I re-read Richard Ellmann's biography Oscar Wilde for the first time since the late 1980s. It was Oxford professor (though born in the USA!) Ellmann's last book and inspiring and depressing to read then. It had the same effect on me now. It is well-researched and won a Pulitzer prize in 1989 for biography, though not as beloved as Ellmann's biography James Joyce. It ends shortly after Wilde's head oozes with a syphilitic pop.
Wilde did a lot of inspiring work, was a master of epigram and paradoxes, wrote a severe, perfect play with a hard, gem-like flame (The Importance of Being Earnest), a pretty good novel (The Picture of Dorian Gray), a heart-rending work from jail (De Profundis), many enjoyable essays (The Soul of Man Under Socialism is a favorite).
But knowing Wilde's fall from grace was coming, that it would come somewhat from his inescapable love with a petulant dolt (Lord Alfred Douglas aka "Bosie"), made even the happy parts laden with dread. Times were unfair. Wilde was put in jail for sodomy and served two years hard labor. His imagination and reputation broken, he could never write as well again. The social esteem and artistic crowd he relied on so much shunned him. Life was less stimulating, and left him destitute in many phases, though admittedly he had extravagant habits.
Some highlights from the book. Wilde's curtain speech after the premiere of Lady Windermere's Fan in 1892:
"Ladies and gentlemen: I have enjoyed this evening immensely. The actors have given us a charming rendering of a delightful play, and your appreciation has been most intelligent. I congratulate you on the great success of your performance, which persuades me that you think almost as highly of the play as I do myself."
A former lover of Wilde's and a devoted lifelong friend (and dutiful friend after Wilde's death), Robbie Ross, asked Wilde in 1895 about people finding fault with his curtain speeches. Wilde replied:
"Yes, the old-fashioned idea was that the dramatist should appear and merely thank his kind friends for their patronage and presence. I am glad to say I have altered all that. The artist cannot be degraded into the servant of the public. While I have always recognised the cultural appreciation that actors and audience have shown for my work, I have equally recognised that humility is for the hypocrite, modesty for the incompetent. Assertion is at once the duty and privilege of the artist."
Despite this posture held regarding art, Wilde was a compassionate man. His aristos (Greek for "best") attitude about art and beauty did not hold in concerns for fellow people. And he found beauty often in common things. But it's thrilling to read from Wilde such heightened and astringent regard for art and others when he sustains it.
In 1892, Max Nordau wrote Degeneration, a book bewailing the declining status of society and morality. Wilde, playwright Henrik Ibsen, composer Richard Wagner, and philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche were all examined closely as emblems of madness and humanity's ruin. I've not read the book, but it must have been a howler. I like all of those figures and it's fun to ponder how much thought and angst was put into wanting to prophesy humanity's downfall over 100 years ago. Of course, ruination DID arrive in the form of Miley Cyrus' clumsy attempts at twerking in 2013. But let us cluck delightedly at the foolishness of our ancestors before scrambling once more for provisions to return back to our post-Cyrusian shelters.
Degeneration treated all men of genius as mad. True, at least, in Nietzsche's case. Wilde's comment: "I quite agree with Dr Nordau’s assertion that all men of genius are insane, but Dr Nordau forgets that all sane people are idiots."
As 1900 came to a close (Wilde was not to live to 1901), in his death room, body revolting against itself, possibly from symptoms related to syphilis which he contracted in his 20s, Wilde said to a visitor: "My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or the other of us has to go."
Wilde died and his bodily integrity gave out and possibly granted that both his body and the room's wallpaper would need to be removed. Ellmann describes:
At 5:30 a.m., to the consternation of Ross and Turner, a loud, strong death rattle began, like the turning of a crank. Foam and blood came from his mouth during the morning, and at ten minutes to two in the afternoon Wilde died. (The death certificate says the time was 2:00 p.m. on 30 November.) He had scarcely breathed his last breath when the body exploded with fluids from the ear, nose, mouth, and other orifices. The debris was appalling.
Gross, right? And having that image for more than 20 years after reading it meant that throughout re-reading Oscar Wilde I would imagine in a quiet moment Wilde's body gurgling corrosively, building and sometimes trembling with ooze, waiting for Wilde to give up. Yet he held on, deflated after his trial and imprisonment, but not entirely crushed and a husk until surrendering a few years afterward. A few years with many more rounds of spats with Lord Alfred Douglas and estrangements and reconciliations and money wasted and sourced and wasted again.
Richard Ellmann near the end of the Epilogue of Oscar Wilde writes:
Even more than the hopeless loves of Yeats or Dowson or A. E. Housman, Wilde’s love affair provides an example of berserk passion, of Vénus toute entière à sa proie attachée. It could have occurred only in a world of partial disclosures, blackmail, and libel suits.
I only know a few oddball phrases in French (a mish-mash of French lessons, Cyrano de Bergerac, Villette by Charlotte Bronte, and movie quotes) and definitely do not specialize in 17th century French poetry. So I had to look up Ellmann's allusion en français. It's from Jean Racine's play Phèdre (1677):
Ce n'est plus une ardeur dans mes veines cachée:
C'est Vénus tout entière à sa proie attachée.
It is no longer a passion hidden in my heart:
It is Venus herself fastened to her prey.
Art needs an agon, a struggle to achieve its identity. Had Wilde lived in a time when homosexuality was not regarded almost as severe a crime as murder, I wonder if his art would have been as good. He most likely would have lived longer.