Oscar Wilde, De Profundis, and the rhetoric of agency

Oscar Wilde, De Profundis, and the rhetoric of agency

Foster, David

DeProfundis occupies a precarious place in Oscar Wilde’s canon and for several reasons is often skirted by wary interpreters: it does not fit neatly into any single genre; it does not resemble any of the other works that made Wilde famous; it is full of irritating inconsistencies and contradictions; and it seems ambiguously aimed at a wider audience than its inscription to Alfred Douglas suggests. After all, there are the enduring plays, the fascinating novel, the engaging dialogues; why struggle with a reader-resistant text framed as a personal letter? Its handling in the recent Cambridge Companion to Oscar Wilde (1997) illustrates this critical uneasiness. De Profundis is almost completely ignored in this collection of essays. In her chapter, for example, Regenia Gagnier (a sympathetic interpreter of De Profundis in an earlier study) devotes one sentence to it, calling it “perhaps his greatest work of art” (27)-but does not elaborate. Nowhere in this volume is there a sustained effort to assess the place of De Profundis in Wilde’s canon or to set it within the context of his life.

Many readers disparage or dismiss De Profundis. It has been condemned as a “venomous dossier” and “obsessive piece of writing” (Julian 352), and it has been dismissed as the complaint of a very unhappy prisoner who “thereafter lost interest in” the work (Croft-Cooke 231). Even good-faith interpretive efforts run aground: Avrom Fleishman speaks of being “unpreparedeven after several readings, in my own case-to believe my eyes” at its shifts of tone and attitude (285-86). There are some sympathetic interpretations, however. One is biographer Richand Ellmann’s judgment that De Profundis is “one of the greatest love letters ever written,” but that it suffers from a “disjointed structure” (515). Another is Gagnier’s own earlier interpretation of the work as a response to the degradation of prison life; shifting between “realism and romance,” “Wilde kept a positive past and created a possible future” as “romance” (Idylls 192). “He reconstructed the world,” says Gagnier, “in order to show that he is above it” (Idylls 190). Both interpretations are insightful. Certainly De Profundis is a record of Wilde’s deeply divided feelings for Douglas. And it is also at times a romance through which Wilde imagines a future for them both, in which he recovers aesthetic and moral superiority over Douglas.

But there are significant aspects of De Profundis that are not considered in the interpretations by Ellmann or Gagnier. Neither asks why its structure appears disjointed or what might account for its subversive energies-its disconcerting shifts in tone, its abrupt swings in self-positioning, or its figurative intensity. Though Wilde creates a vision of his post-prison future, this vision entails at least as much irony as romance, because much of the time Wilde seems to be writing against himself, constructing self-representations that seem to hide as much as they reveal. Throughout much of the text Wilde seems up to something but unwilling to declare what that might be. I want to look again at the elements of De Profundis that make it unreadable for some and to propose that it has a significant place in Wilde’s work. From my perspective, the disjunctions arise from irresolvable tensions lurking in Wilde’s rhetorical goals as he sought both to hide and to reveal his own agency within the events of his life. These tensions are not idiosyncratic but are inherent in the sociocultural space Wilde occupied as an active homosexual. He took it as obligatory that he must displace and disguise his motives and actions even as he explained them. The tonal inconsistencies of De Profundis thus need to be read as manifestations of the tectonic pressures embedded in his life-pressures until 1895 kept more or less under control. In DeProfundisWilde was trying to demonstrate not so much that he was above the world, but that he had been-and still could be-an agent in a world that required duplicity and disguise for survival.

When he went to jail in 1895, Wilde resisted his ruin; he did not accept that his work as a writer was finished, though the public thought so. What he viewed as the first step in his project of self-rehabilitation was the letter to Douglas that became De Profundis. In a letter to his friend Robert Ross he declared its purpose: “I want you, and others who still stand by me and have affection for me, to know exactly in what mood and manner I hope to face the world” after prison (Letters 512). He was defending not only his conduct with Douglas but also his stature as an artist, since The Picture ofDorian Gray and other writings had been used as corroborating evidence of moral impropriety in the trials. Thus in DeProfundisWilde hoped to rebuild his earlier stature as an artist and to articulate the terms on which he might be judged by posterity. De Profundis is thus the best evidence we have of Wilde’s efforts to rescue himself for history; it is made more poignant by contrast with the self-destructive conduct of his final years. Because DeProfundis is so deeply embedded in his life and work, it must be read in the context of the earlier work and his life in the crisis years.

In De Profundis Wilde writes to Alfred Douglas, ” [y] ou knew what my art was to me, the great primal note by which I revealed, first myself to myself, then myself to the world” (549).’ It is this basic purpose that Wilde describes for Ross:

“[y]ou must be in possession of the only document that really gives any explanation of my extraordinary behavior with regard to Queensberry and Alfred Douglas. . . . Some day the truth will have to be known: not necessarily in my lifetime or in Douglas’s: but I am not prepared to sit in the grotesque pillory they put me into, for all time. I don’t defend my conduct. I explain it. (Letters 512)

Though De Profundis is addressed to Douglas, Wilde wanted it read by any reader interested in “the truth” as he would tell it. For these readers he wanted to show his “mental development in prison, and the inevitable evolution of character and intellectual attitude towards life that has taken place” (Letters 512). Because he knew Wilde wanted it to be read, Ross eventually overcame his reluctance, gave the text a title, and published a sanitized version of it after Wilde’s death (Letters 423).

De Profundis reproduces that fundamental conflict between power and victimization underlying the social identity Wilde had come to inhabit as an active homosexual. In the text he casts himself alternately as a tragic protagonist undone by hubris and a victim overwhelmed by repressive social forces. It is the tension between these roles that destabilizes the tone of DeProfundis and creates abrupt shifts of mood. Wilde uses a variety of rhetorical strategies to disguise the erotic implications of his relationship with Douglas and to displace what was culturally inscribed as a moral issue into the realm of aesthetic fulfillment. Some of these strategies draw upon his earlier revisions of Dorian Gray for book publication in 1891. His wariness of the impact of covertly homoerotic language upon readers at that time had been reawakened during the trials, in the course of acerbic exchanges with the prosecutor over the “immorality” of his writings. De Profundis reveals Wilde’s calculated efforts to disguise and deflect homoerotic elements of his relationship with Douglas.


The perspective of subjectivity theory offers a useful starting point for discussing Wilde’s intentions in DeProfundis. In defining individuality within this perspective, Paul Smith points out that “a person is not simply determined and dominated by the pressures of any overarching discourse or ideology” but “is the agent of a certain discernment” capable of “reading [these discourses] in order to insert himself/herself into them-or not” (emphasis Smith; xxxiv-xxxv). This “discernment” is “agency,” the power of the individual to identify, confront, and resist dominant cultural forces. For Wilde language itself is the primary arena within which agency is asserted. Talk is more important than action, says Gilbert in The Critic as Artist, because words determine thoughts and actions: “language… is the parent, and not the child, of thought…. Men are the slaves of words” (7576). Wilde’s resistance to dominant mores of his time was articulated, made public, and critiqued in his textual identities. His agency thus declares itself in his texts, which become the sites of his resistance to the proscriptions against what the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 called “acts of gross indecency with another male person.”

As recent interpreters have demonstrated, Wilde encodes homoerotic desire as an aesthetic construct throughout his plays and prose writings: “sexual subject matter was at the core of his aesthetics,” says Patricia Flanagan Behrendt (5), who labels the transgressive identity Wilde constructs in his writings a “homosexual Eros.” In dialogues like The Decay of Lying (1891) Wilde developed wordplay that implied erotic interest. In the plays that established his artistic pre-eminence in the first half of the 1890’s, continues Behrendt, “homosexual Eros rather than heterosexual pandering informs the meaning of all four plays” (125). Behrendt identifies the theatrical figure of the posturing dandy as the dramatic vehicle by means of which in his plays Wilde critiques “a society that repudiated homosexuality in its laws yet refused to acknowledge the reality of its many manifestations” in the arts (150).

It is in Wilde’s earlier prose writings that explanatory grounding is begun for the erotic aesthetic later inscribed in DeProfundis. In The Soul of Man Under Socialism (1891) Wilde rejects the idea that art is dependent upon the psychic consistency of an essential self. Instead, he says, art is anti-essentialist because it requires the freedom to reinvent one’s identity against the grain: “art is Individualism and Individualism is a disturbing and disintegrating force, for what it seeks to disturb is monotony of type, slavery of custom, tyranny of habit” (Soul ofMan 249). True individuality resists the “immoral ideal of uniformity of type and conformity to rule” (267); only within the framework of a self-expressive freedom-to-be will “man develop Individualism out of himself” (265). Precisely because no one “type” or character represents a real or essential self, all identities must be masks. Thus the artist must use masks: he “is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth,” says Gilbert in The Critic as Artist (114). Masks, then, provide essential space within which “Individualism” can be asserted against cultural pressures; posing is an essential act of self-definition. But posing requires interpretation in response: the beholder must attempt to read the pose-and Wilde often used this interpretive space for evasion and disguise.


Indeed, since the beginning of his public career Wilde had cultivated a reputation as a poser: “the first duty in life is to assume a pose; what the second duty is no one yet has found out” (Ellmann 311). The strategies of disguise and displacement embedded in De Profundis had been years in preparation and use. The controversy over Dorian Gray exacerbated what by 1890 had already become a rich intertext of posing: the early stories, newspaper and magazine articles and photos, Punch caricatures, and word of mouth, all contributed to the complex public persona. The homoerotic overtones of Wilde’s posing blended both assertion and evasion, deflecting direct attacks from those who were suspicious of what lay beneath the pose. It was the cumulative impact of Wilde’s “homoerotic signifying,” suggests Moe Meyer, that drove Alfred Douglas’s father Lord Queensberry to call Wilde a “posing Sodo [m] ite” in the insult that triggered the trials of 1895:

Wilde’s experiments to produce an embodied homoeroticism had yielded … signifying practices that included dress, speech, gesture, and even a mode of text production. This was his contribution to the State’s establishment of the homosexual social identity [during his trials]. (qtd. in Meyers 97)

The accumulated force of Wilde’s provocative texts and public utterances, as well as his behavior with Alfred, finally goaded Queensberry into action with the energetic outrage he assumed was shared by all decent Englishmen. His attorneys planned to use The Picture of Dorian Gray, says Meyer, as “primary evidence for the defense [against Wilde’s libel charge]” (91). In particular, The Picture of Dorian Gray remained a source of scandalized discussion even as his reputation as a playwright grew.

In Dorian Gray Wilde fully articulates the theme of aestheticized sensuality that later informs his self-representation in De Profundis. The parallels between Dorian Gray’s characters and Wilde’s own life in the early 1890s are emphasized by biographer Richard Ellmann, who interprets Dorian Gray as a covert dramatization of Wilde’s homosexuality. “Wilde put into the book a negative version of what he had been brooding about for fourteen years and, under a veil, what he had been doing sexually for four,” says Ellmann, creating “one of the first attempts to bring homosexuality into the English novel” (315). Indeed, during the period of Dorian Gray’s composition the pressure of Wilde’s sexual activity surged against the boundaries of his life: “in the early 1890’s Oscar’s cult of Youth became increasingly populous,” says Gary Schmidgall (177). Caricatures in such publications as Punch increased as Wilde’s reputation grew more bipolar: while his popularity as a playwright intensified, whispers and hints of his domestic and private behavior also gained currency.2 In the years of increasing success following the publication of Dorian Gray in 1890, Wilde was obliged to maneuver between his role as an active but covert homosexual and his other roles as apostle of aestheticism, popular playwright, husband, and father.

Wilde knew that he could not publicly confront his own notoriety without cost to himself, indeed, notoriety enhanced his commercial appeal as a playwright and writer in the 1890’s. Thus the homoerotic implications embedded the novel’s main relationships-carefully downplayed in its revision from magazine to book form-recapitulate the generalized transgressiveness already associated with Wilde the public figure. Early in Dorian Gray Wilde encodes erotic pleasure as spiritual fulfillment in Lord Henry Wotton’s doctrine of self-enrichment:

I believe that if one man were to live out his life fully and completely, were to give form to every feeling, expression to every thought, reality to every dream-I believe the world would gain such a fresh impulse of joy that we would… return to the Hellenic ideal …. We are punished for our refusals. Every impulse that we strive to strangle broods in the mind, and poisons us. The body sins once, and has done with its sin, for action is a mode of purification. (20)3

Wilde thus defines erotic agency as its own redemption: once enacted, desire purifies itself. It is this formulation of unlicensed desire played out in the scenes of Dorian Gray that hastened the darkening of Wilde’s reputation in the early 1890’s. Many came to perceive the texts of life and novel inseparable: the flamboyant dresser and public posturer looked like and drew life from the characters in his novel.

Wilde’s earlier efforts to disguise the homoerotic implications of his language as he revised Dorian Gray point toward his later use of the same strategies in DeProfundis. In revising Dorian Gray Wilde altered the depiction of Basil Hallward’s fascination with Dorian to muffle the erotic implications of their relationship. Donald Lawler points out that even though “the theme of Platonic, homosexual romance… still haunts the final version of the novel,” this theme “had been so radically suppressed by Wilde even in the first edition that he may well have wondered why his novel was called immoral” ( 28). Wilde’s ongoing efforts to tone down the implication that Basil is sexually fascinated by Dorian are evident in the changes Wilde made between the Lippincott’s Magazine version and the book version. Early in the Lippincott’s version, for example, Basil asserts that “I couldn’t be happy if I didn’t see him every day. Of course it is sometimes only for a few minutes. But a few minutes with somebody one worships mean a great deal” (179). The revised version replaces the notion of “worship” with the more pragmatic ground of aesthetic necessity: “I couldn’t be happy if I didn’t see him every day. He is absolutely necessary to me…. He is all my art to me now” (14). In addition, wary of the implications of the term “romance” for one man’s feelings about another, Wilde repeatedly deletes the words “romance” and “passion” from Basil’s descriptions of his own feelings and from Lord Henry’s characterizations of him. Wilde’s strategy was to replace the motif of romance with that of the less erotically charged motif of aesthetic idealism. Early in the Lippincott’s version Lord Henry asks Basil why he will not exhibit his painting of Dorian: “Because,” says Basil, “I have put into it all the extraordinary romance of which, of course, I have never dared to speak to him” (181). In the book version of the passage Basil says “Because, without intending it, I have put into it some expression of all this curious artistic idolatry, of which, of course, I have never cared to speak to him” (15). Changing “dare” to “care,” Wilde transforms a lover’s anxious hesitancy into an artist’s self-reserve, changing Basil’s motives into the deliberate agency of aesthetic judgment. This same strategy-downplaying the homoeroticism embedded in domination and sexual fascination-appears again in De Profundis as Wilde seeks to frame his corrupting relationship with Alfred Douglas in ways that disguise his own agency in their lives together.

Also relevant to DeProfundis is a significant thematic element developed early in both The Critic as Artist and Dorian Gray: the concept of “insincerity.” Sincerity itself, says Gilbert wickedly in The Critic as Artist, limits individualism and the freedom-to-be: “a little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it absolutely fatal.” Instead, the true critic/artist “will realize himself in many forms, and by a thousand different ways, and will ever be curious of new sensations and fresh points ofview” (118). The doctrine of insincerity is most fully elaborated in Dorian Gray. Dorian’s covert exploration of alternate identities forbidden by “the canons of good society” foregrounds “insincerity” as a shaping principle:

Is insincerity such a terrible thing? I think not. It is merely a method by which we can multiply our personalities.

Such, at any rate, was Dorian Gray’s opinion. He used to wonder at the shallow psychology of those who conceive the Ego in man as a thing simple, permanent, reliable, and of one essence. (II 111 )

Thus the power of free agency appears to Dorian in the novel as a continuous series of choices that can be enjoyed only through active pursuit: “To [Dorian], man was a being with myriad lives and myriad sensations, a complex multiform creature that bore within itself strange legacies of thought and passion” (111). Wilde intends this doctrine as a subversion of publicly inscribed morality, argues Jonathan Dollimore: “deviant desire reacts against, disrupts and displaces from within,” creating a transgressive aesthetic of “insincerity, inauthenticity and unnaturalness” (56). Sincerity limits full selfhood; insincerity is the process by which the self pursues its freedom-to-be. Lord Henry’s drawled aphorism encapsulates the mandate of self-fulfillment: “We are punished for our refusals…. The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it” (20).

While Lord Henry outlines his desires in lengthy monologues, Dorian pursues active sensual fulfillment. Lord Henry describes his longing to dominate Dorian in phrases similar to those used by Wilde later in letters to Douglas.4 For example, Lord Henry imagines his power to gain a “grace,” the “white purity of boyhood, and beauty such as old Greek marbles kept for us” (33-34), by mastering Dorian. Yes, concludes Lord Henry, “[h]e would seek to dominate him-had already, indeed, half done so. He would make that wonderful spirit his own. There was something fascinating in this son of love and death” (34). Lord Henry’s words signal the exciting risk of such desire: “you, Mr. Gray, you yourself, with your rose-red youth… have passions that have made you afraid, thoughts that have filled you with terror …. to which Dorian cries “[s]top! . . . stop! you bewilder me” (20). The desires implicit in Lord Henry’s words shape themselves in Dorian’s thoughts and then in his actions:

Then, suddenly, some night he would creep out of the house, go down to dreadful places near Blue Gate Fields, and stay there, day after day, until he was driven away. On his return he would sit in front of the picture, sometimes loathing it and himself, but filled, at other times, with that pride of individualism which is half the fascination of sin. (109)

So Dorian actualizes Lord Henry’s metaphors in the pursuit of sensual satiety. He prowls “the foulest dens of London” (118) even as Hallward tells him that “the most dreadful things are being said against you” (116). But self-denial would, of course, limit the freedom to transgress, and Dorian is unwilling to set limits on his drive for satiety. He makes a final effort to free himself from the persistent demands of “conscience,” but he only succeeds in canceling the magic transformation that had freed him to pursue his appetites. Through his actions Dorian destroys himself. In De Profundis, self-destruction emerges again as a fundamental theme: “the appalling results of my friendship with you,” writes Wilde, were “destructive to my work as an artist” (513). As he began his letter to Douglas, seven years after publishing Dorian Gray and after a year in prison, he realized he had to return to the themes of pursuit, domination, and self-degradation.


While in prison, Wilde was allowed limited writing materials. Before he could begin the task of reconstructing his life on his own terms, he had to win more writing privileges by gaining the sympathy of prison officials. He realized that in order to strike the correct attitude of penitence he had to characterize his deeds within the framework of the authoritative medical discourse of the day. Thus he wrote a self-abasing letter to the Home Secretary confessing that he had committed “monstrous sexual perversion” and was still capable of “loathesome modes of erotomania,” but also saying that he feared “the terror of madness” if he were not given more freedom (Letters 403). Of course, once his petition had gained him more writing materials, he wished it to be clear, as he had written to Ross, that official contrition was only a “grotesque pillory,” not the “mood and manner” in which he hoped “to face the world.” For that task “the truth” was needed. At the same time, writing “the truth” about behavior officially judged criminal in a manuscript that would have to be handed over to prison officials for safekeeping required strategy rather than confessional directness.

Thus Wilde decided to frame his self-reconstruction as a letter to Douglas in which he could create his own version of his motives and behavior. Within this rhetorical context he sought to maneuver between his need to position himself as the dominant agent of his own successes and the need to portray himself as a victim of Douglas’s shallowness and inconstancy. The first part of De Profundis offers a selective narrative marked by disconcerting shifts of position and tone and driven by the dual purposes of assertion and disguise. Accusatory passages describe Douglas’s shallowness and willfulness: “[yl our interests were merely in your meals and moods. Your desires were simply for amusements, for ordinary or less ordinary pleasures. They were what your temperament needed” (514). These accusations are often followed by self-recriminations: “I blame myself” for “having allowed you to bring me to utter and discreditable financial ruin” (515), and “for the entire ethical degradation I allowed you to bring on me” (517).

Wilde’s pained indictments of Douglas’s flaws in DeProfundis replay the motif of destructive domination found in Dorian Gray–but with a deeply altered tone. In the novel Wilde portrays Basil Hallward obsessed with Dorian’s beauty. But in DeProfundis Wilde revises the novel’s celebratory rhetoric of sensual beauty; he has no intention of eliciting parallels between himself and Basil, or between his own motives and Basil’s covert homoerotic desires. Unlike Basil Hallward and Dorian, Wilde in DeProfundis does not try to capture what fascinated him about Douglas; instead, he catalogs his own weaknesses that led him to the young Oxford student. Thus DeProfundis opens with a wounded, recriminating lament depicting Wilde’s attachment to Douglas as the fatal yielding of the superior to the lesser being who “couldn’t know, couldn’t understand, couldn’t appreciate” (514), but whose “life of reckless profusion” was indulged by a fond lover’s tolerance. Of himself Wilde says, “I blame myself for allowing an unintellectual friendship… to entirely dominate my life. From the very first there was too wide a gap between us…. [Y] ou could not understand the conditions necessary for the production of artistic work” (512). Wilde often phrases his actions as passive submission: “My will-power completely failed me…. Blindly I staggered as an ox into the shambles” (519).

But just as he did in revising The Picture ofDorian Gray, Wilde also calibrates his language to disguise and displace the homoerotic agency implicit in the story De Profundis tells. While in many passages he denies his own will-power, in other places he takes pains to claim a covert agency for himself. Even in what he describes as his most submissive moments, Wilde implies volition: I “admit the folly of throwing away all this money on you, and letting you squander my fortune (517). Wilde “allows” Douglas to behave badly, “throws away” money on him, “lets” him waste his income. Even his most abject yieldings are represented as acts of commission:

I had always thought… that when a great moment arrived I could reassert my will-power in its natural superiority. It was not so …. My habit … of giving up to you in everything had become insensibly a real part of my nature …. it had stereotyped my temperament to one permanent and fatal mood. (519)

Wilde asserts a superior “will-power” that is given up as a “habit”-that is, unreflective behavior that dulls the awareness of consequences. Even as he subtly affirms his own responsibility for enabling and furthering relations with Douglas, he also displaces the reader’s attention away from his own complicity towards the insatiable shallowness of Douglas’s demands:

You must see now that your incapacity of being alone: your nature so exigent in its persistent claim on the time of others: your lack of any power of sustained intellectual concentration … were as destructive to your own progress in culture as they were to my work as an artist? (513)

Commenting on this continuous cycle of accusation and selfassertion, James Winchell suggests that Wilde was evidently “strangely puzzled by the continuing riddle” of blame and responsibility in his own narrative (236). But the polarity of Wilde’s rhetorical strategy here is intentional. Portraying himself as a fond companion to a foolish and willful boy, he can displace fault onto Douglas even as he retains the stature of a temporarily yielded superiority. Such a strategy allows him to construct the impression of self-analytic honesty uncompromising enough to validate the accompanying, damning judgments of Douglas. He portrays himself as an indulgent collaboratora fond lover who just could not say no. By this means he hopes to sustain the implication of his own agency within the framework of a systematic plan to discredit Douglas.

It is not hard to see why Wilde adopts a strategy of displacement. His own letters suggest that he was not only an enabler, but often in fact the dominator in the relationship with Douglas. He reveled in the life he led with Douglas between 1893 and 1895, often encouraging and approving Douglas’s impulses: “Dearest Boy,” he wrote during rehearsals of A Woman of No Importance in 1893, “We have only just finished Act 2!! Don’t wait. Order, of course, what you want. Lunch 1.30 tomorrow: at Albemarle …. Ever Yours Oscar” (Letters 337). The reason he refused to break with Douglas even as the trial loomed was not passive submission to Douglas but Wilde’s own eager pleasure in their activities. Moreover (as Ellmann recounts it and as the trial testimony repeatedly establishes), Wilde enjoyed dominating the boys who circled around the two of them in their Savoy Hotel rooms in London, and he actively planned and funded travels to Europe and North Africa with Douglas for new sexual encounters. When friends remonstrated with him about his increasing absence from his family in the period 1893-1895, Wilde would not listen. Indeed, he would retail to others his own sarcastic versions of such remonstrances when they were offered by wellmeaning friends.6

In his strategy of displacement, Wilde glosses his own appetites as Douglas’s callow whims. He describes an episode “in September `93” when, Douglas having left Wilde to go to France for a few days, Wilde went over to bring him back: “I then, of course, had to go over to Calais to fetch you back. For one of my nature and position it was a position at once grotesque and tragic” (513). Of course, nobody forced Wilde to embark for Calais; he wanted Douglas back, the turbulence and risk of their relationship suiting him more than continuing absence from Douglas. Again, in early 1895, even as rehearsals of The Importance of Being Earnest were beginning, Wilde and Douglas traveled to Algiers for three weeks for new sexual adventures. In a letter to his friend Ada Leverson Wilde wrote, “I fly to Algiers with Bosie tomorrow. I begged him to let me stay to rehearse, but so beautiful is his nature that he declined at once” (Letters 381). The graceful absurdity of Wilde’s irony in these lines-a sort of wink between friends- seems a tacit admission of his own complicity in events. Indeed, given Douglas’s irresponsibility and alienation from parental support, Wilde undoubtedly planned and probably paid for most of this trip. Wilde was evidently willing to risk even the success of his newest play in order to devote energy and money to continuing activity with Douglas.

Perhaps the clearest example of Wilde’s efforts to encode his own willful risk-taking as misplaced loyalty to Douglas can be found in his narrative of events just prior to the first trial of April, 1895. Wilde details his time spent with Douglas:

At a time when I should have been in London taking wise counsel… you insisted on my taking you to Monte Carlo, of all revolting places on God’s earth, that all day, and all night as well, you might gamble as long as the Casino was open. As for me … I was left alone outside to myself. (520)

Going to Monaco was the worst thing he could have done. Foregged on by Douglas-he had decided to sue Queensberry for libel, the trial was about to begin, and his attorneys were anxious for his help in building his case against Queensberry (Ellmann 439). Wilde’s senseless decision required profound volition. In part no doubt he wanted to escape the pressure of the looming unpleasantness and found it convenient to flee London once more with Douglas, returning just in time to consult his own counsel before the trial began (Ellmann 442). Devious as it is, the narrative framing of this episode may be read as a sensible rhetorical strategy, given Wilde’s goal of disguising his own agency while invoking sympathy for his misery.

But Wilde, sensing that it ran counter to his larger rehabilitative purpose to deny responsibility or invoke pathos consistently, moves gradually towards a more self-affirming perspective. With the skill born of his mastery of classical forms, he introduces the motif of tragedy by invoking the notion of divine punishment to explain a period in 1894 when Wilde and Douglas were separated and then reunited: “[t] he gods are strange. It is not of our vices only they make instruments to scourge us. They bring us to ruin through what in us is good, gentle, humane, loving” (537). His overindulgence of Douglas’s whims is transmuted into hamartia: “[b]ut for my pity and affection for you and yours, I would not now be weeping in this terrible place” (537). He describes the crisis events of 1895 in terms of peripeteia: “I found it to be a revolting and repellent tragedy, and that the sinister occasion of the great catastrophe . . . was yourself, stripped of that mask of joy and pleasure by which [I] had been deceived and led astray” (544). He becomes a protagonist taking on a tragic burden: “I cannot allow you to go through life bearing in your heart the burden of having ruined a man like me…. I must take the burden from you and put it on my own shoulders” (579).

Wilde reads his fall as a tragedy in which a great nature is pulled down by “smaller natures and meaner minds.” In so doing, he recognizes that to cast himself as a tragic protagonist he must acknowledge some transgression on his part:

Tired of being on the heights I deliberately went to the depths in the search for new sensations. What the paradox was to me in the sphere of thought, perversity became to me in the sphere of passion. Desire, at the end, was a malady, or a madness, or both. (580-81)

Wilde describes his “passion,” which passes finally into “madness,” emphasizing both the intensity of his desires and the difficulty in making sense of them. The ambiguities of”paradox” and “perversity” create an interpretive latitude within which Wilde can both affirm and explain his actions: he goes “to the depths” by the force of will, whose very intensity must be evaluated not morally, but in the context of disease or madness.

Some readers have found this strategy self-defeating. In his study of the signifiers at play in interpreting Wilde’s life, Schmidgall mocks Wilde’s persistent applications of the tragic motif to himself: “Oscar … fancied himself wearing the mask of the tragic pessimist in the ancient Greek fashion: the hero doomed by his own hubris” (252) and foreshadowed by an “amazing minutiae of ironic coincidences and strange anticipations that the ever-witty Fates arranged” (265). Of course, given the self-aggrandizing intentions of Wilde’s rhetoric, such befittling may seem fair enough. But insofar as it interprets the tragic motif in DeProfundis simply as one more convenient pretense for the master of disguise, it misses the constitutive force of such a textual mask. The motif of tragedy allows Wilde to portray his downfall as the inevitable fate of individual desire within an oppressive world.

In the context of a tragic perspective, Wilde begins to portray himself as a sorrowing aesthete spiritualized by suffering. He had achieved “almost everything,” he says, until he brought about his own fall: “I made art a philosophy, and philosophy an art …. I treated Art as the supreme reality, and life as a mere mode of fiction: I awoke the imagination of my century” (580). He even recognizes the necessity of embracing his own suffering:

[I must] absorb into my nature all that has been done to me, to make it part of me, to accept it without complaint… The plank-bed, the loathsome food, the hard ropes shredded into oakum till one’s fingertips grow dull with pain … the dreadful dress that makes sorrow grotesque to look at-each and all of these things I have to transform into a spiritual experience. (585)

But organized religion “does not help me” in this transformation, continues Wilde, because it is abstract and alienating: instead “I give to what one can touch, and look at” (584). Wilde’s world is transformed by the “supreme emotion” of “sorrow”: “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” (592).

Wilde reconstructs Christ as the supreme aesthete, the quintessence of the artistic consummation Wilde has already claimed for himself. This strategy opens the field for Wilde to aestheticize his own suffering and simultaneously link it with Christ’s. “The artistic life is simple self-development,” says Wilde, not in the passive, spectating sense represented by Pater’s Marius the Epicurean, but in an active union of being and action whose truest type is “Christ himself” (597). Wilde’s Christ attains apotheosis through his imaginative reach. He connected with the world’s suffering, says Wilde, by “imagining that he could bear on his own shoulders the burden of the entire world” (599). He possessed a fullness of being that made him a true “artist” who “realised in the entire sphere of human relations that imaginative sympathy which in the sphere of Art is the sole secret of creation” (598). Indeed Wilde had already claimed, in The Soul of Man Under Socialism, that unselfishness is Christlike because it “recognizes infinite variety of type as a delightful thing, accepts it, acquiesces in it, enjoys it” (266).

Building on this earlier formulation, Wilde at this point begins to develop a more direct parallel between himself and Christ. As he develops this parallel, Wilde reaffirms the values of potentiality and “sincerity” articulated earlier in The Picture of Dorian Gray. To be sure, Wilde is careful to distinguish Christand thus himself-from Dorian Gray. While Dorian pursued “strange legacies of thought and passion” into the dens of London, Wilde’s Christ embraces humankind only through imagination. Because Christ valued plenitude-“variety of type”- he participated imaginatively in every human situation: “he understood the leprosy of the leper, the darkness of the blind, the fierce misery of those who live for pleasure, the strange poverty of the rich” (598). In this sense Christ, “the palpitating centre of romance,” is the fullest incarnation of the aesthete whose commitment to “Art” has “made us myriad-minded” (604). Just here is the “romance” to which Gagnier refersWilde’s effort to transform suffering into aesthetic fulfillment. And if Wilde had contented himself with representing Christ as an embodiment of spiritualized aestheticism, DeProfundis would remain well within the modality of romance.

But Wilde’s motives are deeply implicated with irony, as he continues to build the parallels between himself and Christ by describing the Christ-story in the unmistakable terms of an aestheticized sensual satiety. The imagery is suffused with homoerotic overtones: “The little supper with his companions… the anguish in the quiet moonlit olive-garden: the false friend coming close to him so as to betray him with a kiss… ” (600). This erotic imagery shows Wilde’s strategy of displacement at its most aggressive, as Christ is rendered in something like homoerotic pastoral. Christ’s story “is really an idyll,” continues Wilde, for “one always thinks of him as a young bridegroom with his companions… or as a shepherd straying through a valley with his sheep in search of green meadow or cool stream… or as a lover for whose love the whole world was too small” (601).

Yet Wilde does not devise his figure of Christ merely as a signifier of sensual fulfillment. Christ becomes a betrayed aesthete whose power of sympathetic imagination enables him to sustain suffering-just like Wilde. Wilde’s Christ purifies contradictions through the intensity of his renunciation: “one realizes one’s soul by getting rid of all alien passions, all acquired culture, and all external possessions be they good or evil” (602). Teaching us how to live for ourselves, Christ makes it possible for us to become agents of our own fulfillment. In this fashion, having already portrayed himself as a man of sorrow and suffering, Wilde completes the bond of identification by saying of Christ what he had written of himself elsewhere in De Profundis. “Christ … had the power not merely of saying beautiful things himself, but of making other people say beautiful things to him” (611).

Irritated by the bold effrontery of this presentation, some interpreters have lost sight of Wilde’s rhetorical intentions in this section of the text. Fleishman argues that “Wilde’s appropriation of religious language for his secular concerns cannot fail to seem bathetic…. Such appropriation … must seem another Wildean mask, another exercise in style” (293). John Allen Quintus notes disapprovingly Wilde’s “self-serving” interest in the Christ motif and points out that he “defends his own ‘sins’ on the grounds that they brought him suffering and individuality and Christ’s acceptance” (525). But of course the mask is deliberate. Wilde intends to transmute his eros into an aesthetic that could be identified with Christ. He brings Christ into his text when the rhetorical need arises to hedge his transgressive persona within a moral framework of regenerative suffering. To emphasize his intentions, Wilde concludes this section with a confident assertion of Christ’s artistic vision of human life: “that which is the very keynote of romantic art was to him the proper basis of actual life” (613). As Christ fulfills the power of imaginative sympathy, so Wilde implies that “each man” may similarly be transformed by identifying himself with Christ:

Christ … is just like a work of art himself. He does not really teach one anything, but by being brought into his presence one becomes something …. Once at least in his life each man walks with Christ to Emmaus. (617)

With this renewed feeling of possibility Wilde begins to write himself a new future: “I hope to live long enough, and to produce work of such a character, that I shall be able at the end of my days to say, `Yes: this is just where the artistic life leads a man”‘ (618). He recognizes “a new spirit working in this prison through men and things” so that his refrain “What an appalling ending!” has become “What a wonderful beginning” (618-19). He is now able to think beyond prison walls: “much is waiting for me outside that is very delightful,” he says, and his readiness for new joy comes about because he has “become a deeperman” and acquired the “privilege of those who have suffered” (620).

Having fully imagined an aesthetic transformation, Wilde projects himself into the forms of material agency by which his future life will be managed. He outlines how he will handle money, meetings, and travel after his release. In these pages the pathos of victimization vanishes before the optimistic good humor of the active, knowing agent of change. He surveys the debts that remain to him to pay upon his release, reminds Douglas of his responsibility in helping Wilde incur them, and hints that Douglas ought to help pay them.

To anchor his reconstructed identity in the familiar discourse of sensuous aestheticism, he invokes the persona of the aesthete and bon vivant. Recounting the “Savoy dinners” and “the suppers at Willis’s” he and Douglas had enjoyed, he lingers on the details of “the clear turtle soup, the luscious ortolans wrapped in their crinkled Sicilian vine-leaves . . . [and] the amber-scented champagne” (650). Wilde furthers his new sense of empowerment by planning his travel after release from prison. “I have to speak with you,” he says to Douglas, “with regard to the conditions, circumstances and place of our meeting,” perhaps “in some quiet foreign town like Bruges, whose grey houses and green canals and cool still ways had a charm for me” (655). To reinforce his sense of control, Wilde admonishes Douglas that there is now both a “wide chasm … of achieved Art and acquired culture” between them, as well as a “still wider chasm … of Sorrow” (655-6). Wilde clearly wants renewed life with Douglas, cast in terms of the mentoring role he believes had always existed between them: “You came to me to learn the pleasure of Life and the Pleasure ofArt. I am chosen to teach you something much more wonderful, the meaning of Sorrow, and its beauty” (658). In this fashion Wilde completes his effort to write a new life for himself out of elements of the old.

Wilde could not sustain the demands of the future he had imagined in De Profundis. His plays had disappeared from the theaters, his reputation was ruined, and his suffering wife died. He depended on financial support from a variety of friends who pitied him. Gradually as he moved from place to place in France he fell back into a relationship with Douglas, who spent Wilde’s money and came and went as he wished. The idyll of fulfilled desire so elegantly reconstructed in the last pages of DeProfundis was emptied by the ironies of Douglas’s inconstancy and Wilde’s increasing despair and illness. Images of the costs of transgression drawn from his texts appeared in the stories he told about himself to those who visited him. During these often chance encounters with friends, Wilde represented himself variably as a victim of the gods and as a Dorian Gray come face-to-face with his own self-destruction. Ellmann recounts one “fable” told by Wilde to a visiting friend, in which Wilde dreams of confronting a faceless “being” who turns out to be “the face of [my] soul, and it is horrible” (566).

The same polarities of victimization and self-destruction underlie many of the posthumous evaluations of Wilde by those who knew him. The same textual images Wilde used in De Profundis reappear in these assessments. Frank Harris, prominent journalist and editor who was a friend and admirer of Wilde, found the motif of Christ-like suffering and tragedy equally compelling in his representation of Wilde’s life. Echoing Wilde’s emphasis on Christ’s embodiment of “self-realization,” Harris sees redemptive power in Wilde’s access to the mystery of Christ: “In the beautiful pages about Jesus which form the greater part of De Profundis, Oscar… divined the very secret of Jesus,” for “in these pages Oscar Wilde really came close to the divine Master,” as “by bitter suffering he had been brought to see that the moment of repentance is the moment of absolution and self-realization” (233-44). Harris sees Wilde as a tragic victim of a harsh society, punished like a Greek protagonist at the peak of preeminence: he was punished for his popularity and pre-eminence, for the superiority of his mind and wit … a tragic figure of imperishable renown” (322). Even Douglas’s own representation of Wilde refers to “the frightful tragedy of Oscar Wilde’s terrible pilgrimage.” Douglas depicts Wilde as a victim of the “frightful penalties” of repressive laws and public censure, asserting that the worst aspect of Wilde’s “cruel fate” was the loss of a great writer who could have entertained the world with “a dozen plays as good as The Importance of Being Earnest” (112).

George Bernard Shaw, on the other hand, will have none of the tragic or the Christ-like in his view of Wilde. For Shaw, Wilde appeared always as a knowing, acutely self-aware agent of his own appetites, able to cast himself in redemptive terms only because of gullible readers like Harris: “Oscar,” wrote Shaw to Harris, “was not sober, not honest, not industrious,” yet by persecuting him, society made “a hero of him … for it is in the nature of people to worship those who have been made to suffer horribly” (qtd. in Harris 341). But Wilde “could not write about his own individual share in that suffering with any conviction or sympathy,” and while he “does not appear a selfish or base-minded man,” in the end he became “an unproductive drunkard and swindler” (qtd. in Harris 341-42). These divergent readings of Wilde’s last textualization of his life suggest how challenging it was for his friends-as for interpreters now-to read Wilde’s complex life through his art. That the final years of his life were far more painful than the future envisioned in De Profundis is testimony to the truth of Wilde’s comment there that “the final mystery is oneself” (617).

lThe text in The Portable Wilde is the unexpurgated version first published in Rupert Hart-Davis’s The Letters of Oscar Wilde. When Wilde’s friend Robert Ross first prepared the manuscript for publication after Wilde’s death, he omitted some of Wilde’s most self-lacerating reflections and recriminations, hoping to rehabilitate Wilde’s reputation with sympathy engendered by a sanitized “confession.” With the appearance of Hart-Davis’s edition of the letters the original version finally became available to a general readership. The text of The Critic as Artist used here is also from The Portable Wilde.

2See particularly Ellmann, chapters XIV through XVI, and Schmidgall, chapters 9 and 10.

3AII quotes from both versions of Dorian Gray are from the Norton Critical Edition. The first version appeared in Lippincott’s Monthy Magazine in July, 1890. The book version was published by Wark, Lock and Company in 1891.

41n an 1893 letter, which was later read out during the trials, Wilde wrote to Douglas after receiving one of his poems, “My own Boy, Your sonnet is quite lovely, and it is a marvel that those red rose-leaf lips of yours should have been made no less for music of song that for madness of kisses. Your slim gilt soul walks between passion and poetry. I know Hyancinthus, whom Apollo loved so madly, was you in Greek days” (Letters 326).

5 See Ellmann chapter XII through XVI

6 See Ellman (395) for his reconstruction of Wilde’s resistance to a dressing-down by his friend Pierre Louys.


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DAVID FOSTER teaches nineteenth-century English literature, the essay, and literacy studies at Drake University. He has published rhetorical studies of a variety of figures, most recently of the natural theologians of the seventeenth century. He has also published studies of discourse theory and writing pedagogy and is currently working on a cross-cultural study of academic literacy development.

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