“Wilde, about Joyce”
Coming clear about a creative misreading after thirty years and others observations based on De profundis and Small Things Like These
Dear readers of my blog,
writing on Easter Eve, it seems evident that a reference to the New Testament is in order when thinking of Oscar Wilde. Who, as a reader of Wilde’s De profundis, has not thought of the original words of the Gospel?
“27 Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the common hall, and gathered unto him the whole band of soldiers.
“28 And they stripped him, and put on him a scarlet robe.
“29 And when they had platted a crown of thorns, they put it upon his head, and a reed in his right hand; and they bowed the knee before him, and mocked him, saying, Hail, King of the Jews!”
I was alerted to this passage by perusing the sheet for Saturday, 16th April 2022, in a day-by-day calendar a student gave me with the words that she (and, presumably her family) wanted to thank me for the calendars I had given them (the class) for free in the recent past. In fact, I have consulted it on two occasions, and the one suited for use in this blog concerns the parallel – common to Wilde’s writings – drawn by himself between the artist and Jesus Christ becomes most obvious. Of course, even Oscar Wilde at his most miserable does not draw such a parallel without living up to his ideal of a true thinker:
In the first edition of Wilde’s Complete Works I ever bought and still cherish I underlined the following sentence:
“At every single moment of one’s life one is what one is going to be no less than what one has been. Art is a symbol, because man is a symbol.” (p. 922)
I did not realize at the time when I first studied Wilde’s works at length for my doctoral dissertation on James Joyce’s Own Image that in order to fully grasp the gist of the letter the context of this quotation would need to be taken in as well. So, here it is:
“[Art] is, if I can fully attain to it, the ultimate realisation of the artistic life. For the artistic life is simple self-development. Humility in the artist is his frank acceptance of all experiences, just as Love in the artist is simply that sense of Beauty that reveals to the world its body and soul. In Marius the Epicurean Pater seeks to reconcile the artistic life with the life of religion in the deep, sweet and austere sense of the word. But Marius is little more than a spectator: an ideal spectator indeed, and one to whom it is given ‘to contemplate the spectacle of life with appropriate emotions,’ which Wordsworth defines as the poet’s true aim: yet a spectator merely, and perhaps a little too much occupied with the comeliness of the vessels of the Sanctuary to notice that it is the Sanctuary of Sorrow that he is gazing at.” (p. 922)
Distancing himself from, while still sticking to, Walter Pater, his Oxford master, Wilde cannot but expatiate for almost two printed pages on the idea he expresses early in the next paragraph:
“I see a far more intimate and immediate connection between the true life of Christ and the true life of the artist, and I take a keen pleasure in the reflection that long before Sorrow had made my days her own and bound me to her wheel I had written in the The Soul of Man that he who would lead a Christ-like life must be entirely and absolutely himself, and had taken as my types not merely the shepherd on the hillside and the prisoner in his cell but also the painter to whom the world is a pageant and the poet for whom the world is a song.” (pp. 922/923)
Interestingly, Wilde does not quote the full title of his only outspokenly political essay The Soul of Man Under Socialism, sticking to the policy followed after he had become the accused in a trial of Regina vs. Wilde.
His point is a subtle one. As a clever essayist and theoretician, Wilde takes in his readership by employing the first person singular when he speaks in an intellectual mode before extending the reach of his ideas by including the readership in a first person plural pronoun:
“Nor is it merely that we can discern in Christ that close union of personality with perfection which forms the real distinction between classical and romantic Art and makes Christ the true precursor of the romantic movement in life, but the very basis of his nature was the same as that of the nature of the artist, an intense and flamelike imagination. He realised in the entire sphere of human relations that imaginative sympathy which in the sphere of Art is the sole secret of creation.” (p. 923)
Not intended for publication in the first place but composed in prison as a personal letter to Lord Alfred Douglas, De profundis moves to a climax in the following lines:
“[Christ] understood the leprosy of the leper, the darkness of the blind, the fierce misery of those who live for pleasure, the strange poverty of the rich. You [Lord Alfred] can see now – can you not? ‒ that when you wrote to me in my trouble, ‘When you [Oscar Wilde] are not on your pedestal you are not interesting. The next time you are ill I will go away at once,’ you were as remote from the true temper of the artist as you were from what Matthew Arnold calls ‘the secret of Jesus.’” (p. 923)
Who would not, after these lines, associate Wilde’s own predicament with that of Jesus Christ? Even if this is not exactly what he means? In the very personal sentences that follow you see, however, that driven to such extremes as Wilde was he could not but draw this parallel:
“Either would have taught you that whatever happens to another happens to oneself, and if you [Lord Alfred] want an inscription to read at dawn and at night-time and for pleasure or for pain, write up on the wall of your house in letters for the sun to gild and the moon to silver ‘Whatever happens to another happens to oneself,’ and should anyone ask you what such an inscription can possibly mean you can answer that it means ‘Lord Christ’s heart and Shakespeare’s brain.’” (p. 923)
So, at the very end of what could well be read as the tirade an offended lover fires off at his former lover Wilde comes round to associate Jesus Christ and William Shakespeare in a single clause, while many readers of the early editions of De profundis might have sided with James Joyce in seeing the contemporary parallel of a “secular Jesus Christ” in the person of Wilde himself.
Joyce does not, however, name Wilde in that particular epistolary context. What he did do, though, was write an article in Italian when in Trieste in 1909 for a local daily to present the poet of Richard Strauss’ opera Salomé to the Italian public. This the vantage point for some critics seeking to establish the link between two Irish exiles: Wilde and Joyce. It is here that the “creative misreading” began referred to in the title of this post.
In order to understand fully how I came to misread both the two levels of Wilde’s discourse – writing ad personam as much as in a more general way as a man of letters – I first needed to check all references to Wilde in the published book of my doctoral dissertation. The result was a sobering one since I had to realize that my understanding both of Wilde in general and of De profundis in particular was quite limited at the time.
On the one hand I had failed to distinguish the two levels of Wilde’s discourse pervading the letter. This was simply because studying many of his works intensely to discover passages that might link Wilde’s use of certain literary critical terms to the usage later found in Joyce’s works I was unable to appreciate how De profundis in both its autobiographical and its theoretical parts as the last work in prose he ever wrote presents a kind of summing up – just as the judge did the summing up after his second trial in May 1895.
On the other hand I was so preoccupied with the conclusions I might draw with respect to Joyce that my view of De profundis was very selective indeed. Since Josef W. Pesch had published his dissertation Wilde, about Joyce before me, I was at least able to make some points where his approach had prevented him from doing so, which, again, brought about limitations for my own approach to Wilde.
Finally, it is only now, thirty years later, that I see that what Pesch had set out to do was to discover Wilde as read through the eyes of Joyce – this being the sense of the preposition “about” that he, of course, was unable to explain properly in English at the time because he like many others, myself included, was still prevented from writing his doctoral dissertation in English.
So, after all these preliminaries, I am now in the position to explain why in following the lead of Pesch by using the lens Joyce provides in his newspaper article in 1909 I fell into the trap of misreading Wilde. There, the epitaph put on the tombstone in Bagneux, is quoted in Latin:
“Verbis meis addere nihil audebant et super illos stillebas eloquium suum”.
“To my words they durst add nothing and my speech dropped upon them”. (“Oscar Wilde. The Poet of ‘Salomé’”, in: James Joyce, Occasional, Critical, and Political Writing, ed. Kevin Barry, Oxford: OUP, 2000, p. 148; n. 12, p. 327)
In fact, what had aroused my interest and provoked the creative misreading was the last sentence Joyce chose to write:
“The future might engrave another verse there, less haughty and more pious: partiti sunt sibi vestimenta mea et super vestem meam miserunt sortes.”
“They divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothes” (ibid., p. 148; n. 12, p. 327)
Joyce, the cunning writer, with this clever climax of his argument made me associate what is a prophecy both in his words and in the words of psalm 22, 18/19, directly with the New Testament, producing a shortcut which made the identification of Wilde rather than the artist – or great artists like Sophocles, Shakespeare, Shelley whom he all names in De profundis – with Jesus Christ seem the logical consequence of this argument.
Thus, having discovered my failure to take in more than what I had been looking for at the time when I was mainly interested in how literary terms were used to conceive a theory before eventually the theory informed the making of a text as such, I can gladly return to reread De profundis in the light of another very recent work, the long novella, entitled Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan published by Faber and Faber in 2021.
I ordered it for review in this blog since I have known the translator, Hans-Christian Oeser, for many years, having first met him in person on the “Irish” Frankfort Book Fair in October 1996. I think we last met at the same place in 2013 when he had just praised Friedhelm Rathjen for his prize-winning translation of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man into German.
In January 1998, Oeser gave a talk at the English Discussion Group at Münster University about translating titles of works of literature into German – traditionally a privilege that publishers reserve themselves by inserting a clause into the contract. In most cases, Wilde and Joyce as classical Irish writers excepted, titles often cannot be recognized in their translation even though the original title always forms part of the publisher’s imprint.
Here, however, there is no deviation from the original wording:
“Small Things Like These”
“Kleine Dinge Wie Diese”
The title being a sentence from the text of the novella itself, it is obvious that an important motif if not a leitmotif was chosen to represent the text – and here, as opposed to Wilde’s De profundis, it was not the translator who chose this in the person of Max Meyerfeld in 1908 albeit in line with Wilde’s original idea as expressed in a letter to Robert Ross: “Epistola: in Carcere et Vinculis” (De Profundis being the first complete and accurate version of ‘Epistola: in Carcere et Vinculis’, the last prose work in English of Oscar Wilde, with an introduction by Vyvyan Holland, London: Methuen, 1949, p. 11)
In one sense, though, the review part of this blog post is an homage paid to the trade of translators in the person of Hans-Christian Oeser who has spent more than three decades on making the German readership acquainted with prose and some poems translated from the Irish and other varieties of English.
Having read the bulk of Small Things Like These when lying sleepless in a Youth Hostel bunk with a night light on nowadays particular to such accommodation, I can eventually imagine what my older contemporaries felt when reading The Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dracula, Frankenstein, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Jude the Obscure, and other such formerly disreputable classic novels or novellas with the help of a torch in the 1960s. Then, any form of aberration or social deviation became a scandal when presented in novel form, so the books in translation were sold under the counter or in cheap editions with harmless covers.
Today, reading about abuse in any media cannot be avoided, so a novelist who touches on such matters needs to take their time and present the material patiently and inconspicuously, as it were, to allow other questions to come to the fore. When reading Small Things Like These and De profundis in a sequence, any reference to Magdalen, meaning Magdalen College Oxford, of course, made me think about biblical associations. For Wilde in looking back
“the two great turning-points of my life were when my father sent me to Oxford, and when society sent me to prison.” (De profundis, p. 915)
So Magdalen College Oxford was also the place about which he says:
“I remember when I was at Oxford saying to one of my friends – as we were strolling round Magdalen’s bird-haunted narrow walks one morning in the June before I took my degree  – that I wanted to eat of the fruit of all the trees in the garden of the world, and that I was going out into the world with that passion in my soul.” (p. 921)
This pleasant vista is only half the truth of Wilde’s life story. The unpleasant and sorrowful part is what De profundis is ultimately all about, but what Small Things Like These is about has to do with what Magdalen Laundries meant to Irish women for over a century: You easily find an article entitled “How Ireland Turned ‘Fallen Women’ Into Slaves. Until 1996, pregnant or promiscuous women could be incarcerated for life in Magdalene Laundries.” on the internet showing the facts of a sad story involving thousands of women and their babies, many of whom died in each such laundries, while the novella focuses on how one such baby who was lucky to survive eventually saves another such lost soul on another Christmas night.
(Access: 19 April 2022)
In fiction, though, “small things like these”, or “little things, [...] a tiny seed, [...] a handful of leaves, [...] a pearl” (De profundis, p. 925), can be used to piece together a mosaic of facts that Bill Furlong, the protagonist of Keegan’s novella, just as the reader, needs to figure out – not in the course of a relatively short text, but in a life spanning almost four decades at the time when the story is set. It is basic facts of life that are missing from his own biography – how he was conceived, who was his father, how his mother was able to escape the Magdalene laundry of New Ross – that are being revealed to him and the reader – just as “small things like these” crop up in anybody’s daily lives.
And the novella also tells the story of how underneath the denominational divide separating Protestants and Catholics in the Republic of Ireland there are “small things like these” that allow single women, whether widowed or unmarried for some other reason, to stick together because their prayer books are only used in church or chapel, once a week, that is, where Ned takes both Mrs Wilson and Bill and his mother to their separate venues in Mrs Wilson’s car before the two books return to the the sideboard for another week.
In a very subtle way, telling this part of their weekly routine is Keegan’s way of showing that for the people here concerned there is just one God while, for society, they worship at different places, whereas the car and the big house where they all live is like the sanctuary everyone – Wilde in an earlier century included – would have craved both before and after Independence.
Please go and reread De profundis and Small Things Like These! In particular at a time of international crisis, the resolution of which is the further away the louder those warmongers shout who, like my generation, has never experienced a war, it is necessary to resort to literature that allows you to become broad-minded once again. And, before I leave you for the next month, there is one last after-thought, once again taken from James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, the centenary of the publication of which we are celebrating this year:
“‒The world believes that Shakespeare made a mistake, [Eglinton] said, and got out of it as quickly and as best he could.
‒Bosh! Stephen [Dedalus] said rudely. A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery.” (James Joyce, Ulysses, ed. Hans Walter Gabler with Wolfhard Steppe and Claus Melchior, London: The Bodley Head, 1993 (1986), 9.226-229)
Stay hale and healthy,
Jörg W. Rademacher
19/21/25 April 2022
Abb. 01: Scofield Study Bible Matthew 27.27-29
Abb. 02 S. 922/923 aus The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, hg. Vyvyan Holland, Glasgow: Collins, 1983 (1966).
Abb. 03: James Joyce’ s Own Image (Cover) und Walter Pater, Marius the Epicurean (Cover)
Abb. 04: The Soul of Man Under Socialism (Cover); Des Menschen Seele im Sozialismus (Cover) beide Texte sind gedruckt und digital verfügbar
Abb. 05: Josef W. Pesch, Wilde, about Joyce (Cover); James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, Salome, 1893 (französisch), 1894 (englisch), Deutsches Libretto, 1905 (Cover; Titelseite)
Abb. 06 James Joyce, Occasional, Critical, And Political Writing, hg. Kevin Barry (Cover)
Abb. 07: Ein Porträt des Künstlers als junger Mann, übersetzt von Friedhelm Rathjen, München: Manesse 2012 (Cover)
Abb. 08: Claire Keegan, Kleine Dinge Wie Diese (Cover), übersetzt von Hans-Christian Oeser, Göttingen, Steidl, 2022, 18 €; De profundis 1949 (Titelseite)
Abb: 09: Plan von Magdalen College Oxford; Gefängniszelle im Zuchthaus Reading
Abb. 10: Screenshot von “How Ireland Turned ‘Fallen Women’ Into Slaves. Until 1996, pregnant or promiscuous women could be incarcerated for life in Magdalene Laundries.”
Abb. 11: James Joyce, Ulysses, hg. Hans Walter Gabler mit Wolfhard Steppe und Claus Melchior (Cover)