Be­hind the wit, who was Os­car Wilde?

Tues­day is the 164th an­niver­sary of the birth of the Ir­ish play­wright, poet and bon vi­vant, writes Stephen Costello

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - News -

‘WHAT’S in a name?” Shake­speare asked in Romeo and Juliet. A name like Os­car Fin­gal O’Fla­her­tie Wills Wilde? His mother Lady Jane, who nearly got in­car­cer­ated her­self for defam­a­tory prose, was a poet and pas­sion­ate repub­li­can, while Wilde’s fa­ther, Sir Wil­liam, was a lead­ing eye sur­geon and phi­lan­derer. The name of Wilde dom­i­nated the salons, draw­ing-rooms, and the­atres of fin de siecle Vic­to­rian Eng­land be­fore it be­came a by­word for some­thing al­to­gether less salu­bri­ous.

‘Os­car’: doesn’t his very name con­jure up im­ages of epi­curean in­dul­gence con­joined with class in­dif­fer­ence? We hear it pro­nounced in an up­per-class Bri­tish ca­dence by Jude Law who played Lord Al­fred Dou­glas (‘Bosie’) to Stephen Fry’s Os­car in the 1997 movie Wilde.

The man who said, “The world’s a stage, but the play is badly cast”, him­self was cast in two main roles in this Greek tragedy, which we may call al­ter­na­tively the Play of Plea­sure and the Play of Pain. In the first part, Wilde was li­onised by lit­er­ary Lon­don as a fa­mous poet, play­wright, nov­el­ist (The Pic­ture of Do­rian Gray), and bril­liant con­ver­sa­tion­al­ist. This would be fol­lowed by the down­fall and dis­grace of his later years — Wilde as sac­ri­fi­cial vic­tim and scape­goat — af­ter which his wife Con­stance changed their name from Wilde to Hol­land to pro­tect her fam­ily’s iden­tity. The Bri­tish pub­lic, who once flocked in their droves to see Wilde’s plays, now bayed for blood. As Wilde quipped: “The pub­lic is won­der­fully tol­er­ant. It for­gives ev­ery­thing ex­cept ge­nius.”

Os­car was ob­du­rate. He strut­ted about like a proud pea­cock, a mod­ern Icarus scal­ing the heights of fame, as he jour­neyed from hubris to hu­mil­ity but without ever los­ing his leg­endary hu­mour. Bosie, for his part, acted out the part of petu­lant puer aeter­nus — the eter­nal youth who would never grow up. At the end of his life he looked for­ward to be­ing a boy again in Par­adise, “where you can be any age you like”, he re­marked to a friend. Lord Dou­glas’s lav­ish playpen was all of Lon­don. His so­cial class made him a snob and gave him a sense of en­ti­tle­ment. Wilde might have needed Bosie as his muse but Bosie the nar­cis­sist needed only him­self. Wilde was co-opted as scan­dalous tro­phy for pub­lic show.

Wilde was a wit who hap­pened also to be wise. He ri­vals the great­est hu­morists for his barbed but bril­liant one-lin­ers such as this one: “Some cause hap­pi­ness wher­ever they go; oth­ers when­ever they go.” Once when stopped on the street, a gen­tle­man said to Wilde: “Mr Wilde I know you from Lon­don”, to which Wilde re­torted, “Well per­haps in Lon­don I’ll know you again”. In his play The Im­por­tance of Be­ing Earnest he gives this line to Lady Brack­nell who thinks that a cer­tain Lady Har­bury whose wealthy hus­band had just died is liv­ing en­tirely for plea­sure: “I hear her hair has turned quite gold from grief.”

He left wits like Gore Vi­dal and Grou­cho Marx who came af­ter him in the ha’penny place. Per­haps only GK Ch­ester­ton, who was far more se­ri­ous, was his equal in para­dox though Ch­ester­ton dis­ap­proved of Wilde’s “des­o­late phi­los­o­phy”.

Wilde was a thor­oughly mod­ern dis­ci­ple of Freud avant la let­tre. Wit­ness this Wildean, pro­foundly psy­cho­log­i­cal in­sight, which many have mis­tak­enly at­trib­uted to Sig­mund Freud: “Ev­ery­thing in the world is about sex ex­cept sex.”

As a fa­ther him­self what pained Wilde most in the short time he had to live af­ter Pen­tonville Prison and Read­ing Gaol (he died aged 46) was Con­stance’s de­ci­sion to never let him see his two sons — Vyvyan and Cyril — again. “Chil­dren be­gin by lov­ing their par­ents. As they grow older they judge them. Some­times they for­give them.” His fairy­tales, writ­ten orig­i­nally for his own chil­dren, can frighten adults with their acu­men and moral depth. The story of The Self­ish Gi­ant is both ten­der and ter­ri­ble. Re­li­gious themes suf­fuse all his works. Os­car had a height­ened spir­i­tual sen­si­bil­ity. Af­ter his two-years’ hard labour he asked the Je­suits on Farm Street could he do a re­treat with them. On his death bed, he be­came a Catholic (years later Dou­glas would con­vert too) but re­alised early on that “I couldn’t pos­si­bly live as one.”

He wrote and suf­fered more than most. In Read­ing Gaol he spent the first few months walk­ing on a tread­mill (and not the kind you find in gyms) for six hours daily and ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the three per­ma­nent pun­ish­ments of hunger, in­som­nia, and disease. A model pris­oner, on his re­lease he would work for re­form of the pe­nal sys­tem.

He once wit­nessed an ex­e­cu­tion of a 30-year-old Trooper of the Royal House Guards who was hanged for slit­ting the neck of his wife three times in a fit of jeal­ousy and rage. And so, Wilde penned this oft-quoted line, ob­serv­ing for­lornly: “For each man kills the thing he loves”.

His real jail was the prison of his pas­sion, how­ever. To a large ex­tent, he was re­spon­si­ble for his own down­fall. Bosie beat him into easy sub­mis­sion; his lethal looks en­snared Wilde, who was a will­ing cap­ture. There was such de­sire in those Ir­ish eyes. But the tragedy is we never see oth­ers from the place from which they see us. And Wilde was so en­thralled to the spec­u­lar im­age. His re­fined ath­letic aes­theti­cism made him prize youth and beauty above all else. He was not made for old age. The gods had de­cided his fate from the cra­dle.

Wilde was an artist by de­sire and de­sign who held up a mir­ror to re­al­ity for us to re­ceive back its dis­torted truth. He was unashamedly bril­liant, but he was also sin­gu­lar in his pas­sions and pur­suit of sen­sual plea­sure. As we say on this is­land, “he lost the run of him­self ”.

He was a he­do­nist who be­came a Stoic. In prison he faced his fate without flinch­ing: “Be­hind my prison’s blinded bars I do pos­sess what none can take away.” What this was, was the at­ti­tude in­side his own mind, de­scribed by philoso­pher-psy­chi­a­trist, Vik­tor Frankl, him­self a pris­oner of the Nazis, as “the last of the hu­man free­doms”. That se­cret re­cess, that in­ner sanc­tu­ary and citadel of the self, no man can take away. There re­sides ul­ti­mate free­dom.

Heart-wrench­ingly, Wilde’s mother, to whom he was so close, died while he was in prison. “Where there is suf­fer­ing there is holy ground,” he wrote in the posthu­mously pub­lished De Pro­fundis. And: “Noth­ing in the whole world is mean­ing­less, suf­fer­ing least of all.” It was while in prison that Wilde grew in moral and spir­i­tual stature.

He re­alised in his res­ig­na­tion that “ev­ery plea­sure in the end must be paid for”. He would never write again but The Bal­lad of Read­ing Gaol, penned from in­side his prison cell, has en­larged the heart of all hu­man­ity: “We were as men who through a fen, of filthy dark­ness grope; We did not dare to breathe a prayer, Or to give our an­guish scope: Some­thing was dead in each of us, And what was dead was Hope.”

Wilde had a dis­tin­guished name, in­tel­lect and high so­cial stand­ing. He stirred the imag­i­na­tion of his cen­tury. He summed up ex­is­tence in an epi­gram. But, as he said him­self, “Tired of be­ing on the heights, I de­lib­er­ately went to the depths in the search for new sen­sa­tion.” He drank the cup of life to its very dregs, as he dined out with lords and lads. All of Eng­land was spell­bound by his words in pub­lic and scan­dalised by his life in pri­vate.

And the endgame? Per­haps it is al­ways true that, in the end, the wise bow down be­fore the fair. We think of clever Socrates and ruth­less Al­cib­i­ades who bears a re­sem­blance to Lord Al­fred Dou­glas.

Im­pos­si­ble, in­domitable Os­car Wilde is with us Ir­ish in some hard to ex­press man­ner. He is part and par­cel of our Ir­ish-English iden­tity in all its am­bi­gu­ity and at­trac­tion. Above all else Wilde was an in­di­vid­u­al­ist. “Be your­self,” he coun­selled, “every­one else is al­ready taken.” He achieved an artist’s au­then­tic­ity. He lived his own dic­tum of what­ever is re­alised is right.

Wilde’s life ended in si­lence and loss of love, in bank­ruptcy, iso­la­tion and hu­mil­i­a­tion. There would be no more words forth­com­ing from this man who once gushed them. But Wilde’s si­lence was the si­lence not of res­ig­na­tion but of rev­er­ence. He lies at peace now in Pere Lachaise ceme­tery in his beloved Paris.

In the last anal­y­sis, the true sig­nif­i­cance of this gen­teel ge­nius re­sides not in his words or his plays but in his life and ac­tions. Like ev­ery man’s, his ul­ti­mate worth is not demon­strated on a page but dis­played in a per­son­al­ity. Dr Stephen J Costello, PhD, is founder of the Vik­tor Frankl In­sti­tute of Ire­land

‘Wilde is part and par­cel of our Ir­ishEnglish iden­tity in all its am­bi­gu­ity and at­trac­tion’

GEN­TEEL GE­NIUS: Os­car Wilde woke the imag­i­na­tion of his cen­tury. Photo W&D Downey/Getty

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Ireland

© PressReader. All rights reserved.