I had never paid much attention to the work of Oscar Wilde, dismissing it as superficial entertainment from a writer known to the world (and self-identified) as a "fop" and a "dandy," old-fashioned terms that describe a person who is overly concerned with dress and manners.
The terms certainly applied to the Irish-born Oxford graduate who came to lecture in America in 1882 dramatically adorned in a cloak; velveteen knickers; a green, ankle-length, otter-lined, seal-trimmed overcoat with wide cuffs; and assorted jewelry.
|Wilde proposed an order for unbelievers because, he argued, "agnosticism should have its ritual no less than faith."|
He had come to preach his doctrine of aesthetics, which that combined beauty and narcissism. It was a creed he would expound in his life and art--in his popular and critically praised poetry, plays such as "The Importance of Being Earnest" and "An Ideal Husband," and his novel "The Picture of Dorian Gray."
Wilde was the last writer in the world I'd ever have imagined writing with passion and fresh insight about spirituality, until I recently read one of his essays that makes an eloquent case for understanding Jesus, not as a God, but as a supreme artist.
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As we've been reminded by recent plays about his trials, Oscar Wilde's high living and his social and literary success were shattered at the height of his fame, in 1895, when he was sentenced to two years of hard labor for what was then in England the crime of homosexuality ("committing acts of gross indecency with other male persons").
Two works of art came out of that painful experience, one of them the widely known poem, "The Ballad of Reading Gaol," famous for its lines, "Each man kills the thing he loves/ By each let this be heard/.... The coward does it with a kiss/ The brave man with a sword."
Much lesser known is the powerful meditation "De Profundis," written near the end of his two years' incarceration as a summing up of that harsh and life-draining time (Wilde died in poverty two years after his release).
Unlike some people who are transformed by the experience, Wilde did not "get religion" in prison, not in any orthodox sense of belief or conversion.
"Religion does not help me," he wrote. "The faith that others give to what is unseen, I give to what one can touch and look at." Wilde proposed an order for unbelievers, "the Confraternity of the Faithless," because, he argued, "agnosticism should have its ritual no less than faith."
Though at first he was forbidden anything to read in prison, "at Christmas I managed to get hold of a Greek Testament, and every morning, after I had cleaned my cell and polished my tins, I read a little of the Gospels, a dozen verses taken by chance anywhere. It is a delightful way of opening the day. Everyone, even in a turbulent, ill-disciplined life, should do the same."
While diligently studying "the four prose poems about Christ," Wilde came to see of Jesus that "the very basis of his nature was the same as that of the nature of the artist--an intense and flame-like imagination."
"To the artist, expression is the only mode under which he can conceive life at all," wrote Wilde. "To him what is dumb is dead. But to Christ it was not so. With a width and wonder of imagination that fills one almost with awe, he took the entire world of the inarticulate, the voiceless world of pain, as his kingdom, and made of himself its eternal mouthpiece."
|"With a width and wonder of imagination that fills one almost with awe, [Christ] took...the voiceless world of pain, as his kingdom, and made of himself its eternal mouthpiece."|
"...And feeling, with the artistic nature of one to whom suffering and sorrow were modes through which he could realize his conception of the beautiful, that an idea is of no value till it becomes incarnate and is made an image, he made of himself the image of the Man of Sorrows, and as such has fascinated and dominated art as no Greek god ever succeeded in doing."
In seeing Jesus both as artist and inspiration of art (in music and literature as well as painting), Wilde brought a fresh insight and appreciation to the Christ figure we think we know, but about whom there always seems more to be told and understood. Out of the depths of his own suffering, the former "fop" saw more intensely into the mystery of the man of the cross than many theologians, and expressed what he saw with the eloquence of art.