Oscar Wilde, His Life and Confessions, by Frank Harris

Chapter 24

We Argue About His “Pet Vice” and Punishment

A little later I was called to Monte Carlo and went for a few days, leaving Oscar, as he said, perfectly happy, with good food, excellent champagne, absinthe and coffee, and his simple fisher friends.

When I came back to La Napoule, I found everything altered and altered for the worse. There was an Englishman of a good class named M—— staying at the hotel. He was accompanied by a youth of seventeen or eighteen whom he called his servant. Oscar wanted to know if I minded meeting him.

“He is charming, Frank, and well read, and he admires me very much: you won’t mind his dining with us, will you?”

“Of course not,” I replied. But when I saw M—— I thought him an insignificant, foolish creature, who put to show a great admiration for Oscar, and drank in his words with parted lips; and well he might, for he had hardly any brains of his own. He had, however, a certain liking for the poetry and literature of passion.43

To my astonishment Oscar was charming to him, chiefly I think because he was well off, and was pressing Oscar to spend the summer with him at some place he had in Switzerland. This support made Oscar recalcitrant to any influence I might have had over him. When I asked him if he had written anything whilst I was away, he replied casually:

“No, Frank, I don’t think I shall be able to write any more. What is the good of it? I cannot force myself to write.”

“And your ‘Ballad of a Fisher Boy’?” I asked.

“I have composed three or four verses of it,” he said, smiling at me, “I have got them in my head,” and he recited two or three, one of which was quite good, but none of them startling.

Not having seen him for some days, I noticed that he was growing stout again: the good living and constant drinking seemed to ooze out of him; he began to look as he looked in the old days in London just before the catastrophe.

One morning I asked him to put the verses on paper which he had recited to me, but he would not; and when I pressed him, cried:

“Let me live, Frank; tasks remind me of prison. You do not know how I abhor even the memory of it: it was degrading, inhuman!”

“Prison was the making of you,” I could not help retorting, irritated by what seemed to me a mere excuse. “You came out of it better in health and stronger than I have ever known you. The hard living, regular hours and compulsory chastity did you all the good in the world. That is why you wrote those superb letters to the ‘Daily Chronicle,’ and the ‘Ballad of Reading Gaol’; the State ought really to put you in prison and keep you there.”

For the first time in my life I saw angry dislike in his eyes.

“You talk poisonous nonsense, Frank,” he retorted. “Bad food is bad for everyone, and abstinence from tobacco is mere torture to me. Chastity is just as unnatural and devilish as hunger; I hate both. Self-denial is the shining sore on the leprous body of Christianity.”

To all this M—— giggled applause, which naturally excited the combative instincts in me — always too alert.

“All great artists,” I replied, “have had to practise chastity; it is chastity alone which gives vigour and tone to mind and body, while building up a reserve of extraordinary strength. Your favourite Greeks never allowed an athlete to go into the palæstra unless he had previously lived a life of complete chastity for a whole year. Balzac, too, practised it and extolled its virtues, and goodness knows he loved all the mud-honey of Paris.”

“You are hopelessly wrong, Frank, what madness will you preach next! You are always bothering one to write, and now forsooth you recommend chastity and ‘skilly,’ though I admit,” he added laughing, “that your ‘skilly’ includes all the indelicacies of the season, with champagne, Mocha coffee, and absinthe to boot. But surely you are getting too puritanical. It’s absurd of you; the other day you defended conventional love against my ideal passion.”

He provoked me: his tone was that of rather contemptuous superiority. I kept silent: I did not wish to retort as I might have done if M—— had not been present.

But Oscar was determined to assert his peculiar view. One or two days afterwards he came in very red and excited and more angry than I had ever seen him.

“What do you think has happened, Frank?”

“I do not know. Nothing serious, I hope.”

“I was sitting by the roadside on the way to Cannes. I had taken out a Vergil with me and had begun reading it. As I sat there reading, I happened to raise my eyes, and who should I see but George Alexander — George Alexander on a bicycle. I had known him intimately in the old days, and naturally I got up delighted to see him, and went towards him. But he turned his head aside and pedalled past me deliberately. He meant to cut me. Of course I know that just before my trial in London he took my name off the bill of my comedy, though he went on playing it. But I was not angry with him for that, though he might have behaved as well as Wyndham,44 who owed me nothing, don’t you think?

“Here there was nobody to see him, yet he cut me. What brutes men are! They not only punish me as a society, but now they are trying as individuals to punish me, and after all I have not done worse than they do. What difference is there between one form of sexual indulgence and another? I hate hypocrisy and hypocrites! Think of Alexander, who made all his money out of my works, cutting me, Alexander! It is too ignoble. Wouldn’t you be angry, Frank?”

“I daresay I should be,” I replied coolly, hoping the incident would be a spur to him.

“I’ve always wondered why you gave Alexander a play? Surely you didn’t think him an actor?”

“No, no!” he exclaimed, a sudden smile lighting up his face; “Alexander doesn’t act on the stage; he behaves. But wasn’t it mean of him?”

I couldn’t help smiling, the dart was so deserved.

“Begin another play,” I said, “and the Alexanders will immediately go on their knees to you again. On the other hand, if you do nothing you may expect worse than discourtesy. Men love to condemn their neighbours’ pet vice. You ought to know the world by this time.”

He did not even notice the hint to work, but broke out angrily:

“What you call vice, Frank, is not vice: it is as good to me as it was to Cæsar, Alexander, Michelangelo and Shakespeare. It was first of all made a sin by monasticism, and it has been made a crime in recent times, by the Goths — the Germans and English — who have done little or nothing since to refine or exalt the ideals of humanity. They all damn the sins they have no mind to, and that’s their morality. A brutal race; they overeat and overdrink and condemn the lusts of the flesh, while revelling in all the vilest sins of the spirit. If they would read the 23rd chapter of St. Matthew and apply it to themselves, they would learn more than by condemning a pleasure they don’t understand. Why, even Bentham refused to put what you call a ‘vice’ in his penal code, and you yourself admitted that it should not be punished as a crime; for it carries no temptation with it. It may be a malady; but, if so, it appears only to attack the highest natures. It is disgraceful to punish it. The wit of man can find no argument which justifies its punishment.”

“Don’t be too sure of that,” I retorted.

“I have never heard a convincing argument which condemns it, Frank; I do not believe such a reason exists.”

“Don’t forget,” I said, “that this practice which you defend is condemned by a hundred generations of the most civilised races of mankind.”

“Mere prejudice of the unlettered, Frank.”

“And what is such a prejudice?” I asked. “It is the reason of a thousand generations of men, a reason so sanctified by secular experience that it has passed into flesh and blood and become an emotion and is no longer merely an argument. I would rather have one such prejudice held by men of a dozen different races than a myriad reasons. Such a prejudice is incarnate reason approved by immemorial experience.

“What argument have you against cannibalism; what reason is there why we should not fatten babies for the spit and eat their flesh? The flesh is sweeter, African travellers tell us, than any other meat, tenderer at once and more sustaining; all reasons are in favour of it. What hinders us from indulging in this appetite but prejudice, sacred prejudice, an instinctive loathing at the bare idea?

“Humanity, it seems to me, is toiling up a long slope leading from the brute to the god: again and again whole generations, sometimes whole races, have fallen back and disappeared in the abyss. Every slip fills the survivors with fear and horror which with ages have become instinctive, and now you appear and laugh at their fears and tell them that human flesh is excellent food, and that sterile kisses are the noblest form of passion. They shudder from you and hate and punish you, and if you persist they will kill you. Who shall say they are wrong? Who shall sneer at their instinctive repulsion hallowed by ages of successful endeavour?”

“Fine rhetoric, I concede,” he replied, “but mere rhetoric. I never heard such a defence of prejudice before. I should not have expected it from you. You admit you don’t share the prejudice; you don’t feel the horror, the instinctive loathing you describe. Why? Because you are educated, Frank, because you know that the passion Socrates felt was not a low passion, because you know that Cæsar’s weakness, let us say, or the weakness of Michelangelo or of Shakespeare, is not despicable. If the desire is not a characteristic of the highest humanity, at least it is consistent with it.”45

“I cannot admit that,” I answered. “First of all, let us leave Shakespeare out of the question, or I should have to ask you for proofs of his guilt, and there are none. About the others there is this to be said, it is not by imitating the vices and weaknesses of great men that we shall get to their level. And suppose we are fated to climb above them, then their weaknesses are to be dreaded.

“I have not even tried to put the strongest reasons before you; I should have thought your own mind would have supplied them; but surely you see that the historical argument is against you. This vice of yours is dropping out of life, like cannibalism: it is no longer a practice of the highest races. It may have seemed natural enough to the Greeks, to us it is unnatural. Even the best Athenians condemned it; Socrates took pride in never having yielded to it; all moderns denounce it disdainfully. You must see that the whole progress of the world, the current of educated opinion, is against you, that you are now a ‘sport,’ a peculiarity, an abnormality, a man with six fingers: not a ‘sport’ that is, full of promise for the future, but a ‘sport’ of the dim backward and abysm of time, an arrested development.”

“You are bitter, Frank, almost rude.”

“Forgive me, Oscar, forgive me, please; it is because I want you at long last to open your eyes, and see things as they are.”

“But I thought you were with us, Frank, I thought at least you condemned the punishment, did not believe in the barbarous penalties.”

“I disbelieve in all punishment,” I said; “it is by love and not by hate that men must be redeemed. I believe, too, that the time is already come when the better law might be put in force, and above all, I condemn punishment which strikes a man, an artist like you, who has done beautiful and charming things as if he had done nothing. At least the good you have accomplished should be set against the evil. It has always seemed monstrous to me that you should have been punished like a Taylor. The French were right in their treatment of Verlaine: they condemned the sin, while forgiving the sinner because of his genius. The rigour in England is mere puritanic hypocrisy, shortsightedness and racial self-esteem.”

“All I can say, Frank, is, I would not limit individual desire in any way. What right has society to punish us unless it can prove we have hurt or injured someone else against his will? Besides, if you limit passion you impoverish life, you weaken the mainspring of art, and narrow the realm of beauty.”

“All societies,” I replied, “and most individuals, too, punish what they dislike, right or wrong. There are bad smells which do not injure anyone; yet the manufacturers of them would be indicted for committing a nuisance. Nor does your plea that by limiting the choice of passion you impoverish life, appeal to me. On the contrary, I think I could prove that passion, the desire of the man for the woman and the woman for the man, has been enormously strengthened in modern times. Christianity has created, or at least cultivated, modesty, and modesty has sharpened desire. Christianity has helped to lift woman to an equality with man, and this modern intellectual development has again intensified passion out of all knowledge. The woman who is not a slave but an equal, who gives herself according to her own feeling, is infinitely more desirable to a man than any submissive serf who is always waiting on his will. And this movement intensifying passion is every day gaining force.

“We have a far higher love in us than the Greeks, infinitely higher and more intense than the Romans knew; our sensuality is like a river banked in with stone parapets, the current flows higher and more vehemently in the narrower bed.”

“You may talk as you please, Frank, but you will never get me to believe that what I know is good to me, is evil. Suppose I like a food that is poison to other people, and yet quickens me; how dare they punish me for eating of it?”

“They would say,” I replied, “that they only punish you for inducing others to eat it.”

He broke in: “It is all ignorant prejudice, Frank; the world is slowly growing more tolerant and one day men will be ashamed of their barbarous treatment of me, as they are now ashamed of the torturings of the Middle Ages. The current of opinion is making in our favour and not against us.”

“You don’t believe what you say,” I cried; “if you really thought humanity was going your way, you would have been delighted to play Galileo. Instead of writing a book in prison condemning your companion who pushed you to discovery and disgrace, you would have written a book vindicating your actions. ‘I am a martyr,’ you would have cried, ‘and not a criminal, and everyone who holds the contrary is wrong.’

“You would have said to the jury:

“‘In spite of your beliefs, and your cherished dogmas; in spite of your religion and prejudice and fanatical hatred of me, you are wrong and I am right: the world does move.’

“But you didn’t say that, and you don’t think it. If you did you would be glad you went into the Queensberry trial, glad you were accused, glad you were imprisoned and punished because all these things must bring your vindication more quickly; you are sorry for them all, because in your heart you know you were wrong. This old world in the main is right: it’s you who are wrong.”

“Of course everything can be argued, Frank; but I hold to my conviction: the best minds even now don’t condemn us, and the world is becoming more tolerant.46 I didn’t justify myself in court because I was told I should be punished lightly if I respected the common prejudices, and when I tried to speak afterwards the judge would not let me.”

“And I believe,” I retorted, “that you were hopelessly beaten and could never have made a fight of it, because you felt the Time-spirit was against you. How else was a silly, narrow judge able to wave you to silence? Do you think he could have silenced me? Not all the judges in Christendom. Let me give you an example. I believe with Voltaire that when modesty goes out of life it goes into the language as prudery. I am quite certain that our present habit of not discussing sexual questions in our books is bound to disappear, and that free and dignified speech will take the place of our present prurient mealy-mouthedness. I have long thought it possible, probable even, in the present state of society in England, where we are still more or less under the heel of the illiterate and prudish Philistinism of our middle class, that I might be had up to answer some charge of publishing an indecent book. The current of the time appears to be against me. In the spacious days of Elizabeth, in the modish time of the Georges, a freedom of speech was habitual which today is tabooed. Our cases, therefore, are somewhat alike. Do you think I should dread the issue or allow myself to be silenced by a judge? I would set forth my defence before the judge and before the jury with the assurance of victory in me! I should not minimise what I had written; I should not try to explain it away; I should seek to make it stronger. I should justify every word, and finally I’d warn both judge and jury that if they condemned and punished me they would only make my ultimate triumph more conspicuous. ‘All the great men of the past are with me,’ I would cry; ‘all the great minds of today in other countries, and some of the best in England; condemn me at your peril: you will only condemn yourselves. You are spitting against the wind and the shame will be on your own faces.’

“Do you believe I should be left to suffer? I doubt it even in England today. If I’m right, and I’m sure I’m right, then about me there would be an invisible cloud of witnesses. You would see a strange movement of opinion in my favour. The judge would probably lecture me and bind me over to come up for judgment; but if he sentenced me vindictively then the Home Secretary47 would be petitioned and the movement in my favour would grow, till it swept away opposition. This is the very soul of my faith. If I did not believe with every fibre in me that this poor stupid world is honestly groping its way up the altar stairs to God, and not down, I would not live in it an hour.”

“Why do you argue against me, Frank? It is brutal of you.”

“To induce you even now to turn and pull yourself out of the mud. You are forty odd years of age, and the keenest sensations of life are over for you. Turn back whilst there’s time, get to work, write your ballad and your plays, and not the Alexanders alone, but all the people who really count, the best of all countries — the salt of the earth — will give you another chance. Begin to work and you’ll be borne up on all hands: No one sinks to the dregs but by his own weight. If you don’t bear fruit why should men care for you?”

He shrugged his shoulders and turned from me with disdainful indifference.

“I’ve done enough for their respect, Frank, and received nothing but hatred. Every man must dree his own weird. Thank Heaven, life’s not without compensations. I’m sorry I cannot please you,” and he added carelessly, “M—— has asked me to go and spend the summer with him at Gland in Switzerland. He does not mind whether I write or not.”

“I assure you,” I cried, “it is not my pleasure I am thinking about. What can it matter to me whether you write or not? It is your own good I am thinking of.”

“Oh, bother good! One’s friends like one as one is; the outside public hate one or scoff at one as they please.”

“Well, I hope I shall always be your friend,” I replied, “but you will yet be forced to see, Oscar, that everyone grows tired of holding up an empty sack.”

“Frank, you insult me.”

“I don’t mean to; I’m sorry; I shall never be so brutally frank again; but you had to hear the truth for once.”

“Then, Frank, you only cared for me in so far as I agreed with you?”

“Oh, that’s not fair,” I replied. “I have tried with all my strength to prevent you committing soul-suicide, but if you are resolved on it, I can’t prevent you. I must draw away. I can do no good.”

“Then you won’t help me for the rest of the winter?”

“Of course I will,” I replied, “I shall do all I promised and more; but there’s a limit now, and till now the only limit was my power, not my will.”

It was at Napoule a few days later that an incident occurred which gave me to a certain extent a new sidelight on Oscar’s nature by showing just what he thought of me. I make no scruple of setting forth his opinion here in its entirety, though the confession took place after a futile evening when he had talked to M—— of great houses in England and the great people he had met there. The talk had evidently impressed M—— as much as it had bored me. I must first say that Oscar’s bedroom was separated from mine by a large sitting-room we had in common. As a rule I worked in my bedroom in the mornings and he spent a great deal of time out of doors. On this especial morning, however, I had gone into the sitting-room early to write some letters. I heard him get up and splash about in his bath: shortly afterwards he must have gone into the next room, which was M——‘s, for suddenly he began talking to him in a loud voice from one room to the other, as if he were carrying on a conversation already begun, through the open door.

“Of course it’s absurd of Frank talking of social position or the great people of English society at all. He never had any social position to be compared with mine!” (The petulant tone made me smile; but what Oscar said was true: nor did I ever pretend to have such a position.)

“He had a house in Park Lane and owned The Saturday Review and had a certain power; but I was the centre of every party, the most honoured guest everywhere, at Clieveden and Taplow Court and Clumber. The difference was Frank was proud of meeting Balfour while Balfour was proud of meeting me: d’ye see?” (I was so interested I was unconscious of any indiscretion in listening: it made me smile to hear that I was proud of meeting Arthur Balfour: it would never have occurred to me that I should be proud of that: still no doubt Oscar was right in a general way).

“When Frank talks of literature, he amuses me: he pretends to bring new standards into it; he does: he brings America to judge Oxford and London, much like bringing Macedon or Boeotia to judge Athens — quite ridiculous! What can Americans know about English literature? . . .

“Yet the curious thing is he has read a lot and has a sort of vision: that Shakespeare stuff of his is extraordinary; but he takes sincerity for style, and poetry as poetry has no appeal for him. You heard him admit that himself last night. . . .

“He’s comic, really: curiously provincial like all Americans. Fancy a Jeremiad preached by a man in a fur coat! Frank’s comic. But he’s really kind and fights for his friends. He helped me in prison greatly: sympathy is a sort of religion to him: that’s why we can meet without murder and separate without suicide. . . .

“Talking literature with him is very like playing Rugby football. . . . I never did play football, you know; but talking literature with Frank must be very like playing Rugby where you end by being kicked violently through your own goal,” and he laughed delightedly.

I had listened without thinking as I often listened to his talk for the mere music of the utterance; now, at a break in the monologue, I went into the next room, feeling that to listen consciously would be unworthy. On the whole his view of me was not unkindly: he disliked to hear any opinion that differed from his own and it never came into his head that Oxford was no nearer the meridian of truth than Lawrence, Kansas, and certainly at least as far from Heaven.

Some weeks later I left La Napoule and went on a visit to some friends. He wrote complaining that without me the place was dull. I wired him and went over to Nice to meet him and we lunched together at the Café de la Regence. He was terribly downcast, and yet rebellious. He had come over to stay at Nice, and stopped at the Hotel Terminus, a tenth-rate hotel near the station; the proprietor called on him two or three days afterwards and informed him he must leave the hotel, as his room had been let.

“Evidently someone has told him, Frank, who I am. What am I to do?”

I soon found him a better hotel where he was well treated, but the incident coming on top of the Alexander affair seemed to have frightened him.

“There are too many English on this coast,” he said to me one day, “and they are all brutal to me. I think I should like to go to Italy if you would not mind.”

“The world is all before you,” I replied. “I shall only be too glad for you to get a comfortable place,” and I gave him the money he wanted. He lingered on at Nice for nearly a week. I saw him several times. He lunched with me at the Reserve once at Beaulieu, and was full of delight at the beauty of the bay and the quiet of it. In the middle of the meal some English people came in and showed their dislike of him rudely. He at once shrank into himself, and as soon as possible made some pretext to leave. Of course I went with him. I was more than sorry for him, but I felt as unable to help him as I should have been unable to hold him back if he had determined to throw himself down a precipice.

43 Cfr. Appendix: “Criticisms by Robert Ross.”

44 The incident is worth recording for the honour of human nature. At the moment of Oscar’s trial Charles Wyndham had let his theatre, the Criterion, to Lewis Waller and H.H. Morell to produce in it “An Ideal Husband” which had been running for over 100 nights at the Haymarket. When Alexander took Oscar’s name off the bill, Wyndham wrote to the young Managers, saying that, if under the altered circumstances they wished to cancel their agreement, he would allow them to do so. But if they “put on” a play of Mr. Wilde’s, the author’s name must be on all the bills and placards as usual. He could not allow his theatre to be used to insult a man who was on his trial.

45 Cfr. end of Appendix:— A Last Word.

46 Cfr. end of Appendix:— A Last Word.

47 This was written years before a Home Secretary, Mr. Reginald MacKenna, tortured women and girls in prison in England by forcible feeding, because they tried to present petitions in favour of Woman’s Suffrage. He afterwards defended himself in Parliament by declaring that “‘forcible feeding’ was not unpleasant.” The torturers of the Inquisition also befouled cruelty with hypocritical falsehood: they would burn their victims; but would not shed blood.

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