How does my sister Amanda Stern’s writing just keep getting better and betterer? PRACTICE, yo. That’s hows.
DE PROFUNDIS by Oscar Wilde
The Marquis of Queensbury, who settles fights by fists and guns, has a dandy for a son. This frail and pretty popinjay, despised by his parents for his flamboyant ways, attracts the attention of a prominent literary figure, fifteen years his senior (who—to cover his own homosexuality—has married; with children). The two become inseparable, driving the dandy’s illiberal dad to break them apart no matter the cost. It’s 1895 and we’re in Britain. Any sexual activity between members of the same sex is punishable by law—two years hard labor (where labor is literal) being the maximum sentence.
So begins the love story between Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas (or Bosie, as he was known). The content, context, and costs of that relationship are outlined in De Profundis—an extraordinary letter, written by Oscar Wilde to Bosie from prison. How he wrote the letter, and all that led up to its production is as interesting as the letter itself. Allowed only one sheet of folio paper at a time, Wilde filled a total of eighty blue prison pages. You need not know anything of what led up to this letter—Wilde is fairly detailed on what occurred (and I break it down below); I didn’t know the first go-round, but I do now and it’s made the experience of re-reading the letter richer.
Bosie and his father despised each other. They wrote despicable letters to one another, hideous and abusive telegrams. Unable to tear his son from the man he feared was corrupting him, the Marquis of Queensbury went around town threatening to destroy any social establishment that allowed these two to share company. When finally he left a note for Wilde accusing him of being a “Somdomite” (sic), Bosie fanned the flames by mentioning, in a letter to his father, that if Wilde so chose to sue for libel over this claim of criminal behavior, he—the Marquis—would certainly find himself imprisoned for defamation of character.
Against the protestations of his friends not to sue for libel—since, after all, it was not a false claim—Wilde, egged on by Bosie, told them they weren’t “being friendly,” and seeing this lawsuit as a way to verbally slay the Marquis, he let his hubris get the best of him, and with great eagerness, filed his complaint.
Resting his laurels upon his bon mots to win the case, Wilde, from the witness stand, played the prosecutor like a party-guest, lying about his age and then, flinging his witticisms around like a dust fluffer, bon mot-ted his way into incriminating himself. Other plot-heavy things occurred, but what’s most important to know is that Wilde was the instrument of his own undoing and was ultimately imprisoned for acting on his sexual urges.
I have read this book twice. Once, five years ago, and again recently. When I first read it, I was going through a break-up, and I lived vicariously through Wilde’s anger and passionate scolding. Yeah, Oscar! Give it to him! I related to the book as the one who was wronged, accountable for nothing. He should suffer for what he did to me! He should rot in a prison! I loved this book because I so related and felt the anguished pain that Wilde felt while writing this letter. But then, this last round, I responded to it completely differently. Instead of being angry at Bosie alongside Wilde, I was angry at Wilde for staying with Bosie, angry at the wildly obvious advantage Bosie took of Oscar. I was frustrated with Wilde for his inability to hold himself accountable for his own shortcomings. When I re-read De Profundis I read Wilde as a meek simp without backbone or self-respect.
What a difference five years makes.
Diagnostically speaking, Wilde was a classic codependent and enabler, and hugely narcissistic. He allowed Bosie’s opportunistic behavior, his explosive outbursts, abusive tirades and glutinous consumption on Wilde’s dime, and in the end, he blamed Bosie for victimizing him— the tragic protagonist.
Bosie deserved plenty of blame, but Wilde’s growth in prison—plentiful in many spots—is remarkably short sighted when it comes to his own culpability. This letter activates in the reader a reaction of some sort, and it’s that reaction that makes reading this book truly absorbing. You learn not only about Bosie and Wilde’s intrapsychic make-up, but your own. It commands you to judge and take sides, to question yourself, to feel something, because every one of us has written a letter like this, in our head or on the page; no matter the specifics of the relationship, and despite its personal dynamics, we can all relate to feeling wronged.
There are so many riches in this letter beyond the content (which is wise, insightful, beautiful, shameful, contradictory, and short-sighted, among many things). Take the conditions upon which this book exists: the instructions—to his literary executor—to have this personal letter, addressed only to Bosie, copied so that “some day the truth will have to be known.” Much like reality television, where the viewer watches someone who knows he is being watched and cannot help but move or talk or behave with the self-conscious movements and expressions of how he wishes to be perceived, this letter is written to a readership as much as it is to Bosie. Therefore it cannot be truly authentic, which calls into question Wilde’s motives for writing it in the first place. What Wilde did or didn’t realize about himself, what he knew in his heart versus what he exposed. probably didn’t quite align, but his suffering is true.
As I read this letter again, alerted to my own growth by my changed reaction, I wondered what I wasn’t seeing this time around. In five years, will I respond differently again? And if so, what am I overlooking now? And so it goes, and that’s why this book is a challenge. It might force you to answer to yourself.