Back in my December 2012 post, I noted that in the preface to The Picture of Dorian Grey, Oscar Wilde wrote that Basil Hallward (the honorable artist who begins by worshipping Dorian and ends horribly murdered by Dorian when he takes him to task for his infamies) “is what I think I am;” that Lord Henry (who espouses an amoral aesthetic and ostensibly leads Dorian astray) is “what the world thinks me;” and that “Dorian [is] what I would like to be–in other ages, perhaps.” I said I could easily believe Wilde’s statements about Basil and Lord Henry and, given the double life Wilde, as a homosexual, was forced to live, I could understand an affinity for a character living a double life. But, given the novel’s presentation of Dorian as a shallow, rationalizing, and ultimately cowardly, self-deceiving hypocrite, I asked, what did Wilde mean when he said Dorian is what he would like to be?
I still don’t have an answer to that. But, the Dorian Grey statement led me to read Richard Ellman’s biography of Oscar Wilde. The biography seems to support what I have often felt about the man: that his philosophy of art was rather shallow. (For example, Wilde goes on and on about Lilly Langtree’s profile being Hellenic. But what is that to be proud of? That is not a talent. It’s nothing she accomplished. Could she act? Possibly, but that was not the basis for his compliments.)
On page 169 of the biography, Ellman writes of a meeting between Wilde and Walt Whitman: “Wilde declared, ‘I can’t listen to anyone unless he attracts me by a charming style, or by beauty of theme.’ At this the older poet remonstrated, ‘Why, Oscar, it always seemed to me that the fellow who makes a dead set at beauty by itself is in a bad way. My idea is that beauty is a result, not an abstraction.'” I am of Whitman’s view.
Furthermore, Wilde’s compliments to the work of fellow artists, particularly those with whom he became enamored seem so overly effusive that one cannot help wondering whether he fell in love with people because he liked their work or liked their work because he fell in love with them.
On the other hand, as a human being, he is no phony. Wilde appears to have been extremely kind and to have had a great sensitivity to other people’s pain. (Something that Dorian certainly would not have had. Also, although I believe Dorian was written first, the character seems very like Lord Alfred Douglas in his callousness and self-absorption. Indeed, in the relationship between Wilde and Douglas as presented by Ellman, Wilde reminds me of the battered spouse who keeps coming back for more.)
One example of Wilde’s character, from Ellman’s book, (at page 412), touched me immensely. Ellman refers to Nelly Sickert’s retelling of how, when her father, Oswald Sickert died, Wilde came to call on her mother. The mother, beyond despair, refused to to see him, but he would not leave. Then, still saying she refused receive him, she nevertheless came into the room. As Ellman retells it, “Nelly saw Wilde take both her hands and draw her to a chair…’He stayed a long time, and before he went I heard my mother laughing….She was transformed. He had made her talk, had asked questions about my father’s last illness, and allowed her to unburden…those torturing memories. Gradually, he had talked of my father, of his music, of the possibilities of a memorial exhibition of his pictures. Then, she didn’t know how, he had begun to tell her of all sorts of things, which he contrived to make interesting and amusing. ‘And then I laughed,’ she said. ‘I thought I should never laugh again.'” What Wilde did here shows not only a great sensitivity and empathy, but also a very mature understanding of what this woman, in deep despair, needed. It makes me like him more than all his many witty works put together.
A last passing thought: I feel so very sad for Wilde. I know the world has a long way to go, but one cannot help but think what his life, and his art too, might have been if he were living today rather than in the time in which he was born.