OSCAR WILDE AND MYSELF
LORD ALFRED DOUGLAS
HERE is a critical shibboleth to the effect that no man can rightly judge his contemporaries. The true inwardness of this very comforting idea lies in its extreme utility where persons of mediocre intellect are concerned. Persons who write feeble poetry and silly plays, not to mention offensive fiction, always pretend to put their hopes in posterity.
My contention is that posterity is not likely to be much more imbecile than the contemporary world, and that the foolish hopes of vain and incompetent people are consequently ill-founded. A feeble poem is not to be strengthened by the mere process of time any more than a piece of strong work is likely to be weakened or degraded. It is singular to note, too, that people seldom appeal to posterity when they are being applauded. For a man with bouquets in his hand and the laurel on his brow posterity does not exist. On the other hand, for all of us, whoever we may be, posterity has its use, and, though I do not think that these uses are important to us, they nevertheless exist.
By way, therefore, of a sporting offer, as it were, I shall reach a hand through time and ask posterity to do me a favour, which is this : when I have been dead fifty years let some critic of parts put on one side Wilde's published work, the present work and my own poems and verses; and let him put on the other side all the biographies of Wilde he can lay his hand on, together with the parts of "De Profundis'' which are now lying in the British Museum; and when he has examined carefully and critically these two bundles of material, let him say without fear or favour who has drawn the true picture—Lord Alfred Douglas or Messrs. Ross, Ransome, Sherard and Harris.
I shall sink or swim on some such decision, and I am content. At the present moment it is to the interest of everybody directly concerned that the Wilde myth should continue to exist. It is excellent for Wilde's publishers, excellent for the printing, paper and bookbinding trades, and excellent for those critics and editors who are best known by their labours in connection with Wilde. For them it is merely a matter of trade, and innocent enough.
It is also excellent for those depraved persons who take Wilde as their moral guide and who profess to believe—and, possibly, do believe—that the viciousness for which Wilde suffered imprisonment is a species of superior virtue; and it is also excellent for that vast multitude of persons who, while they may have no particular sympathy with Wilde's depravities, are, nevertheless, of oblique mind and cynically immoral intellect. In the aggregate these people are very strong, much stronger than the easygoing, uncorrupted masses of humanity imagine. They are so strong in England and so numerous that it is profitable to flood the country with Wilde's works at a shilling. They are so strong in the press that it is next door to impossible to find a critical review or newspaper wherein Wilde's name is not mentioned, from time to time, with bated breath and whispered humbleness. They are so strong socially that the Wilde evangelists are welcomed in the highest political and social circles. And they are so insidious that they have succeeded in upsetting the usually calm judgment of the Bench and the Bar. We have seen Mr. F. E. Smith, K.C, weeping crocodile tears over Wilde's memory and expressing the hope that his sins were forgotten and that his genius might be left to blaze brilliantly in all men's sight without so much as a rude air to disturb it.
There are two interests, however, which these bands of champions habitually ignore. One is the interest of letters and the other is the interest of the public morals. It is not in the interest of letters that any writer, however capable, should be given honour and adulation beyond his merits. When Wilde is set up for the supreme artist all other artists in all time are degraded thereby; when Wilde is set up for a poet of the first order, all other poets suffer damage by comparison; and when Wilde is set up for a moralist, there is just a lunatic, anarchist end of morals.
The question of the public interest is largely bound up in these things. But outside of them there are ever graver matters. I maintain that even if we dismiss Wilde's private shamefulness from the account, he is still to be condemned by reason of the nature and intention of his writings.
As I shall show in the chapter on ''Dorian Gray," Wilde himself admitted that ''Dorian Gray" was a poisonous book. In its own way "The Sphinx" is just as poisonous, and so are many passages in the essays which go to make up "Intentions." In the plays we find him continually flying in the face of the rules of conduct which make life possible and keep it sweet. He preaches always (flatly or by innuendo) that vice is at least more interesting than virtue; that insincerity is better and more to be desired than truth; that cynical carelessness and indifference are more comely than kind feeling and altruism; and that the whole end and aim of life is to eat delicately, sleep softly and be as wicked and depraved as you like, provided that you are wicked and depraved in a graceful manner.
I find myself utterly incapable of acquiescing in such a scandalous view of the reasons and purposes of human existence, and I say my say accordingly. It would have been easier and more profitable for me to have made a book about Wilde which would not have appeared harsh or severe or in any way offensive to the factions which ring him round. The breaking up of other people's gods, even though they happen to be gods of clay, is not a job for a man of a pacific turn of mind. Wilde knew that some day a true biographical and critical account of himself would have to be written and, doubtless, on the principle of getting one's blow in first, he put it on record that it is always Judas who is the biographer.
The late lamented Charles Peace was of the same opinion, and so, doubtless, were many other unpleasant and somewhat exploded persons, accounts of whose lives have still to be written. It is conceivable that there are circumstances in which honest biography is of slight consequence. In point of fact, all biography that matters is largely a sort of exegesis and commentary on the life work of its subject. The biographies of persons who have done nothing are, in the nature of things, unprofitable. Wilde made a stir in the world, and his drumbeaters and fuglemen have made an even greater stir on his behalf. It is right and proper that while the noise is still in the air we should endeavour to discover its real meaning and to get sight of the instruments by which it is produced.
0. Book profile
10. Naples and Paris
17. Wilde's Poetry
19. For Posterity
28. The Smaller Fry