On Wilde’s Self-Destructive Method
of Artistic Personality
in De Profundis
“I became the spendthrift of my own genius, and to waste an eternal youth gave me a curious joy” (Oscar Wilde, De profundis, 151-152).
Wilde’s self-destruction was necessary. Made methodical, ruin facilitates the compromise of mediocrity for fulfillment. The aim of a life is to acquaint oneself with its enigma, through development. This goal may be met by living artistically, but to do so, one must destroy them self, and then re-emerge as a symbol. The “curious joy” felt by Wilde at wasting “an eternal youth” is not dissimilar to the refreshment offered by a breath of fresh air, as though billowing in through a wide-opened window on the soul—a third eye discovered. It is through striving for self-development—perfection—that humans come into contact with Christ. It is through this striving that art is made, and this striving is itself made art.
It is through the deification of the individual that the latent immortality of a soul is found. It is a perverse sort of becoming a god through the act of seeking God; seeking through the act of depiction—a portrayal of perfection, as defined by the individual. What Wilde imparts in De Profundis is a doctrine of Artistic Personality. He asserts that the yearning of life is to touch perfection, and not just to caress it, but grope and grasp at it, claim it for oneself. This, as he expounds, is done through shedding the skins of the self, revealing in its striptease—a veritable Dance of the Seven Veils, the trademark of Wilde’s own Salomé—each of the facets of the individual’s personality. At once present and past, these representations are fleeting and made symbols of the individual’s future. This stripping is the destruction of the self—the self which is at any given time “then-known”.
Like the literary form of De Profundis, its philosophy is structured trilaterally. Commencing conceptually with a discussion of individualism, one dives into the depths to explore Seraphic Intuition, Spiritual Singularity, and recognizes relationships and the bearing they have on personal development or hindrance to its perfection. Next, the notion of an Artistic Personality is born, and this artistic living of life is found to yield a Christ-like existence, with pain shaping it. Accepting what has happened to one begins a cycle of true satisfaction. All of this lends grounding to Wilde’s eventual discourse on artistic remoteness, the almost entirely distinct philosophy of living life as a symbol. Self-symbolism demands the attention of self-parody, which Wilde explores vividly before praising and protecting the “lie” of art and its path to either bitterness or release, which, in the context of the infamous letter, refers doubly and literally to Wilde’s then-pending release from prison. Importantly pervading each of these elements is the fundamental method which binds them all: self-destruction. Within the course of this discussion, these facets of De Profundis’ clouded gem will be explored and explained.
“Do not be afraid. The supreme vice is shallowness. Everything that is realized is right[,]” and with such a statement, the message of which is to be found throughout De Profundis, Wilde initiates Bosie into the fundamental mystery of that letter’s thought: that depth and development are the current along which perfection progresses (Wilde, 98). Depth and development of the self are the cornerstones of individualism, which is the label that fits Wilde’s philosophy best. It is this school of thought which Wilde manipulates first in De Profundis as his own, making such a statement of identity his identity.
“When Wilde does write of identity in De Profundis, he moves beyond subjectivist psychology toward a metaphysical conception associated with art and memory” (Julia Prewitt Brown, Oscar Wilde’s philosophy of art, 11). This art and memory of instinct essentially makes or breaks the individual. As will be explored later, Wilde views Christ as the original and supreme individualist, and as G. Wilson Knight analyzes De Profundis, surely “ . . . somehow man’s human instincts must be linked to Christ. Both D.H. Lawrence and Sean O’Casey have in our time laboured to show sexual love as a redeeming power” (G. Wilson Knight, The Seraphic intuition, 269). If art and memory are of the essence to Wilde in being an individualist, then the permission of their pursuit to follow instinct must also be essential.
Though Wilde’s sexuality is by no means revolutionary or individualist in his era, however premature its unmasking in it might be, it is without doubt the product of instinct. Following ones’ instincts is the stepping-stone into individualism and ultimately, for Wilde, to destruction of the self required to reach perfection. Instinct leads Wilde to be attracted to who he is attracted to, and to act on that attractive impulse in the manner he does. Knight, a Christian scholar, recognizes the direction Wilde is taking in De Profundis with his relationship with Bosie, and picks up on its not surprisingly-underlying depth. “[H]omosexual and bisexual tendencies . . . may aspire to light, and in so far as it achieves success may be . . . blending into [Spiritualism]” (Knight, 269).
The light being referred to is perfection, total self-development, and as Knight suggests, the human instinct which in many individuals leads them to fancy members of their same sex is instinctual, just as any attraction or repulsion is. Always one to live for sensation, Wilde follows his and finds in his experiences even closer communion with the gods—ideally, his own potential to be a god. Love of youth and its beauty—in this example, the beauty of the youthful men whom Wilde cavorted with—serves as a vehicle for enlightenment. This is best defended by Wilde in referring to pederasty, a Socratic and Platonic principle which saw the affection of an older for a younger man in Greece and formed an intellectual partnership. Wilde indirectly attributes value to such a relationship by deploring the failure of the one he had had with Bosie which led to his imprisonment: “I blame myself for allowing an unintellectual friendship, a friendship whose primary aim was not the creation and contemplation of beautiful things” (Wilde, 99). This sort of ancient love affair, at least its ideal, is what Wilde practiced most often in his exercise of seeking perfection. “Our ill-fated and most lamentable friendship has ended in ruin and public infamy for me, yet the memory of our ancient affection is often with me” he says near the outset of De Profundis, aware that his aspirations of a perfectly Greek, enlightened life were present in attempt but not in product (Wilde, 97). All of this lends credence to the notion assumed by his critics that Wilde adored (perhaps, it has been said, too often) earthly beauty as a reflection of heavenly beauty—the very beauty and light that Wilde was seeking to come into the presence of (Knight, 271). In keeping with individualism, Wilde, Knight posits eloquently, sought a “ . . . union not so much with an opposite as with a likeness or self-reflection” (Knight, 271). The sexual aspiration to the light of perfection is termed by Knight the Seraphic Intuition, denoting its inherent and angelic presence in individuals.
Wilde explains his continual pursuit of Bosie—a highly self-destructive act in itself—as a sort of Seraphic Intuition. It is not that Wilde is unable to will otherwise, but that he is unable to give up his individualism for the sake of ease to protect himself. Seeking angelic ends through human means, the desire is intuitive, the destruction pleasant and inevitable in Wilde’s case. The closer he gets to Bosie, the closer it seems he is to his goal of perfection. Bosie seems perfection personified; handsome, intelligent, male, an artist, and, with his shifting moods and temperaments, inconsistent enough to seem stripping of his facets of personality to capture Wilde’s adoration as a Seraphically Intuitive example of self-destruction. Ultimately, however, Wilde only finds self-destruction in Bosie. That is his only practicable trait, and one which of course brings Wilde more harm than it does Bosie. “And, on setting aside all other reasons, your indifference, your worldly wisdom, your callousness, your prudence, whatever you may choose to call it, has been made doubly bitter to me by the peculiar circumstances that either accompanied or followed my fall” Wilde notices bitterly in hindsight in his epic De Profundis (Wilde, 148). Later in the work, however, Wilde does not take on, but reveal an ever-present acceptance of Bosie’s behaviour, and values it as the destruction of Wilde’s ego necessary to become perfect. The quoted hindsight is one of the best statements in the letter of Wilde’s recognition of the bearing of his relationship with Bosie on his creative and personal life.
“In De Profundis it is the ‘spiritual singularity’ that Wilde is interested in understanding, intensified as it no doubt was by his ‘deviancy’” and that Spiritual Singularity is the union of the collective souls of life to comprise, paradoxically, the individual (Brown, 11). An understanding of this on a personal level is what constitutes the final step in the first part of Wilde’s self-destructive method in De Profundis. By destroying one’s reputation, one’s appearance, one’s personal mythology, one gets metaphorically closer to the Spiritual Singularity in them self. Like the layers of an onion, each “look”, each speech pattern, each presentation of the individual to the world, is removed revealing another, and each, though different, is bound by the same Singularity. What Brown terms the Spiritual Singularity Wilde would appreciate as the word-play title of a dual effect; while the Spiritual Singularity lies in the collective essence of mankind, the discovery of it is what makes the individual so individual—rather, singular. More so is the journey by which one comes into communion with it; the presentation of oneself under the pretence that life is merely a lie of sorts, a performance, oozes singularity at its core. The prospect of unique and individualist sentiment in action is appealing to one such as Wilde. And that is why it completes the first of three cycles of destroying the self to reach perfection in De Profundis.
Following the progress made by the simultaneously-delicate and raw flowing prose of the letter, the reader can begin to discern the central aspect of its gospel of self-destruction, that of Artistic Personality, and the leading of an artistic life. Wilde was well aware of his successful attempt at living his art entirely; finding his allies
“ . . . appealing at one time to my judgement, at another to my sense of humour, at another to my instinct for beauty or to my culture, and reminding me in a hundred subtle ways that once I was to many an arbiter of style in art; the supreme arbiter to some” (Wilde, 147).
Wilde is recognizing that he is recognized, and that such recognition is a vindication of his existence, one which he has endeavoured in every way to make artistic. His words seem to place a certain prominence on his “instinct for beauty”, which is undeniable, and perhaps his greatest asset. The importance of the artistic lifestyle is not to gain recognition, but so often true artists attract attention at some point in their lives or legacy. The goal of an artistic life is to attain and live by the Artistic Personality, which, aside from being a devotion to one’s art entirely and without remorse, is to become “to many an arbiter of style in art”. An artist seeks always, if genuine of spirit, to be perfect, especially at what they do. To be “the supreme arbiter” to oneself is the ultimate comment, but the hardest to receive, according to Wilde.
The Artistic Personality is exemplified by Christ. This leads to the second part of the second aspect of the self-destructive method of perfection. “In De Profundis, as in the story of Christ, the ‘little things of life’ are foregrounded because of their symbolic or parabolic content” and this is why Wilde often speaks in story, not factual regurgitstion, for not only did Christ do the same, but both thought and communicated through story (Brown, 102).
“ . . . [W]hat makes the life of Christ relevant to Wilde’s experience in prison is not that Christ offers redemption for sins but that he represents the supreme act of ‘self-development’, which, for Wilde, has become the essence of the artistic life” (Brown, 96).
So ultimately, the Artistic Personality is possessed of one, such as Wilde, who exercises the “supreme act of ‘self-development’”, and what greater topic than this is discussed in De Profundis? It is known that Wilde considers Christ to be not only the first true artist, but too, the founder of the Romantic movement, which sought to take the adherent to another realm, where they could transcend the mediocrity of their existence as it was then-known. Christ, for Wilde, is a true artist because he destroyed himself, ultimately by allowing his own execution and presenting its shame and agony before the world—this is in keeping with the self-destructive method’s prime operative of life-as-performance—while also listening instead of dictating to those he encountered; Christ taught in parables, just as the artist does in symbols, and Christ is today as much a living symbol as he was in his era—and the true artist strives to transcend existence, becoming a symbol.
Obviously, Wilde is calling for a Christ-like existence: “[o]f all things it is the strangest; one cannot give it away and another may not give it to one. One cannot acquire it except by surrendering everything that one has. It is only when one has lost all things, that one knows that one possesses it” (Wilde, 153). He was speaking of Humility, which is Christ’s preponderate trait, and too, the required trait of the artist. Pain must shape an artist’s personality, and self-destruction bringst hat necessary pain, regardless of how greatly felt. As long as the act is one which society would consider painful and destructive, then it is of adequate employment for the manipulation of the artist’s life. Accepting what one has done and what has happened to one is also part of this second stage of destruction. “Yet to transcend is to descend; as in the earlier meditation on Christ as a work of art, Wilde once again realizes that for everything to be overcome, everything must be accepted. … The whole thing must be gone over again, because the whole thing is eternally before him, eternally in question” (Brown, 104-105).
“Throughout De Profundis Wilde draws our attention to the artistic techniques of foregrounding and distancing. As Nietzsche urged one to do a decade earlier, Wilde achieves and ‘artistic remoteness’ from himself” (Brown, 102). This Artistic Remoteness is what is required to perceive oneself as others perceive one. This is a crucial undertaking in the destruction of the self, for it assesses what must by aesthetic needs be destroyed in order to reach perfection, it also allows the artist—that imitation Christ—to manipulate their presentation. This gives rise to self-parody, a tool employed often in De Profundis by Wilde. “I am far more of an individualist than I ever was. Nothing seems to me of the smallest value except what one gets out of oneself. My nature is seeking a fresh mode of self-realization. That is all I am concerned with” (Wilde, 153). The syntax here lends to the light-heartedness of the passage; arguably, they are some of the shortest sentences in all of the letter, and they sound more sure of their concept than the lengthier passages. These sentences are so sure to the extent of exaggeration—of Wilde himself. Here the issue of the “lie” of art is requiring discussion now.
“Truth in art is not any correspondence between the essential idea and the accidental existence; it is not the resemblance of shape to shadow . . . any more than it is a silver well of water in the valley that shows the moon to the moon and Narcissus to Narcissus” (Wilde, 161). The artist, then, either becomes a portrayal of Narcissus or sinks into mediocrity. Wilde is not contending that vanity and Narcissism are the only and genuine outlets of expression and transcendence, but he is saying that they are just destructive enough to one’s presentation and reputation and perception to lend some room for development to perfection’s pursuit. That, essentially, is where Wilde’s philosophy in De Profundis lies; it is a continual destruction of the self—phoenix-like—merely to make room for that ever-sought-after commodity of the Artistic Personality: self-development. “Truth in art is the unity of a thing with itself: the outward rendered expressive of the inward: the soul made incarnate: the body instinct with spirit” (Wilde, 161). By performing the play of life, one mirrors the facets of oneself, all while peeling off the layers of damning obscurity. Such is the bitter nature of art’s release. Suffering, though artistically self-inflicted, yields release from the figurative Reading Gaol where each one of us serves time until we realize what Wilde is saying. The question can not be answered of whether the artistic life is bitter or just searching for such a release, however.
De Profundis reaches into the depths of Wilde’s soul—on its surface—but in its true depths, is a work of philosophical and calculating stature. In it, one learns that the aim of life is self-development leading to perfection. This is attained through self-destruction, yielding room in which to develop and rebuild oneself in a better guise. From this, a stance of Artistic Remoteness, similar to that expounded by Nietzsche is born, and one dies, finally and metaphorically, as a symbol—the form in which they should live forever as a god.
WORKS CITED AND CONSULTED
Brown, Julia Prewitt. Oscar Wilde’s philosophy of art. Charlottesville, N.C.: University Press of Virginia, 1997.
Ericksen, Donald H. Oscar Wilde. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1977.
Knight, G. Wilson. Epilogue. “The Seraphic intuition.” The Christian renaissance: with interpretations of Dante, Shakespeare and Goethe and new discussions of Oscar Wilde and the gospel of Thomas. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1962.
Raby, Peter, Ed. The Cambridge companion to Oscar Wilde. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
Stead, William T., et al. “De profundis (1905).” Oscar Wilde: the critical heritage. Ed. Karl Beckson. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1970.
Wilde, Oscar. De profundis: a facsimile edition of the original manuscript. Ed. Merlin Holland. London: British Library Publishing, 2000.
Wilde, Oscar. De profundis and other writings. London: Penguin Classics, 1986.