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After he had learnt humility in the bitterest school that "man's inhumanity to man" provides for unwilling scholars, after he had drained the cup of sorrow to the dregs, after his spirit was broken--he wrote this book in which he tried to persuade himself and others that he had learnt by suffering and despair what life and pleasure had never taught him.
If Oscar Wilde's spirit, returning to this world in a malicious mood, had wished to devise a pleasant and insinuating trap for some of his old enemies of the press, he could scarcely have hit on a better one than this book. I am convinced it was written in passionate sincerity at the time, and yet it represents a mere mood and an unimportant one of the man who wrote it, a mood too which does not even last through the 150 pages of the book. "The English are very fond of a man who admits he has been wrong,"
he makes one of his characters in "The Ideal Husband" say, and elsewhere in this book he compares the advantages of pedestals and pillories in their relation to the public's attitude towards himself. Well here he is in the pillory, and here also is Mr. Courtney in the "Daily Telegraph"
getting quite fond of him for the very first time. Here is Oscar Wilde, "a genius," "incontestably one of the greatest dramatists of modern times" as he is now graciously allowed to be, turning up unexpectedly with an admission that he was in the wrong, and telling us that his life and his art would have been incomplete without his imprisonment, that he has learnt humility and found a new mode of expression in suffering. He is "purged by grief," "chastened by suffering," and everything, in short, that he should be, and Mr. Courtney is touched and pleased. What Mr.
Courtney and others have failed to realise, and what Wilde himself did realise very soon after he wrote this interesting but rather pathetically ineffective book, is that the mood which produced it was no other than the first symptom of that mental and physical disease generated by suffering and confinement which culminated in the death of its gifted and unfortunate author a few years later. As long as the spirit of revolt was left in Oscar Wilde, so long was left the fire of creative genius. When the spirit of revolt died, the flame began to subside, and continued to subside gradually with spasmodic flickers till its ultimate extinction. "I have got to make everything that has happened good for me." He writes, "The plank bed, the loathsome food, the hard rope shredded into oakum till one's finger tips grow dull with pain, the menial offices with which each day begins, the harsh orders that routine seems to necessitate, the dreadful dress that makes sorrow grotesque to look at, the silence, the solitude, the shame--each and all these things I have to transform into a spiritual experience. There is not a single degradation of the body which I must not try and make into a spiritualising of the soul." But, alas!
plank beds, loathsome food, menial offices, and oakum picking do not spiritualise the soul; at any rate, they did not spiritualise Oscar Wilde's soul. The only effect they had was to destroy his magnificent intellect, and even, as some passages in this book show to temporarily cloud his superb sense of humour. The return of freedom gave him back the sense of humour, and the wreck of his magnificent intellect served him so well to the end of his life that, although he had hopelessly lost the power of concentration necessary to the production of literary work, he remained to the day of his death the most brilliant and the most intellectual talker in Europe.
It must not be supposed, however, that this book is not a remarkable book and one which is not worth careful reading. There are fine prose passages in it, and occasional felicities of phrase which recall the Oscar Wilde of "The House of Pomegranates" and the "Prose-Poems," and here and there rather unexpectedly comes an epigram like this for example: "There were Christians before Christ. For that we should be grateful. The unfortunate thing is that there have been none since." True, he spoils the epigram by adding, "I make one exception, St. Francis of Assisi." A concession to the tyranny of facts and the relative importance of sincerity to style, which is most uncharacteristic of the "old Oscar." Nevertheless, the trace of the master hand is still visible, and the book contains much that is profound and subtle on the philosophy of Christ as conceived by this modern evangelist of the gospel of Life and Literature. One does not travel further than the 33rd page of the book before finding glaring and startling inconsistencies in the mental attitude of the writer towards his fate, for whereas on page 18 in a rather rhetorical passage he speaks of the "eternal disgrace" he had brought on the "noble and honoured name"
bequeathed him by his father and mother, on page 33 "Reason" tells him "that the laws under which he was convicted are wrong and unjust laws, and the system under which he has suffered a wrong and unjust system." But this is the spirit of revolt not quite crushed. He says that if he had been released a year sooner, as in fact he very nearly was, he would have left his prison full of rage and bitterness, and without the treasure of his new-found "Humility." I am unregenerate enough to wish that he had brought his rage and bitterness with him out of prison. True, he would never have written this book if he had come out of prison a year sooner, but he would almost certainly have written several more incomparable comedies, and we who reverenced him as a great artist in words, and mourned his downfall as an irreparable blow to English Literature would have been spared the rather painful experience of reading the posthumous praise now at last so lavishly given to what certainly cannot rank within measurable distance of his best work.
From "_The Motorist and Traveller_" (March 1, 1905).