To all those who believe in the genius of Oscar Wilde, it would not be hard to reconsider the man's position as an outsider in his own society. That he was an Irish may be of material consequence and that Wilde's wit was hard to fit and the artist's flamboyance drew the chagrin of moral annoyance is a Victorian dilemma, but what remains common throughout history, is an outsider's predicament which starts off innocently and harmlessly but which stifles or is made to stifle by force by the so called 'authoritative' ambush.In his short life and career, Wilde wrote profusely. Born on 16 October, 1854, he was already a brilliant classical scholar in 1873. For his academic career at Oxford was remarkable, he could never have been as idle as he liked to pretend. Indeed he must have read voraciously. Even at this early age Wilde was a man of exceptionally wide culture, having reflected over the writings of Spinoza, Goethe, Hegel, Matthew Arnold, Emerson and Baudelaire to say the least. At a time when the new theories of Evolution expounded by Darwin and Huxley, Wilde's wild adventure in the realm of thought excited the wrath of the Philistines to whom the very name of Art was anathema.
Much to the testiness of sophisticated gentry and worthy friends, Wilde went after an aesthetic philosophy of universal application. And his opportunity came about when Wilde was invited to lecture in America in 1882. In his very first lecture Oscar appeared in an 'aesthetic' costume (in his knee-breeches) much to the delight of the journalists but he left with his reputation enhanced. By the end of the decade, Wilde would come in contact with French men of letters and his visits to Paris garnered the awareness of the French 'Decadent" school. One wonders whether all this and his constant valuing of foreign sensibilities that would inevitably mark him an outsider. Wilde wrote:
"There is something tragic about the enormous number of young men there are in England at the present moment who start life with perfect profiles, and end by adopting some useful profession."
In 1888, the first collection of short stories, 'The Happy Prince and Other Tales' came out. The ideas expressed are usually pessimistic: the happy prince gives away all his goods in vain. The nightingale presses its heart against a thorn; but the result of reading Wilde's stories is anything but heartbreaking. His sense of humour would redeem the sadness of the theme. What must be important from his own point of view was the creation of the expression of ideas that were unarguably his own. Again, it was not the appreciation of literary circles but an outside encouragement of his own erudition that resulted in a more ambitious piece of fiction, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891). None of his works gave so much pleasure to write because he was able to express it in his own tastes. Fiction released Wilde to express more freely than ever: '"Give a man a mask, and he will tell you the truth".
Dorian Gray is the first of Wilde's writings in which the theme of homosexuality, while never expressed, is nevertheless implied. In the very year in which Dorian Gray appeared, Wilde was to meet the youth who was to lead him to the final catastrophe of his life. Was it this implication made by the society that marked him an outsider? Leading an extravagant life on his foreign trips, Wilde was bound to be surrounded by financial difficulties. But he was yet to try his hand at another literary form: theatre. During a holiday in North Africa, Wilde met André Gide whose verdict about him was admiring: 'People do not always realize how much truth, wisdom and seriousness were concealed under the mask of the jester'. Perhaps this observation comes closest in characterising the genius of Oscar Wilde. But was it then an irresistible urge to utter penetrating yet concealed 'truth' with 'wisdom' that would earn him the scornful gaze for a parvenu?
Wilde returned to London for the staging of 'The Importance Of Being Earnest'. And this time even critics joined hands in unanimous praise. But this phase was to be the culminating point of Wilde's career. His relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas was an insult to the latter's father. In a case of criminal libel between them, Wilde was found guilty and sentenced to two years' imprisonment with hard labour. Truth and Wit was condemned overnight. Today we may come out and defend gay rights but to many of the late Victorians the very idea did not exist. And here was an author, at the summit of his success, suddenly repudiated as a convict. The Philistines were eventually rubbing hands to think that the judgement of God has prevailed in the end. So then it was the final judgement which pronounced him an outsider; someone not of their own. The rest of the Decadents, some of his personal friends, though continued to write and drink themselves to death, were the reigning decades' last dents.
The first six months of the sentence passed in Wandsworth prison with particularly inhuman treatment. Some influential friends tried and had him transferred to the Reading Gaol where nonetheless he suffered intensely. There, he wrote on the double sheets of the prison paper the long letter to Lord Alfred Douglas, which was afterwards called 'De Profundis'. Wilde was released on 19 May, 1897. And he worked on 'The Ballad Of Reading Gaol'. He was rejoined by Douglas but as soon as Wilde's money was exhausted, his friend left him. Wilde went to Paris where he was to spend the few remaining years of his life. He died on 30 November 1900 in the Rue de Beaux-Arts, essentially as an outsider. But as we come back to the central premise as to what made him so among his fellow human beings, we chew over: was it a different or a revolutionary thinking; or was it the bold appreciation of arts that were foreign to Victorians; was it really his frank relationship with another youth; was it the lack of financial resources for Lord Alfred Douglas; or was it the wit which witnessed wide wounds inflicted on the decrepit structures of the ever resilient high society? I would let Oscar Wilde reply himself (as I am sure he would) to this ambiguity, in the form of another terribly beautiful ambiguity so that questions as well their answers may never die. Wilde would surely have liked to celebrate his birthday with lines conveying thus:
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!
Some kill their love when they are young,
And some when they are old;
Some strangle with the hands of Lust,
Some with the hands of Gold:
The kindest use a knife because
The dead so soon grow cold.
~ Wilde, 'The Ballad Of Reading Gaol', 1898
Ever since I have read these lines something has stirred my own so called sense of belief, honour and dignity. Only Irony coming from the depth of a heart can rustle dead leaves; like the irony in these lines will ceaselessly unmask one definitive aspect of society: Hypocrisy. Our very own hypocrisy.
"As a literary-historical figure Wilde's place is unique. he stood, as he himself claimed, in a symbolic relation to his age. Without him neither the Aesthetic Movement of the Eighties nor the Decadent Movement of the Nineties can be understood. He has his permanent niche in the literature of England and in the literature of the world." ~ James Laver