Oscar Wilde the would-be saint and Oscar Wilde the woeful sinner were in deadly conflict, one with the other…
Oscar Wilde’s life is more scandalous today than it was during the Decadence of the 1890s. In fact, it is so scandalous that a current exhibition of his life and legacy at the Petit Palais Musée des Beaux Arts in Paris is keeping the most shocking part of his life under wraps and hidden away safely in a closet. All the safe and bourgeois facts of his life are prominently displayed, the stuff that everybody already knows, such as Wilde’s self-indulgent homosexual fling with Lord Alfred Douglas and the various trite and kitsch ephemera associated with it. The calling card from Douglas’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry, on which the Marquess scrawled the (misspelled) word “sodomite”, is displayed with all due pomp and prominence in a display case. There is a signed copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray dedicated to Lord Alfred Douglas. Yes indeed, all the usual boring bourgeois yawn-inducing stuff.
This is all so tame, so timid, so predictably prim and proper. It’s merely the same old genuflecting with all due reverence and deference to the tediously meretricious culture.
What we need is some real spice. Something really gritty and countercultural. Something that will shock the establishment to its foundations. Something that will prick the priggishness of those who play it safe by following the latest fads and fashions. What we need to be shown is the real Oscar Wilde, stripped of all the pretentious nonsense with which he hid himself from the world. We need the naked Oscar Wilde, the really shocking Oscar Wilde with all his masks removed so that we can see him in the flesh. No, we need more than merely Wilde in the flesh. The carnal Wilde is not enough because Wilde, like all men, is more than skin deep. We need to get down and dirty and find the soul of the man, lurking beneath the oh-so-boring surface. We need to know the real Oscar who reveals himself in those moments when he is liberated from the libido.
We need to see the Oscar Wilde that the museum in Paris has kept locked away in a closet so that we won’t be shocked when we visit the exhibition. We need to see the really outrageous Wilde that his biographers have brushed under the rug in their embarrassed efforts to keep his dirty secret hidden from the public. To cut to the chase, we need to know the love that dare not speak its name. We need to know the lifelong love affair that Oscar Wilde had with Christ and His Church, a love affair that was finally consummated on Wilde’s death bed.
The first thing we need to know about Wilde is that he was at war with himself. Wilde the would-be saint and Wilde the woeful sinner were in deadly conflict, one with the other. In this he was no different from the rest of us. Throughout his life, even at those times that he was at his most “decadent”, he retained a deep love for the Person of Christ and a lasting reverence for the Catholic Church. Indeed he spent much of his life flirting with Catholicism. He almost converted as an undergraduate at Trinity College in Dublin, and was on the brink of conversion a year or so later as an undergraduate at Magdalen College, Oxford. There were no doctrinal differences preventing him from being received into the Church. He believed everything the Church believed and even spoke eloquently and wittily in defence of Catholic dogmas such as the Immaculate Conception. The only reason he failed to follow the logic of his Catholic convictions was a fear of being disinherited by his father if he did so. Years later, after his fall from favour following the scandal surrounding his homosexual affair with Lord Alfred Douglas, he spoke wistfully of his reluctant decision to turn his back on the Church. “Much of my moral obliquity is due to the fact that my father would not allow me to become a Catholic”, he confided to a journalist. “The artistic side of the Church would have cured my degeneracies. I intend to be received before long.”[*] In the event, he was finally received into the Church shortly before his death in 1900.
Needless to say, Wilde’s Christianity informed the moral dimension of his work. His poetry exhibits either a selfless love for Christ or, at its darkest, a deep self-loathing in the face of the ugliness of his own sinfulness. His short stories are almost always animated by a deep Christian morality, with “The Selfish Giant” deserving a timeless accolade as one of the finest Christian fairy stories ever written. His plays are more than merely comedies or tragedies; they are morality plays in which virtue is vindicated and vice vanquished. And The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde’s only novel and a true masterpiece of Victorian fiction, is a cautionary tale in which a man destroys himself and those with whom he comes into contact in his insane desire to escape from the constraints of morality and the dictates of his conscience.
This is shocking enough, and warrants the censorship of Wilde’s puritanical modern admirers, but it’s only a small part of the whole shocking story. It is not only Wilde who succumbed to the love that dare not speak its name. Most of the other Decadents who influenced Wilde or with whom he fraternized also fell in love with Christ and His Church. Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine and Joris Karl Huysmans, the leading lights of the French Decadence, were all received into the Catholic Church, the last of whom spending the last years of his life in a monastery. Even more shocking is the fact that Wilde approved of Huysmans entering the monastery and expressed a desire to do the same. Needless to say, there’s no mention of this in the Paris exhibition, its being hidden away in the safely locked closet.
And there’s more. Most of the leading lights of the English Decadence also became Catholics, including the poets Lionel Johnson, Ernest Dowson and John Gray, the last of whom, the physical inspiration for Dorian Gray, went on to become a Catholic priest. Even Lord Alfred Douglas, the man who induced Wilde to abandon his wife and children in pursuit of sordid and transient pleasures, saw the error of his ways and was received into the Catholic Church. And when all of Wilde’s fair-weather friends abandoned him, leaving him to a life of penury in Paris, it was another convert to Catholicism, Robert Ross, the very man who is thought to have first introduced Wilde to homosexual practice, who stood by him, fetching the priest who would receive Wilde into the Church.
This is the dirty secret that the Paris exhibition is hiding from the public. This is the love that dare not speak its name. It is the love of Christ which calls sinners to repentance, and the love of the penitent soul for the forgiveness of God. It is a love that is so shocking that it must be thrust into a closet and hidden.
Oscar Wilde and a host of others have learned that there is only one true love. It is the love that inspires the laying down of one’s life for ones friends and enemies. Wilde came out of the darkness of the closet into which his own sinfulness had thrust him, finding the true light of day. This is Wilde’s revolutionary secret, which the bourgeoisie seek to conceal. It is a secret which we should proclaim from the hilltops, in spite of the persecution and hatred that it might provoke. Come out of the closet of your self-enclosing Pride, all ye dwellers in the shadows. Come out into the fullness of the light of Christ and the Love that transfigures the soul.
[*] H. Montgomery Hyde, Oscar Wilde: A Biography (London: Eyre Methuen, 1976), p. 368