Oscar Wilde, the last of the great and hopelessly flamboyant, whose full name was Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde, is, perhaps because of his flamboyance and his fame — a fame which ended in scandal and tragedy — frequently misrepresented and misconceived.
He died 119 years ago this month.
I offer here three of the most famous fabulations about Oscar:
3. Oscar only liked men
In actuality, women gave him a big hard-on — judging, at least, from the letters he himself wrote.
He was at one time completely infatuated with a woman named Florence Balcombe, who later married Dracula author Bram Stoker. There are also records of other flirtations he carried on, notably with an Irish lady he loved.
Of course also, in 1884, he married the lovely Constance Lloyd, with whom he rapidly had two children, and with whom he was, in his own words, “blissfully happy” the first several years of marriage.
2. Oscar died of syphilis
The so-called disease of decadence. Quoting Oscar’s grandson — one Merlin Holland — who is still alive and is the sole executor of Oscar’s estate:
“This is an old canard which has been doing the rounds for nearly a century, and was lately championed on the flimsiest of evidence by his best modern biographer, Richard Ellmann. Killing Oscar off with the classic ‘disease of the decadents’ has always seemed a suitably sensational way of rounding off a sensational life, but modern medical opinion agrees almost universally that it was an ear infection and meningitis which did him in the end.”
1. Oscar was a rather lazy, boozy, cigarette-smoking dandy who, as he himself said, “pored the entirety of his genius into his life, but merely his talent into his literature”
In fact, Oscar was extraordinarily intellectual, and he worked doggedly to develop his intellect and his erudition, both philosophically and artistically, even if he downplayed it, which he did.
This comes as absolutely no surprise to anyone who has an idea of the sheer amount of work and study and self-discipline it takes to write the amount he wrote, as well as the things about which he wrote — and in the clear and confident way that he handled such heady subject-matter — but it does, I’ve discovered, come as something of a surprise to those who don’t.
He was the son of a famous Dublin doctor named Sir William Wilde, whose medical work garnered him knighthood. Oscar’s mother Jane was a well-known political poet who, more than once, was nearly imprisoned for the caustic anti-English literature she wrote.
It’s true that while he was at Oxford, Oscar deliberately adopted the effete pose of a dandy. This, however, was partly put-on. And one must never forget that Oscar was admitted into Oxford as “a scholar to Magdalen” (a prize and an honor which was no small thing), and he also won double-first in classics and the Newdigate prize for poetry. This sort of scholarship required a great deal of discipline and work — a sedate seriousness and a dedication to reading and remembering, which his friends and contemporaries, even his rivals and enemies, later testified to, as do his extant Oxford notebooks. In fact, I believe this the main thing that makes Oscar Wilde so powerful and so wonderful: the depth of his philosophical grasp combined with the originality of that grasp, combined with the scope of his learning, combined with the excellence and clarity of his writing — which writing extended into virtually all mediums of literature: poetry, prose, plays, novels, short-stories, essays, criticisms, letters, children’s literature, and more.
At his trial, echoing a line from The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde specifically said that his aim in life had been self-development “through pleasure rather than suffering.” And yet not too long afterward, in De Profundis, his long and incredible prison letter to his lover Alfred Douglas, Oscar says that “only through pain and sorrow can true nobility of soul be achieved.”
Like Epicurus , like Aristotle, like Marcus Aurelius, like Shakespeare, like Spinoza, all of whom he admired, Oscar knew very well that self-discipline is a virtue because “self-development,” as he put it, “is the aim of life” and requires “thought and effort.”
“The basis of character is self-control,” Oscar Wilde also wrote.
And from his poem “The Ballad of Reading Gaol“:
The wild regrets and the bloody sweats,
none knew so well as I.
For he who lives more lives than one
more deaths than one must die.
His dedication to learning and his erudition rank among the highest order, a fact of which many people are not aware — largely, I think, because his dynamic personality and the pose he struck, his dandyism, overshadow everything else.
Finally, there is in Oscar Wilde an absolute and intransigent independence of thought — a categorical rejection of dogma and the status-quo.
A nonconformist if ever there was one, he broke away from the pack not for nonconformity sake alone but for the sake of the truth: because he possessed the authentic philosophical grasp and therefore the confidence to think for himself.
Oscar Wilde occupies a unique and almost indescribable place in my literary-philosophical mind and heart — a place which he alone inhabits. His love of Shakespeare and his understanding of Shakespeare is as inspiring for me as it is edifying. He is not the most brilliant, and he is not the most profound, nor the most systematic or sweeping in scope. Yet there is something about Oscar: his cleverness and his personality and independence mixed with his love of philosophy and his genuine understanding of philosophy — Greek philosophy, in particular, lover of reason, of logos, of wisdom, Aristotle, Epicurus — it uplifts and it inspires in a way no other writer does: specifically, I love how Oscar unlike anyone else grasped the profound and very real connection that exists between philosophy and art, and how he communicated his original insights so articulately and so beautifully.
Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde (October 1854 – November 1900), whom I never tire of reading, whom I never will, RIP.