A Day with De Profundis

Wow—this was a long letter (80 pages or so).  But it was made longer by the sheer tediousness of it.  So far, this has been the only piece by Wilde I have not enjoyed reading.   For one, reading it felt like going through someone’s dirty laundry.  In the letter to his ex-lover, Wilde spends most of his words detailing their destructive relationship, and blaming Lord Douglas (“Bosie”) for his downfall by making Wilde a pawn between Lord Douglas and his father, spending his money, sapping his artistic strength, and generally being a lousy person.

It was published only after Wilde’s death, and, in reading it, it seems never to have been intended for an audience.  I could see some reason to publish this after his death, as an explanation to a society that did not understand him, and disgraced him in his trials and two years of imprisonment.  But why are literature scholars at all interested in this?

The study of this document is where, I feel, historicism goes too far in attempting to understand the artist, not through his/her work, but through his/her life.  One could argue that these things are inseparable, particularly in the case of Wilde who arguably made a character of himself, and lived his own aesthetic philosophy.  However, I do not feel this is so: in the case of the literature the subject of inquiry is defined and tools for the job are within the capabilities of the literary scholar; but, in the case of the life of the author, the subject of inquiry is slippery, and, for the most part, unreadable, and unknowable with any tools or any artifact, no matter how private.  Not that literature has easy answers, of course; but, if I’m obstinate on one point, it is this—the subject of literary study is literature, and studying literature can lead to a deeper understanding of it, while studying a life can only lead to a superficial understanding of a person.  We can know Hamlet, his every line as a character, and, in theorizing, we can reach his every thought, but no matter how many lost writings, hair clippings, or hidden shopping lists, we will never know William Shakespeare.  If he was our nextdoor neighbor, we could never say that we can read William Shakespeare or any man the way we can read a text and make it our own.  Not only is it impossible, it is unethical to have the hubris to think we can (and now I’m thinking of W.H.).  But even if we could read William Shakespeare, why would we want to?  Let’s be honest, we are interested in Shakespeare for what he wrote, not who he is.  And if we are looking for more text in who someone is, I think we will always be disappointed.  That’s not actually to say biography has no place in literary criticism (superficial understandings can sometimes help as well), but I would relegate it firmly to the position of one of many tools, and one of the least complete or precise.

So, I don’t mean to be rude to Wilde here, but I couldn’t care less about who he is, who caused his imprisonment, how much like Christ he thinks he is, if he is right or wrong…ect in relation to his art.  He himself says, “Everything about my tragedy has been hideous, mean, repellent, lacking in style” (1040).  But, having read De Profundis, I find I do care (though not in relation to his art), and I feel bad for the guy.  This is a letter by a broken man, one who is at turns angry with his situation, forgiving, prideful, self-effacing, bitter, and loving, as anyone would be who has been dashed from the precipice of his success and has time and pain in which to reflect.

Sure, there are some good lines: “art only begins where Imitation ends” might be a good one for my studies (1039), but overall, this is a work for psychologists and biographers, not for a greater understanding of Wilde’s work.

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