Pictures of Dorian Gray, Images of Oscar Wilde; Part Nine: Oscar Wilde: Martyr, Saint, and Superhero

Posted by on May 27th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, Part Seven, Part Eight.

“The Outcast of one age is the Hero of another.” – Edward Carpenter

Martyrs necessarily begin as outlaws.  Wilde’s trials established him as a criminal, made him a prisoner and an exile — and produced a gay icon.  Before he could be canonized, he had to be tabooed.

Oscar Wilde was condemned, by law and public opinion, for a “love that dare not speak its name”; and in short order his name became unspeakable as well.  It was pasted over on the placards advertising his plays; it was left off of new editions of his books.  His wife took her family name, Holland, and it was not until 1963 that the words “Wife of Oscar Wilde” were added to her tombstone.  When he was released from prison, Wilde went into exile, taking the name Sebastian Melmoth and releasing The Ballad of Reading Gaol under his prison number, C33.  He wrote in a letter that his “name [had been] blotted from the scroll of English Literature never to be replaced.”

But after his death, and after the posthumous release of his autobiographical prison letter, De Profundis, public attitudes shifted.  The name of “Wilde” could again be spoken aloud, even praised — but his crime remained unmentionable.  Neil Gaiman recalled in an interview:

I read an enormous amount of very strange stuff when I turned thirteen, because it was all bar mitzvah stuff.  Somebody gave me The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, so I sat down and read the complete works of Oscar Wilde.  Looking back, I still have no idea what I thought ‘The Portrait of Mr. W.H.’ was about, or ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol,’ because there’s nothing in The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde to tell you what his crime was:  I’d had no idea what he’d done! . . .  I was trying to figure it out.  I remember even getting a copy of Son of Oscar Wilde, by his son, Vyvyan [Holland], and reading that, hoping it would explain it somewhere, and it never did. (Prince of Stories, 458.)

Gaiman would later parody attempts to force history into the closet.  His contribution to Aargh!, “From Homogenous to Honey” features a masked man discussing a dystopian society’s efforts to erase all trace of homosexual influence.  (The strip, and indeed, the book, came in response to the Thatcher government’s efforts to abolish “even the abstract concept” of homosexuality.)  In the course of his monologue, Gaiman’s narrator attacks a production of Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest.

Firing at the actors with a machine gun, he explains, “The presentation of plays by Mollies and Tribadites encourages people to see them in a positive light — especially if they’re any good.”  At the end, declaring victory, he removes his mask to show an absolutely blank face.  “Everybody is exactly the same.  Isn’t it sweet?”

One method of resisting invisibility has been to emphasize or even exaggerate the homoerotic elements of Wilde’s life and work.  Neil McKenna surely does so, here and there, in his thoroughly gay-centric biography The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde.  And Richard Ellmann also did so, inadvertently, by mislabeling a photograph of Alice Guszalewicz, “Wilde in costume as Salome.”  Tom Bouden’s all-male comics adaptation of Earnest is, likewise, more gay than the original.

These sorts of innovations don’t just make it impossible to politely sever Wilde from his “crime” — they help reinforce the centrality of homosexuality for the Wilde image, and the centrality of Wilde for the gay image.

Moreover, martyrs, in the Catholic tradition, sometimes become saints, and saints have an authority that extends beyond the grave.  They offer guidance, protection, blessings.

And so perhaps it is not surprising that Wilde’s influence is sometimes depicted as a kind of divine intervention.  In Todd Haynes’ 1998 movie, Velvet Goldmine, for example, a green jeweled brooch that once belonged to Wilde serves as a kind of holy relic, bringing glam-rock success to David Bowie and Iggy Pop — oh, I mean “Brian Slade” and “Curt Wild.”  Both of the fictitious pop stars are made in Wilde’s image: One’s name is obviously homonymous, and the other lifts an entire scene of dialogue from the poet’s epigrams.  Wilde also borrows a line from David Bowie.  Early in the film, a very young Oscar (age 8) announces to his class: “I want to be a pop idol.”

In Haynes’ version, Wilde is a foundling and an alien.  He arrives on earth via flying saucer, and is left in a basket on the doorstep of an Irish family.  A UFO also figures in Dan Pearce’s comic strip series portraying Wilde in modern Britain.  In the first episode, aliens abduct Wilde from Reading Gaol and return him to the same cell a century later.  The series was originally intended for Punch, but it was scrapped when the editor was fired.  It ran briefly on the Web, and is currently being re-released by Rue des Beaux-Arts and The Oscholars under the title — significant, for our purposes — “Oscar Wilde’s Second Coming.”

Almost normal, by comparison, is Wes Craven’s contribution to the 2006 film anthology Paris, Je T’Aime:  A couple — a man and a woman — argue by Wilde’s grave.  He feels the trip to the cemetery a waste of time, and she says he never makes her laugh.  He is revolted when she kisses the monument, and she is appalled at his lack of romance.  They shout, she leaves.  And then Oscar Wilde himself appears and advises the man to go after her:  “If you let her get away, you’ll die — death of the heart.  It’s the ugliest death there is.”  So he runs to her, kisses her, and finds himself suddenly blessed with the gift of producing witticisms, effortlessly, one after the other — all quotes from Wilde, of course.

Similarly, in a recent episode of The Simpsons (“Father Knows Worst”), Wilde’s ghost — a green fairy — appears to Homer and urges him to let his children lead their own lives.  “Experience is simply the name we give to our mistakes,” he explains.  Homer, for once, listens to good advice and ends his episode-long perfectionist parenting crusade.

Oscar Wilde

Recently, the political use made of Wilde has moved beyond the sense of martyrdom.  Ellen Crowell has written a wonderful essay on depictions of Wilde as a kind of terrorist avenger: “Scarlet Carsons, Men in Masks” (Neo-Victorian Studies, Winter 2008/2009).  Her argument begins with V for Vendetta the comic and ends with V for Vendetta the movie.  With these texts framing the discussion, she offers an analysis that is both erudite and fun, and brings in a startling array of similar examples. The most surprising of these is, I think, a volume of Jonah Hex titled “The Wilde West.”  The most bizarre is surely the cartoon from the June 1997 issue of Toyfare Magazine, in which Oscar Wilde battles Alan Moore over a mis-quotation.  Sebastian O would seem to adhere to this “aesthetic superhero” model as well, though Crowell doesn’t mention it.

Those works Crowell cites — mostly comics, but also movies, and even a political badge (“Avenge Oscar Wilde”) — show us a different side of Wilde, and therefore, also, represent a different kind of queer politics.  This Wilde is not only sensitive, but tough; this Wilde is not only martyr, but hero; this Wilde is not only victim, but avenger. “I don’t know what the Queensberry rules are,” Wilde told his famous persecutor, “but the Oscar Wilde rule is to shoot on sight.” He is a dangerous dandy, both aesthete and anarchist.

Queer liberation has changed — from the secret days of the Order of Chaeronea, to the painful respectability of the Mattachine Society, to the era of Act Up, and now Bash Back — and Oscar Wilde has changed with it.


all images ©2010 their respective copyright holders

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