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Dead Wood: (1897) Oscar Wilde on Art, Sorrow, and Living for Pleasure.

De Profundis is the name given to a letter composed by Oscar Wilde between January and March of 1897 while serving his term for gross indecency at Reading prison. The title for the letter was subsequently provided by Robert Ross, a friend, former lover, and literary executor of Oscar Wilde. 1905, five years after Wilde’s death, marks the date of its original English publication. I note the English publication here as a German publication preceded the English version by roughly two weeks. I cannot help but wonder what Ross thought of this German edition. Although, it must be said Ross was a man of extraordinary compassion. The title, De Profundis, comes from Psalms 130 as, “From the depths, I have cried out to you, O Lord.” De Profundis—from the depths—from the depths of despair.

What standing Oscar Wilde and his work have in contemporary culture is lost on me. The Importance of Being Earnest I suspect continues to be popular. The play, regardless of how often or how infrequently it performs, remains vital. The verbal calisthenics of Wilde generally and of Earnest in particular rivals Shakespeare. The Picture of Dorian Gray perhaps is still read, though I cannot recall having seen it on any curriculums in recent years. How well we are able to stomach proper hedonism is difficult to say. For as much as our culture embraces hedonism, or what we might call performative hedonism, our stronger impulse lies with skepticism. Oscar Wilde was hardly a skeptic. He was a disciple of pleasure and of his own considerable wit. He was the toast of London town, and he knew it. His demise was spectacular, and his influence, for those of us who sense it, has curious reach.

Even fewer readers, I suspect, turn to De Profundis. As Lord Douglas withdrew himself further from Wilde’s affection, Wilde’s heart grew both more fond and more bitter. As a result of his imprisonment, Wilde lost his considerable social standing, his art, his health, his freedom. The letter is an effort to discover what remains. “Behind sorrow there is always sorrow” is a sentiment I can easily carry. I also wish to believe Wilde when he says, “I wanted to eat of the fruit of all the trees in the garden of the world.” Part of what we hope for when reading De Profundis is a glimpse of an unguarded Wilde, not that we might gossip about him or be titillated by his confessions, but that we see more of the man. We might, for a moment, leave the realm of the audience and proceed towards a seat of confidence. Yet for all we encounter of art, of struggle, of a man’s gains and losses, I suspect Oscar has forever kept us at a distance. I suspect, too, he gave of himself what there was to give. He does not need our forgiveness, just our eyes. I think that would have been enough.

From De Profundis—

I now see that sorrow, being the supreme emotion of which man is capable, is at once the type and test of all great art. What the artist is always looking for is the mode of existence in which soul and body are one and indivisible: in which the outward is expressive of the inward: in which form reveals. Of such modes of existence there are not a few: youth and the arts preoccupied with youth may serve as a model for us at one moment: at another we may like to think that, in its subtlety and sensitiveness of impression, its suggestion of a spirit dwelling in external things and making its raiment of earth and air, of mist and city alike, and in its morbid sympathy of its moods, and tones, and colours, modern landscape art is realising for us pictorially what was realised in such plastic perfection by the Greeks. Music, in which all subject is absorbed in expression and cannot be separated from it, is a complex example, and a flower or a child a simple example, of what I mean; but sorrow is the ultimate type both in life and art.

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. Truth in art is not any correspondence between the essential idea and the accidental existence; it is not the resemblance of shape to shadow, or of the form mirrored in the crystal to the form itself; it is no echo coming from a hollow hill, any more than it is a silver well of water in the valley that shows the moon to the moon and Narcissus to Narcissus. Truth in art is the unity of a thing with itself: the outward rendered expressive of the inward: the soul made incarnate: the body instinct with spirit. For this reason there is no truth comparable to sorrow. There are times when sorrow seems to me to be the only truth. Other things may be illusions of the eye or the appetite, made to blind the one and cloy the other, but out of sorrow have the worlds been built, and at the birth of a child or a star there is pain.

More than this, there is about sorrow an intense, an extraordinary reality. I have said of myself that I was one who stood in symbolic relations to the art and culture of my age. There is not a single wretched man in this wretched place along with me who does not stand in symbolic relation to the very secret of life. For the secret of life is suffering. It is what is hidden behind everything. When we begin to live, what is sweet is so sweet to us, and what is bitter so bitter, that we inevitably direct all our desires towards pleasures, and seek not merely for a ‘month or twain to feed on honeycomb,’ but for all our years to taste no other food, ignorant all the while that we may really be starving the soul.

“There is not a single wretched man in this wretched place along with me who does not stand in symbolic relation to the very secret of life. For the secret of life is suffering. It is what is hidden behind everything.”

I remember talking once on this subject to one of the most beautiful personalities I have ever known: a woman, whose sympathy and noble kindness to me, both before and since the tragedy of my imprisonment, have been beyond power and description; one who has really assisted me, though she does not know it, to bear the burden of my troubles more than any one else in the whole world has, and all through the mere fact of her existence, through her being what she is—partly an ideal and partly an influence: a suggestion of what one might become as well as a real help towards becoming it; a soul that renders the common air sweet, and makes what is spiritual seem as simple and natural as sunlight or the sea: one for whom beauty and sorrow walk hand in hand, and have the same message. On the occasion of which I am thinking I recall distinctly how I said to her that there was enough suffering in one narrow London lane to show that God did not love man, and that wherever there was any sorrow, though but that of a child, in some little garden weeping over a fault that it had or had not committed, the whole face of creation was completely marred. I was entirely wrong. She told me so, but I could not believe her. I was not in the sphere in which such belief was to be attained to. Now it seems to me that love of some kind is the only possible explanation of the extraordinary amount of suffering that there is in the world. I cannot conceive of any other explanation. I am convinced that there is no other, and that if the world has indeed, as I have said, been built of sorrow, it has been built by the hands of love, because in no other way could the soul of man, for whom the world was made, reach the full stature of its perfection. Pleasure for the beautiful body, but pain for the beautiful soul.

Oscar Wilde in 1882. Photo by Napoleon Sarony

When I say that I am convinced of these things I speak with too much pride. Far off, like a perfect pearl, one can see the city of God. It is so wonderful that it seems as if a child could reach it in a summer’s day. And so a child could. But with me and such as me it is different. One can realise a thing in a single moment, but one loses it in the long hours that follow with leaden feet. It is so difficult to keep ‘heights that the soul is competent to gain.’ We think in eternity, but we move slowly through time; and how slowly time goes with us who lie in prison I need not tell again, nor of the weariness and despair that creep back into one’s cell, and into the cell of one’s heart, with such strange insistence that one has, as it were, to garnish and sweep one’s house for their coming, as for an unwelcome guest, or a bitter master, or a slave whose slave it is one’s chance or choice to be.

And, though at present my friends may find it a hard thing to believe, it is true none the less, that for them living in freedom and idleness and comfort it is more easy to learn the lessons of humility than it is for me, who begin the day by going down on my knees and washing the floor of my cell. For prison life with its endless privations and restrictions makes one rebellious. The most terrible thing about it is not that it breaks one’s heart—hearts are made to be broken—but that it turns one’s heart to stone. One sometimes feels that it is only with a front of brass and a lip of scorn that one can get through the day at all. And he who is in a state of rebellion cannot receive grace, to use the phrase of which the Church is so fond—so rightly fond, I dare say—for in life as in art the mood of rebellion closes up the channels of the soul, and shuts out the airs of heaven. Yet I must learn these lessons here, if I am to learn them anywhere, and must be filled with joy if my feet are on the right road and my face set towards ‘the gate which is called beautiful,’ though I may fall many times in the mire and often in the mist go astray.

“For prison life with its endless privations and restrictions makes one rebellious. The most terrible thing about it is not that it breaks one’s heart—hearts are made to be broken—but that it turns one’s heart to stone.”

From The Illustrated Police News, 4 May 1895

This New Life, as through my love of Dante I like sometimes to call it, is of course no new life at all, but simply the continuance, by means of development, and evolution, of my former life. I remember when I was at Oxford saying to one of my friends as we were strolling round Magdalen’s narrow bird-haunted walks one morning in the year before I took my degree, that I wanted to eat of the fruit of all the trees in the garden of the world, and that I was going out into the world with that passion in my soul. And so, indeed, I went out, and so I lived. My only mistake was that I confined myself so exclusively to the trees of what seemed to me the sun-lit side of the garden, and shunned the other side for its shadow and its gloom. Failure, disgrace, poverty, sorrow, despair, suffering, tears even, the broken words that come from lips in pain, remorse that makes one walk on thorns, conscience that condemns, self-abasement that punishes, the misery that puts ashes on its head, the anguish that chooses sack-cloth for its raiment and into its own drink puts gall:—all these were things of which I was afraid. And as I had determined to know nothing of them, I was forced to taste each of them in turn, to feed on them, to have for a season, indeed, no other food at all.

“I don’t regret for a single moment having lived for pleasure.”

I don’t regret for a single moment having lived for pleasure. I did it to the full, as one should do everything that one does. There was no pleasure I did not experience. I threw the pearl of my soul into a cup of wine. I went down the primrose path to the sound of flutes. I lived on honeycomb. But to have continued the same life would have been wrong because it would have been limiting. I had to pass on. The other half of the garden had its secrets for me also. Of course all this is foreshadowed and prefigured in my books. Some of it is in The Happy Prince, some of it in The Young King, notably in the passage where the bishop says to the kneeling boy, ‘Is not He who made misery wiser than thou art’? a phrase which when I wrote it seemed to me little more than a phrase; a great deal of it is hidden away in the note of doom that like a purple thread runs through the texture of Dorian Gray; in The Critic as Artist it is set forth in many colours; in The Soul of Man it is written down, and in letters too easy to read; it is one of the refrains whose recurring motifs make Salome so like a piece of music and bind it together as a ballad; in the prose poem of the man who from the bronze of the image of the ‘Pleasure that liveth for a moment’ has to make the image of the ‘Sorrow that abideth for ever’ it is incarnate. It could not have been otherwise. At every single moment of one’s life one is what one is going to be no less than what one has been. Art is a symbol, because man is a symbol.