Sunday, October 15, 2006

Oscar Wilde: Come down, O Christ, and help me!

I have nothing to declare except my genius.
Remark at the New York Customs, Jan. 3, 1882.

E Tenebris

COME down, O Christ, and help me! reach thy hand,
For I am drowning in a stormier sea
Than Simon on thy lake of Galilee:
The wine of life is spilt upon the sand,
My heart is as some famine-murdered land
Whence all good things have perished utterly,
And well I know my soul in Hell must lie
If I this night before God’s throne should stand.
‘He sleeps perchance, or rideth to the chase,
Like Baal, when his prophets howled that name
From morn to noon on Carmel’s smitten height.’
Nay, peace, I shall behold, before the night,
The feet of brass, the robe more white than flame,
The wounded hands, the weary human face.

It is hard to believe that these are all words uttered by the same man.

I have been a big fan of Oscar Wilde ever since we did The Importance of Being Earnest back in secondary school. His effortless wit and his literary genius captured my imagination. I read all of his plays and as much as I could about his life. A few years later when I found myself at Oxford I got to see Wilde's old rooms at Magdalen College (they are still being used as student accomodation and a friend of a friend had the good fortune of having been given those very rooms). I also managed to catch a wonderful production of A Woman of No Importance in London.

Wilde's own words in De Profundis (his last work of prose, written while he was still in prison) would sound horribly pompous if not for the fact that they are largely true and that he has indeed persisted as one of the literary giants of his time.

I was a man who stood in symbolic relations to the art and culture of my age. I had realised this for myself at the very dawn of my manhood, and had forced my age to realise it afterwards...

The gods had given me almost everything. I had genius, a distinguished name, high social position, brilliancy, intellectual daring: I made art a philosophy, and philosophy an art: I altered the minds of men and the colours of things: there was nothing I said or did that did not make people wonder: ... drama, novel, poem in rhyme, poem in prose, subtle or fantastic dialogue, whatever I touched I made beautiful in a new mode of beauty: to truth itself I gave what is false no less than what is true as its rightful province, and showed that the false and the true are merely forms of intellectual existence. I treated Art as the supreme reality, and life as a mere mode of fiction: I awoke the imagination of my century so that it created myth and legend around me: I summed up all systems in a phrase, and all existence in an epigram.

For all the celebrity and acclaim that he enjoyed (and still enjoys), he died penniless and alone, exiled in Paris. Though married with two young sons, he had intimate relations with one Lord Alfred Douglas which led to his being charged with the crime of homosexuality (then illegal in Britain). His triumphant public career ended in utter disgrace - he was sentenced to two years hard labour. He died shortly after he was released.

On his death-bed, Wilde was received into the Catholic Church. In An Oxford Reminiscence, his friend and contemporary W. W. Ward, commenting upon a bundle of old letters written to him by Wilde, recalls that '[t]hey show, too, that his final decision to find refuge in the Roman Church was not the sudden clutch of the drowning man at the plank in the shipwreck, but a return to a first love, a love rejected, it is true, or at least rejected in the tragic progress of his self-realization, yet one that had haunted him from early days with a persistent spell.' (Son of Oscar Wilde. Vyvyan Holland. Appendix B. Pp. 251-2.) See also The Long Conversion of Oscar Wilde.

I must say to myself that I ruined myself, and that nobody great or small can be ruined except by his own hand ...This pitiless indictment I bring without pity against myself. Terrible as was what the world did to me, what I did to myself was far more terrible still ...I let myself be lured into long spells of senseless and sensual ease. I amused myself with being a flaneur, a dandy, a man of fashion. I surrounded myself with the smaller natures and the meaner minds. I became the spendthrift of my own genius, and to waste an eternal youth gave me a curious joy. Tired of being on the heights, I deliberately went to the depths in the search for new sensation. What the paradox was to me in the sphere of thought, perversity became to me in the sphere of passion. Desire, at the end, was a malady, or a madness, or both. I grew careless of the lives of others. I took pleasure where it pleased me, and passed on. I forgot that every little action of the common day makes or unmakes character, and that therefore what one has done in the secret chamber one has some day to cry aloud on the housetop. I ceased to be lord over myself. I was no longer the captain of my soul, and did not know it. I allowed pleasure to dominate me. I ended in horrible disgrace.

There is only one thing for me now, absolute humility.

from De Profundis

"Humility is not another word for hypocrisy; it is another word for honesty. It is not pretending to be other than we are, but acknowledging the truth about what we are."
John Stott

It took complete financial and social ruin for Wilde to come to a place of "absolute humility", where he cried out in desperation "Come down, O Christ, and help me!"

When an English teacher assigned the Sermon on the Mount to her composition class at Texas A&M University, she was surprised at the responses that she got.

The stuff the churches preach is extremely strict and allows for almost no fun without thinking it is a sin or not.

I did not like the essay "Sermon on the Mount." It was hard to read and made me feel like I had to be perfect and no one is.

The things asked in this sermon are absurd. To look at a woman is adultery. That is the most extreme, stupid, unhuman statement that I have ever heard.
cited in Philip Yancey's The Jesus I Never Knew

Lest we are inclined to think of Jesus as some cuddly religious teacher who waxes lyrical about love, much of what he says is extremely challenging if not downright offensive. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

Leo Tolstoy recognised the impossibility of Christ's standards. "The test of observance of Christ's teachings is our consciousness of our failure to attain an ideal perfection. The degree to which we draw near this perfection cannot be seen; all we can see is the extent of our deviation."
from The Kingdom of God is Within You

In a way, we are all desperate.

Fortunately for us, the Sermon on the Mount is not just an impossible set of standards to make everyone feel completely rotten about themselves (apparently Tolstoy felt this way a lot of the time), but a picture of what God is like. When Jesus was nailed to the cross, among the very last words he spoke were "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing". He loved his enemies and prayed for those who persecuted, and crucified, him.

We cannot live up to God's perfect standards. But seeing more clearly the vast chasm between the perfection of God and the wretchedness of man, we see the infinite distance that Jesus traversed on our behalves. We see just how much He loves us.

Thunderously, inarguably, the Sermon on the Mount proves that before God we all stand on level ground: murderers and temper-throwers, adulterers and lusters, thieves and coveters. We are all desperate, and that is in fact the only state appropriate to a human being who wants to know God. Having fallen from the absolute Ideal, we have nowhere to land but in the safety net of absolute grace.
Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew

Just as I am, without one plea
But that thy blood was shed for me,
And that thou bid me come to thee,
O Lamb of God, I come to thee.

Just as I am, and waiting not
To rid my soul of one dark blot
To thee, whose blood
can cleanse each spot,
O Lamb of God, I come to thee.

Just as I am, though tossed about
With many conflicts many doubts,
Fightings and fears within, without
O Lamb of God, I come to thee.

Just as I am, poor, wretched, blind;
Sight, riches, healing of the mind,
Yea, all I need, in thee to find,
O Lamb of God, I come to thee.

Just as I am, thy love unknown
Has broken every barrier down;
Now, to be thine, yea, thine alone,
O Lamb of God, I come to thee.


leah said...

thank you for this post, peish :) I love Oscar Wilde's writing so much, but so often as I read his stuff and marvel at his range and genius I am struck by a sense of pity (I assumed as a gay man who wrote the likes of the picture of dorian grey he was *probably* not christian) and guilt (why am I allowing my mind to be swayed and mesmerised by these decidedly unchristian tracts?) and now you've helped to shed some light on the author I so admire. Another man who seems to have clung on to his faith - nuanced and uncertain and splintered as it may well have been - despite the conflict and torment and guilt in his soul, as reflected in his writing, is Graham Greene. Go check out "The Heart of the Matter" :)

peish said...

Thanks Leah. 'Twas a pleasure :)