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De Profundis: The Ballad of Reading Gaol and…

De Profundis: The Ballad of Reading Gaol and Other Writings (edition 1999)

by Oscar Wilde

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Title:De Profundis: The Ballad of Reading Gaol and Other Writings
Authors:Oscar Wilde
Info:Wordsworth Editions Ltd (1999), Paperback, 320 pages
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De Profundis: The Ballad of Reading Gaol and Other Writings by Oscar Wilde



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Showing 2 of 2
Nov 2011: "The Ballad of Reading Gaol", 2 of 5.
Nov 2011: "The Soul of Man Under Socialism", 2 of 5. Throughout the most of this, all I could think was, "Wow, he's completely off-topic."
Oct 2011: De Profundis, 4 of 5.
Mar 1997: "The Decay of Lying", 4 of 5. ( )
  gunsofbrixton | Apr 1, 2013 |
Oscar Wilde

De Profundis,
The Ballad of Reading Gaol,
and Other Writings

Wordsworth Classics, Paperback, 2002.

8vo. xx+296 pp. Introduction [viii-xx] and Notes [pp. 281-290] by Anne Varty.

First published in Wordsworth Classics, 1999.
Introduction and Notes, 2002.


Further Reading

De Profundis
The Ballad of Reading Gaol
The Decay of Lying
The Critic as Artist
The Soul of Man under Socialism



I forgot who said that no other composer ever claimed greatness and immortality with fewer works than Alexander Borodin, but the argument fully applies to Oscar Wilde. Can you think of any other writer who has attained so great and lasting a popularity on just four books? Apart from miscellaneous poetry and journalistic criticism, Oscar's legacy fits well into exactly four volumes: one short fiction, one drama, one non-fiction and The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Oscar's secret is the "commonplace" one: quality and variety. This volume collects most of his major non-fiction writings and marvellously demonstrates both sides of that secret. Take variety, for example. You have five works here: one hundred-pages-long letter, one poem, two critical dialogues and one "ordinary" essay.

De Profundis is the major piece in the book, and the most shattering as well. From its very first page it is obvious that it was indeed written ''from the depths'' of a soul in terrible pain, the mental sort of pain that is so much more lasting and more difficult to assuage than its physical counterpart. As is well-known, Oscar wrote the letter in the beginning of 1897, a few months before he was released from the Reading Gaol, having been incarcerated for two years, and he addressed it to his lover ''Bosie'' who just happened to be son of the man against whom he had lost in the court. The version reprinted here is of course the complete and corrected one, apparently first published in 1962 as a part of The Letters of Oscar Wilder after the original manuscript had been thoroughly consulted. Prior to this publication there had been a number of bowdlerized versions, usually omitting all references to the Queensberry family, and at least one complete but unfortunately full of mistakes edition (published in 1949 by Vyvyan Holland, Oscar's second son).

De Profundis is a very curious work. It is sometimes described as a love letter. This is the same as calling The Scarlett Letter a romance. Nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, De Profundis is more like a ''hate letter''. Some half of the work is concerned with Oscar's recalling numerous sordid details from his some-three-years-long affair with Douglas. One thing that emerges crystal clear is that Bosie must have been just about the most detestable creature in human history. He was appallingly vain, monstrously reckless with money, very fond of making violent scenes and writing loathsome letters. Above all, and worst of all, he was quite incapable of any intellectual conversation or art appreciation. A man apparently capable of love, yet completely blinded by hate. Never have I read anything so brutal by Oscar Wilde. Even if Bosie did deserve all this invective, and there is no reason to suppose that he didn't, it is a little disconcerting to read it; even more so to reflect that it was actually addressed to him. To the author's credit, it must be mentioned that it was his request that only an expurgated version of the letter should be published, in which all references to Douglas' family were to be omitted.

(In between, some further details might be of interest. As pointed by Anne Varty in her introduction, Oscar's close friend, Robert Ross, though obliging him about the bowdlerized publication, disregarded his wish the original to be sent to Bosie. We may be grateful for that. Ross did send a copy to Douglas but the latter later denied ever to have received it. He even reviewed the mutilated version when it was published, after Oscar's death, and glibly stated that he didn't know it was part of a text originally addressed to him. These facts are not entirely irrelevant. Despite the nearly shocking amount of stones thrown at Bosie's head, there are some places in De Profundis where Oscar, no doubt sincerely, hopes that he may improve with the years, and with the reading of his letter. Never before or after was Oscar more wrong. After his release from prison both were indeed reunited, but only for a short while. Oscar died just three years later; Douglas lived for more than forty-five, during which he did his best to distance himself from the man whom he once craved for.)

It must be mentioned that the rapier of Oscar's brutal candour is pointed towards himself as well. Much as he constantly blames Bosie for everything, he often takes the lion's share of the blame on his own shoulders. Not that this is not at Douglas' expense. What Oscar most blames himself about is that he allowed to be ensnarled in a friendship that was ethically degrading, artistically sterile and intellectually stultifying. One of the most memorable passages is Wilde's description how he got one of his best dialogues out of a cheap dinner with Ross, whereas from the numerous lavish banquets with Douglas he got nothing but great debts. Oscar makes no bones that one of Bosie's loathsome letters that came the same day as the notorious card from his father did play a role in his wildly irrational reaction to challenge the latter in the court, yet he is perfectly conscious that it was he who started the whole thing, and he says so bluntly. Had Oscar never tried to sue the old Marquess, dangerous as such speculations are, he probably would never have been mixed up in the shameful vulgarity of the subsequent trials.

Nevertheless, the first part of De Profundis, though offering a priceless glimpse into the very bottom of Wilde's soul, makes a somewhat hard read. And the hardest part to swallow is not his constant accusations against Douglas: indeed, in the very beginning Oscar flatly states that he writes this letter for his own sake, to relieve his own soul of all the bitterness that has conquered it, and it is to be expected that later there will be many rather unflattering remarks about the addressee. What most, for my part, detracts from the ultimate value of De Profundis is the fact that, occasionally, Oscar's self-pity becomes frankly outrageous. It is difficult to pity a man who is entirely devoid of dignity. Appealing self-candour all too easily degenerates into detestable self-debasement, and it cannot be denied that even Oscar, despite his prose being as wonderful as ever, doesn't always escape this trap. But one may try to understand. He really should have severed all relationships with Bosie long before the crash came. That he didn't, he had only himself to blame. And there is no greater torture than that. The bottom line is that the major reason for Oscar's dismal failure was sheer goodness.

So, considering the first part of De Profundis, it may be that the expurgated version of the letter, which appears to be the only one available online, is not so inferior to the original as is usually supposed. By far the more important part is the second one. Here references to the Douglas family are almost non-existent, and all of the rest is virtually present in the bowdlerized version. That said, if you want one version, the original is the one to have. Omitting the bitter remarks about Bosie and his family may superficially improve the letter, making it an essay more palatable for the faint-hearted, but it also attaches an odious impersonality of the text and it certainly diminishes its power to a considerable extent.

The two parts of De Profundis really couldn't have been more different. (Indeed, they don't really exist as the letter is continuous; it is a trifle regrettable that towards the end Wilde returns to the bitter accusations from the first half.) Somewhere in the middle, without any warning, Oscar switches from personal accusations to philosophical speculations, and the latter is definitely Wilde at his very best (though the former does contain a number of gems, too). Which is not to say that there are no contradictions or disagreements in the second part. There certainly are. It is striking, to say the least, to see Oscar transforming himself from pitiful and whining creature - even petty on occasion, as in his ranting about Bosie's desire to dedicate a volume of poems to him without asking for his permission - into an artist amazingly self-conscious of his own genius and the tremendous impact he has exerted over his own times. This attitude, in turn, is even more perplexing to reconcile with what Oscar declares is now his chief objective in life: humility. The most confusing point, perhaps, is Wilde's hailing sorrow as the supreme virtue of life and art. Now this is a most unexpected coup d'état. Just five or six years earlier, in his wonderful essay ''The Soul of Man under Socialism'', Oscar proclaimed that it is through joy that the supreme Individualism, as the essence of art and human existence, should grow (under Socialism). That said, it can't be denied that sorrow, in all of its multitudinous forms, has its artistic attractions. Would Wagner have composed Tristan had Mathilde Wessendock yielded to his advances? Perhaps. But it would have been a very different and, dare I say it, much weaker work.

Another old concept, familiar from the other essays (especially ''The Soul of Man under Socialism'' again, see below) which is reinforced in De Profundis is the essence of Christ and his teaching. Farfetched as Oscar may be, I think his notion about Jesus being the first supreme Individualist is one of the freshest and most compelling, in a field arguably overcrowded with junk, I have ever heard. And what a major point Sorrow scores here! I daresay some Christian devotees may be slightly outraged at Oscar's explanations of Jesus' ideas of humility, altruism and love. I, personally, find them exciting and stimulating. In general, Jesus is one of those historical personalities I would most like to meet if I could. I am sure that, while eating his body and drinking his blood, we can have a most pleasant conversation. I am not at all sure that he would disagree with Oscar's daring visions, especially with the benefit of hindsight. Indeed, Christ might well have been flattered could he read this:

Christ was not merely the supreme individualist, but he was the first individualist in history. People have tried to make him out an ordinary philanthropist, or ranked him as an altruist with the scientific and sentimental. But he was really neither one nor the other. Pity he has, of course, for the poor, for those who are shut up in prisons, for the lowly, for the wretched; but he has far more pity for the rich, for the hard hedonists, for those who waste their freedom in becoming slaves to things, for those who wear soft raiment and live in kings’ houses. Riches and pleasure seemed to him to be really greater tragedies than poverty or sorrow. And as for altruism, who knew better than he that it is vocation not volition that determines us, and that one cannot gather grapes of thorns or figs from thistles?

All in all, rather surprisingly, De Profundis is the most disappointing piece in the book. I certainly disagree with anybody who claims that it is by far the best thing Oscar ever wrote. It is definitely the most personal, but that's a shallow definition of greatness. Each of the other prose pieces has more food for thought to offer. But this is not to say that De Profundis doesn't make a stirring and affecting read, especially once you have passed the sordid first part; it is disappointing by Wildean standards only, and we all know that, Oscar being a genius that cannot be judged by ordinary conventions, these are quite extraordinary standards indeed. Even the rather distressing first part, almost an ad hominem attack, is well worth reading as it gives a truly unique glimpse into Oscar's tortured mentality; and I can't really recall reading any other piece so full of such stupendous, if a trifle overdone, candour. As for the second part, the passage about Christ alone, a pretty longish one, fully justifies its existence.

Even though the piece really should be read in toto, I am giving here a short selection of favourite quotes of mostly epigrammatic nature; even in his most serious piece of writing Oscar didn't lose his unique gift for epigrams. And his epigrams seldom have been so devastating. The first one of the following was actually my introduction to De Profundis, incidentally encountered through the mysterious ways of the Web. It's one of those quotes that stuck into one's mind and never leave it.

Most people are other people. Their thoughts are some one else's opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.

Behind joy and laughter there may be a temperament, coarse, hard and callous. But behind sorrow there is always sorrow. Pain, unlike pleasure, wears no mask.

The most terrible thing about it
[the prison life] is not that it breaks one's heart - hearts are made to be broken - but that it turns one’s heart to stone.

At every single moment of one's life one is what one is going to be no less than what one has been.

''The Decay of Lying'' is a dialogue between Vivian and Cyril, the names of Oscar's two sons; but since the fellows were five and six years old, respectively, at the time of publishing, they probably cannot be held responsible for the views expressed. Vivian is the one who consistently gets the upper hand and Cyril is the one whose function is to ask pertinent questions or occasionally interrupt the major speaker with ''My dear boy!'' The title is rather a mischievous one, for the ''lying'' in question refers to art itself, or to this part of it which is not concerned with sordid stuff like realism. I cannot do better than to quote at length Vivian's beautiful summary in the end of the piece:

Art never expresses anything but itself. It has an independent life, just as Thought has, and develops purely on its own lines. It is not necessarily realistic in an age of realism, nor spiritual in an age of faith. So far from being the creation of its time, it is usually in direct opposition to it, and the only history that it preserves for us is the history of its own progress. Sometimes it returns upon its footsteps, and revives some antique form, as happened in the archaistic movement of late Greek Art, and in the pre-Raphaelite movement of our own day. At other times it entirely anticipates its age, and produces in one century work that it takes another century to understand, to appreciate and to enjoy. In no case does it reproduce its age. To pass from the art of a time to the time itself is the great mistake that all historians commit.

The second doctrine is this. All bad art comes from returning to Life and Nature, and elevating them into ideals. Life and Nature may sometimes be used as part of Art's rough material, but before they are of any real service to art they must be translated into artistic conventions. The moment Art surrenders its imaginative medium it surrenders everything. As a method Realism is a complete failure, and the two things that every artist should avoid are modernity of form and modernity of subject-matter. To us, who live in the nineteenth century, any century is a suitable subject for art except our own. The only beautiful things are the things that do not concern us. It is, to have the pleasure of quoting myself, exactly because Hecuba is nothing to us that her sorrows are so suitable a motive for a tragedy. Besides, it is only the modern that ever becomes old-fashioned. M. Zola sits down to give us a picture of the Second Empire. Who cares for the Second Empire now? It is out of date. Life goes faster than Realism, but Romanticism is always in front of Life.

The third doctrine is that Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life. This results not merely from Life's imitative instinct, but from the fact that the self-conscious aim of Life is to find expression, and that Art offers it certain beautiful forms through which it may realise that energy. It is a theory that has never been put forward before, but it is extremely fruitful, and throws an entirely new light upon the history of Art.

It follows, as a corollary from this, that external Nature also imitates Art. The only effects that she can show us are effects that we have already seen through poetry, or in paintings. This is the secret of Nature's charm, as well as the explanation of Nature's weakness.

Many of these statements are pretty controversial but, needless to say, Wilde supplies all of them with formidable argumentation. The dialogue makes an astonishingly absorbing and stimulating read, no matter whether you agree or not. Indeed, I often disagree and find myself mentally arguing with Oscar: a most delightful occupation, I assure you. It is not for nothing that at one place Vivian, after a stupendous monologue, asks Cyril if he has proven the theory to his satisfaction, to which the latter replies that indeed he has proven it, but to his dissatisfaction which is better. I guess yet another brutally subjective definition of a great writer is how persuasive he is about things you think, at least at first glance, perfect nonsense. Well, Oscar is uncommonly convincing, almost frighteningly so.

''The Critic as Artist'' is the other critical dialogue in the book. It is rather more substantial than its companion and is separated into two parts preceded by telling subtitles, both beginning ''with some remarks upon'': ''the importance of doing nothing'' and ''the importance of discussing everything''. Here Gilbert is the more loquacious "upper-hand" member and Ernest is the "My dear fellow!" guy. It must be said immediately that in this magisterial piece Oscar is not concerned at all with those hacks who write crap for periodicals, pathetically trying to point out deficiencies or improve the reader's appreciation of works which are either completely worthless or authentically great and thus essentially beyond that kind of "criticism". The whole dialogue is Oscar at his most provocative and pugnacious polemical best (apologies for this horrid alliteration). I can do no more here than merely outline few of its numerous arguments.

One thing that strikes me in ''The Critic as Artist'' is how intensely Greek it is. If anybody has even the slightest doubt that Oscar was in love with everything Greek, he needn't go further than this essay in order to be convinced. The whole piece is richly adorned by references to Greek art, mythology, history and language (including indeed a number of phrases in Greek, which Oscar was apparently quite fluent in). This is actually how the argument starts. Ernest boldly states that in ancient Greece there were no art critics, but Gilbert politely tells him that this is nonsense because the Greeks were a nation of art-critics. This charming "Greekness" of the dialogue is the main, but not the only, reason why modern readers may find it a little perplexing. As shrewdly noted by the editor, Oscar wrote in times when the readers of such literature were expected to be reasonably familiar with just about everything: from Greek mythology to Dante's Inferno, from Greek history to the poetry of Robert Browning, and from Greek art to the plays of Shakespeare. Considering all this, reading a lavishly annotated edition is quite essential; see the Note in the end why this particular edition is rather disappointing in this respect.

Now art criticism is a subject, not just inexhaustible, but as rife with contradictions and conundrums as few others. Some of the thorniest among these is whether criticism is of any use at all and what is the value of criticism outside of art, that is done by persons who are not artists themselves. (And what about many artists who are notoriously bad critics? Just check what great composers said of one another!) Oscar does touch on both issues, and not exactly lightly or insubstantially. But the very important point to be stressed here is that it was not his purpose to write about these matters. He had a very different fish to fry. Note the title of the piece: "The Critic as Artist", not "The Artist as Critic". Oscar's main premise, in a nutshell, is that criticism is itself a form of art. The true critic uses a work of art as a mere starting point to create another. And this new work is as different, individual, subjective, beautiful and perfect as he is capable of producing. Criticism is not reflective but interpretative. As a typical example may be given Walter Pater's famous essay on Mona Lisa which Wilde discusses at length.

One of the many major defects of my character is that I cannot resist making a parallel with Somerset Maugham. Interestingly enough, he once memorably described how Walter Pater effectively spoiled Mona Lisa for him: when he finally stood in front of the famous portrait, he was bitterly disappointed. Is this drab canvas of a tired and plain woman the one that stimulated that gorgeous prose from Pater? Then Maugham shrewdly remarked that it is not the least of this picture's merits that it had such powerful communication to make, and to such a peculiar sensibility as Pater's. Here, again, I am struck how strangely similar Maugham's and Wilde's notions are. Both were perfectly conscious that most contemporary art and criticism is little more than potboilers and journalism, respectively. Both, however, had very high opinion of great critics. And the definition of great critic is a very "simple" one. Oscar said that he must be an artist, Willie said that he must be a great personality. Everybody should judge for himself how often this is the case.

In this magisterial piece of his, Oscar deals mostly with literature, predominantly poetry, but he touches now and then on painting, sculpture, architecture and music. Since the last of these is where I feel most comfortable myself, I am compelled to limit myself to it. Much, too much in fact, of the musical criticism I have had the pleasure to read has been pretty useless. Yet Bernard Shaw and Harold Schonberg in various musical matters, as well as Deryck Cooke and Brian Magee in the dangerous field of Wagnerology, have been most illuminating and enlightening read as far as I am concerned. I guess this qualifies them as artists according to Oscar's criteria. Where I surely disagree is that their works were greater than the originals; despite the marvellous effect they have produced on me, I don't think this is the case at all. Yet in some areas of this vast topic, Oscar's opinions were surprisingly close to those of professional music critics who wrote many decades later; here is one memorable quote which suggests a tantalising notion:

When Rubinstein plays to us the Sonata Appassionata of Beethoven, he gives us not merely Beethoven, but also himself, and so gives us Beethoven absolutely - Beethoven re-interpreted through a rich artistic nature, and made vivid and wonderful to us by a new and intense personality.

In other words, the so-called "non-creative artists" (this is surely an oxymoron), usually called performers, are actually artists themselves. What matters in their case is the same thing that matters with any truly great artist: a unique personality. Oscar calls them "creative critics of art" and is quite convinced that individuality is the most important part of their make-up. After all, what are Shakespeare's plays or Beethoven's sonatas without great actors and great pianists, respectively? It is another story, an altogether more complicated one, how creative a reader or a listener may be in this case, but I daresay that, if his intimate familiarity with these works has a profound effect on his character, he is a creative artist, too. Compare these theories of Oscar with Maugham's observation that a writer may give you at most but one thing: himself; with the blunt statement of his great Irish fellow-genius, Bernard Shaw, that criticism without personal feeling is not worth reading; and finally, with this remarkable passage by the eminent musical critic Harold Schonberg, written nearly a century later:

A performer is no good at all if he does not express himself as much as he expresses his concept of the composer's meaning. If ever there was a symbiotic relationship, this is it. But today, by and large, artists are literal-minded and careful, and there is dreadful unanimity of approach. Performers seem much too worried about the text and not enough about its message.
[Preface to The Glorious Ones, 1985.]

It is no good trying to exhaust "The Critic as Artist". It really is impossible. So let's finish with few quotes and few caveats.

Perhaps the best quote to start with is the stunningly concise summing-up of the whole piece as told by the bewildered Ernest:

You have told me many strange things to-night, Gilbert. You have told me that it is more difficult to talk about a thing than to do it, and that to do nothing at all is the most difficult thing in the world; you have told me that all Art is immoral, and all thought dangerous; that criticism is more creative than creation, and that the highest criticism is that which reveals in the work of Art what the artist had not put there; that it is exactly because a man cannot do a thing that he is the proper judge of it; and that the true critic is unfair, insincere, and not rational. My friend, you are a dreamer.

A dreamer indeed! But unlike so many other dreamers, Gilbert/Oscar supports his dreams, most of which are rather outrageous, with formidable wealth of thought-provoking reflections. Of course one is free to disagree any time; indeed, one should do that, if not all the time, rather often; it's one of the most stimulating disagreements I've ever known. To take but one example, I can't think - apart from great interpreters in the world of classical music - of a single example when art criticism has been brought to the level of the art it criticises, let alone surpass it. Maugham's essay on Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice did help me to appreciate the novel better, but it is surely nowhere near as impressive an achievement; it is such by design of course. Mona Lisa is still in the Louvre and she is still one of the most famous portraits ever painted. Who remembers Walter Pater today?

Speaking of dreamers, I am delighted to quote one of my most favourite Wildean epigrams which I have finally located to be exactly from ''The Critic as Artist''. In vain have I searched for it in the plays, in the short fiction and in Dorian Gray. Like ''The world is a stage, but the play is badly cast'' (where was that from?), this sentence easily ranks among the wisest ones in human history, or at least in my admittedly limited reading experience:

Society often forgives the criminal; it never forgives the dreamer.

I will surprise nobody by saying that the dialogue is often as good as a play, but here is another stunning epigram to back this up:

Cheap editions of great books may be delightful, but cheap editions of great men are absolutely detestable.

"Cheap editions of great men"? I may add that here Oscar fully anticipated all four full-scale biographies of Somerset Maugham; he described them perfectly some 90 years before the first one of them was written. Oscar being himself and nobody else, he is always ready for a deadly jibe at expense of everybody, including Darwin - to say nothing of modern journalism:

As for modern journalism, it is not my business to defend it. It justifies its own existence by the great Darwinian principle of the survival of the vulgarest.

And sometimes, in fact probably more often than you suppose, Oscar comes with a searing observation about life and human nature that hits me like a sledgehammer, leaving me stunned for quite some time. The superficial flippancy of such passages is a very poor excuse for neglecting their deeper meaning. How deep it goes, alas, nobody knows:

Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.

This is quite extraordinarily true. I should know – because I do it all the time. Do you know what is the best mask under which you may reveal yourselves completely? Speaking in a foreign language, if not all the time, at least most of it. It is like stepping out of yourself. And seeing at least your major self from the outside may be highly beneficial, improving your honesty with both yourself and the people around. Of course it is very dangerous also. The notion of playing a part is rather intoxicating, and may easily degenerate into playing somebody that has nothing to do with yourself. As every great actor will tell you, you can't create alive character if you don't put into it something of yourself. On the other hand, some great actors may tell you that the more they put from themselves into their parts, the more their acting suffers, becoming more artificial and unconvincing. Nevertheless, I still think the major argument is valid, even if its effects are not without certain pernicious influence. Life may well be a stage in which we are all actors, trite as this may sound. But it is definitely preferable to play yourself, rather than somebody else. Or is it? Tom Ripley (in the Minghella's movie, not in the book) may have a point here: ''I always thought it is better to be a fake somebody than a real nobody.'' As for life itself, at one place Oscar effectively questions whether it is worth the trouble at all:

For life is terribly deficient in form. Its catastrophes happen in the wrong way and to the wrong people. There is a grotesque horror about its comedies, and its tragedies seem to culminate in farce. One is always wounded when one approaches it. Things last either too long, or not long enough.

This easily merges with Oscar's main (or not?) motto that life is a failure from artistic point of view, its only excuse being the art it creates. What a contrast with Maugham here - and what a pleasure to disagree with Oscar. Then again, Dorian Gray seems to tell another story. But that is indeed another story.

Last but not least, several caveats must be mentioned. One unwanted side effect of Oscar's powerful Greek passions is that they, occasionally, get the better of him. Some three or four names of mythological creatures and heroes in a single sentence is just a bit too much; nor is more than a page of purple descriptions of Greek art, for all its beauty, less misplaced. There is nothing inherently wrong with either of these tendencies, but their extent in this case do distract one from the main topic and thus do dilute, if a little, the power of the piece. (By the way, the same is true of Oscar's unreasonably long discourse on Dante's poetry.)

Another caveat to be kept in mind is that from time to time Wilde indulges a bit too much in generalisations. At several crucial points in Gilbert's monologues I would have appreciated an example or two. Then again, that's to be expected. The subject is immense and nobody can hope to say everything about it in a single piece, or in a single life; examples have to be sacrificed now and then. Besides, it is much more fun to supply them oneself. After all, Oscar wrote that piece, I am almost completely convinced, not to provide any definite answers for his readers, but to stimulate them in asking more questions, and thinking about just about everything. A reader's own examples are a fine way to start both activities.

''The Soul of Man under Socialism'' was apparently inspired by the speeches of Bernard Shaw who at the time was quite active as a speaker for the Fabian society. Like Shaw, Wilde's prose undergoes a conspicuous change when he switches between entirely different areas. There are no endless sentences and no purple patch here. Everything is written as succinctly as possible. Unlike Shaw, though, Oscar is far less concerned with economics and politics; his major theme, as might well be expected, is the impact on the arts. It is indeed worth noting how somewhere in the middle of the piece Oscar adroitly manages to dispense with socialism almost completely. But he has the best possible excuse to do that.

Wilde's major premise in this unimaginably rich and stupendously well-written essay is that by far the most important effect of Socialism is that it will lead to the development of supreme Individualism (his capitals in both cases). Starting with the abolition of property and continuing with the abolition of any authority (state, public, press) over the arts, Oscar argues, Socialism will finally end into a kind of Utopia where Individualism will, rather surprisingly, lead to disappearances of diseases like selfishness, affectation, crime and cruelty. In the course of his discourse Wilde delves deeper and deeper into human nature, bringing to the surface all kinds of wonders and horrors. From the psychology of the criminal and the essence of egotism to the different forms of sympathy and the nature of art, from the pernicious, to say the least, influence of state, press and public to the virtues of self-realisation and the joy of life, as opposed to mere mechanical and instinctive existence: these are but very few of the issues Wilde discusses at great length and with shattering power.

On the whole, I am inclined to think that Oscar, pretty much like Bernard Shaw and Bertrand Russell later, did overestimate human nature. The socialistic dreams of all these great men and outstanding writers are simply too good to be possible. More than a century later Capitalism is the name of the game more or less everywhere. Whether it is the willing choice of the people or simply their inability to change it, or indeed their inability to realise it, virtually all arts seem to be in dismal decline, no matter how free, apparently, of external pressures they may be. Fortunately or not, and for my part I think it is rather unfortunate, the realisation of Oscar's utopian visions of supreme Individualism is just as unlikely ever to happen as the widespread rational outlook as proposed by Bertrand Russell in his Sceptical Essays (1928).

Perhaps property is really the bone of contention. Somerset Maugham once, while discussing the ancient origins of storytelling, suggested that the desire to listen to stories is just as deeply rooted in human nature as the passion for property is. It is a passion indeed and, being irrational in nature, it would easily overthrow any rational argument in favour of socialism. Property, personal property at any rate, has a magic that shouldn't be underestimated. It is very, very nice to own things. Here is one trivial, yet telling, example. I appreciate libraries as one of the greatest inventions of mankind. But I do insist on having my favourite books on my own shelves.

As for the authorities, they have long since recognised that the Huxlean methods are far more efficient than the Orwellian ones: so gruesome totalitarianism has been eradicated in favour of unabashed hedonism. This is essentially the same method as the one used by the legendary pirate captains from the Golden Age of Piracy in the beginning of the eighteenth century. The Black Beard and co. knew only too well that the best way to keep your crew submissive is to keep it constantly inebriated. And plenty of rum drinking there was. No mutiny on a pirate ship was ever undertaken by any other crew but a sober one. Same with the authorities. The ancient Romans only too well knew that what people really want, and can be completely satisfied with, is just well-baked bread and impressive spectacle. The modern governments are doing pretty much the same, though probably unconsciously; or they are merely incapable of doing anything else. In Oscar's brutal words:

They try to solve the problem of poverty, for instance, by keeping the poor alive; or, in the case of a very advanced school, by amusing the poor.

Substitute ''keeping content'' for ''amusing'' and ''spiritually empty'' for ''poor'' and you will get the situation as it is today.

One of the many striking features of Wilde's ''The Soul of Man under Socialism'' is his extensive discussion of Christ's teaching. What the heck has this to do with socialism and arts and all that kind of stuff, one is tempted to ask. Quite a bit, as it turned out. For Christ, Oscar argues passionately, advocated nothing but the supreme Individualism with which, under Socialism, we are going to pave the way to Utopia. Now, it goes without saying that the discussion is completely fascinating and very well worth reading. But I can't help thinking that in this case Oscar has given a fine example of what he preached in ''The Critic as Artist''. He has taken Christ's notions and he has turned them into something quite different, something that Jesus himself most probably never even imagined; something probably greater than the initial material. There is, of course, nothing wrong with this as long as it is well done and serves a worthy purpose; in this case, it is and it does. And here's another strange similarity between Wilde and Maugham: both never found solace in Christianity, yet both retained a great deal of respect, even affection, for Jesus until the end of their lives.

(What is it about Christ that it so spellbinding? How could that obscure Galilean inspire the most popular religion for the last twenty centuries and works of art as diverse as Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Jesus Christ Superstar" and Mel Gibson's "The Passion of Christ"? What really is the essence of his teaching? Would he have kept his mouth shut had he known that his ministry would give rise to something as controversial, to say the least, but ironically named after him, as the Christian church? How far should symbolism go when interpreting Christ's words of the Gospels? Can one accept Jesus as an inspiring example to follow without believing all this incredible stuff about miracles and "the son of God"? Pretty tough questions. At any rate, Oscar's bold theories are very alluring; and they are pleasantly devoid of divinity.)

Constant and extensive quoting is a sin. But when a work of Oscar Wilde is being discussed, the reverse is a much greater sin. So here are two unforgettable passages from ''The Soul of Man under Socialism'':

Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live, it is asking others to live as one wishes to live. And unselfishness is letting other people’s lives alone, not interfering with them. Selfishness always aims at creating around it an absolute uniformity of type. Unselfishness recognises infinite variety of type as a delightful thing, accepts it, acquiesces in it, enjoys it. It is not selfish to think for oneself. A man who does not think for himself does not think at all. It is grossly selfish to require of ones neighbour that he should think in the same way, and hold the same opinions. Why should he? If he can think, he will probably think differently. If he cannot think, it is monstrous to require thought of any kind from him.

When man has realised Individualism, he will also realise sympathy and exercise it freely and spontaneously. Up to the present man has hardly cultivated sympathy at all. He has merely sympathy with pain, and sympathy with pain is not the highest form of sympathy. All sympathy is fine, but sympathy with suffering is the least fine mode. It is tainted with egotism. It is apt to become morbid. There is in it a certain element of terror for our own safety. We become afraid that we ourselves might be as the leper or as the blind, and that no man would have care of us. It is curiously limiting, too. One should sympathise with the entirety of life, not with life’s sores and maladies merely, but with life’s joy and beauty and energy and health and freedom. The wider sympathy is, of course, the more difficult. It requires more unselfishness. Anybody can sympathise with the sufferings of a friend, but it requires a very fine nature - it requires, in fact, the nature of a true Individualist - to sympathise with a friend’s success.

Finally, there is ''The Ballad of Reading Gaol''. Historically, this is Oscar's most poignant work. For it is the only one he wrote after he was released from prison. Reading it after De Profundis, indeed, makes the work even more affecting. There are many places where Oscar dreams about the times when his creative faculties would be revived. Little did he know that he had a little over three years of life, more wretched and unproductive than ever before. Whether the humiliation of the trials and the suffering in the prison were the reasons for that, or simply Sorrow didn't turn out to be as mighty an inspiration as Oscar thought, is a neat debating point.

The poem itself shares an important quality with the prose works in the volume: it is non-fiction. Apparently, Oscar was inspired by the death of one Charles Thomas Wooldridge, a lad of thirty who had cut his wife's throat and was hanged in the Reading Gaol on July 7, 1896. Most of the poem, its first four parts in fact, tells the harrowing story of Mr Wooldridge. The last two parts are concerned with harsh criticism of the prison system, yet another sentiment which the piece has in common with De Profundis. On the whole, the poem is absorbing and moving, an excellent recommendation to have a good look at the rest of Oscar's poetry. Who can forget such last lines as these:

Yet each man kills the thing he loves
By each let this be heard.
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word.
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!

When all is said and done, Oscar Wilde's non-fiction remains, for me, an extraordinary experience. It is not perfect - no book ever is - but its faults are negligible. There is some over-indulgence and literary self-flagellation in De Profundis, both unpleasant tendencies, and there is some unduly long purple passages in the critical dialogues, but neither is worth making any fuss about. Within their limitations, ''The Ballad of Reading Gaol'' and ''The Soul of Man under Socialism'' are as close to perfection as possible.

Having now read almost all of Oscar Wilde's tragically small oeuvre, I may safely say that his greatest work is not the powerful Dorian Gray or the scintillating social comedies for the stage, nor even his magical fairy tales, least of all such a lame farce as The Importance of Being Earnest, but the writings collected in this volume. As a body of work they are, to my mind, Oscar's most personal, most profound and most lasting legacy.


Note on the Wordsworth Classics edition, and other bibliographical sorrows.

The editorial work of Anne Varty is rather disappointing. The Introduction is nicely and concisely done, putting the works in their historical context and discussing succinctly the essence of each piece. Though it may be skipped without any major loss, it is the notes where the real disappointment lies.

The gravest fault of the edition is that De Profundis lacks notes completely. The reason for this stupefying omission remains obscure, but the piece certainly contains quite a few tricky points worthy of a few words of explanation (quotations in Greek or from Dante, many names and references to a wide range of artists, etc.).

All other pieces do have many notes, nearly 200 in the case ''The Critic as Artist'' only, but they for the most part are disappointing, too. The notes are usually restricted to giving most of the names very scanty biographical information: years of birth and death as well as occupation. Seldom is anything more mentioned, let alone any attempt made to explain why Wilde used them; of course the latter is sometimes clear from the context, but this is by no means always so.

Besides, there are many repetitions between the notes to different pieces, even though a number of names (e.g. Napoleon, Cicero) are in no need of any notes at all, especially so pedestrian ones such as ''French military general and emperor'' and ''Roman orator'', whereas some obscure references are skipped without a word. Also, I can't help feeling that Anne Varty might have missed some of Oscar's more subtle allusions. For instance, the mentioning of a king and an emperor who stoops down to pick up a brush for a painter probably refers to the famous incident with Karl V and Titian, but nothing is mentioned about that in the notes.

On the whole, the notes are helpful. They do clarify a number of name-ridden passages. But they should have been done a lot better.

Few bibliographical details more. Two of the pieces in this book first appeared in Intentions (1891), the only non-fiction collection Oscar published during his life. It contained two other pieces as well: "Pen, Pencil, and Poison" and "The Truth of Masks". They, as Wilde's more or less complete oeuvre, are widely available on the Web and I do wonder why the fellows who were responsible for this Wordsworth Classics edition did not include them. The pieces certainly deserve it. On the other hand, both would require a lot of work on the notes.

There is a Penguin Classics edition of Wilde's selected non-fiction which may, or may not, be better annotated. It contains many fine bonuses, such as the complete Intentions, various reviews and a piece in defence of Dorian Gray, but, inexplicably, omits De Profundis. Perhaps the reason is that the book concentrates on Oscar's more critical writings - a poor reason, to be sure. Oscar's writings in general are so large in scope, that they completely defy such mundane categorisations.

P.S. I have just noticed that an old Penguin Classics edition of De Profundis coupled with other pieces does exist. The book is titled De Profundis and Other Writings and has an old (1954) introduction by Hesketh Pearson but apparently no notes whatsoever. It doesn't seem to have been reprinted lately, but it is still widely available. Disappointingly, though it does contain ''The Ballad of Reading Gaol'', ''The Decay of Lying'' and ''The Soul of Man under Socialism'', it does omit ''The Critic as Artist''.

P.P.S. If Amazon is to be believed, the Penguin Classics edition is going to be reprinted in May of the next year, with the typical black covers and colourful reproduction on the front, but, apparently, without notes. ( )
2 vote Waldstein | Oct 16, 2011 |
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