Interview with Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde, the most rumored celebrity of London’s fin de siecle, was born in Dublin on October 16, 1854. Mr. Wilde’s unique idiosyncratic temperament blossomed during his Oxford years: he was a godsend for the more than slightly piqued Victorian avant-garde who looked upon him as a messier and clamored for his praise.
Art reviewer (1881), lecturer in the United States and Canada (1882), regular contributor for Pall Mall Gazette and Dramatic View from the mid-80s, editor of Woman’s World from 1887 to 1889, author of a book of poetry, a couple of unsuccessful plays, a collection of fairy-tales (The Happy Prince and Other Tales, 1888) as well as one of essays (Intentions, 1889), in 1890 Mr. Wilde scandalized the puritan London society with his novel The Portrait of Dorian Gray.
The finesse of Dorian Gray was a prelude to Mr. Wilde’s triumphant exploitation of Victorian society in four irreverent plays between 1892-1895: Lady Windermere’s fan, A Woman of no Importance, An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest. Although the plays evoked roaring laughter at his mockery of out-dated Victorianisms, Mr. Wilde was unable to escape the irony and pretensions of his own success. The sardonic aspersions flaunted mercilessly at crusty Victorians came back to haunt him.
In 1895, the year of his greatest popularity, the fatal exposure of his intimacy with Lord Alfred Douglas led to charges of sodomy and the infamous trial that ruined his career. Mr. Wilde was sentenced to two years of hard labor at Wandsworth Prison and then moved to Reading Gaol in London. The pomp and circumstances of his former life, reduced to degradation, was recounted in a dramatic letter to his former lover and companion Lord Douglas. It was published in 1905 under the literary title De Profundis.
Released from prison in 1897, Mr. Wilde found himself penniless, divorced, and denied contact with his beloved sons. Psychologically and physically incapable of recovery, he left London for the sanctuary of Paris and lived only long enough to complete his greatest work of poetry, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”.
Oscar Wilde died of cerebral meningitis on November 30, 1900 in a disreputable Paris hotel at the age of 46. He currently lives in Boca Raton, Florida.
Mr.Wilde, I find you very well.
Yes, South Florida is exquisite for dead people. There are so many flowers.
What do you like about living in Boca?
The air is delicious, especially in the malls. During the day, sky is blue like the mantle of the Virgin, then at sunset it becomes golden and scarlet like a bishop’s robes, and at night it is illuminated by a crowd of furious nuns, that people without imagination call stars. It is a very devotional place.
People, there, are very wealthy…
Yes. And there is so much humidity too. I frankly do not know – if the humidity produces the wealthy people, or the wealthy people the humidity.
It seems you did not loose your wit.
When I lost it in my life, I lost every thing. I was certain, then, that a perfect work of art, such as my life had been, had to end with a purple tragedy. I was so wrong! The right end of any existence should be uproarious laughter: in literature as in life, a sense of humor provides access to divinity. Indeed, Jesus was a very humorous man.
Was Jesus humorous? Yet, in the Gospels we do not find any witness of Jesus’ laughing.
Not even in Buster Keaton.
Founding His Church in the name of Peter – a man who betrayed him not once but three times after having sworn absolute fidelity and was tediously emphatic in proclaiming good intentions by cutting ears – has been, in fact, a supreme act of humor conceived by Jesus.
The figure of Jesus always attracted you. In De Profundis you say that Jesus was the first Romantic poet, because of his cult of individualism.
Even though, I have to be precise, romantic poets were not humorous at all. They liked to become crazy and die young. Any absolutist philosophy is deprived of humor, since humor instills the doubt corroding any proclaimed truth.
Indeed, humor is one of the peculiar characteristics that postmodernists attribute to themselves.
Yes, and this is the most humorous claim they ever made. Postmodernists! What fool people they are! They spend their entire lifetime writing books theorizing that theories are out of fashion. Since they were unable to invent a plot and find an end to their stories, they decided that the world could not be told anything except through fragmentation. Nihilism is the refuge of those who have nothing to say. But Art does not change its essence to match the lack of talent in an artist – and the essence of Art is, as it has always been and always will be, completeness, harmony, equilibrium. However, even though it is hateful to correct such a beautiful young man, I must interject that postmodernists, confused as they are, speak of irony, not of humor. Irony is the rhetorical figure used to say something that means the opposite. That is, you know what the truth is. When Dante says: Godi, Fiorenza, poi che se’ sì grande of course he meant the opposite, and indeed Dante had a very precise idea about what was right and what was not: he had a specific message (both political and spiritual) to share with Mankind. This, however, did not forbid him to create a masterpiece, since he never neglected the beauty of words. I suppose he was aware that people are not always convinced by what is right but they are always convinced by what is beautiful. Or, at least, they should be.
What is humor, Mr. Wilde?
Your country-fellow Pirandello states that humor is a mask with two faces. On one side the mask laughs, on the other side, the mask cries. Strange enough, to support his definition Mr.Pirandello makes an example that is perfectly applicable to Boca Raton’s inhabitants. When we see one of these very old people with a face-lift and – Pirandello would say – pittate come un pappagallo, “made up like a parrot”, we laugh. But just a moment later, we reflect and understand the deep human reason of these grotesque face-lift and excessive make-up is a longing for lost youth. Humor is a smile that reveals flashes of human universality. The man who cries is blinded by tears. Saturated in egocentric pain, he cannot perceive the beauty of the world and is unable to understand himself in others. A man who laughs, instead, is open to play with Thought as if it were a golden ball – to absorb the silver and blue of his soul – to investigate the black sordid corners and the pink-fingered dusks of human life. Humor is an instrument of reflection, of knowledge, of philosophy. It stimulates our conscience posing a question without imposing an answer. No writer should be lacking of humor.
And are they?
Humor is rare in literature. Satire and irony (that is satire with the veil of politeness) are on the other end an old and integrated tradition. Socrates is a ferociously satirical protagonist when he speaks of Gorgia and the sophists because they claimed not to know what Truth was and actually said that Truth did not exist. Socrates believed Truth existed and in spite of his fake modesty he was sure to embrace it. Satire and irony are always moralistic: they express he desire to impose our idea on others, to teach to others what we believe to be the truth, to judge – that is inherent in the DNA of the human beings on the night that speech was invented.
Speaking of truth, Mr. Borges said that in your paradoxes you are almost always right.
Did he say that? What a nice man. I almost totally agree with him.
Mr. Nabokov, instead, has been very critical of you, saying that you have written “book for children.”
Better than books with children.
Let me ask you an opinion about the great masters of the Twentieth century. What do you think of Monsieur Marcel Proust’s prose?
Monsieur Proust is exquisite when he is descriptive, tedious when he thinks. There are many good writers, I think of Mr. Philip Roth and of Mr. Milan Kundera, wasting their talent to demonstrate at any cost that they are intelligent. You should not to take your thoughts so seriously, you should take your commas seriously.
Mr. James Joyce is one of these?
Did Mr. Joyce write a novel? I don’t remember. I do appreciate very much his essay on the art of writing, Ulysses.
And what do you think of Mr. Hemingway?
He was an excellent fisherman.
Which is the best novel of the Twentieth century?
The Great Gatsby. It is so impressionistic. It speaks of everything without concentrating on anything. It has everything a novel should have: a perfect architecture, the perfection of a music score in each sentence, the color of a corn-field in August and an October afternoon in New York. And that final scene with Gatsby floating face down in his swimming-pool, so ridiculous, so tragic, so human. I feel I am, each of us is, Gatsby.
My last question, Mr.Wilde, concerns the contemporary and incontestably huge production of horrible books. What do you think of that?
Don’t underestimate the importance of a horrible book.
I must add that I found three categories of books for the reader who is tempted to write – and as you already know, every reader has the temptation to write, even if who has the temptation to write seldom is a reader.
In the center of the two extremities there are the books that fill only the time we need to read them. They are not bad and not good, sometimes they bother us, sometimes they relax us – but when we have read the last phrase we quickly forget them, like some empty Sundays of July, like a nice woman. We could say of these books what Virgil suggested to Dante in regard of the sinners who lived without disgrace and without praise: “let us not talk of them, but look and pass.”
At the first extremity there are the books we have loved – better to note, that changed our life. When we read them the first time life seemed suspended for days, and when life resumes we understand that it will not be the same anymore. These books, usually four or five, penetrate our capillaries like a poison. When you begin to write, you cannot avoid imitating them. To be able to write, you need to kill your gods.
Then, there is the other extremity, the books you hated. The influence of a book you hated is not less than the one you loved. Each word seems to you trivial, each sentence banal, each page inconsistent, the whole book is trash. Since it is written with thousand of words, you begin to hate words – all of them – especially when you wake up in the morning and you tell your wife: “I love you, sweetheart” and realize with a horrific shudder that the protagonist of the hated book said the same thing to his wife. You realize you need words to talk with your unmentionable neighbors, to deal with your ugly boss or with your dog, exactly the same words used and abused by everyone everyday and by the book you hated. After such a shock you have options, to stop writing or to pick up words with the tweezers, to select them and to take care of them, as if they were small plants mistreated by an uncultivated gardener. Picking words with the tweezers is what a writer must do, in order to transform the mud of life into gold, to transform pain into joy, to feel the only thing that sustains one through life: the consciousness of the immense inferiority of everybody else.
Il 30 novembre e’ ricorso il centododicesimo anniversario della morte di Oscar Wilde. Così Emanuele Pettener lo ha rievocato per noi.
(L’intervista e’ stata pubblicata su The American Drivel Review, vol. 5, n.1, Summer 2008)
Emanuele Pettener is from Venice, Italy. He teaches Italian Language and Literature at Florida Atlantic University, where in 2004 he received a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature with a dissertation on John Fante.