Oscar Wilde, His Life and Confessions, by Frank Harris

Chapter 6

Oscar Wilde’s Faith and Practice

From 1884 on I met Oscar Wilde continually, now at the theatre, now in some society drawing room; most often, I think, at Mrs. Jeune’s (afterwards Lady St. Helier). His appearance was not in his favour; there was something oily and fat about him that repelled me. Naturally being British-born and young I tried to give my repugnance a moral foundation; fleshly indulgence and laziness, I said to myself, were written all over him. The snatches of his monologues which I caught from time to time seemed to me to consist chiefly of epigrams almost mechanically constructed of proverbs and familiar sayings turned upside down. Two of Balzac’s characters, it will be remembered, practised this form of humour. The desire to astonish and dazzle, the love of the uncommon for its own sake, was so evident that I shrugged my shoulders and avoided him. One evening, however, at Mrs. Jeune’s, I got to know him better. At the very door Mrs. Jeune came up to me:

“Have you ever met Mr. Oscar Wilde? You ought to know him: he is so delightfully clever, so brilliant!”

I went with her and was formally introduced to him. He shook hands in a limp way I disliked; his hands were flabby, greasy; his skin looked bilious and dirty. He wore a great green scarab ring on one finger. He was over-dressed rather than well-dressed; his clothes fitted him too tightly; he was too stout. He had a trick which I noticed even then, which grew on him later, of pulling his jowl with his right hand as he spoke, and his jowl was already fat and pouchy. His appearance filled me with distaste. I lay stress on this physical repulsion, because I think most people felt it, and in itself, it is a tribute to the fascination of the man that he should have overcome the first impression so completely and so quickly. I don’t remember what we talked about, but I noticed almost immediately that his grey eyes were finely expressive; in turn vivacious, laughing, sympathetic; always beautiful. The carven mouth, too, with its heavy, chiselled, purple-tinged lips, had a certain attraction and significance in spite of a black front tooth which shocked one when he laughed. He was over six feet in height and both broad and thick-set; he looked like a Roman Emperor of the decadence.

We had a certain interest in each other, an interest of curiosity, for I remember that he led the way almost at once into the inner drawing room in order to be free to talk in some seclusion. After half an hour or so I asked him to lunch next day at The Café Royal, then the best restaurant in London.

At this time he was a superb talker, more brilliant than any I have ever heard in England, but nothing like what he became later. His talk soon made me forget his repellant physical peculiarities; indeed I soon lost sight of them so completely that I have wondered since how I could have been so disagreeably affected by them at first sight. There was an extraordinary physical vivacity and geniality in the man, an extraordinary charm in his gaiety, and lightning-quick intelligence. His enthusiasms, too, were infectious. Every mental question interested him, especially if it had anything to do with art or literature. His whole face lit up as he spoke and one saw nothing but his soulful eyes, heard nothing but his musical tenor voice; he was indeed what the French call a charmeur.

In ten minutes I confessed to myself that I liked him, and his talk was intensely quickening. He had something unexpected to say on almost every subject. His mind was agile and powerful and he took a delight in using it. He was well-read too, in several languages, especially in French, and his excellent memory stood him in good stead. Even when he merely reproduced what the great writers had said perfectly, he added a new colouring. And already his characteristic humour was beginning to illumine every topic with lambent flashes.

It was at our first lunch, I think, that he told me he had been asked by Harper’s to write a book of one hundred thousand words and offered a large sum for it — I think some five thousand dollars — in advance. He wrote to them gravely that there were not one hundred thousand words in English, so he could not undertake the work, and laughed merrily like a child at the cheeky reproof.

“I have sent their letters and my reply to the press,” he added, and laughed again, while probing me with inquisitive eyes: how far did I understand the need of self-advertisement?

About this time an impromptu of his moved the town to laughter. At some dinner party it appeared the ladies sat a little too long; Oscar wanted to smoke. Suddenly the hostess drew his attention to a lamp the shade of which was smouldering.

“Please put it out, Mr. Wilde,” she said, “it’s smoking.”

Oscar turned to do as he was told with the remark:

“Happy lamp!”

The delightful impertinence had an extraordinary success.

Early in our friendship I was fain to see that the love of the uncommon, his paradoxes and epigrams were natural to him, sprang immediately from his taste and temperament. Perhaps it would be well to define once for all his attitude towards life with more scope and particularity than I have hitherto done.

It is often assumed that he had no clear and coherent view of life, no belief, no faith to guide his vagrant footsteps; but such an opinion does him injustice. He had his own philosophy, and held to it for long years with astonishing tenacity. His attitude towards life can best be seen if he is held up against Goethe. He took the artist’s view of life which Goethe was the first to state and indeed in youth had overstated with an astonishing persuasiveness: “the beautiful is more than the good,” said Goethe; “for it includes the good.”

It seemed to Oscar, as it had seemed to young Goethe, that “the extraordinary alone survives”; the extraordinary whether good or bad; he therefore sought after the extraordinary, and naturally enough often fell into the extravagant. But how stimulating it was in London, where sordid platitudes drip and drizzle all day long, to hear someone talking brilliant paradoxes.

Goethe did not linger long in the halfway house of unbelief; the murderer may win notoriety as easily as the martyr, but his memory will not remain. “The fashion of this world passeth away,” said Goethe, “I would fain occupy myself with that which endures.” Midway in life Goethe accepted Kant’s moral imperative and restated his creed: “A man must resolve to live,” he said, “for the Good, and Beautiful, and for the Common Weal.”

Oscar did not push his thought so far: the transcendental was not his field.

It was a pity, I sometimes felt, that he had not studied German as thoroughly as French; Goethe might have done more for him than Baudelaire or Balzac, for in spite of all his stodgy German faults, Goethe is the best guide through the mysteries of life whom the modern world has yet produced. Oscar Wilde stopped where the religion of Goethe began; he was far more of a pagan and individualist than the great German; he lived for the beautiful and extraordinary, but not for the Good and still less for the Whole; he acknowledged no moral obligation; in commune bonis was an ideal which never said anything to him; he cared nothing for the common weal; he held himself above the mass of the people with an Englishman’s extravagant insularity and aggressive pride. Politics, social problems, religion — everything interested him simply as a subject of art; life itself was merely material for art. He held the position Goethe had abandoned in youth.

The view was astounding in England and new everywhere in its onesidedness. Its passionate exaggeration, however, was quickening, and there is, of course, something to be said for it. The artistic view of life is often higher than the ordinary religious view; at least it does not deal in condemnations and exclusions; it is more reasonable, more catholic, more finely perceptive.

“The artist’s view of life is the only possible one,” Oscar used to say, “and should be applied to everything, most of all to religion and morality. Cavaliers and Puritans are interesting for their costumes and not for their convictions. . . .

“There is no general rule of health; it is all personal, individual. . . . I only demand that freedom which I willingly concede to others. No one condemns another for preferring green to gold. Why should any taste be ostracised? Liking and disliking are not under our control. I want to choose the nourishment which suits my body and my soul.”

I can almost hear him say the words with his charming humorous smile and exquisite flash of deprecation, as if he were half inclined to make fun of his own statement.

It was not his views on art, however, which recommended him to the aristocratic set in London; but his contempt for social reform, or rather his utter indifference to it, and his English love of inequality. The republicanism he flaunted in his early verses was not even skin deep; his political beliefs and prejudices were the prejudices of the English governing class and were all in favour of individual freedom, or anarchy under the protection of the policeman.

“The poor are poor creatures,” was his real belief, “and must always be hewers of wood and drawers of water. They are merely the virgin soil out of which men of genius and artists grow like flowers. Their function is to give birth to genius and nourish it. They have no other raison d’être. Were men as intelligent as bees, all gifted individuals would be supported by the community, as the bees support their queen. We should be the first charge on the state just as Socrates declared that he should be kept in the Prytaneum at the public expense.

“Don’t talk to me, Frank, about the hardships of the poor. The hardships of the poor are necessities, but talk to me of the hardships of men of genius, and I could weep tears of blood. I was never so affected by any book in my life as I was by the misery of Balzac’s poet, Lucien de Rubempré.”

Naturally this creed of an exaggerated individualism appealed peculiarly to the best set in London. It was eminently aristocratic and might almost be defended as scientific, for to a certain extent it found corroboration in Darwinism. All progress according to Darwin comes from peculiar individuals; “sports” as men of science call them, or the “heaven-sent” as rhetoricians prefer to style them. The many are only there to produce more “sports” and ultimately to benefit by them. All this is valid enough; but it leaves the crux of the question untouched. The poor in aristocratic England are too degraded to produce “sports” of genius, or indeed any “sports” of much value to humanity. Such an extravagant inequality of condition obtains there that the noble soul is miserable, the strongest insecure. But Wilde’s creed was intensely popular with the “Smart Set” because of its very one-sidedness, and he was hailed as a prophet partly because he defended the cherished prejudices of the “landed” oligarchy.

It will be seen from this that Oscar Wilde was in some danger of suffering from excessive popularity and unmerited renown. Indeed if he had loved athletic sports, hunting and shooting instead of art and letters, he might have been the selected representative of aristocratic England.

In addition to his own popular qualities a strong current was sweeping him to success. He was detested by the whole of the middle or shop-keeping class which in England, according to Matthew Arnold, has “the sense of conduct — and has but little else.” This class hated and feared him; feared him for his intellectual freedom and his contempt of conventionality, and hated him because of his light-hearted self-indulgence, and also because it saw in him none of its own sordid virtues. Punch is peculiarly the representative of this class and of all English prejudices, and Punch jeered at him now in prose, now in verse, week after week. Under the heading, “More Impressions” (by Oscuro Wildgoose) I find this:

“My little fancy’s clogged with gush,

My little lyre is false in tone,

And when I lyrically moan,

I hear the impatient critic’s ‘Tush!’

“But I’ve ‘Impressions.’ These are grand!

Mere dabs of words, mere blobs of tint,

Displayed on canvas or in print,

Men laud, and think they understand.

“A smudge of brown, a smear of yellow,

No tale, no subject — there you are!

Impressions! — and the strangest far

Is — that the bard’s a clever fellow.”

A little later these lines appeared:

“My languid lily, my lank limp lily,

My long, lithe lily-love, men may grin —

Say that I’m soft and supremely silly —

What care I, while you whisper still;

What care I, while you smile? Not a pin!

While you smile, while you whisper —

’Tis sweet to decay!

I have watered with chlorodine, tears of chagrin,

The churchyard mould I have planted thee in,

Upside down, in an intense way,

In a rough red flower-pot, sweeter than sin,

That I bought for a halfpenny, yesterday!”

The italics are mine; but the suggestion was always implicit; yet this constant wind of puritanic hatred blowing against him helped instead of hindering his progress: strong men are made by opposition; like kites they go up against the wind.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/wilde/oscar/harris/chapter6.html

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30