Reading Oscar Wilde's spirituality in De Profundis.
The statement above offers insight into how Oscar Wilde saw the writing project he was engaged in from his cell in Reading Prison.
Although this project took the form of a letter to Lord Alfred Douglas, Wilde's former lover and the man whose father was responsible for Wilde's imprisonment, we see here that Wilde came to envision this letter as a means by which to form his ideas. The quotation above comes at the end of several pages in which he describes four tasks he knows he must accomplish in order to create for himself a Vita Nuova--a new life--after his release. These tasks are practical, but also spiritual in nature. And, as he clearly states, the simple act of shaping his views in writing has had a discernible therapeutic effect: it has returned to him the will to live that he had lost during his time in prison.
Like all of Oscar Wilde's writing, De Profundis (a title retroactively given to the work by Wilde's friend and literary executor, Robert Ross) has been widely studied. (1) The eclectic work, which has led scholars to classify it alternately as love letter, hate letter, autobiography, or self- justifying apology--to name just a few ideas (2)--can be divided into three fairly distinct parts. The first and third parts, in which Douglas appears as the second-person interlocutor, recollect Wilde and Douglas's relationship in a bitter, accusatory tone. These two "rants" serve as bookends, however, to a central portion, in which Wilde's thoughts turn to his Vita Nuova. For the purposes of this study, I consider that De Profundis's spiritual center begins on page 729 of the Complete Letters edition ("I was a man who stood ...") and ends on page 758 ("... who does not recognize the dynamic force when he meets it either in a man or a movement"). The letter as a whole begins on page 683 and ends on page 780. Thus, the center comprises 29 pages of a 97-page document. (3)
This central portion represents an abrupt and dramatic about-face from the acrimonious denunciation of Douglas that opens the letter. In it, Wilde dedicates about one-third of the entire text to a reflection on what will be his "new life," and the result is an intricate, multifaceted spiritual treatise that can and should serve as both the literal and interpretative center for Wilde's text. He addresses the four tasks, the role of suffering in human existence, the supremacy of love, and the importance of acceptance, culminating in a discussion of Jesus Christ that is simultaneously a spiritual and artistic manifesto, meant to serve as a foundation for his future art. In this study, I will focus primarily on Wilde's spirituality as expressed through the four tasks. Along the way, we will learn something of the spiritual and religious currents that may have influenced Wilde as he wrote De Profundis, his chief autobiographical and spiritual work.
Despite the many commentators De Profundis has had in the 119 years since it was written, its stunningly original and complex spiritual center has not received the attentive textual analysis needed to elucidate what Wilde is saying here about his spiritual views. Most often, studies of De Profundis have participated in what Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus call "symptomatic reading" (1), mining the prison letter for material that can shed light on the Wilde we already know: aesthetic theorist, ardent devote of self-fashioning and refashioning, martyr, Catholic wannabe, and deathbed convert. Scholars interested in the letter's spiritual center, such as Ann Astell and Shelton Waldrep, have primarily focused their attention on its fascinating portrait of Christ, seeing in it, and indeed in this entire portion of the letter, yet another Wildean attempt at what Waldrep calls "self-invention," strongly linked to Wilde's previous aesthetic theories and project to make life imitate art. Regenia Gagnier has noted the disarray and the poignancy of the spiritual portions for the way they illuminate the material conditions in which the letter was composed. Slightly more aligned with my own interests, John Albert is more genuinely interested in Wilde's spirituality for its own sake, but also approaches the text from the vantage point of the Christ portrait and Wilde's intermittent and uneven attempts at Christian faith, or at least, Christian practice. Albert faults the "inadequate" nature of scholarship on Wilde's religious nature, claiming that it offers "no understanding of the operations of divine grace in the human soul of Oscar Wilde" (376).
Thus, Wilde's spiritual writing in De Profundis has not been ignored; rather, it has been enlisted to illuminate the more familiar aesthetic and literary terrain of Wilde's work and life, and thus, in some way, also elided as an introspective project of genuine spiritual questioning, born of the very real pain of his circumstances and the need for solace they must have inspired. How Wilde actually goes about conceiving of this solace, how he constructs a multi-step plan for coming to terms with the events of his life and moving past his current suffering--these revelations of his letter have largely remained "hidden in plain sight," neglected perhaps because they evoke for us a somewhat unfamiliar, unexpected Wilde: a person of spiri tual thoughtfulness and maturity, unadorned with his customary wit and biting irony, and grappling with life's great spiritual questions. Why do we suffer? How can we conceive of great suffering, and contend with it, without being defeated by it? These questions are part of what Best and Marcus call "what is evident, perceptible, apprehensible in texts; what is neither hidden nor hiding" (9). Like proponents of "surface reading," I seek to examine here what Wilde openly says in De Profundis about his suffering and how he plans to overcome it in his "new life," without venturing into the ulterior, perhaps unconscious, motives he may have had in writing his letter, not because these are not interesting questions for speculation, but because we have much to gain by engaging with the text as it is written. What Wilde has to say from prison about spirituality holds its own intrinsic interest. The 29 pages of his letter's spiritual center have been read over and over, yet a great deal of what they tell us, both about Wilde's spiritual views and about his letter's function, have remained unseen.
In a sense, it is not unfair to question the sincerity and seriousness of Wilde's spiritual views; after all, this was the famous proponent of masks and triviality who had proclaimed that he was "finding it harder and harder every day to live up to his blue china" (Ellmann 45). On the other hand, however, Wilde's interest in spirituality is well-attested: from his life-long wavering about conversion to Catholicism, famously and finally accomplished on his death bed; to his interest in the Eastern religions of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism, and their American offshoot, Transcendentalism; to his attendance at Occultist meetings of the Order of the New Dawn, with his wife Constance and brother Willie. Why would we not take him seriously, as a spiritual writer and as a spiritual man? In the central portion of his letter, he clearly turns to spiritual matters as a way of processing and overcoming the dreadful circumstances in which he finds himself. Some of these views echo the Oscar Wilde of his previous works -- the innovative socialist, the resolute individualist, the lover of beauty and art--and some are startlingly unexpected, such as Wilde's take on Jesus. Taken as a whole, the central portion of De Profundis shows a man who can only conceive of his past, present, and especially future--his Vita Nuova--as part of a mysterious, deeply personal, spiritual evolution. If we engage with the text on these terms, we find one of the most intriguing and original spiritual statements of both Oscar Wilde and his time.
As the central, spiritual portion of De Profundis begins on page 729, the second-person address to Douglas disappears for the most part, giving way to a more introspective tone. An important function of the letter is to prepare Wilde for his upcoming release. This preparation entails that he work through his past and come to terms with his present circumstances, in order to envision a future that can integrate these circumstances, however dreadful they may be. Writing becomes a means of carrying on, even of finding, as we saw in the opening quote, the will to live. Structurally, the first and third parts of the text strive to make sense of the past. The central portion of the text is oriented to Wilde's future. Wilde insists that any vision of his future must integrate all of his experience, both pleasant and unpleasant: "To reject one's own experiences is to arrest one's own development. To deny one's own experiences is to put a lie into the lips of one's own life" (733). In order to accomplish this integration, Wilde enlists concepts and objectives that are primarily spiritual in nature.
Wilde uses the words spiritual and soul frequently in De Profundis, without glossing them. Some examples: "Only that is spiritual which makes its own form" (Wilde 732); "Each and all of these things I have to transform into a spiritual experience. There is not a single degradation of the body which I must not try and make into a spiritualising of the soul" (Wilde 732). The Oxford English Dictionary defines "spiritual" as "Of or relating to, affecting or concerning, the spirit or higher moral qualities, esp. as regarded in a religious aspect." In his letter, however, Wilde explicitly rejects religion and morality: "Religion does not help me," and later, "Morality does not help me" (732). While saying that he "would like to found an order for those who cannot believe," Wilde does not include the soul among the things he cannot believe in; on the contrary, he seems to consider the development of his soul--i.e., spiritual development--as the main purpose of his prison experience. For him, spiritual development parallels closely the kind of personal development he repeatedly refers to as "self-realization."
In this focus on self-realization, Wilde's spiritual striving aligns closely with British occultism, a spiritual movement with which Wilde, his wife Constance, and his brother Willie were involved through an organization called the Theosophical Society. Characterized by beliefs and practices that are seen today as decidedly "irrational"--magic, interplanetary travel, seances, mediums--as well as by an association with many progressive causes (women's rights, the abolition of slavery), occultist and spiritualist movements were tremendously popular and involved members of the French and British intellectual and social elite (e.g., Victor Hugo and W. B. Yeats, as well as Wilde and many others). (4) Interestingly, Alex Owen recounts that Holbrook Jackson, an early critic of the 1890s, also saw a connection between the decadent movement (personified in Britain by Wilde) and spirituality, citing decadence's "close correspondence between what he called 'physical excess' and 'spiritual desire'" (116-17). Jackson goes on to say that the movement's characteristics represented "efforts towards the rehabilitation of spiritual power" (Owen 116-17).
Owen links this "decadent spirituality" to the occultist movement, seeing the latter as "a new spirituality that was intrinsically bound up with the self-conscious exploration of personal interiority and the modern drive towards self-realization" (13) and a means by which "children of late nineteenth-century modernity" could embrace "secularized strategies of self-construction in pursuit of spiritualized goals" (13, 116-17). In this sense, Wilde's repeated emphasis on personal/spiritual self-realization participates in what Owen sees as a major characteristic of the secularizing, but not anti-spiritual, era offin-de-siecle modernity: namely, the renegotiation and "modernization" of traditional definitions of spirituality. Steeped in Victorian notions of evolution, progress, and scientific advancement, yet unwilling to renounce "the ultimate claims to meaning that surely lie at the heart of religious experience" (Owen 11), many in Wilde's time envisaged spiritual development as self-development, and vice versa. Owen argues convincingly that the fin-de-siecle does not see spirituality and secularization, or even scientism, as naturally opposed, but rather as parts of an overall march of human progress that has both scientific and spiritual components. We can find in De Profundis many echoes of the occultist movement's emphasis on self-knowledge and self-realization, through means which are both spiritual and, paradoxically, "regulated by reason" (Owen 238-39).
The analysis of Wilde's spiritual views in De Profundis presents a particular challenge, however, because the text lacks an obvious, coherent argumentative structure. Yet, as I will show, there is more structure to this famous text than one may realize at first read. This apparent lack of coherence may reflect in some part Wilde's general distaste for too much consistency; as Ruth Robbins has noted of Wilde, "Totalizing explanation, he suggests, is a mode of betrayal--Judas writes the biography--because it necessarily fictionalizes reality, and belies the complexity of the artist's self. Consistency and coherence are also to be avoided" (163- 64). Of course, the disorderly, stream-of-consciousness style of Wilde's prison letter can also be explained by the extreme conditions in which it was composed (as Robbins also notes). Gagnier goes so far as to suggest that these same conditions make the letter in some sense un-digestible to modern readers:
I also want to suggest that some works resist modern consumption. De Profundis is yet to be digested: a letter whose isolation is extreme and whose production is intimately connected to material conditions unknown to most of us presents a truth unassimilable [sic] in the complacent consumption of commodities in mass society. (180-81)
As recounted by Major Nelson, the man responsible for loosening the usual strictures in place at Reading Prison in order to allow Wilde to write, Wilde received one quarto sheet of paper per day, which he had to return at day's end (Wilde 683n). He may occasionally have had the opportunity to revise previous pages, but this was not the norm. In short, the many constraints on Wilde's prison writing, in addition to his well-attested lack of concern for argumentative coherence, help to explain the difficulty of finding an interpretative structure in this text.
We cannot therefore look to De Profundis for a well-organized, cohesive vision of Wilde's spirituality. Such was not the text's purpose. However, it is possible to identify several concepts which are instrumental to Wilde's spiritual thought in this text, and which have been largely overlooked. In general, as I have mentioned, scholars have tended to focus on the Christ section when studying the text's center. And yet, before even beginning the Christ section, Wilde gives considerable attention to other matters, less theoretical and more practical in nature. (5) To be sure, the Christ section presents a fascinating study that has (or should have) enormous repercussions for our understanding of how Wilde's prison experience shaped and informed his views of art. Just as worthwhile, however, are the pages in which Wilde turns to the more practical questions of how the soul is educated and shaped by experience, and how one can be empowered to live more happily by attending to one's internal, psychological state. In these pages, Wilde develops a practical spirituality seemingly intended to help him conceptualize how he might live, and live well, into the future, despite the staggering losses he has suffered.
In the central section of De Profundis, one idea is fundamental to this conceptualization: individualism. As he makes the transition from the first third of the letter, oriented toward Douglas and the past, to the second, spiritually-oriented portion, he insists repeatedly that his entire endeavor is self-oriented:
Now that I realize that it [humility] is in me, I see clearly what I have got to do, what, in fact, I must do. And when I use such a phrase as that, I need not tell you that I am not alluding to any external sanction or command. I admit none. I am far more of an individualist than I ever was. Nothing seems to me of the smallest value except what one gets out of oneself. My nature is seeking a fresh mode of self-realisation. That is all I am concerned with. (731)
The notion of self-realization undergirds the spiritual vision of De Profundis. Wilde returns time and again to this essential tenet in these first pages, and indeed throughout the second section: "It has come to me right out of myself' (730); "You can see to what intensity of individualism I have arrived, or am arriving rather" (731); "I have to get it all out of myself' (732); "I have got to make everything that has happened to me good for me" (732). After analyzing the reasons for his downfall and current suffering in the first part of the letter, Wilde ceases to dwell on blame, and turns to managing the effects of what has happened on his internal state. (6) His central management strategy is to frame his entire calamity as a learning experience that will help him become a more fully realized, wholly developed individual. Wilde's focus on self-development provides theoretical grounding for the numerous other concepts he evokes in the central section: suffering, sorrow, forgiveness, humility, acceptance, love, beauty, Romance, art, and Christ.
Wilde transitions gradually from personal message to Alfred Douglas (whom he refers to as Bosie) to a reflection on the notion of forgiveness. As always, his attention is on himself: Wilde must forgive Bosie not for Bosie's sake, but for his own.
And the end of it all is that I have got to forgive you. I must do so. I don't write this letter to put bitterness into your heart but to pluck it out of mine. Lor my own sake I must forgive you.... Terrible as what you did to me was, what I did to myself was far more terrible still. (728)
As Wilde sees it, anger and bitterness must be overcome by forgiveness because these negative emotions are destructive to the person who feels them, not necessarily to the person who is their object. The shift of Wilde's attention away from Bosie and toward the effects of the bitterness on himself are accompanied, interestingly, by a distinct decline in explicit mentions of Douglas as a second-person interlocutor in the central section. As Bosie recedes into the background, Wilde (and the reader) experience a certain uplift--a sense of empowerment perhaps--as the author turns away from that which he cannot change (the past, external circumstances) and concentrates on what is still within his power: the future, and especially his own internal reactions to his circumstances. (7) In Wilde's assertion that one forgives above all for oneself, one also finds an echo of the ideas he put forward in The Soul of Man under Socialism: that the primary reason for socialism is not to help the poor, but to help oneself. (8) In other words, as Wilde puts it in De Profundis, "whatever happens to another, happens to oneself" (741).
Wilde touches often on this concept of the oneness of humanity and the resulting feeling of solidarity, primarily within his portrait of Christ. He writes of Christ's "imaginative sympathy" and states that Christ "pointed out that there was no difference at all between the lives of others and one's own life" (741, 745). Most poignantly, perhaps, Wilde recalls how crowds of onlookers jeered when he was left on a train platform to wait, in prison dress and handcuffs, for the arrival of the train transferring him to a new prison. Eventually, his sorrow gives way to pity for his persecutors: "I am really beginning to feel more regret for the people who laughed than for myself.... behind sorrow there is always a soul. And to mock at a soul in pain is a dreadful thing. Unbeautiful are their lives who do it" (757). Sympathy and solidarity arise, not from moral obligation, but from the imagination: one is so conscious of one's shared humanity with others that, through the imaginative faculty, their pain truly becomes ours.
The contemplation of his own need to forgive Douglas leads Wilde to consider four tasks, which he sees as essential for going forward. The first task--"to free myself from any possible bitterness of feeling against you" (731)--grows directly out of his reflection on forgiveness and is the only one that relates explicitly to Douglas. In an example of his freely associative writing style in this text, he draws a link between his desire to be free from bitterness, and his material poverty, stating "I am quite candid when I tell you that rather than go out from this prison with bitterness in my heart against you or against the world I would gladly and readily beg my bread from door to door" (731). He pursues this association of internal freedom with external poverty, evoking the pleasures that are possible, even in poverty, "provided I have love in my heart" (731). He underlines the transformation he has undergone since his days of luxurious living, affirming that "the external things of life seem to me now of no importance at all" (731).
The mere act of considering his desire for liberation, both from internal afflictions (bitterness) and external hardship (poverty), seems to strengthen Wilde's shift in focus toward the future. In this way, his writing in this section participates directly in the creation of a growing hope for the future; in other words, writing has a visible therapeutic effect. (9) Tone, topic, and rhythm move rapidly as Wilde touches nimbly upon one thought after another. Before going on to his second task, Wilde "free associates" from the topics of the first task and poverty, to his increasing individualism, to a quotation from Mrs. Arbuthnot from his play A Woman of No Importance ("where I walk there are thorns"), to his friend Robbie (Robert Ross) and the material support he and other friends will surely provide for Wilde. From there, he moves on to his desire to write and read beautiful books and "to recreate my creative faculty" (731), and then to the rejection of Morality, Religion, and Reason as possible sources of help for him. He evokes these and several other topics in the space of just two pages. A cascade effect seems to arise from Wilde's recognition of the spiritual transformation he has undergone in prison. This recognition creates hope and infuses him with a new energy which in turn intensifies his thought. The author's unbridled and energetic thought process is reflected directly, en direct so to speak, in his vigorous, almost restless writing.
As Wilde thinks upon the "wrong and unjust laws" which convicted him and the "wrong and unjust system" which has made him suffer, he insists, "But, somehow, I have got to make both of these things just and right to me" (732). This principle of being "only concerned with what a particular thing is at a particular moment to oneself' leads him to formulate his second task:
I have got to make everything that has happened to me good for me. The plank-bed, the loathsome food, the hard ropes shredded into oakum till one's fingertips grow dull with pain, the menial offices with which each day begins and finishes, the harsh orders that routine seems to necessitate, the dreadful dress that makes sorrow grotesque to look at, the silence, the solitude, the shame--each and all of these things I have to transform into a spiritual experience. There is not a single degradation of the body which I must not try and make into a spiritualizing of the soul. (732)
Wilde lists the harsh conditions of his imprisonment as if to underline for the reader the sheer difficulty of what he is proposing: how could one make such terrible things good? Well aware of this incongruity, Wilde pens some of his long letter's most beautiful passages to develop the second task. He relies on several techniques: paradox "I was so typical a child of my age that in my perversity, and for that perversity's sake, I turned the good things of my life to evil, and the evil things of my life to good" (732- 33); metaphor "to absorb into my nature all that has been done to me" (733); and evocations of nature "those things that are meant as much for me as for anyone else, the beauty of the sun and the moon, the pageant of the seasons, the music of daybreak and the silence of great nights, the rain falling through the leaves or the dew creeping over the grass ..." (733). Through-out, Wilde insists that to reject his painful experience in any way would be "no less than a denial of the Soul" (733). Wilde achieves an intellectual grasp of this paradoxical challenge, almost alchemical in nature, of turning evil into good, wrong into right, by resorting to a digestive metaphor. Just as the body absorbs all manner of things and converts them
into swiftness or strength, into the play of beautiful muscles and the moulding of fair flesh, into the curves and colours of the hair. the lips, the eye: so the Soul, in its turn, has its nutritive functions also, and can transform into noble moods of thought, and passions of high import, what in itself is base, cruel and degrading ... and can often reveal itself most perfectly through what was intended to desecrate or destroy. (733)
In this way, the second task allows Wilde to hone in on what will become a key concept for him: suffering as a necessary component of the soul's development.
The third task relates to shame: "The fact of my having been the common prisoner of a common goal I must frankly accept ... one of the things I shall have to teach myself is not to be ashamed of it" (733, my emphasis). Like task one, freedom from bitterness, this task appears to be internally oriented, because shame is in one sense subjectively felt; however, Wilde's elaboration of the third task focuses mainly on the external realities of society's punishment and others' reaction to him. In other words, he is pointing here to a subjective experience of infamy or notoriety originating in the objective reality of having been punished, rather than a sense of guilt or regret. The foremost management strategy regarding punishment seems to be to accept it while not being ashamed of it: "I must accept it as a punishment, and if one is ashamed of having been punished, one might just as well never have been punished at all" (733). He relies here on two key concepts, both of which are entirely oriented toward inferiority: that of acceptance, a crucial feature of Wilde's spiritual vision that I will discuss in more detail further on, and that of equanimity or internal freedom from negative emotion, whether it be bitterness, as in the first task, or shame, as in the third. Time and again, Wilde returns to these spiritual touchstones of acceptance and equanimity which, for him, signify freedom:
I must accept the fact that one is punished for the good as well as for the evil that one does. I have no doubt that it is quite right one should be. It helps one, or should help one, to realise both, and not to be too conceited about either. And if then I am not ashamed of my punishment, as I hope not to be, I shall be able to think, and walk, and live with freedom. (733-34, my emphasis)
Wilde then considers the external forces that have inflicted his punishment, and thus his shame. He first refers to them as "the gods" and emphasizes the arbitrary motives that lead them to punish us "for what is good and humane in us as much as for what is evil and perverse"; then he turns to a critique of Society for its "supreme vice of shallowness" (734). In direct opposition to Wilde's ideals of self-realization and freedom from shame, Society "fails to realise what it has done" and "is really ashamed of its own actions, and shuns those whom it has punished." It is important to note here that even though Wilde had accused Bosie of precisely the same failings in the first part of the letter, Bosie does not appear here. Instead, we see a progressive de-personalization of blame in this section. This de-personalization of the text parallels Wilde's search for greater internal equanimity; yet his lucid critique of Society also indicates that the author has not renounced his role as social critic and reformer. In reading Wilde's prison letter, we witness the age-old struggle of worldly and spiritual concerns: on the one hand, one wishes to name injustice in order at least to try to redress it; on the other, one seeks the inner peace of detachment from those things that one cannot control. We are not dealing here with an individual who, overwhelmed with suffering, has turned to spirituality as a means of escaping the cruel realities of the world. On the contrary, an acutely lucid Wilde seeks a third way--a "both/and" rather than "either/or" relation to both reality and spirituality. He will not turn away from the cruelty of his situation, the pain it has caused him, or the horrible injustice of the system that inflicted it; yet he strives to manage his pain within a sphere over which he has better control: his mind. Wilde makes his strategy crystal clear as he ends his discussion of the third task:
Nor am I making any demands on Life. In all that I have said I am simply concerned with my own mental attitude towards life as a whole: and I feel that not to be ashamed of having been punished is one of the first points I must attain to, for the sake of my own perfection, and because I am so imperfect. (735, my emphasis)
The fourth and last task identified by Wilde is to "learn how to be happy" (735). This is the most internally oriented of the tasks. Freedom from bitterness, the absorption of painful experiences, freedom from shame: the first three tasks also focus on internal, subjective experience, but involve an interplay between realities outside the self (Bosie, unpleasant circumstances, a hostile society). In the fourth task, Wilde attends exclusively to the subjective feeling of happiness, yet he does so in a way that also involves others. First, he describes the path he has followed to reach his current view. Before, it was his nature to be happy, and to fill his life with pleasure: "It was always springtime in my heart. My temperament was akin to joy. I filled my life to the very brim with pleasure, as one might fill a cup to the very brim with wine" (735). Accounts of Wilde's life before his imprisonment mostly confirm his vision of things: Wilde seems to have been a happy man. Still, the author sounds a note of doubt on whether he had previously known how to be happy: "Once, I knew it, or thought I knew it, by instinct" (735, my emphasis). Like many traumatic experiences, Wilde's time in prison has not only changed his view of life, but forced him to reinterpret his prior views and experiences as well.
Now, he says, it is extremely difficult for him even to conceive of happiness. He illustrates the contrast between his past and present outlook by recalling an experience he had while at Oxford. After having read in Walter Pater's Renaissance that Dante, in his Divine Comedy, places low in the Inferno people afflicted by the vice of accidia--"those who live willfully in sadness" as Wilde explains it--Wilde discounted the Church's condemnation of accidia. He found the idea of such a sin farfetched, "just the sort of sin, I fancied, a priest who knew nothing about real life would invent" (735). Little did he know, he says, that the willful embrace of sorrow would one day become one of his greatest temptations.
Wilde describes three distinct phases in his psychological reaction to prison. First, he wished for death, and fell ill while at Wandsworth Prison. "Filled with rage" when he recovered physically, he resolved to commit suicide upon his release (735). In time, this "evil mood" passed, and he entered a second phase--one could call it the accidia phase--in which he made up his mind to live in sorrow and melancholy, and to force all others with whom he came into contact to share in his pain. With perfect lucidity, Wilde identifies the hostility towards others, the violence even, latent in this position. He does not shy away from the unflattering truth that, in his wish to teach his friends that "melancholy is the true secret of life," he was actually seeking "to maim them with an alien sorrow: to mar them with my own pain" (735).
Finally, he reaches the third stage of his working through of the prison trauma. Recognizing the aggression and selfishness inherent in accidia, he resolves to be cheerful and happy "in order to make them [friends] some slight return for their trouble in coming all the way from town to visit me" (736). Wilde deviates slightly, and surprisingly, from his resolute self-orientation in his development of the fourth task: the primary reason he gives for being happy is not his own well-being, but that of others. Initially at least, the purpose of being happy is to show others the delight he feels at seeing them. Perhaps, the task of being happy is simply too difficult to achieve within his prison circumstances. Wilde says as much, making clear that while his will and intellect have managed to formulate the goal of happiness, the achievement of it is still very much a work in progress.
Nonetheless, the mere formulation of the four tasks--the contemplation of them, the writing them down--brings Wilde satisfaction, and even the desire to live: "And that, in the views and ideas I am here shaping for myself, I am quite right is shown to me by the fact that now for the first time since my imprisonment I have a real desire to live" (736). In this conclusion to the description of the four tasks, he also makes clear how he envisions his text at this point: as views and ideas he is shaping for himself. The Montaigne-like shaping of his ideas in writing, and the practical, self-directed spirituality he discovers therein, allow Wilde to wrest his thoughts away from Bosie and the past, and to redirect them instead to the individualism that has always been his stronghold. This new individualism--this Vita Nuova--becomes the thread enabling him to connect his old life, and his old self, to the new life and self he hopes to form in his present and future.
Lastly, let us consider three crucial concepts that are interwoven into Wilde's discussion of the four tasks, and that help us to understand the views and ideas Wilde is shaping in De Profundis. Lirst, the primacy of individual self-realization undergirds Wilde's conceptualization of his future--his new life, as we have seen. Lor Wilde, everything revolves around this: each and every experience, whether positive or negative, contributes to the full realization of the human individual. Self-realization retains a strong element of mystery. As Wilde says, "The final mystery is oneself," and "people whose desire is solely for self-realisation never know where they are going" (753). They may even be going, as Wilde now understands, to places they would never choose consciously. Lrom his vantage point at Reading Prison, Wilde knows he must effect a dramatic shift in the individualism he had espoused until then, in order to incorporate a human reality with which he is now intimately familiar: that of suffering and sorrow.
Suffering is the second essential concept of his letter's central section. To work through the meaning of suffering is clearly, and quite understandably, a critical function of his writing. Suffering becomes "a revelation"; "the supreme emotion of which man is capable"; "the ultimate type both in life and Art" (737). He describes how he has come to see experiences of suffering and sorrow, previously shunned and ignored, "as modes of imperfection" (736), as nutritive experiences for the soul instead. When one seeks out pleasure exclusively, one is "starving the soul": "For the secret of life is suffering. It is what is hidden behind everything" (738). Wilde's emphasis on suffering echoes the first noble truth of Buddhism, dukkha, translated as "suffering, anxiety." In fact, during his time at Oxford, Wilde sought out the acquaintance of Friedrich Max Muller, a philologist, "Orientalist," and man of tremendous learning who during Wilde's Oxford years was working on a translation of the Rig-Veda (an ancient collection of Sanskrit hymns). Max Muller is seen as the father of comparative religion, and he did much to introduce the West to Hindu and Buddhist spirituality. Significantly, British occultist movements, in particular the Theosophical Society with which Wilde, Constance, and Willie were involved, found inspiration in the Indian faith traditions, thus participating in what Owen calls "the Victorian fascination with the Orient" (29).10 Later, Wilde's knowledge of Oriental religions allowed him to write an informed review of an 1889 translation of the Chinese Taoist philosopher Zhuang Zu in 1890. (11) Oscar Wilde's contact with these newly discovered Eastern religions through Max Muller and, later, his occultist connections may help to explain the distinctly "Eastern" feel of some aspects of his spiritual thought in De Profundis.
We should also recall that in the last of his four tasks, Wilde had evoked for himself and his readers the goal of being happy, and he understood the importance of this goal, if only for the sake of those around him. Nonetheless, he unflinchingly faces what his experience has taught him: that suffering is a deep truth of the world--one emphasized in Buddhism, as Wilde well knows, but also in the figures of Christ (740-55) and Marsyas (755-56). Because Truth in Art is "the unity of a thing with itself... there is no truth comparable to Sorrow. There are times when Sorrow seems to me to be the only truth" (737). If the individual's full self-realization is the goal, suffering is the reality that must be contended with, and absorbed, in order to attain it.
Finally, we arrive at a third fundamental concept relied upon by Wilde in his central section, as we have mentioned. He refers to it alternately as Humility, Surrender, or Acceptance, but the idea is the same: in order to move forward with life after his release, he must accept all that has happened to him, without strife or questioning. In the transitional section of his letter, as he moves from bitter rant to spiritual treatise, Wilde calls Humility "something hidden away in my nature, like a treasure in a field" (730) and identifies it as a "starting-point" that has given meaning to his suffering. The meaning of humility for Wilde is at first difficult to understand, but he returns to the notion repeatedly, gradually making its contours clear. He states that "One cannot acquire it, except by surrendering everything that one has. It is only when one has lost all things, that one knows that one possesses it" (730-31, my emphasis). Later, in his discussion of the second task, he calls upon a similar notion, declaring,
The important thing, the thing that lies before me, the thing that I have to do, if the brief remainder of my days is not to be maimed, marred and incomplete, is to absorb into my nature all that has been done to me, to make it part of me, to accept it without complaint, fear, or reluctance. (733, my emphasis)
He returns again to the idea when he recollects the change that took place in him when his son, Cyril, was legally removed from him. I bore up against everything with some stubbornness of will and much rebellion of nature till I had absolutely nothing left in the world but Cyril. 1 had lost my name, my position, my happiness, my freedom, my wealth. I was a prisoner and a pauper. But I had still one beautiful thing left, my own eldest son. Suddenly he was taken away from me by the law. It was a blow so appalling that I did not know what to do, so I flung myself on my knees, and bowed my head, and wept and said "The body of a child is as the body of the Lord: I am not worthy of either." That moment seemed to save me. I saw then that the only thing for me was to accept everything. Since then--curious as it will no doubt sound to you--I have been happier. (744, my emphasis)
In this poignant scene, in this nadir moment of greatest loss, Wilde realized that the only way to alleviate his suffering was to accept it. For the lover of paradox that he was, to realize first-hand the paradoxical relief that comes from accepting one's worst pain was surely an ironic epiphany. It is when faced with the enormity of what is for him the ultimate loss that he Anally reaches a state of "radical acceptance." (12) Paradox comes alive as never before in the prospect of beauty being found in pain: ... So perhaps whatever beauty of life still remains to me is contained in some moment of surrender, abasement and humiliation" (757). For Wilde, humility implies complete acceptance of his suffering. Humble acceptance becomes a tool, an enzyme perhaps, by which his suffering can be fully "digested" and made into nutrients for his soul. This in turn will allow his soul, and especially his Art, to become fully realized, and to And the fresh, new life Wilde hoped for upon his release: a Vita Nuova for which this text was doubtless meant to serve as a foundation.
IN CONCLUSION, it is impossible to read De Profundis without noting the enormous importance for Wilde of re-conceptualizing his Art from a new stance. This stance relies, to a far larger extent than has been recognized, on the foundation provided by the practical spirituality elaborated in the four tasks and, more generally, in the first part of his text's central section (i.e., before the portrait of Christ, which begins on page 740). Wilde seems aware that his prison experience renders insufficient, perhaps even invalid, his former vision of Art, associated with the Paterian search for pleasure, sensation, and beauty. (13) De Profundis represents his first, and unfortunately only, attempt to formulate this new vision, which contains, as we have seen, an intensely spiritual dimension. Ian Small argues convincingly that the prison manuscript represents a draft that Wilde intended to revise for a later work, but never did. Because by regulation Wilde was only allowed to write letters from prison, it seems plausible that he would use the letter form to draft a work intended to take different form in the future. As his prison term comes to an end, Wilde knows that his future art will need to derive from the full acceptance and integration of his own suffering, and the complete selfhood these will entail. Wilde's educational and social background provided him with many spiritual paradigms to draw upon as he wrote this first draft of his vision, in some of the most difficult writing conditions one can imagine. As in the social and artistic realms, Wilde calls upon a heterogeneous set of influences, both ancient and modern, to create a highly original conceptualization of human spirituality and its relationship with art. Of all his works, De Profundis speaks best to the complex, multifaceted spirituality that was part of Oscar Wilde, along the way offering, arguably, a felicitous expression of the spiritual diversity of his time.
1) De Profundis means "from the depths" and refers to Psalm 130, which begins, "De profundis clamavi ad te, Domine" ("from the depths I have called out to you, O God"). Wilde's original title for the epistolary work was Epistola: In Carcere et Vinculis ("Letter: In Prison and in Chains").
2) On the generic "inconsistency" of Wilde's letter, Ruth Robbins has rightly written that it is consistent with Wilde's belief that "A self may write (or be written into) all of these genres in turn": "Wilde's view is that lives, even narrated lives, must resist the closure of the authoritative interpretation. The self is always multiple, and therefore knowledge of it is always deferred" (Robbins 175).
3) Other scholars have noted the dissonant coexistence in the letter of acrimonious details and inspired philosophical musings. Regenia Gagnier, for example, discusses the letter's "alternating passages of realism and romance," without noting that they follow any particular pattern (187). To my knowledge, the reasonably distinct tripartite structure of the letter (in Gagnier's terms, from realism to romance back to realism) has not yet been noted or analyzed.
4) Alex Owen's The Place of Enchantment: British Occultism and the Culture of the Modern offers an excellent study of the British Occultist movement. For a thorough treatment of the Spiritist movement in France, cf. Lynn L. Sharp.
5) p. 729-40; i.e., 11 pages out of 97.
6) Philip K. Cohen also notes this internal focus of what he calls Wilde's "new individualism": "No relationship to social norms, either antagonistic or symbiotic, is permitted Wilde's new individualist. Instead, he must turn within for his identity, must find his selfhood in his own soul.... The stark, lonely confrontation with the soul must be the origin of selfhood" (251-52).
7) This focus on the mind-state is a commonplace of both Buddhism and Taoism, which are oriented less toward external questions of divinity and more toward the cultivation of a peaceful mind-state that will help mitigate the suffering of existence. Wilde had some knowledge of these religions through Friedrich Max Muller at Oxford, making their influence on his spiritual thought fully plausible.
8) The late essayist and commentator Christopher Hitchens wrote admiringly about Wilde's position on socialism, setting it in opposition to those who advocate that "we should not forget the needy and the desperate as we pursue our glorious path of self-advancement." Instead, as Hitchens notes, "Wilde was proposing something infinitely more daring and intelligent--that we regard poverty, ugliness and the exploitation of others as something repulsive to ourselves.... We should want the abolition of such conditions for our own sakes. The burden of enduring them is too much" (223).
9) Regenia Gagnier states along these lines that "It is probably not too much to say that, by means of the letter, art literally saved Wilde's life." Gagnier's emphasis on Wilde's use of the letter as "a particular imaginative act of resistance against insanity and against the material matrix of prison space and time"--i.e., on writing as a form of resilience and survival--offers a useful complement to the study of Wilde's practical spirituality (179).
10) On the occultist-Eastem connection, cf. Owen, esp. 29-43.
11) Oscar Wilde, "A Chinese Sage," The Speaker Feb. 8, 1890 (reprinted in Debon 101-14). Debon argues convincingly for the presence of Taoist elements in Wilde's thought. He analyzes The Ideal Husband, The Critic as Artist, and The Soul of Man under Socialism from this vantage point, but not De Profundis.
12) cf. Tara Brach's evocative title. Much of Wilde's thinking on suffering and acceptance is reminiscent of the Eastern religions which interested him at Oxford; to identify and isolate the specifically Buddhist, Hindu, or Taoist elements in the eclectic and unpolished De Profundis warrants further analysis.
13) Walter Pater was a fellow at Oxford during Wilde's time and author of Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873), which Wilde remembered from prison as "that book which has had such a strange influence over my life" (63). For Pater, the primary goal of life was to experience passion and ecstasy: "To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life" (154).
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Small, Ian. "Love Letter, Spiritual Autobiography, Or Prison Writing? Identity and Value in De Profundis!' Wilde Writings: Contextual Conditions. Buffalo and Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2003. 86-100.
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Wilde, Oscar. The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde. Ed. Merlin Holland and Rupert HartDavis. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2000.
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|Author:||Kelly, Molly Robinson|
|Publication:||Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2016|
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