The Picture of Dorian Gray

Today, a very long time ago, a boy was born in a distinguished house in Dublin, a man who would later become a byword for all that was decadent, depraved and “inverted”, to use a delicate Victorian euphemism, a man whose person, whose writings and whose very existence flew in the face of the many hypocrisies of his age.

Oscar Finegan O’Flahertie Wills Wilde – and how great a name is that? – was born today, and if anyone remembers Wilde at all in our own decadent, depraved, celebrity-obsessed age, we remember him for a lot less that what he truly was – a gifted observer of people, an indignant social critic, and like so many of his countrymen, one of the finest writers in the English language.

What we remember is what we have today come to define as “flaming gay”, meaning openly homosexual, or we remember the many, many barbed-wire bon mots he also left behind as his legacy, not a few of which are still quoted with equal relevance today, not something too many of his contemporaries can boast.

We might remember the notoriety – of the man, of his “trial”, of the consequences of honesty in an age that was anything but, and bless our fate that we now live in more forgiving, progressive times, when the fact is, that we are no less hypocritical today, no more forgiving than in the Belle Epoque.

We might remember being forced to read “The Picture of Dorian Gray” in English class, and wondering WTF the fuss was about. At 15, I read it, and even though I was precocious for my age, I was not yet old enough to see the book for what it truly was – an incendiary criticism of “society”, a commentary on art and aesthetics, and a horror story that these many years later still makes my skin crawl.

Dorian Gray is not the only one who has a hideous portrait hidden in his attic, reflecting the sum of all previous vices and transgressions…

We might remember amateur or professional performances of plays such as “The Importance of Being Earnest” or “An Ideal Husband”, where the lines come thick and lightning fast, so fast, the real punchline goes missing in the mirth.

There was always a sting in Oscar, a sting that until his dying day made it possible for him to associate with the highest society and the the lowest dregs, from peers of the realm to Colorado miners, a sting that told the careful listener and observer that the fop, the aesthete, the walking exclamation point had something more, and darker, to offer than one-liners.

What we remember, in other words, is the caricature, the public, distorted persona and what we have forgotten is the man’s complexity – as a writer, critic and certainly as a human being.

He is known for his association with Lord Alfred Douglas, who, it must be said, can’t have done poor Oscar many favors, and yet – he was, for a time at least, a devoted husband and certainly a loving father to the end. Along with his plays, essays, poetry and books, he also wrote children’s stories. One of my own near-misses was a first edition of his “House of Pomegranates”, complete with Art Nouveau gilded pomegranates on the cover. It was in deplorable condition. The binding was coming apart, the edges were frayed and dissolving, and the delicate pages had obviously been read – and loved – for several generations. I almost bought it, but I couldn’t afford it at the time. To this day, I still regret it.

What I remember – a man who used his rapier-sharp wit, his persona in the public mind – and his wits – as a smokescreen and a deflector, to hide what he did not want to world to know – that he saw – everything, and felt – even more. The pain of human existence, the high cost of hypocrisy, the price of so-called progress on the human soul, of how, in the light of all our technological advances, we have forgotten much we should have remembered. Mainly that we have forgotten our very humanity, overlooked our complexity and forget to forgive each other’s and our own all-too human failings.

“Some of us”, said Oscar in one of his more reflective moments, “are in the gutter, but we are looking at the stars.”

In the end, even to a man who always loomed larger than life in many ways for many people, his own human failings caught up to him, and nevertheless, he saw it coming.

Alas! it is a fearful thing
To feel another’s guilt!
For, right within, the sword of Sin
Pierced to its poisoned hilt,
And as molten lead were the tears we shed
For the blood we had not spilt.

Fron “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”

Happy Birthday, Oscar Wilde, wherever you may be! Today your grave is covered in roses and peacock feathers, and even now, so long after, you, also, have never been forgotten, and although you have been much maligned, you are, today, much beloved!

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