Sunday, September 11, 2005

BOOK: Oscar Wilde, "De Profundis"

The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. Volume 2: De Profundis. ‘Epistola: In Carcere et Vinculis’. Ed. by Ian Small. Oxford University Press, 2005. 0198119623. vi + 345 pp.

In the last months of his imprisonment, Wilde was working on a long letter to Lord Alfred Douglas, his former friend and lover. He was also working on a literary essay, something similar to what we now usually know as De Profundis. The two texts had much in common, and the result was an 80-page manuscript which is partly one thing and partly the other, and a few things are actually written several times in different places of the manuscript. Wilde sent it to Robert Ross, his friend and literary executor, instructing him to make two copies and send the manuscript to Douglas. In fact it seems that Ross kept the manuscript and sent one of the copies to Douglas; anyhow, Douglas presumably destroyed it without reading very much of it. In 1905, a few years after Wilde's death, Ross tried to extract from the text those parts which were apparently intended by Wilde to become an essay to be published rather than being merely a private letter; the result became known as De Profundis (the title was supplied by Ross). Ross published a further somewhat extended version in 1908. A version of the full manuscript was published by Wilde's son Vyvyan Holland in 1949, and the manuscript itself in Hart-Davis's edition of Wilde's letters in 1962. The present book contains both De Profundis from the 1905 and 1908 editions and the full text of the manuscript, which is more than twice as long.

The editor's introduction is mostly concerned with the complicated textual history of the various manuscripts, typescripts and published versions of this text. Although I am not really interested in textual criticism, I cannot help admiring the large amount of effort and sometimes almost detective work that has been devoted to it by the editor. The editorial notes at the end of the book are also marvellously detailed, explaining all sorts of references to people, events, literary and biblical allusions, etc.

A footnote on p. 27 tells the fascinating story of the first U.S. edition of the full text of the letter. In the course of a libel suit in 1913, Douglas managed to get ahold of the manuscript and intended to publish it in America with his comments. (Presumably he couldn't publish it in Britain because Ross, as Wilde's literary executor, held the copyright to it and had already published parts of it as De Profundis in 1905.) According to the U.S. copyright law at the time, you had to publish a book in America and offer it for sale to the public there in order to obtain copyright for it. Thus, to prevent Douglas from publishing the manuscript in the U.S., Ross had to publish it there first. At the same time, he didn't really want the full manuscript to be seen by the public. He found an American publisher willing to publish the manuscript in a great hurry, in an edition of 16 copies, fifteen of which were sent back to England and one of which was actually offered for sale in a bookshop, for the fabulous sum of $500 (and was in fact soon bought by an unknown buyer). According to the inflation calculator at the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, $500 in 1913 dollars is equivalent to $9823 in 2005 dollars! (However, another version of the story is that there was an edition of 15 copies, and one was deposited at the Library of Congress. This probably makes more sense, as I guess that such a deposit would have been necessary to obtain U.S. copyright for the book. See p. 28.)

I think it's really a pity that Wilde didn't keep on writing after De Profundis and The Ballad of Reading Gaol, when these two works make it abundantly clear that his talent hasn't waned during his imprisonment. Here in De Profundis we still find the same beautiful language, elegant without being complicated, as in his earlier work; we still find Wilde's old sense of humour, his ability to contrast things in his wonderful epigrams and aphorisms; and in addition to all that, his thoughts have been enriched and transformed by the sad and bitter experiences of his trial and imprisonment. It's really sad that he didn't write anything else afterwards. I wonder what the reason is. It's true that De Profundis and The Ballad of Reading Gaol are both in some sense works about his prison experience; perhaps, when the time came to turn to some entirely new matter, he couldn't think of anything to write about. Or perhaps, having experienced all those things, he didn't see any point in trying to write about them any more; this reminds me of Thomas Aquinas, who stopped writing his great Summa Theologica after he had a mystical experience which, as he said, made all that he had written so far seem like just so much straw. Anyway, I guess I should read one of Wilde's biographies at some point; maybe I'll find there some explanation why Wilde did not take up writing again.

As mentioned above, De Profundis is basically a subset of the full letter to Douglas (the title “Epistola: In Carcere et Vinculis” stems from Wilde's half-joking suggestion that it should be named after its first words, like a papal bull; see p. 310). The letter is more than twice as long as De Profundis and the extra material mostly deals with the relationship between Wilde and Douglas. I found most of this very interesting and if I had to choose between reading just one of these two texts, I think the letter would be preferable to De Profundis. On the other hand, for someone interested only in Wilde's work but not his life, De Profundis might be preferable.

One of the main subjects of Wilde's complaints to Douglas is the latter's parasitism (see pp. 206–7). In the years of their relationship, Wilde had been making considerable amounts of money (mostly from the theatre; p. 206), while Douglas was just a student with a moderate allowance from his father (moderate by aristocratic standards: £350 a year is mentioned on p. 207, while p. 223 says that £3 a week would have been the income of a well-off middle-class family), and even this was withdrawn when Douglas refused his father's demands to stop seeing Wilde (p. 207). Thus, it is to some extent reasonable that Wilde should be contributing most of the money in their relationship, but if Wilde's accusations in the letter are true, Douglas was in fact extremely profligate, selfish and ungracious, spending large amounts of money on extravagant dinners and gambling (a day with Douglas would end up costing Wilde up to £20; p. 41), and expecting Wilde to pay his bills without so much as a thank-you (p. 41–42). He spent so much time in Wilde's company that the latter found it impossible to continue his literary work (pp. 39–40); nor was conversation with Douglas as interesting for Wilde as it would have been to speak with some talented artist or intellectual (which Douglas wasn't); p. 46. When Douglas fell ill with the flu, Wilde cared for him, but then getting the flu himself, Douglas (who had meanwhile recovered) refused to help him (pp. 52–55). Over and over again, Douglas quarrelled with Wilde and made scenes, and subsequently sent telegrams and letters asking to make up, knowing that Wilde wouldn't be able to bring himself to say no. It was sometimes said that Wilde had an influence over Douglas, but in reality Douglas had an influence over Wilde (p. 139). If all these accusations are really true, Douglas must have been a really horrible person; it's a tragedy that Wilde was so intoxicated with him that he didn't firmly cut contacts with him as soon as he saw Douglas's selfish and extravagant behaviour. But it's hard to tell exactly how much truth there is in these accusations. The editorial notes quote many passages from Douglas's memoirs where Douglas denies Wilde's claims; I don't see any obvious way to decide whom to believe.

Wilde also mentions the disagreements between himself and Douglas regarding the latter's translation of Wilde's Salome; pp. 39, 46.

On p. 50, Wilde says that Douglas at some point sent him a 10- or 11-page telegram. This is amazing. Is it even possible to send such a long telegram? And how much must it have cost? And think of the poor telegraphist who had to type it all in Morse (or was some other technology used for telegrams at that time?). Of course, Douglas denies the accusation (p. 214).

Douglas and his father (the Marquess of Queensberry) hated each other. Douglas used to enrage his father with telegrams, until the latter forbade any further telegrams to be delivered to him. But this did not stop Douglas, who (Wilde writes) “saw the immense opportunities afforded by the open postcard, and availed [himself] of them to the full” (p. 68). :-) Indeed Douglas seems to have relished the opportunity to enrage his father still further by persisting in his relationship with Wilde; and it was Douglas who encouraged Wilde to sue Queensberry, and later when Queensberry sued back Douglas persuaded Wilde to remain in Britain to “brazen it out” rather than escape abroad (as other Wilde's friends recommended); see p. 44. Wilde describes the sad results of this policy: in the eyes of the public, Queensberry became a hero and Wilde a criminal and an outcast: “your father will always live among the kind pure-minded parents of Sunday school literature; your place is with the infant Samuel; and in the lowest mire of Malebolge I sit between Gilles de Retz and the Marquis de Sade.” (P. 44.)

Some of the epigrams in the epistle are classic Wilde. “The supreme vice is shallowness. Whatever is realised is right.” (P. 67.) “In art, good intentions are not of the smallest value. All bad art is the result of good intentions.” (P. 133.) “[T]he artist, like art itself, is of his very essence quite useless” (p. 139). And in a letter to Ross (p. 320) he writes, recommending him to have the manuscript copied by a typist: “I assure you that the type-writing machine, when played with expression, is not more annoying than the piano when played by a sister or near relation. Indeed many, among those most devoted to domesticity, prefer it.” In a later letter he says: “unluckily I suffer from headaches when I read my Greek and Roman poets” (p. 321). Even in his religious enthusiasm he frequently employs the same contrast-based structure as in his epigrams: “The world had always loved the saint as being the nearest possible approach to the perfection of God. Christ, through some divine instinct in him, seems to have always loved the sinner as being the nearest possible approach to the perfection of man.” (P. 122.)

As for De Profundis itself, I think the most interesting message in it is that Wilde tried to see his ordeals, the trial, the imprisonment, and all the suffering connected to that, as something that enriched his life: “Sorrow [...] is my new world. I used to live entirely for pleasure.” (P. 104.) “I remember [...] that I wanted to eat of the fruit of all the trees in the garden of the world [...]. My only mistake was that I confined myself so exclusively to the trees of what seemed to me the sun-lit side of the garden, and shunned the other side for its shadow and its gloom.” (P. 108.) “I don't regret for a single moment having lived for pleasure. [...] But to have continued the same life would have been wrong because it would have been limiting. I had to pass on. The other half of the garden had its secrets for me also.” (P. 109.)

This is in a way an admirable attitude, but I can't help wondering how one is supposed to persist in it, and why it should be even desirable to adopt it. There is a reason why people shun the unpleasant things on the dark side of the garden: because they don't feel good. And most of the time they don't feel good because they actually aren't good for us, and the fact that they don't feel good has evolved because this was a successful mechanism for making people avoid these things. Yes, in a technical sense I suppose one's life is fuller if one has felt sorrows and pain in addition to pleasure; but why should such fulness be desirable? There is nothing ennobling about suffering. In fact Peter Kropotkin suggested that Wilde's new attitude of humility may have been the reason why he ended “so miserably after his release” (p. 272).

I'm not quite sure what to make of Wilde's new attitude towards religion. The text seems somewhat confused on this point. On the one hand he extols Christ, religion, suffering, etc. at great length, and on the other hand he says on p. 98 that religion does not help him and talks about agnosticism and a “Confraternity of the Fatherless”. But then he never seems to have been terribly constant in his religious feelings; in his poems you can see periods of fascination with catholicism, and then periods of fascination with paganism, and in both cases one gets the impression that he was really swayed by artistic and aesthetic considerations rather than religious ones.

As an example of his new-found religious fervor in De Profundis, here is this curious paragraph from p. 116: “To me one of the things in history the most to be regretted is that the Christ's own renaissance, which has produced the Cathedral at Chartres, the Arthurian cycle of legends, the life of St. Francis of Assisi, the art of Giotto, and Dante's Divine Comedy, was not allowed to develop on its own lines, but was interrupted and spoiled by the dreary classical Renaissance that gave us Petrarch, and Raphael's frescoes, and Palladian architecture, and formal French tragedy, and St. Paul's Cathedral, and Pope's poetry, and everything that is made from without and by dead rules, and does not spring from within through some spirit informing it.” Is he quite serious? Heck, this reminds me of the way I sometimes write myself when I really just want to state an opinion but at the same time wish, for some reason, to tart it up as if it were an argument; sometimes you just want to state a dogma or a preference but want to pretend that it really has more justification than that, and that it was really derived from some reasons. And this paragraph of Wilde's here, when you look at it closely, is there really any sense in it? What's so dreary about the renaissance? All those love poems by Petrarch, based on nothing but dead rules, no spirit? Even Pope — not that I see how it's reasonable to consider him part of the renaissance — but surely his Rape of the Lock is such a splendidly hilarious poem, full of playful humour, how could you say that it's all form and no spirit in it? If you throw Petrarch and Racine and Pope all into the same bag and generalize from that, surely the results cannot be anything other than silly. Nor do I quite see how it's reasonable to refer to the first group of works are representatives of some sort of “Christ's own renaissance”. What (besides their religious associations) do these things even have in common? And if they are part of some sort of renaissance, what is the thing that is being reborn and what was its last previous occurrence? And is it even reasonable to say that religious art has been interrupted by the renaissance? I think if it had still afforded people enough room in which to express themselves, they would have been happy to keep on working within its framework; if religious art had retained its vigour and energy, the renaissance wouldn't have been able to interrupt it. But if art has to flit around religion all the time, it cannot help but become dull and pedantic and repetitive eventually. It is the fate of religious art all over the world. People wouldn't have taken up the renaissance with such energy if it hadn't been really opening up marvellous new vistas for them; not just in art but in other walks of life as well. But then I suppose there's no use making such a fuss about that paragraph of Wilde's anyway. He is simply stating a preference; he is simply trying to say: “right now I prefer religious art to that of the renaissance or the later periods, and I prefer it for the simple reason that it is religious whereas that of later periods isn't”. And there's nothing wrong with that; there's no reason to argue about matters of taste. But it's silly to try to pretend that there's any sense in it, any reason to it, when it's really just a matter of preference.

Wilde's Christianity has a strong aesthetic, artistic, individualistic tinge to it. “Those whom he saved from their sins are saved simply for beautiful moments in their lives.” (P. 122.) “Indeed, that is the charm about Christ, when all is said: he is just like a work of art.” (P. 123.)

Here is a nice sentence from p. 146, presaging the chaos theory: “By the displacement of an atom a world may be shaken.”

Of course I cannot help adding a few small-minded pedantic complaints about this book. I wouldn't be doing this if the book had cost me £15 or perhaps even £20 or £30, but at £80 I reserve the right to complain about every single little error, no matter how trivial. (OK, OK, I didn't really pay £80 for this book; after much shopping around on the web I entered Barnes and Noble's membership programme and was then able to get the book for $126, which is about £70 at current exchange rates. This is still an unholy sum of money to pay for a single book.) Anyway, the complaint is that, apparently, when they were first typesetting the book, if a reference to some other page appears in the text, they couldn't yet know which page it would be, so they inserted a placeholder such as “p. 000” instead. I guess the idea was to make a second pass after the text had been set, and replace those “000”s with the correct page numbers. In a few cases, however, they forgot to do this; see pp. 223, 236, 279, 301. Shame on you, OUP!

Another minor complaint is that the editor shows, in his notes, a ridiculous amount of deference to officialdom. Thus judges are always referred to as “Mr Justice Smith” rather than simply “Jack Smith” or even just “Smith” (see e.g. p. 220; and on p. 289 we even have a “Mr Registrar”). I have a very poor opinion of judges. How could anybody but an arrogant, pompous, vain person presume to pass judgement on others? Anybody with at least a moderate degree of self-criticism would realize that it is wrong to judge others when it is obvious that you are not much better than them and when you obviously wouldn't be willing to let them judge you. Nobody is innocent; let him who has never sinned throw the first stone. And how could anybody but a bad person become a judge, when he must clearly know that as a judge his duty would be to apply the laws, and most laws are unjust and were written by bad people with the sole purpose of allowing other bad people to exploit the laws for their own benefits? Strutting around in their wigs and robes, earning abominable sums of money, expecting to be addressed as “your honour” and having the people stand at attention when they enter the courtroom — all of this shows that judges are bad, arrogant people with a lamentable and chronic case of god-complex. They have about as much to do with justice as the studs in the porn movies have to do with love. To refer to them as “Mr Justice So-and-so” is simply to cave in to some horrible medieval prejudice that has no place in a modern society of equal and self-respecting people.

The following is just a curiosity and not really a complaint: on p. 204, the editor's notes mention that 7s. 6d. (the price of a dinner at Willis's, a fashionable restaurant) is equivalent to 37½p. It's a remarkable example of the thoroughness of these editorial notes and of how little knowledge they assume on the part of the reader — the reader isn't even expected to be familiar with pre-decimal British currency! Admittedly, of course, I wonder how useful this piece of information really is; to get a feeling for how much 7s. 6d. was worth at that time, it would be better to compare it with prices of various things at that time, or with typical wages and salaries at that time, rather than having to convert this to 37½p of decimal currency and then presumably looking up some price index table to determine how much inflation there has been since then and what would be the equivalent sum in present-day pounds. According to this page, the price of an ounce of fine gold at that time was £4.4s.11½d., or $20.67. This suggests that during the years of the gold standard, the exchange rate was £1 = $4.866, so that the £0.375 for the fancy dinner at Willis's would be equivalent to $1.82 in 1893 dollars, or (according to the inflation calculator) $37.46 in 2005 dollars, or £20.64 at present-day exchange rates. I'm not really up to date on these things, but I think that nowadays at a fancy London restaurant, even a single dish might well cost more than £20, not to mention an entire dinner. Which just goes to show that it's difficult to compare prices across long time periods, and saying that the cost of something a hundred years ago was equivalent to 37½p decimal currency isn't all that helpful.

In conclusion, what should I say about this book? De Profundis is a great and beautiful essay, the letter to Douglas contains lots of interesting additional material, and the editor's notes at the end of the book are marvellous and extremely exhaustive. Whether all of this is enough to justify the high price of the book will, I guess, depend on the judgment of each reader. I enjoyed this book a lot, but I wouldn't have bought it at this price if it wasn't for my silly obsession with wanting to have a suitably pedantic edition of Wilde's collected works.


Blogger Chandni said...

I can't believe no one has commented on this. With my new-found romance with Oscar Wilde gaining momentum and having just completed De Profundis, your write was a treat!

Thanks! :)

Saturday, October 09, 2010 11:58:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have one of this 1905 "De profundis" book -Oscar Wilde
What's the value of it at this times?
If someone knows, please contact me at

Thursday, March 24, 2011 2:14:00 AM  
Blogger filigato said...


Thursday, March 24, 2011 2:16:00 AM  

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