Blesok no. 56, September-October, 2007

from “The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde”

Peter Ackroyd

19 September 1900

I have become a problem in modern ethics, as Symonds would say, although it seemed to me at the time that I was the solution. Everyone is talking about my particular disposition now for, as usual, I chose the proper dramatic moment to reveal my sexual infamy to the world. Even the Germans have become interested in the subject and, of all the extraordinary things that have happened to me, the most extraordinary may be that I shall be remembered not as an artist but as a case history, a psychological study to be placed beside Onan and Herodias. I might even be mentioned by Edward Carpenter in one of his more suggestive passages. I perfectly understand Carpenter, although he does not seem to understand himself – the consciousness of sin, he has written somewhere, displays a weakness in man. But our real weakness is far more interesting than that: we call activities sinful in order that we may enjoy them all the more fiercely.
    The problem, as always in modern thought, is one of nomenclature. I am not inverted: I was diverted. If I am a Uranian, I spring from that part of the sky where Uranus is touched with the glory of the stars. For I hold male love to be of the highest kind, honoured by the philosophers who have considered it to be the type of ideal love, and by artists who have seen in the male figure the lineaments of spiritual beauty. Modern medicine, like an owl at noon which hoots blindly, so dazzled is it by the light, has invented new terms – but 'healthy' and 'diseased' are quite unsatisfactory as mental categories. Who would not rather be diseased as Leonardo and Winckelmann were, than healthy with Hall Caine and Mrs Cashel Hoey?
    Every great creation involves a rupture of equilibrium, and the finest things in art have come from that fever of the passions which I and others like me have experienced. It was male love which inspired Michaelangelo in his perfect sonnets; it inspired Shakespeare to immortalise a young man in words of fire just as it guided the hands of Plato and of Marlowe.
    When I became a servant of this love, I saw in it both the perfection and the fatality of the complete life. It held for me the innocence of all aspirations towards the beautiful, as well as the bitterness and weariness of self-knowledge. Caravaggio was moved by that love when he painted John the Baptist, with his delightfully child-like smile, and his eyes which have already seen the horror of things to come. In that image are both seduction and despair, innocent need and troubled satiety.
    Bobbie is interested in Socratic works of a rather different kind, however. He would take me to a small bookshop in St James's Street which had, I believe, a French name – it was a sort of circulating library, although the circulation was of a limited and select kind. There was one work, Teleny, which passed from hand to hand and to which I added small touches of my own. It was a story of corrupt and dangerous passions, although much of it read like Gray's Anatomy. Rabelaisian literature has never been of particular interest to me – it is always deficient in form, and stumbles under the weight of too much content – and Teleny provided only the crudest materials for an artistic fiction. But I did not mock the book: I was pleased to read deeply in all aspects of homoerotic literature, in the records of dead love as much as in the celebration of living ones. For, even when I was caught in my sins, I was convinced of the essential virtue of Greek love: men can live in perfect equality, each finding in the other the image of his own soul. Men and women can never live in peace – they either destroy each other, or bore each other, which is worse. When in the Symposium Socrates quite refutes the arguments of Aristophanes – that man and woman are but two torn natures striving to be reunited – he proclaimed a great truth which modern civilisation, with the possible exception of Ibsen, seems to have forgotten: men and women are not complementary, they are antagonistic. The great romances have always been between men.
    But such love depends upon true equality and, in my madness, I used the spirit of Socrates to bless unholy unions. Instead of seeking a companion, I went into the gutter and saw my own image outlined in the dust only. I went to the young because the young have no conscience – that was why I loved them.
    There is a story in Celtic literature of Tirnan-Og, the country of the young. Neither age nor death is to be found there; neither tears nor hollow laughter hold dominion. The bard Oisen, desiring to learn the secrets of that place, travelled there under cover of darkness. He found the enchanted country and dwelt there for three hundred years. But he grew heart-sick for his previous life, and for the country of his birth, and returned by the way he had come. The moment his feet touched his native earth, his three hundred years fell upon him. His figure was bent double, and all the cares which troubled the world during those long years fell upon him also. Simple stories have simple morals. One should never pursue the young: in doing so, one loses one's own youth.
    I, too, had grown weary of my wanderings through London: I did not wish to abandon my pleasures, only to find them closer to home. And so where my sins had once been solitary, now I found a companion who could guide me. Alfred Taylor, whom I met at the Crown, had like me a weakness for boys – and men of our kind seek each other out for our weaknesses and not for our strengths. He promised me adventures: he pandered to my instincts and brought me those companions whom I sought. Taylor was to be tried with me at the Old Bailey; he was offered immunity from prosecution if he would testify against me, but he refused. From such moments in life are saints born. One noble act, like that of Mary Magdalene, can obliterate with perfumes all the sins of the world: although I believe Alfred's hair was rather longer than the Magdalene's.
    I liked Taylor because he was improbable. He had invented for himself, in his rooms near Westminster, a world of gaiety and of pleasure, of strange scents and cloths. He understood that although reality cannot be imagined – it is too awful for that- it can be made imaginary. And so I would take a cab to his lodgings, to meet his 'pullets' as he charmingly described them; sometimes he would bring them to me in the private rooms of restaurants. There the champagne flowed freely and, after the champagne, the love.
    They were not bad boys. I know that some of them testified against me when I stood in the dock, but I understand that. Some had been frightened by threats, and others had been lured by the prospect of gold. I never judge those who amuse me and, in truth, the curious lives of these boys interested me. It seemed that they were walking along the same perilous wire as myself- although my fall was to be greater. Many of them came from a family, or a background, where a commonplace life would have made it easy for them to be virtuous; but they had the courage to experience more dangerous sensations. I listened to their stories for hours, and in recompense I gave them presents, small gifts only, although at my trials they were handed around to the jury as if they were relics from some barbaric faith. When Alfred Taylor and I found ourselves alone, we too would talk continually of our own adventures: they were fascinating, terribly fascinating, to me.

Sometimes in Taylor's lodgings there were parties of an intimate kind. Alfred had a particular interest in women's clothes and, since I have been from my aesthetic period an expert on the subject, I would assist him in the choice of hats and gowns which he would wear to entertain the company. Some of the young men took a similarly advanced view on the question of modern dress, and with Alfred they would perform masques and dramas which often descended to a Biblical level. On one occasion, Alfred and two boys performed Salomé in my honour – it was that scarlet drama's first and only performance in England, and I was delighted by the spirit it inspired in them. Charlie Mason, who had quite recovered from his arrest in Cleveland Street, played Salomé with the gestures of the divine Sarah herself and Alfred was a magnificent, if somewhat too feminine, Herodias. It was a delightful evening and, at the close, the boys crowned me with lilies – there are no garlands of myrtle to be found in England -and carried me around the room. I made a little speech, in which I congratulated them for their quite unaffected performances.
    I cannot myself act, unless I am delivering my own lines, but I was once persuaded by Alfred to assist at one of his performances. My fondness for the Queen is well known -1 am surprised she has not written to me lately, but I am told that she is busy organising the South African campaign. Indeed, Alfred was continually telling me of my remarkable resemblance to her: in what particular aspect I, of course, cannot say. And so on one evening, at a new year's celebration – it must have been 1894, one year before my fall -1 was draped in black and a small but delightful crown was placed upon my head. I admit that the role suited me perfectly, and I spoke quietly but humbly about my service to the nation and to dear, departed Albert. Then they all rose and sang God Save The Queen – I was much affected, and promised them the 'Queen's touch' on Maundy Thursday. I do not think I was ever quite the same again.
    Do you understand now why I enjoyed the company of these boys? With them my years left me; I did not feel the weight of a reputation which was even then threatening to crush me. I enjoyed reading to them from my plays and the boys' laughter -or, sometimes, their sombre concern at a particularly humorous turn in the drama – was for me enchanting. Alfred and I would take each character in turn – I remember that I was an emphatic Mrs Erlynne – and there were occasions when I would improvise in dialogue and impress even myself with the result. The boys admired me and, like Jesus, I have always performed my better miracles for those who have believed.
    I like to be seen with the boys – some of my friends thought it scandalous that I should do so, but the greater scandal is to be ashamed of one's companions. I was never that: I loved to walk with them through the crowded thoroughfares of London, or to visit with them the public places of entertainment. I remember once going with Charlie Lloyd to the Crystal Palace. I had visited it previously in order to lecture there – it was a place of grim memories.
    It was full of the smell of fresh buns and fresh paint, the shrieks from the monkey house blending quite successfully with the cries of the children as they watched with fascination the head of a pantomime clown, some twelve feet across, on which the eyes and mouth opened with the aid of a mechanism. Even the parents seemed impressed: it struck me as curious that the machinery could be such a source of wonder, but no doubt there will be a future for it in museums and circuses when it has vanished from our industries. There was also a Handel Festival during our visit, which Charlie quite rightly declined to attend, and we turned our attention instead to the toy-stalls in which glass waterfalls trickled in landscapes of Virginian cork and Swiss peasants valsed: all for a penny. The nineteenth century is an extraordinary thing, although only in its trivial aspects.
    Charlie Lloyd had no conversation. 'Jolly good, Oscar' was, I believe, his only phrase. I would torment him with questions, about Bimettalism or the Irish question, and he would simply smile at me. He had a pale, unlined face – an advantage I ascribe entirely to his diet. He seemed to live entirely off potted meats, Palmers biscuits and Bovril. He was almost an advertisement. I could not tempt him to restaurants, and I did not wish to tempt him to bed. But he interested me: he was a perfect type. I possessed a gold cross which in a moment of enthusiasm I had given to my first great love in Dublin, Florence Balcombe. Of course I retrieved it immediately on her marriage, to an actor. While we were at the Crystal Palace, I gave it to Charlie – it pleased me that it should change hands in so obvious a fashion. I do not know what he did with it: perhaps he ate it.
    In those days the theatre was always the main attraction – not the serious theatre where the middle classes learn of the difficulties of their lives, but the music halls. With Sidney Mavor and Fred Atkins I would go to the Tivoli or the Empire, to see the ventriloquists, funambulists and Ethiopian comedians. Sidney's favourite was always Mr Stratton, known popularly as Dan Leno-that droll creature who adopts the accents and attitudes of the lower classes with a humour that is both perceptive and benign. There was something quite alarming in the manner with which he was able to mimic the voice of a washer-woman or the strange gait of a variety actress: it was as if the glory and the darkness of the London streets had enshrined themselves in this little personage, leaving him visibly bowed and drained.
    I sent round my card to him at the end of one performance, and he welcomed me with such graciousness and affability that I was charmed at once. 'Mr Wilde,' he said to me in that deep voice which was quite unlike his stage manner, 1 am a comedian and you are a dramatist, but we both have our patter, don't we?' I agreed – how could I not? 'The secret, in my reckoning, is to bring them close to crying and then boost them up again. That's the ticket.' I smiled, and said nothing.
    One theatrical incident I shall never be able to forget: it was at the Trocadero, before it became a restaurant, although some people profess not to know the difference. Arthur Faber, who was in those days a well-known impersonator, came upon the stage. After a few rather conventional scenes, involving drunks, policemen and the usual melodrama of real life, he picked up a cane with a gold top, placed around his shoulders a large fur coat, arranged his body into a grotesquely bloated shape, and sang some bawdy lyric.
    It was with sudden horror that I realised he was impersonating me. It was done with much humour, but it was as if I had been slapped across the face. I saw myself at that instant as others saw me, and I felt a terrible sense of fatality-as though this creature on the stage was too preposterous to survive; the hoots and calls from the pit were the cries of those baying for blood. I did not understand why this should be so, and I left the theatre hurriedly.

20 September 1900

Now that, like Dante, I have walked into the twilight world, the ghosts of the past come hurrying to greet me. There were other boys, whose names did not emerge at the time of my trials; and, although I was convicted of many sins I did not commit, there were others which were not placed in the indictment against me. When young men wrote to me about my work, I would arrange interviews with them and plan schemes of seduction. I needed continually the excitement of the chase, and did not care about the nature of the quarry. So it was that I ended in the hands of the lowest renters, like Wood and Taylor. I liked them because they were dangerous – simply that.
    But, although I longed for the pleasures which they and their kind provided, I did not enjoy them when they had been found. My physical excitation waned and, although I used to fondle the boys, it was no more than helpless affection – not the sordid and mechanical delirium which has been trumpeted to the world. My real joy was to watch two boys together in the various acts of love, and to pleasure myself as they did so. I think I have been primarily a spectator always – I had become a spectator even of my own life, so that everything seemed to come to me from an infinite distance. And I enjoyed the spectacle of love, I admit it – it is a strange illusion that only in one's member is lust to be found. That is a modern heresy. The pleasures of watching seemed greater to me, for there is also a lust of the mind.
    But you can understand, can you not, why I experienced a sense of damnation in the midst of this life, and why I was drinking so excessively that even my friends began to whisper about me? When intelligence peeped through these pleasures, I became horrified at my delirium and, in my despair, threw myself back into it again. I trembled when I read Anatole France's scarlet tragedy, Thaïs, of the despair that succeeds excess, the torment that follows the swift feet of riot.
    But indeed I think in the midst of my lust I longed for an end to it – that might be the secret of my fall. I was weary of all that I knew, and I grew terribly tired. I could not now look upon Constance or my young sons without shame. I had allowed my real work to fall away from me. In the last years I wrote only for money, the money which I spent on company unworthy of me, and the applause, the applause which turned too quickly to the hoots and catcalls of derision. I had lost myself in my sins; with my own hands I had blinded myself and I stumbled into the pit. I can write no more: I must lie down and rest my head.

6 October 1900

I was so pleased with my account of life in prison, with the pearl I had created out of two years' suffering, that I took this journal with me when I went to lunch with Bosie at the Richaux. I saw Frank Harris there and asked him to join us – on the principle that if Frank is not with you he is against you. At first I kept the book mysteriously by my side, but the suspense grew too much for me and I placed it upon the table.
    'What is that, Oscar, a ledger of debts?'
    'Yes, Bosie, it is. But they are not debts which money could repay.'
    'Your debts never are.' This, of course, was Frank.
    'I will read you a passage, Frank, if you will allow an artistic note to be introduced into our conversation.'
    I think I recited to them the pages concerning my triumphant days in London society. They were astonished, naturally, and took the book from me. They read it, practically arm in arm, while I gazed out of the window. Eventually, Frank looked up at me.
    'You cannot publish this, Oscar. It is nonsense – and most of it is quite untrue.'
    'What on earth do you mean?'
    'It is invented.'
    'It is my life.'
    'But you have quite obviously changed the facts to suit your own purpose.'
    'I have no purpose, and the facts came quite naturally to me.'
    'There was a time when you distrusted nature, and rightly so. For example, “in the little theatre in King Street, the young men wore green carnations”. Oscar, you were the only person who wore a green carnation. And this, “I was vain and the world loved my vanity”. Nobody loved your vanity, Oscar. Surely you know that by now.'
    'Don't be so ridiculous, Frank. You are behaving like a weekly reviewer.'
    'And you have stolen lines from other writers. Listen to this one –'
    'I did not steal them. I rescued them.'
    Bosie remained silent: he was biting his fingernails, which is always a sign that he has nothing to say. And so I challenged him.
    'And what do you think?'
    'It's full of lies, but of course you are. It is absurd and mean and foolish. But then you are. Of course you must publish it.'
    Frank then continued in the most boring detail about what he called my errors of fact and judgment. I cannot remember them now. I rescued the book from him after some minutes, and asked him to order me a cab.
    'Lose the book,' he said, 'for your sake.' Of course I ignored him.

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