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Book review

De Profundis. Oscar Wilde (1905)

“Nothing in the world is meaningless,” Wilde declares, “And sorrow least of all.” Wilde is writing De Profundis in his second year in prison. His first year was full of physical illness, bitterness, and cynicism. Wilde’s embrace of suffering now is motivated not by pessimism but, on the contrary, by self-love.

While in prison for homosexual acts, Oscar Wilde wrote the lyrical essay De Profundis as a letter to a friend. De Profundis documents Wilde’s ongoing spiritual rebirth: out of disgrace, sorrow, and physical suffering, Wilde is forging a new self. De Profundis is Wilde’s retrospective on his fame and his downfall; his critique of ethics; a testament to the human power for a compassion that begins with the self; and an ode to both self-criticism and self-acceptance. This essay is partly psychological autobiography, partly a vision statement for Wilde’s future, and partly a thesis on the importance of embracing suffering.

“Nothing in the world is meaningless,” Wilde declares, “And sorrow least of all.” Wilde is writing De Profundis in his second year in prison. His first year was full of physical illness, bitterness, and cynicism. He considered becoming self-consciously and sternly sorrowful, but realised that would be a poor return to those of his friends who had remained faithful in his disgrace. Wilde’s embrace of suffering now is motivated not by pessimism but, on the contrary, by self-love. He realises two things: (i) The laws under which he was convicted are unjust; but hatred for those who made him suffer would be toxic to Wilde himself; and (ii) Unless he both accepts and interrogates his suffering – finds in the depths of suffering meaning – there is no hope for his soul.

Wilde’s solitary hope lies in embracing the fullness of his experience. That includes suffering.

“I have lived a full life in the garden of life – but only in its sunlit side. The shadowed side I avoided; that was my only error.”

De Profundis is remarkable as a balanced self-analysis. Wilde acknowledges that he was wrong to avoid suffering; but he does not now over-correct by claiming that suffering is the only meaningful thing. Wilde’s enjoyment of pleasure was not wrong in itself – it was wrong only because unaccompanied by an acceptance of suffering.

Underlying Wilde’s new quest to explore the “shaded side of the garden” is his reinvigorated commitment to individualism. At the start of his prison-term, his friends advised him to forget what he had been. But Wilde recognised that advice as “ruinous… It was only by realising what I am that I have found any comfort.”

Wilde, the self-willed, iconoclastic aesthete, has endured much. A public inquiry into his private life; being found guilty of breaching laws with strong moral undertones; being outcast from the social circle of which he was the brightest star. After all this, Wilde realises that his way ahead demands, not less individualism – but more. It is a powerful spiritual journey that De Profundis documents. Wilde has been broken, but not defeated. He is determined to remake himself as himself.

In my teens I enjoyed Wilde’s earlier works. His lighthearted, witty comedies-of-manners, peopled by gorgeous shallow characters, superficial and self-satisfied about it – struck me as well-crafted, pleasant, cynical works that refused to take life seriously, and that dismissed authentic emotion as primitive. I remember reading Portrait as the fantasy of a man who imagined that, if he could avert the external traces of a life of pleasure, degeneracy, and crime – then that life would be perfect. This cynical analysis of our ethics as being founded, not on internal principles, but merely on our fear of the external consequences of unethical behaviour – both fascinated and repelled me. Wilde struck me as a cynic – at best harmless, at worst dangerous.

Reading De Profundis after reading early Wilde makes this document all the more moving. This man who dedicated his life to the twin gods of pleasure and worldly success has lost everything – and finds, in that very loss, a deeper connection with himself and with humanity.

A big chunk of De Profundis is devoted to Wilde’s portrait of Christ. Wilde calls Christ “an artist, a poet, ranking with Shelley and Sophocles… Christ was himself a work of art. He does not really try to teach one anything, but by being brought into his presence one becomes something.” Wilde also praises Christ as the greatest individualist in history: both as forging his own path, and as basing his ethics entirely on sympathy with the individual sinner.

I’m not qualified to critique Wilde’s portrait of Christ’s approach to ethics. (The Bible is still on my reading list.) But it’s clear that Wilde, in seeking the significance of his own suffering, has identified himself very strongly with Christ, as the archetypal symbol for the nobility and the beauty of suffering. In terms of religious affiliation, Wilde asserts that he continues to be an agnostic. Suffering has not converted Wilde to religion. Rather, it has driven him to seek role-models for how to interpret and grow through suffering. This role-model Wilde has found in his own psychobiography of Christ. Any portrait made from over-identification with its subject is problematic: but it does reveal the painter’s feelings and desires.

True to Wilde’s old style, De Profundis is a series of memorable aphorisms lyrically expressed. “Suffering is one long moment. We cannot divide it into seasons.” “Sorrow is the type of all art.” By this latter aphorism, Wilde means that suffering has a unity he considers lacking in other emotions. Like any aphoristic work, De Profundis lays itself open to criticism – via statements either unfalsifiable, or patently untrue. “Pain, unlike pleasure, wears no mask.” What does this mean? That people never dissimulate their pain, though they do dissimulate their pleasure? This isn’t true. That people often pretend to be happy, but never pretend to be in pain? This is also untrue.

Still, De Profundis is worth reading. It is an inspiring document of a man rebuilding himself after a fall from grace – acknowledging that he has done wrong (broken the law of the land) but without any false penitence (he knew when he was tried, and he still knows now in prison, that those laws are unjust). It is a searching analysis of a man looking into his own soul, and finding much good, as well as need for growth. Above all, it is implicitly a call for us to examine whether the laws which we so harshly uphold have any real ethical foundation.

Read De Profundis free here.

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By Amita Basu

I'm a writer based in Bangalore, India.

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