Note From The President, Cerebus 148, July 1991Copyright 1991 Dave Sim
It's time for "Oscar Wilde. A Summing Up". I'm sure I'll fail as miserably as Alfred Douglas did in his book of the same name, but I do want to say something - or a few somethings - having reached the end of two and a half years of 'doing' the character.
I remember one particular day when we'd been working for a few hours in characteristic silence, Ger was drawing the "Whistler's Mother" painting in Oscar's house and he suddenly asked, with an edge of irritation in his voice, "So was Whistler a pillow-biter, too?" I laughed and had to confess that I didn't know. I started to say something about 'I think he was married' but remembered that Oscar had been married. I said I thought he had kids, and remembered Cyril and Vyvyan (later Vivian). The arcane world of the homosexual. Quite an education it was for a naive fellow like myself. I had read three or four biographies and I had thought to myself how nice it was that Oscar had all of these bright young men in his life to discuss literature with and buy dinners and cigarette cases for. It wasn't until I read the Secret Life Of Oscar Wilde that I went, "Oh, dear." His line about "feasting with panthers" I thought: was awfully good; noble beasts, literary type types. Secret Life made it clear that this was a reference to the "rough trade" he had switched to after the relationship with Douglas changed back to platonic. 'Renters' as they were called; the squalor and poveny of Victorian London having produced an underclass of those willing and available for a handful of coins. Or in Oscar's case, sumptuous meals in private dining rooms, complete with iced champagne. He confesses in one of the biographies (don't remember which one) that after a time he sought out partners of the lowest, filthiest kind. It must have seemed like feeding time at the zoo. Some nineteen or twenty-year-old criminal who hadn't eaten in days, presented with a perfectly prepared mutton dish or roast of beef. Plied with champagne in a room with pink lampshades.
I mean, you have to laugh.
How far from one of the first books I read. Oscar Wilde in Canada (really!). The bright young lad of twenty-eight touring Canada and the U.S. so that people going to see "Patience" would understand what Gilbert and Sullivan were making fun of. The author even managed to reconstruct a couple of the lectures Oscar gave; "The House Beautiful" and "the Ethics of Art". When it came time to design Oscar's house in Jaka's Story, I just gave Ger "The House Beautiful" lecture in photo-copy form. Here. Like this.
I mean, it's all cobbled together Pater knock-offs and homages to Ruskin. I read Pater and Ruskin to get an idea of what was Oscar and what was borrowed and found I preferred the 'The House Beautiful' lecture to most of Pater's essays and almost all of Ruskin's. But when you put the two ponraits side-by-side; the delicate youth of 1882 looking like a picture of Jeff Jones by Barry Windsor-Smith and the decayed, flabby human wreckage of Toulouse Lautrec's portraits, you have to ask yourself "What went wrong?" Alan Moore is mining the same vein with "From Hell", I find. It is as if the British Empire transformed itself between the mid to late Victorian periods. Everything and everyone turned upside-down and sideways and nowhere more profoundly and completely than in London; the toppermost of the poppermost.
The more I learned about Oscar, the more I resented his lack of productivity. Aside from one really good play ("Imponance of Being Earnest") and one really good short novel ("The Picture of Dorian Gray"), most of his work is derivative or second rate. I like it but I think I'm objective enough to admit that very little of what he did stands the test of time for most people. I resent the fact that most of his time was spent entenaining second and third-rate intellects; or even more loathsome, the aristocracy. He is almost universally acknowledged as the greatest conversationalist of his day. In a time when the ability to hold the attention of a table of diners was a thing for which many were noted, Oscar reigned supreme. Only a handful of his stories, anecdotes and discourses have survived even as fragments (thanks mostly to the Roberts; Sherard and Ross, and Richard le Gallienne).
And, yet, that was Oscar wasn't it?
How much better to entertain a roomful of strangers, lingering over a bottle of good wine and innumerable cigarettes, playing with notions and ideas, weaving epigrams Iand fables; striking just the right note with each companion so that even those who were the most scornful of him, who had arrived determined to despise him and to revile him, found themselves smiling, then laughing; charmed, captivated; having the time of their lives.
How much better that, than seclusion and study. Why be prolific when one could be charming? Why produce when there's so much to consume?
I have to credit all the research that I did on Oscar Wilde for convincing me that I don't want to be like that. If I can end my life with a large body of completed works and a reputation as a cantankerous old hermit I'll consider my time well spent.
Back to the DSMNFTP Archive