Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Mirror, not a Makeover: Oscar Wilde's Scornful Letter

In 1997, James W. Pennebaker, professor of psychology, asked his test subjects to “write [their] very deepest thoughts and feelings about the most traumatic experience of [their] life.”  Encouraged by the positive results, he then suggested a writing program in which participants write for 15-20 minutes between three and five times.  Oscar Wilde, writing a century earlier, had already discovered the therapeutic benefits of writing, though his 55,000-word manuscript, hand-written over three months and later named Epistola: In Carcere et Vinculis, slightly exceeded Pennebaker’s recommendation.  Ostensibly a letter to Alfred Douglas, the man with whom Wilde was convicted of having ‘improper’ relations, the manuscript vacillates between addressing the reader and abandoning him altogether, between paternal magnanimity and lover’s scorn, between boastful arrogance and humble resignation.  In this regard, the letter reads as a memoir in the traditional sense.  If we excavate memoir’s distinguished etymology, past the French mémoire, past the Greek memeros, past the Latin memoria, we hit bottom at proto-Indo European’s monosyllabic mon -- to think or to worry.  As opposed to the sanitized retelling of the past that defines memoir today, the genre used to mean a re-experiencing, ‘worrying a scab.’  In the original sense, the memoir author searched for meaning, stumbling and bumbling along his path to understanding.  Seen through this lens, Wilde’s manuscript is less a letter and more a struggle to come to terms with the most traumatic experience of his life.

The choice to write a letter is peculiar because the threateningly public nature of correspondence was all too apparent to Wilde.  Before his arrest, blackmailers had obtained Wilde’s letters but failed to extract money from him.  During Wilde’s trial, the prosecution relied heavily on two letters written from Wilde to Douglas as evidence of the former’s ‘gross indecency.’  And the epistolary fallout didn’t end in prison, as Wilde learned that Douglas planned to write an article about Wilde with selections from his letters; Wilde was irate: “But that you should seriously propose to publish selections from the balance [of my letters] was almost incredible to me.”  Based on this track record of overexposure, Wilde had no reason to believe that this correspondence would remain private.  His decision to write a letter, therefore, makes more sense if we think of his intentions as introspective, not epistolary.  

The text's dramatic shifts in tone reveal an unsure narrator still working things out. At times, he’s congenial, offering almost paternal advice.  He opens the letter by acknowledging that he will say “much that will wound your vanity to the quick,” but he implores Douglas to accept the criticisms for his own benefit.  After deriding Douglas’ vacuous personality and intellectual failures, Wilde writes, “I am not saying this in bitterness at all, but simply as a fact of companionship.”  Although Wilde constantly emphasizes his magnanimity, the cracks begin to show.  Throughout the letter, Wilde’s mood shifts from the indicative aimed at Douglas to the imperative aimed inward:  “And the end of it all is that I have got to forgive you.  I must do so.  I don’t write this letter to put bitterness in your heart, but to pluck it out of mine.”  The line “I must do so” reveals a writer still struggling for closure, a scorned lover who remembers his ex being bad, but maybe not that bad.  And in periodic bursts, Wilde’s acridity is hardly even veiled: “But for my pity and affection for you and yours, I would not now be weeping in this terrible place.”  These tonal inconsistencies belie Wilde’s claims that he’s moved on.  Moreover, the letter’s scrupulous style also reveals an author worrying his scab.  

Wilde’s meticulous -- borderline obsessive -- attention to detail further splinters his confident veneer.  Although historians argue over the conditions imposed on Wilde’s composition, many agree that the prison warden allowed him to write only a few pages a day, and that he couldn’t refer to previous pages.  Although Wilde had no notes to consult, no receipts to reference, he lists every minutiae of the ways that Douglas wronged him.  The price of a particularly lavish hotel stay, the itinerary of a quarrel five years past, the transcript of a damning letter: these details clung to Wilde’s memory and leaked into his manuscript.  By the end of the letter, Wilde is cataloguing the lavish “Savoy dinners” he bought Douglas: the “luscious ortolans wrapped in their crinkled Sicilian vine-leaves,” the “amber-scented Champagne--Dagonet, 1880, [that] I think, was your favorite wine.”   This obsession with the past, especially the trivial details therein, demonstrate that, as hard as Wilde may try to retell his story, he is still re-experiencing it.

Wilde concludes his letter with cautious optimism.  A dozen pages before the end, he describes his religious revelation and the profound wisdom that results from misery.  All references to Douglas, whether pronominal or tangential, disappear, and when the recipient returns to the text, it is for Wilde to lecture him on the mutability of the past: “If people tell you that [the past] is irrevocable, do not believe them. . . I have got to make myself look on [the past] with different eyes, to make the world look on it with different eyes, to make God look on it with different eyes. . . It is only to be done fully by accepting it as an inevitable part of the evolution of my life and character.”  Wilde admits the ‘uncertain moods’ of his letter, but the previous pages seem to indicate that Wilde’s come to terms with Douglas and the harm he’s caused.  So what are we to think that, after 55,000 words of condemnation and renunciation, Wilde ultimately reconciled with Douglas?  That Douglas, the man who seemed so incorrigible, so vacuous and vain, proved himself doubly so when he publicly repudiated Wilde a decade after the playwright’s death?  Unfortunately, this tragic outcome leaps from the pages of Wilde’s manuscript.  In his constant vacillations and painstaking details, Wilde shows us that writing is a mirror, not a makeover.  However therapeutic the craft may be, it’s powerless to change certain realities, no matter how eloquently we may try.  

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