Richard Ellmann, on the last page of his biography of Oscar Wilde:
His work survived as he claimed it would. We inherit his struggle to achieve supreme fictions in art, to associate art with social change, to bring together individual and social impulse, to save what is eccentric and singular from being sanitized and standardized, to replace a morality of severity by one of sympathy. He belongs to our world more than to Victoria’s. Now, beyond the reach of scandal, his best writings validated by time, he comes before us still, a towering figure, laughing and weeping, with parables and paradoxes, so generous, so amusing, and so right.
I have been a month in slowly making my way through this book, and all through it I have been torn between love for the words and the glamor of one of the western canon’s greatest figures, and irritation at the partiality and romanticism with which Ellmann treats his subject. Ellmann has crafted Wilde’s life into such a narrative, and you can see quite transparently how much the biographer has invested in the climax (the “two loves” speech in the witness box at the second trial) and how tragic the next 200 pages of decline and fall must therefore be. I read all 200 today, nevertheless, unable to tear myself away, the dramatist’s life itself a drama.
It is ahistorical, I think, to write anyone into history as a martyr, and yet that doesn’t eliminate the haunting despair that visits me whenever I read “The Ballad of Reading Gaol.” I am angry at Douglas for what he made Wilde endure, and I am angry at Wilde for enduring it, and I am angry at them both for what they put Constance through. Having read the story to its close, I am as invested in it as—perhaps, for deliberate comparison—those Americans waiting for the steamer with the mail from England were in the ending of The Old Curiosity Shop. (It changed a lot of things I thought I knew to learn from Ellmann that Wilde made his famous remark about laughing at the death of Little Nell when he was on bail awaiting his own inevitable prison sentence.) Yes: try as I might to rationally divorce my admiration of the man’s writing from his existence as a deeply flawed human being, I cannot help thinking, all the same, that he was most notoriously—most tragically—wronged (and I think the Malvolio quote not inapt here!).
It is of course Pride Month, LGBT History Month, or whatever you call that month when we celebrate the anniversary of a riot at a bar on Christopher Street in 1969. The past couple weeks (you might say, since this month’s inception) I’ve been reading Wilde almost exclusively, with only a brief two-day digression into Virginia Woolf. I wonder as always what good and what ill we do by loving these fallen heroes so much that they become martyrs to our cause, a cause that stands so very much outside their own historical moment. I only hope that we wrong Wilde no more notoriously than he has already been, because I can certainly attest that it is very difficult to stop.
And all men kill the thing they love,
By all let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!