This small book of selected works shows the depths of both Wilde’s thought and his suffering, all expressed in effortlessly fluent language.
I came to this book by way of the Wikipedia entry on Wilde, which I consulted after reading his The Picture of Dorian Gray. I was most intrigued to learn that he had written a long, searching letter while in prison, and was eager to read it. What were the thoughts and feelings of this perceptive man, who had undergone such a severe reversal of fortune?
I was to learn those things, but, being the kind of reader I am, I started this collection of works at the beginning, with Wilde’s 1891 essay, “The Soul of Man Under Socialism.” Knowing nothing much about Oscar Wilde, I didn’t know that he had written about socialism, and was most surprised to discover that he looked forward to the arrival of socialist society as bringing a great advance in individual liberty and personal fulfillment. He regarded the mundane tasks of economic life as dehumanizing, and therefore they were appropriately to be taken on by the state, that its citizens might enjoy more leisure, which is a prerequisite for civilized life.
And how would the state be able to keep its citizens on a living dole? That is, who would be doing all that dehumanizing work? His answer was simple and prescient: machines. The right person to do dehumanizing work is a nonhuman. In this, Wilde was anticipating such thinkers as Adler and Kelso, who also, in their 1958 book The Capitalist Manifesto, advocate a society whose citizens have been emancipated from toil. However, they see capitalism, not socialism, as the pathway to that emancipation, but then they enjoy the advantage of having witnessed the 20th century’s various attempts to create a socialist utopia. Wilde gives the impression that he regards the details of wealth-creation as too tedious to occupy the minds of anyone but bureaucrats, while Adler and Kelso perceive the danger of concentrating economic as well as political power in the hands of just a few men. The key point is that Wilde saw the importance of these issues for society, although he was writing almost 70 years before those later thinkers.
Wilde’s central concern is that people should lead lives of dignity and fulfillment. They should be themselves. I have no doubt he would have agreed thoroughly with another thinker whose ideas he anticipates: Abraham Maslow, who stressed the importance of self-actualization, the final and highest of human needs. For Wilde, the type of the self-actualized person is the artist, whose calling is exactly to express who he is. Wilde was the originator of the artistic mini-movement known as Aestheticism, concerned with turning one’s own life into a work of art. He thought that a socialist society, more than any other type of society, could be one in which people would have the greatest opportunity to live in this (to his mind) fulfilling way.
I was impressed with the range and depth of Wilde’s thought as I read this essay. He addressed the Great Ideas: he had original and perceptive contributions to make to what the compilers of the Great Books call the Great Conversation of Western civilization. He writes with a kind of effortless, detached passion. He is famous for his epigrams, especially the witty ones (“the good ended happily and the bad ended unhappily—that is what fiction means”; “if this is the way Queen Victoria treats her prisoners, she doesn’t deserve to have any”), and one sees how his style of thought and writing lead naturally, so to speak, to their formation. They arise where perceptiveness, brevity, and irony join in the mind of one who has a command of language. His prose, indeed, reads almost like a series of epigrams, and sometimes I found myself wishing for more of the train of thought that had led to these sharp summary statements. But there is no denying his power and vigor as both a thinker and a writer.
Skipping the dialogue called “The Decay of Lying,” I moved on to the main course, “De Profundis,” a title bestowed by Wilde’s ex-lover Robert Ross on the long letter composed by Wilde to another ex-lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, from Reading Gaol where Wilde was immured. It is a letter of complaint about how his relationship with Douglas had led to Wilde’s ruin. Written, under prison rules, a single page at a time, it is a testament to Wilde’s powers of organization and retention, as well as to his fluency, for apparently corrections to the manuscript were few.
But the contents do not reflect well on either man. For while Wilde succeeds in portraying Douglas as the worst kind of parasite, narcissist, and ingrate, he also inadvertently reveals himself to be a patsy and a fool. Based on Wilde’s description of Douglas’s behavior (and his own), I had little doubt that today the young lord would be diagnosed with the narcissistic personality disorder or something like it, while Wilde himself would probably be diagnosed with the codependent personality disorder. Wilde’s letter is a long and, one realizes, futile effort to awaken some sense of contrition in Douglas for the many wrongs he did to his lover. Like Charlie Brown, who never learns that Lucy is going to yank the football away yet again before he can kick it, Wilde never learns that he must expect only humiliation, not gratitude or reciprocation, from his young friend. What is sad is that even by the end of his letter he has not learned this; disgrace, bankruptcy, and incarceration have been insufficient stimuli to drive home the message.
At the end of the book is a collection of 11 short poems and the longer “Ballad of Reading Gaol,” a somber and knowing account of prisoners’ reactions when one of their number goes to the gallows. Although I’m not a connoisseur of verse, I enjoyed this very much.
In all, De Profundis is a collection of provocative and well-written pieces by a complex and brilliant man. Oscar Wilde was a true artist by his own definition of that term: “a man who believes absolutely in himself, because he is absolutely himself.”
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