diverse array of peoples while also trying to impose their cultural and religious beliefs on a resistant populace. In the beginning of the play, two soldiers (presumably of Roman but definitely of imperial background) have a conversation in which they dehumanize and critique the local Jewish citizenry. One soldier asks, “Who are those wild beasts howling” (552) while the other soldier answers, “The Jews…They are disputing about their religion” (552). The comparison of the Jews to “wild beasts” seems to mirror the British’s animalistic depictions of the Irish, and the verb “howling” could specifically connect to how many of these offensive representations included simian undertones. The fact that the Jewish people were “disputing about their religion” may also relate to Ireland as Protestants and Catholics were constantly thrown into conflict over the doctrines of the overarching Christian belief system. The British elite may have looked down upon this theological disagreement as their religious landscape looked much calmer and more uniformly Protestant on the surface, and this idea appears in the play when one of the soldiers remarks that “it is ridiculous to dispute about such things”– as most Romans would have shared a largely uniform belief in their traditional pantheon or might have not been very passionate about critiquing the majority religion (552).
Continuing on the topic of religion, both the British and the Romans seem to have attempted to eradicate local religions in their respective colonial territories. For example, the Cappadocian character explains, “In my country there are no gods left. The Romans have driven them out. There are some who say that they have hidden themselves in the mountains,…but I think they are dead” (553). This “driving out” of a competing belief system may relate to how the Protestant British attempted to destroy Irish Catholicism, which also managed to retain many localized and traditional pagan influences. In another literature class, I learned about how some people in rural Ireland believed that ancient mythological beings had escaped into the further reaches of the countryside – mirroring the Cappadocian pantheon’s retreat into “the mountains.” Additionally, imperial oppression has the ability to create a larger sense of pessimism within the colony, and the Jewish character expresses this feeling when he states that “God doth not show Himself…Therefore great evils have come upon the land” (563). In this way, the disappearance of God is described as an abandonment because his absence has caused “great evils” or suffering. The character further elaborates this sense of hopelessness by explaining that “God is terrible. He breaketh the strong and the weak as a man brays corn in a mortar” (563). I would argue that this statement may loosely connect to Ireland as there must have been frustration about the many hardships of being under colonial rule – especially after the devastating Great Famine (occurred earlier in the 19th century).
When I came home from the hospital after I was born, the first thing that my dad read to me was The Ballad of Reading Gaol. It’s an odd thing to read to a newborn baby, and it is the first thing that was ever read to me. After I read the poem for class, I texted my dad and asked him why, of everything he could have chosen to read to me, he chose that poem. His response was simple: “it’s a good poem.” That is true, but it still didn’t feel like enough of a justification. The poem is fairly dark and has intense themes. Of course, a baby isn’t going to understand the poem, but it is interesting for a new parent to reach for such a poem to share with his daughter.
I thought about it a bit more, and thought about what draws us to poetry in the first place. My dad did not connect to the actual material in the poem, but something about the poem made him want to read it in that moment. I was born on 9/11, and my dad was in Lower Manhattan when the Twin Towers fell. I reread the poem thinking about that and wondering if that experience made him think of the poem in the days afterwards. The Ballad of Reading Gaol–while far from related plot-wise–does have some themes that I imagine would have resonated with someone at the time. There is despair throughout the poem as the prisoners feel their own shame and watch the death of their fellow prisoner. Especially as the poem reaches its end, there is a transition from a more general attitude describing what prison is like to a deep sadness at the death. Such themes are universal to tragedy, which is what people experienced on 9/11 in a grand scale.
That leaves us with the question of why people are drawn to poetry in the first place. My dad has not been to prison and has not “killed the thing he loves,” yet something about the poem felt important to him at a specific time in his life. There are certain poems that I love that follow a story that I don’t relate to, but that doesn’t stop me from loving them or connecting to them. I think that part of the benefit of poetry is that it can make us feel connected to things far away from ourselves because certain themes apply in a variety of situations. When poetry works well, it resonates on a personal level even when the poem isn’t personal at all. The Ballad of Reading Gaol is much better than Wilde’s other poetry because it is less concerned with appearing to be a certain thing and more concerned with expressing a story that Wilde clearly thought was important. Because the aim is different, the poem comes out feeling more genuine, which I find much more interesting to read. When we read Wilde’s earlier poetry, we talked in class about how it seems as if Wilde felt as if he had to follow a certain form in order for his poetry to be legitimate. By this poem, that is no longer his focus.
De Profundis and Ballad of Reading Gaol are interesting shifts for Wilde because they–to use his term–are so much more earnest than everything else that he wrote. The material that came before these works was witty and clever and carefully constructed. Although that person is still very much apparent in his later work, it seems like how he comes across is less of his focus. What came before is so intentionally masked, and by the time Wilde was in prison, it seems as if he no longer felt as if masking would be useful. That brings about very honest writing that I found to be some of the best that we’ve read this semester. There is a lot of charm in Wilde’s witticisms, but De Profundis and Ballad of Reading Gaol are different in that it feels as if there is so much more passion in them. I think it is easier to connect with Ballad of Reading Gaol than it is to connect with any of his other poems, and that is because he is expressing what feels real rather than trying to be clever or construct a mask.
This semester I’ve been thinking a lot about the public perception of Wilde. I came into this class never having read any of Wilde’s works before, and what little knowledge I had about him was in the context of his homosexual relationships. We discussed the public misconception of Wilde as a “gay icon,” and especially as I write my final paper on the anticolonial Wilde, I am realizing that his queerness was the least of Wilde’s concerns in the political sphere. Obviously gay rights were not a thing in Wilde’s time, but as we read sections from the trial transcripts in Kaufman’s Gross Indecency, Wilde was less concerned with defending his homosexual acts than he was with defending his art. I was surprised when we then read Wilde’s criticisms of the prison system in De Profundis. He said:
With us prison makes a man a pariah. I, and such as I am, have hardly any right to air and sun. Our presence taints the pleasures of others. We are unwelcome when we reappear. To revisit the glimpses of the moon is not for us. Our very children are taken away. Those lovely links with humanity are broken. We are doomed to be solitary, while our sons still live. We are denied the one thing that might heal us and help us, that might bring balm to the bruised heart, and peace to the soul in pain (1016).
His criticisms of prison are in the context of his own suffering but his use of “us” and “we” suggests that he speaks on behalf of all prisoners and that he calls not only for his own reintegration into society but essentially advocates for prisoners as a whole.
In my research for my final paper, I found that during his lecture tour of the United States, Wilde was outspoken on the issues of British imperialism and the erasure of Irish history and culture. He was heavily influenced by his mother’s work in the Young Ireland movement. In his chapter on “Anticolonial Wilde,” Deaglán Ó Donghaile says Wilde “contradicted the calls for political and cultural containment [of the Irish people]… and challenged the normalization of British violence and countered representations of the Irish as both conquerable and commodifiable” (Im 33). Therefore, the “rebellious Wilde” is not necessarily a product of his queerness but his controversial opinions on prison and British imperialism as an Irishman in Victorian England. However, it is the queer Wilde that receives the most attention. While I doubt this will change, even as the study of Wilde’s works continues, I think that in looking at Wilde’s public perception alongside his works, we see that the personal lives of celebrities and ‘scandals’ are given priority in our collective memory.
In De Profundis, one of the moments that struck me the most is when Wilde described how Bosie told him that “when you are not on your pedestal you are not interesting” (994). Not only is this a really cruel thing to say to someone, let alone someone you are in a deep personal relationship with, but it also reminded me of a line spoken by Robert Chiltern in An Ideal Husband:
Why can’t you women love us, faults and all? Why do you place us on monstrous pedestals? We have all feet of clay, women as well as men; but when we men love women, we love them knowing their weaknesses, their follies, their imperfections, love them all the more, it may be, for that reason. It is not the perfect, but the imperfect, who have need of love. (552).
I remembered this line because it struck me as ironic in the modern world, where it is more common for women to be placed on pedestals and given unreasonable expectations (purity culture, diet culture, division of labor, etc.). But what strikes me now is the repetition of the image of the pedestal, and how much it seems to reveal about Wilde, especially because An Ideal Husband was written before the date Wilde gives for his fight with Bosie.
I see so much of Wilde in this selection of the text. There is justification for his relationship with Bosie, his feelings about his estrangement from his wife later in life, his Catholic sympathies, and his deep insecurities about his place in the world. And what makes it all the more tragic is that for the most part, it is Wilde himself that puts Wilde on a pedestal. He created a persona for himself, spending hours privately studying and perfecting his appearance. And once he did, he received the fame an notoriety he desired, but cursed himself to always be stuck on the pedestal.