Quote of the Day: Oscar Wilde on Suffering

 

Oscar WildeSomehow (I’m still not quite sure how), a recent conversation with a friend turned to the topic of Oscar Wilde. You know, the guy who said “I can resist anything except temptation,” and “A man’s face is his autobiography. A woman’s face is her work of fiction.” That Oscar Wilde. But the quote that my friend cited was of a quite different nature:

…while to propose to be a better man is a piece of unscientific cant, to have become a deeper man is the privilege of those who have suffered. And such I think I have become.

I’ll admit that Oscar Wilde’s best-known works never ranked at the top of my “must-read” list, and that I vastly prefer most other Victorians when it comes to literary studies. Still, I admire his ability to turn a fine phrase, and as often happens, I set off on a hunt to track that one down.

The central event of Wilde’s adult life is well-known. A brilliant student, and a celebrated writer of poetry and plays in both France and England, he ruined himself in the 1890s by prosecuting the Marquess of Queensberry (yes, that one) for libel. The Marquess had discovered that Wilde, married with two sons, had recently begun a homosexual affair with Lord Alfred Douglas, the Marquess’s son.  Determined to ‘out’ Wilde, the Marquess left a calling card at Wilde’s private London club which read “For Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite [sic].”

Wilde’s prosecution of the Marquess was a complete disaster. During the trial, details of his private life emerged which proved the Marquess’s accusations true, and–homosexuality being a criminal offense in Britain until 1967–voided the charge of libel, and themselves resulted in Wilde’s own arrest, trial, and conviction for gross indecency. He was sentenced to two years in jail, and began to serve his sentence in London’s Pentonville and Wandsworth Prisons, and was subsequently moved to Reading Gaol to serve out his term. Conditions in all three institutions were brutal, and Wilde’s physical and mental health suffered as a result.

Several months before his release, the new governor at Reading Gaol gave Wilde a reprieve from daily physical labor, allowing him to write every day.  Since the production of literary works was prohibited, Wilde was allowed to write a letter. One which he didn’t finish (if he had, it would have been sent) but which was returned to him each day for revision and extension. As he still hadn’t finished it when his sentence ended, it was given to him to take with him out of the jail, and, subsequently, parts of it were published, although not until 1962 did the complete version appear. All of the versions, however, bear the same title: De Profundis–Out of the Depths.

And it’s in that “letter,” one ostensibly written to Bosie–Lord Alfred Douglas–that I found my quote. And decided to read the whole thing.

I listened to the Audible version of De Profundis yesterday on my way to and from Greensburg, PA, where I met my stepdaughter and granddaughter for a combined Mother’s Day and Birthday (stepdaughter’s) brunch, followed by a viewing of the new Downton Abbey movie. Lord, it’s good. Spoiler Alert: Happy endings (in the old-fashioned sense) for all except one, and that one handled with her usual vinegar wit and aplomb.

But I digress. Back to suffering.

De Profundis is quite short–a couple of hours if you’re listening, and about 80 pages or so if you’re reading. I’ll backtrack to the print edition sometime and take it in again, as my attention sometimes wanders when I’m listening while doing something else (in this case, driving). But I’m pretty sure it relates an extraordinary personal and transformational journey through some very dark times. In fact, I almost gave up on it about a quarter of the way through, in the midst of what seemed like a bitter, angry, unenlightened, self-pitying slog with no end in sight.

What turned it around for me? This passage:

While I was in Wandsworth prison I longed to die.  It was my one desire.  When after two months in the infirmary I was transferred here, and found myself growing gradually better in physical health, I was filled with rage.  I determined to commit suicide on the very day on which I left prison.  After a time that evil mood passed away, and I made up my mind to live, but to wear gloom as a king wears purple: never to smile again: to turn whatever house I entered into a house of mourning: to make my friends walk slowly in sadness with me: to teach them that melancholy is the true secret of life: to maim them with an alien sorrow: to mar them with my own pain.  Now I feel quite differently.  I see it would be both ungrateful and unkind of me to pull so long a face that when my friends came to see me they would have to make their faces still longer in order to show their sympathy; or, if I desired to entertain them, to invite them to sit down silently to bitter herbs and funeral baked meats.  I must learn how to be cheerful and happy.

The last two occasions on which I was allowed to see my friends here, I tried to be as cheerful as possible, and to show my cheerfulness, in order to make them some slight return for their trouble in coming all the way from town to see me.  It is only a slight return, I know, but it is the one, I feel certain, that pleases them most.  I saw R— for an hour on Saturday week, and I tried to give the fullest possible expression of the delight I really felt at our meeting.  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 for life.

There is before me so much to do, that I would regard it as a terrible tragedy if I died before I was allowed to complete at any rate a little of it.  I see new developments in art and life, each one of which is a fresh mode of perfection.  I long to live so that I can explore what is no less than a new world to me.  Do you want to know what this new world is?  I think you can guess what it is.  It is the world in which I have been living.  Sorrow, then, and all that it teaches one, is my new world.

“I see it would be both ungrateful and unkind of me to pull so long a face that when my friends came to see me they would have to make their faces still longer in order to show their sympathy…I must learn how to be cheerful and happy. I saw R— for an hour on Saturday week, and I tried to give the fullest possible expression of the delight I really felt at our meeting. And…now for the first time since my imprisonment I have a real desire for life.”

Simple as that. What turned life around for Wilde, to the point where he–once the apostle of superficiality–could proclaim that “the supreme vice is shallowness,” was the realization that self-absorption, wallowing in his own misery, dragging others down into the Slough of Despond with him in order to force them to prove their affection for him, really wasn’t helping; in fact, it was having the opposite effect on his psyche, pulling himself deeper into the vortex of his own despair. He discovered that, by changing his focus, and by acting in ways “cheerful and happy,” he could energize his own suffering and sorrow and use it as a springboard to learn how to become a “deeper man.” The rest of De Profundis is a disquisition on spiritual growth which, if nonconformist in many ways in its structure and matter, is deeply Christian.

I found myself rooting for Wilde in his spiritual journey, although I already knew that Wilde’s outer life after jail didn’t match his newfound inner depth and joy. He died of meningitis, in poverty, in Paris, three short years after his release. He was, however (like the Dowager Countess) not going without a final bon mot. Reportedly, Wilde’s last words, shortly after he was received into the Catholic Church, were “This wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. Either it goes, or I do.”

The wallpaper won.

Wilde died on November 30, 1900. He was 46 years old. One hundred seventeen years after his death, Oscar Wilde and about 49 thousand other Britons were posthumously pardoned for consensual same-sex offenses by the British Government under the terms of the Alan Turing Law.

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  1. Addiction Is A Choice Member
    Addiction Is A Choice
    @AddictionIsAChoice

    She: followed by a viewing of the new Downton Abbey movie.  Lord, it’s good.

    We loved the new Downton movie, too!

    Oh, and “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” in all its forms, remain an all-time favorite!

    • #1
  2. Western Chauvinist Member
    Western Chauvinist
    @WesternChauvinist

    Man, that guy could write! The Picture of Dorian Gray is Elder’s favorite piece of literature and she had us read it in a family book club. Even when writing about the darkest of subjects, the way he strings words together is simply beautiful. 

    • #2
  3. She Member
    She
    @She

    Western Chauvinist (View Comment):

    Man, that guy could write! The Picture of Dorian Gray is Elder’s favorite piece of literature and she had us read it in a family book club. Even when writing about the darkest of subjects, the way he strings words together is simply beautiful.

    One might say it’s the “gift of the blarney,” stemming from his Irish ancestry.  (One might especially say that if She hails from Merrie Old England.)  But I agree!  

    • #3
  4. She Member
    She
    @She

    Addiction Is A Choice (View Comment):

    She: followed by a viewing of the new Downton Abbey movie.  Lord, it’s good.

    We loved the new Downton movie, too!

    Pleased to hear it’s not just me.  Apparently it had a pretty good opening weekend for the sort of movie it is.  I was taking bets on the likelihood of beloved granddaughter (she’s 14) being the youngest person in the audience (which had dozens of people in it).  I think I won.

    It’s a long time since I’ve been to a movie with so many people in attendance.  I’ll probably go again by myself, a bit closer to home.  I did notice a few buried “easter eggs,” the most notable of which (spoiler alert, although not a major one) was the shopkeeper’s reference to Lady Maud–who’d just helped Carson buy a hat–as “your wife.”  In the movie, this discomfited Carson severely; IRL, of course, Imelda Staunton IS his wife….)

    • #4
  5. The Scarecrow Thatcher
    The Scarecrow
    @TheScarecrow

    Just recently sat down to watch the incomparable “The Importance of Being Earnest” with my Teutonic temptress; she wanted to know what the deal was with my occasional references to cucumber sandwiches, and cucumbers not being available at the market “not even for ready money”.

    This play is one of the most spot-on and funny things ever written.

    (Michael Redgrave/Edith Evans Version of course.)

    • #5
  6. CarolJoy, Not So Easy To Kill Coolidge
    CarolJoy, Not So Easy To Kill
    @CarolJoy

    The Scarecrow (View Comment):

    Just recently sat down to watch the incomparable “The Importance of Being Earnest” with my Teutonic temptress; she wanted to know what the deal was with my occasional references to cucumber sandwiches, and cucumbers not being available at the market “not even for ready money”.

    This play is one of the most spot-on and funny things ever written.

    (Michael Redgrave/Edith Evans Version of course.)

    It is really hilarious.

    Maybe you or someone else here might know the answer to this: Was Wilde the one who  wrote a tale about a family who was upended when the young son, away at boarding school or military school, was thrown out of that institution for theft or lying?

    And the father is determined to bring about justice for his son so his reputation will be salvaged.

    It has been made into several movies, one in the 1990’s and one or two others before 1960 or so.

    • #6
  7. Lilly B Coolidge
    Lilly B
    @LillyB

    I wasn’t familiar with Wilde’s De Profundis, but it sounds like he discovered his own sort of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy through writing. Now I want to read the whole thing! Adding it to the list…

    *******

    This post is part of the Quote of the Day (QOTD) Series, which is one of the group writing projects here on Ricochet. The other is the monthly group writing theme organized by @cliffordbrown, currently open for volunteers to riff on the theme “Mother of —.” The QOTD signup sheet for May is here. The signup sheet for June is coming soon!

    • #7
  8. Marjorie Reynolds Coolidge
    Marjorie Reynolds
    @MarjorieReynolds

    I was a big fan of Oscar Wilde as a teenager,  I adored the Picture of Dorian Grey and his short stories too. I haven’t re read them in the years sine but my interest in him  has returned since reading Douglas Murray’s biography of Bosie last year. 

    • #8
  9. RightAngles Member
    RightAngles
    @RightAngles

    I’ve loved him since high school when our school did a production of The Importance of Being Earnest, and I ended up reading just about everything he wrote. I came here to mention his last words about the wallpaper but you beat me to it. Another great quote was when he came though customs (in New York, I think, but I can’t remember), when they asked if he had anything to declare and he said “Just my genius”

    • #9
  10. Marjorie Reynolds Coolidge
    Marjorie Reynolds
    @MarjorieReynolds

    RightAngles (View Comment):

    I’ve loved him since high school when our school did a production of The Importance of Being Earnest, and I ended up reading just about everything he wrote. I came here to mention his last words about the wallpaper but you beat me to it. Another great quote was when he came though customs (in New York, I think, but I can’t remember), when they asked if he had anything to declare and he said “Just my genius”

    There’s also ‘the wages of gin is breath’

    • #10
  11. DonovanGodfrey Coolidge
    DonovanGodfrey
    @DonovanGodfrey

    You are quite good at this. You are inspiring me to dip my own toe(s) into this water. Please keep on writing. I didn’t want to reach the end :) 

    • #11
  12. She Member
    She
    @She

    DonovanGodfrey (View Comment):

    You are quite good at this. You are inspiring me to dip my own toe(s) into this water. Please keep on writing. I didn’t want to reach the end :)

    Thank you.  This is a great place to scratch your writing itch, and please do have a go.  The group writing (a “theme of the month” project for which people sign up on a day of their choice), and quote-of-the-day are good places to start if you’re not sure how to begin.  Otherwise, the sky’s the limit!

    PS: Welcome to Ricochet, @donovangodfrey

     

    • #12
  13. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    She (View Comment):

    PS: Welcome to Ricochet, @donovangodfrey

    Amen!

    • #13
  14. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    She (View Comment):

    PS: Welcome to Ricochet, @ donovangodfrey

    Amen!

    Welcome, Donovan!

    • #14
  15. Basil Fawlty Member
    Basil Fawlty
    @BasilFawlty

    CarolJoy, Not So Easy To Kill (View Comment):

    The Scarecrow (View Comment):

    Just recently sat down to watch the incomparable “The Importance of Being Earnest” with my Teutonic temptress; she wanted to know what the deal was with my occasional references to cucumber sandwiches, and cucumbers not being available at the market “not even for ready money”.

    This play is one of the most spot-on and funny things ever written.

    (Michael Redgrave/Edith Evans Version of course.)

    It is really hilarious.

    Maybe you or someone else here might know the answer to this: Was Wilde the one who wrote a tale about a family who was upended when the young son, away at boarding school or military school, was thrown out of that institution for theft or lying?

    And the father is determined to bring about justice for his son so his reputation will be salvaged.

    It has been made into several movies, one in the 1990’s and one or two others before 1960 or so.

    That was The Winslow Boy by Terence Rattigan.

    • #15
  16. Michael Brehm Coolidge
    Michael Brehm
    @MichaelBrehm

    G.K. Chesterton had an odd appreciation of Oscar Wilde. This is from an essay where he explored the many paradoxes of the writer that I find insightful:

    But while he had a strain of humbug in him, which there is not in the demagogues of wit like Bernard Shaw, he had, in his own strange way, a much deeper and more spiritual nature than they. Queerly enough, it was the very multitude of his falsities that prevented him from being entirely false. Like a many-coloured humming top, he was at once a bewilderment and a balance. He was so fond of being many-sided that among his sides he even admitted the right side. He loved so much to multiply his souls that he had among them one soul at least that was saved. He desired all beautiful things – even God.

     

    • #16
  17. Charles Mark Member
    Charles Mark
    @CharlesMark

    Marjorie Reynolds (View Comment):

    I was a big fan of Oscar Wilde as a teenager, I adored the Picture of Dorian Grey and his short stories too. I haven’t re read them in the years sine but my interest in him has returned since reading Douglas Murray’s biography of Bosie last year.

    The Ballad of Reading Gaol was on the (Irish) Leaving Certificate course in the 1970s. I thought at the time and since that it was the entire poem, but on looking at it now I see that it was just Part IV-

    There is no chapel on the day on which they hang a man…”. 

    That line has been going around in my head ever since, including the last couple of days for reasons I can’t explain. 

    I was more of a Yeats fan myself, but I don’t think he is taught to the same extent these days. 

     

    • #17
  18. Marjorie Reynolds Coolidge
    Marjorie Reynolds
    @MarjorieReynolds

    Charles Mark (View Comment):

    Marjorie Reynolds (View Comment):

    I was a big fan of Oscar Wilde as a teenager, I adored the Picture of Dorian Grey and his short stories too. I haven’t re read them in the years sine but my interest in him has returned since reading Douglas Murray’s biography of Bosie last year.

    The Ballad of Reading Gaol was on the (Irish) Leaving Certificate course in the 1970s. I thought at the time and since that it was the entire poem, but on looking at it now I see that it was just Part IV-

    There is no chapel on the day on which they hang a man…”.

     

    That line has been going around in my head ever since, including the last couple of days for reasons I can’t explain.

    I was more of a Yeats fan myself, but I don’t think he is taught to the same extent these days.

     

    I didn’t know that Charles. I did the leaving cert in 1995 so we used Soundings for the poetry. Yeats, Kavanagh, Kinsella and Austen Clarke were the only Irish Poets.

    We studied some Yeats for Junior Cert too. I remember some of the lads in my class looking at a photo of Maude Gonne and commenting how she wasn’t that great whatever Yeats might have thought.

    • #18
  19. Charles Mark Member
    Charles Mark
    @CharlesMark

    Marjorie Reynolds (View Comment):

    Charles Mark (View Comment):

    Marjorie Reynolds (View Comment):

    I was a big fan of Oscar Wilde as a teenager, I adored the Picture of Dorian Grey and his short stories too. I haven’t re read them in the years sine but my interest in him has returned since reading Douglas Murray’s biography of Bosie last year.

    The Ballad of Reading Gaol was on the (Irish) Leaving Certificate course in the 1970s. I thought at the time and since that it was the entire poem, but on looking at it now I see that it was just Part IV-

    There is no chapel on the day on which they hang a man…”.

     

     

    That line has been going around in my head ever since, including the last couple of days for reasons I can’t explain.

    I was more of a Yeats fan myself, but I don’t think he is taught to the same extent these days.

     

    I didn’t know that Charles. I did the leaving cert in 1995 so we used Soundings for the poetry. Yeats, Kavanagh, Kinsella and Austen Clarke were the only Irish Poets.

    We studied some Yeats for Junior Cert too. I remember some of the lads in my class looking at a photo of Maude Gonne and commenting how she wasn’t that great whatever Yeats might have thought.

    https://assets.gov.ie/120293/2e2f966b-69ca-4cea-be9e-0baacb287a26.pdf

    The syllabus for next year is very different to your time or mine. Yeats is still there, as is Kavanagh. I’m surprised not to see Heaney. 

    • #19
  20. Marjorie Reynolds Coolidge
    Marjorie Reynolds
    @MarjorieReynolds

    Charles Mark (View Comment):

    Marjorie Reynolds (View Comment):

    Charles Mark (View Comment):

    Marjorie Reynolds (View Comment):

    I was a big fan of Oscar Wilde as a teenager, I adored the Picture of Dorian Grey and his short stories too. I haven’t re read them in the years sine but my interest in him has returned since reading Douglas Murray’s biography of Bosie last year.

    The Ballad of Reading Gaol was on the (Irish) Leaving Certificate course in the 1970s. I thought at the time and since that it was the entire poem, but on looking at it now I see that it was just Part IV-

    There is no chapel on the day on which they hang a man…”.

     

     

    That line has been going around in my head ever since, including the last couple of days for reasons I can’t explain.

    I was more of a Yeats fan myself, but I don’t think he is taught to the same extent these days.

     

    I didn’t know that Charles. I did the leaving cert in 1995 so we used Soundings for the poetry. Yeats, Kavanagh, Kinsella and Austen Clarke were the only Irish Poets.

    We studied some Yeats for Junior Cert too. I remember some of the lads in my class looking at a photo of Maude Gonne and commenting how she wasn’t that great whatever Yeats might have thought.

    https://assets.gov.ie/120293/2e2f966b-69ca-4cea-be9e-0baacb287a26.pdf

    The syllabus for next year is very different to your time or mine. Yeats is still there, as is Kavanagh. I’m surprised not to see Heaney.

    Seamus Heaney is a big oversight. The Handmaid’s Tale, no surprise there. Paula Meehan’s poem about Ann Lovett, again no surprise. Trading Places?????? 

    • #20
  21. She Member
    She
    @She

    Marjorie Reynolds (View Comment):
    Seamus Heaney is a big oversight.

    Among other things, Heaney’s translation of Beowulf is not to be missed.

    • #21
  22. CarolJoy, Not So Easy To Kill Coolidge
    CarolJoy, Not So Easy To Kill
    @CarolJoy

    Basil Fawlty (View Comment):

    CarolJoy, Not So Easy To Kill (View Comment):

    The Scarecrow (View Comment):

    Just recently sat down to watch the incomparable “The Importance of Being Earnest” with my Teutonic temptress; she wanted to know what the deal was with my occasional references to cucumber sandwiches, and cucumbers not being available at the market “not even for ready money”.

    This play is one of the most spot-on and funny things ever written.

    (Michael Redgrave/Edith Evans Version of course.)

    It is really hilarious.

    Maybe you or someone else here might know the answer to this: Was Wilde the one who wrote a tale about a family who was upended when the young son, away at boarding school or military school, was thrown out of that institution for theft or lying?

    And the father is determined to bring about justice for his son so his reputation will be salvaged.

    It has been made into several movies, one in the 1990’s and one or two others before 1960 or so.

    That was The Winslow Boy by Terence Rattigan.

    Thank you. I couldn’t remember the name or who wrote it.

     

    • #22
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