A blog on reading, writing and life

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Reads: "De Profundis"

When I first read of Wilde’s philosophy of aestheticism in the introduction to Picture of Dorian Gray and in The Soul of Man Under Socialism, I couldn’t have disagreed with it more. From a young age, I was taught that important literature is about important ideas, and reading the argument that beauty could be valuable its own cause hostility within me. This book totally changed my view on that. More than any other work I’ve read, “De Profundis” affected what I believe art can and should do.

“De Profundis” is an epistle written by Wilde during his two years in hard labor prison to the man who put him there, his lover Lord Alfred Douglas (hereafter known as Bosie) who encouraged Wilde to sue his (Bosie’s) father for libel, which lead to evidence of his homosexual behavior. Wilde both reflects on the ill-fated love affair that landed him behind bars and his personal philosophy on art and life.

There are two versions of this work: one was published shortly after Wilde’s death by his friend Robbie Ross with all the details of Wilde and Bosie’s relationship expunged and a full version which remained unpublished until 1960. Even though there nothing hotter than 19th century forbidden love, I honestly prefer the abridged version.

If you know anything about the relationship between Wilde and Bosie, you already know how Wilde would chastise him, but no matter how true it is that Bosie was selfish and immature, enumerating it in detail still makes Wilde sound like an asshole. Therefore, removing Wilde’s unsparing criticism of Bosie does more than just shorten the piece; it changes the whole tone and focus.

In the abridged version we are able to focus on the question, “what is beauty?” The reason why I disagreed with aesthetic philosophy was because usually “beautiful writing” is used to mean purple prose and navel gazing. But Wilde doesn’t mean that beauty is a flurry of adjectives and incomprehensible metaphors. “Beautiful writing” might better here be called “beautiful stories.” His description of the life of Jesus Christ as a work of art helped me make this distinction. There is beauty inherent in the acts of sacrifice and redemption. Wilde says that Jesus’s command, “‘Forgive your enemies,’ it is not for the sake of the enemy, but for one’s own sake that he says so, and because love is more beautiful than hate.”

Since reading this letter, I’ve tried to identify the acts of beauty in all the works that I read. Sometimes there are other problems in the work, like Henry IV Part 2, which has one of Shakespeare’s messiest plots, but the crown scene between Prince Hal and his father is so heart-wrenching that I read it over and over again. It has the ephemeral element of the prodigal son and uses the everyday occurrence of misunderstanding to build dramatic tension. But characters love each other, despite their inability to connect, and we are sympathetic the motives of both of the disappointed father and the repentant son. Their reconciliation at the end of the scene is immensely satisfying (probably more satisfying that the end of the play itself) because of the beauty of the conflict between parent and child.

A lot of the contemporary literature I read is too smug and ironic to be beautiful, no matter how many words are in the writer's vocabulary. Unfortunately, we live in a very cynical age. I remember distinctly a book review in the Boston Globe that I read about a year ago for one of those “literary” novels. I was very amused because though the reviewer was raving about this book, every detail he revealed about sounded terrible. (One of the main characters was an adjunct writing professor, for example.) And then we got the the quotes. I really wish I had saved the review, but you’ll have to bear with my remembrance. The main character, speaking the woman he was sleeping with, says, “I really like you, but it’s not like I like have to date you, or whatever.” Her response? A “grunt.” This interaction was praised by the reviewer for its bold realism. I kid you not.

What “realism” is, of course, depends on how you see the world. And very few people these days see the world as a beautiful place. That’s not trendy. Romantic love has been banished to supermarket paperbacks, and inarticulate commitment-phobes are praised as the archetypes of my generation. Finally grasping the idea that beauty can exists for beauty’s sake has changed the way I read and write.

So, to return to Wilde, the abridged version may not be a “true” reflection of his epistle, but the ideas about aestheticism crystallized through Ross’s editing are worth discovering. And an upside to this is, Ross’s truncated version is available for free through Project Gutenberg, while the unabridged is still under copyright.

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