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Those who came into contact with Wilde only toward the end of his life have a poor notion, from the weakened and broken being whom the prison returned to us, of the prodigious being he was at first. It was in '91 that I met him for the first time. Wilde had at the time what Thackeray calls "the chief gift of great men": success. His gesture, his look triumphed. His success was so certain that it seemed that it preceded Wilde and that all he needed do was go forward to meet it. His books astonished, charmed. His plays were to be the talk of London. He was rich; he was tall; he was handsome; laden with good fortune and honors. Some compared him to an Asiatic Bacchus; others to some Roman emperor; others to Apollo himself—and the fact is that he was radiant.
At Paris, no sooner did he arrive, than his name ran from mouth to mouth; a few absurd anecdotes were related about him: Wilde was still only the man who smoked gold-tipped cigarettes and who walked about in the streets with a sunflower in his hand. For, Wilde, clever at duping the makers of worldly celebrity, knew how to project, beyond his real character, an amusing phantom which he played most spiritedly.
I heard him spoken of at the home of Mallarmé: he was portrayed as a brilliant talker, and I wished to know him, though I had no hope of managing to do so. A happy chance, or rather a friend, to whom I had told my desire, served me. Wilde was invited to dinner. It was at the restaurant. There were four of us, but Wilde was the only one who talked.
Wilde did not converse: he narrated. Throughout almost the whole of the meal, he did not stop narrating. He narrated gently, slowly; his very voice was wonderful. He knew French admirably, but he pretended to hunt about a bit for the words which he wanted to keep waiting. He had almost no accent, or at least only such as it pleased him to retain and which might give the words a sometimes new and strange aspect. He was fond of pronouncing skepticisme for "scepticisme" ... The tales which he kept telling us all through the evening were confused and not of his best; Wilde was uncertain of us and was testing us. Of his wisdom or indeed of his folly, he uttered only what he believed his hearer would relish; he served each, according to his appetite, his taste; those who expected nothing of him had nothing, or just a bit of light froth; and as his first concern was to amuse, many of those who thought they knew him knew only the jester in him.
When the meal was over, we left. As my two friends were walking together, Wilde took me aside:
"You listen with your eyes," he said to me rather abruptly. "That's why I'm going to tell you this story: When Narcissus died, the flowers of the field asked the river for some drops of water to weep for him. 'Oh!' answered the river, 'if all my drops of water were tears, I should not have enough to weep for Narcissus myself. I loved him!' 'Oh!' replied the flowers of the field, 'how could you not have loved Narcissus? He was beautiful.' 'Was he beautiful?' said the river. 'And who could know better than you? Each day, leaning over your bank, he beheld his beauty in your water ...'"
Wilde paused for a moment ...
"'If I loved him,' replied the river, "it was because, when he leaned over my water, I saw the reflection of my waters in his eyes.'"
Then Wilde, swelling up with a strange burst of laughter, added, "That's called The Disciple."
We had arrived at his door and left him. He invited me to see him again. That year and the following year I saw him often and everywhere.
Before others, as I have said, Wilde wore a showy mask, designed to astonish, amuse, or, at times, exasperate. He never listened, and paid scant heed to ideas as soon as they were no longer his own. As soon as he ceased to shine all by himself, he effaced himself. After that, he was himself again only when one was once more alone with him.
But no sooner alone he would begin:
"What have you done since yesterday?"
And as my life at that time flowed along rather smoothly, the account that I might give of it offered no interest. I would docilely repeat trivial facts, noting, as I spoke, that Wilde's brow would darken.
"Is that really what you've done?"
"Yes," I would answer.
"And what you say is true!"
"Yes, quite true."
"But then why repeat it? You do see that it's not at all interesting. Understand that there are two worlds: the one that is without one's speaking about it; it's called the real world because there's no need to talk about it in order to see it. And the other is the world of art; that's the one which has to be talked about because it would not exist otherwise."
"There was once a man who was beloved in his village because he would tell stories. Every morning he left the village and in the evening when he returned, all the village workmen, after having drudged all day long, would gather about him and say, 'Come! Tell us! What did you see today?' He would tell: 'I saw a faun in the forest playing a flute, to whose music a troop of woodland creatures were dancing around.' 'Tell us more; what did you see?' said the men. 'When I came to the seashore, I saw three mermaids, at the edge of the waves, combing their green hair with a golden comb.' And the men loved him because he told them stories.
"One morning, as every morning, he left his village—but when he came to the seashore, lo! he beheld three mermaids combing their green hair with a golden comb. And as he continued his walk, he saw, as he came near the woods, a faun playing the flute to a troop of woodland creatures. That evening, when he came back to his village and was asked, as on other evenings, 'Come! Tell us! What did you see?' he answered, 'I saw nothing.'"
Wilde paused for some moments, let the effect of the tale work its way in me, and then resumed, "I don't like your lips; they're straight, like those of someone who has never lied. I want to teach you to lie, so that your lips may become beautiful and twisted like those of an antique mask.
"Do you know what makes the work of art and what makes the work of nature? Do you know what makes them different? For, after all, the flower of the narcissus is as beautiful as a work of art—and what distinguishes them can not be beauty. Do you know what distinguishes them?—The work of art is always unique. Nature, which makes nothing durable, always repeats itself so that nothing which it makes may be lost. There are many narcissus flowers; that's why each one can live only a day. And each time that nature invents a new form, she at once repeats it. A sea-monster in a sea knows that in another sea is another sea-monster, his like. When God creates a Nero, a Borgia or a Napoleon in history, he puts another one elsewhere; this one is not known, it little matters; the important thing is that one succeed; for God invents man, and man invents the work of art.
"Yes, I know ... one day there was a great uneasiness on earth, as if nature were at last going to create something unique, something truly unique—and Christ was born on earth. Yes, I know ... but listen:
"When, in the evening, Joseph of Arimathaea went down from Mount Calvary where Jesus had just died he saw a young man seated on a white stone and weeping. And Joseph approached him and said, 'I understand that your grief is great, for certainly that Man was a just Man.' But the young man answered, 'Oh! that's not why I'm weeping. I'm weeping because I too have performed miracles! I too have restored sight to the blind, I have healed paralytics and I have raised up the dead. I too have withered the barren fig-tree and I have changed water into wine ... And men have not crucified me.'"
And it seemed to me more than once that Oscar Wilde was convinced of his representative mission.
The Gospel disturbed and tormented the pagan Wilde. He did not forgive it its miracles. The pagan miracle is the work of art: Christianity was encroaching. All robust artistic unrealism requires an earnest realism in life.
His most ingenious apologues, his most disturbing ironies were designed to bring the two ethics face to face with one another, I mean pagan naturalism and Christian idealism, and to put the latter out of countenance.
"When Jesus wished to return to Nazareth," he related, "Nazareth was so changed that He no longer recognized His city. The Nazareth in which He had lived had been full of lamentations and tears; this city was full of bursts of laughter and singing. And Christ, entering the city, saw slaves loaded with flowers hastening toward the marble stairway of a house of white marble. Christ entered the house, and at the rear of a room of jasper He saw lying on a regal couch a man whose disheveled hair was entwined with red roses and whose lips were red with wine. Christ approached him, touched him upon the shoulder and said, "Why leadest thou this life?' The man turned about, recognized Him and replied, 'I was a leper; Thou hast healed me. Why should I lead another life?'
"Christ went out of that house. And lol in the street he beheld a woman whose face and garments were painted, and whose feet were shod with pearls; and behind her walked a man whose coat was of two colors and whose eyes were laden with desire. And Christ approached the man, touched him upon the shoulder and said, 'Why dost thou follow that woman and regard her thus?' The man, turning about, recognized Him and replied, 'I was blind; Thou hast healed me. What should I do otherwise with my sight?'
"And Christ approached the woman. 'The road which you follow,' He said to her, 'is that of sin; wherefore follow it?' The woman recognized Him and laughingly said to Him, 'The road which I follow is a pleasing one and Thou hast pardoned me all my sins.'
"Then Christ felt His heart full of sadness and wished to leave that city. But as He was leaving it, He saw at length beside the moats of the city a youth who was weeping. Christ approached him, and touching his locks, said to him, 'My friend, wherefore weepest thou?'
"The youth lifted up his eyes, recognized Him, and replied, 'I was dead and Thou hast raised me up; what should I do otherwise with my life?'"
"Would you like me to tell you a secret?" Wilde began another day—it was at the home of Heredia; he had taken me aside in the midst of a crowded drawing-room—"a secret ... but promise me not to tell it to anyone ... Do you know why Christ did not love His mother?" This was spoken into my ear, in a low voice and as if ashamedly. He paused a moment, grasped my arm, drew back, and then bursting into laughter, said, "It's because she was a virgin!..."
Let me again be permitted to quote this tale, a most strange one and a tough nut for the mind to crack—it is a rare spirit that will understand the contradiction, which Wilde hardly seems to be inventing.
"... Then there was a great silence in the Chamber of God's Justice.—And the soul of the sinner advanced stark naked before God.
And God opened the book of the sinner's life:
'Certainly your life has been very bad: You have ... (followed a prodigious, marvelous enumeration of sins).—Since you have done all that, I am certainly going to send you to Hell.'
'You can not send me to Hell.'
'And why can I not send you to Hell?'
'Because I have lived there all my life.'
Then there was a great silence in the Chamber of God's Justice.
'Well, since I can not send you to Hell, I am going to send you to Heaven.'
'You can not send me to Heaven.'
'And why can I not send you to Heaven?'
'Because I have never been able to imagine it.'
And there was a great silence in the Chamber of God's Justice."
One morning Wilde handed me an article to read in which a rather dull-witted critic congratulated him for "knowing how to invent pleasant tales the better to clothe his thought."
"They believe," Wilde began, "that all thoughts are born naked ... They don't understand that I can not think otherwise than in stories. The sculptor doesn't try to translate his thought into marble; he thinks in marble, directly.
"There was a man who could think only in bronze. And one day this man had an idea, the idea of joy, of the joy which dwells in the moment. And he felt that he had to tell it. But in all the world; not a single piece of bronze was left; for men had used it all. And this man felt that he would go mad if he did not tell his idea.
"And he thought about a piece of bronze on the grave of his wife, about a statue he had made to adorn the grave of his wife, of the only woman he had loved; it was the statue of sadness, of the sadness which dwells in life. And the man felt that he would go mad if he did not tell his idea.
"So he took the statue of sadness, of the sadness which dwells in life; he smashed it and made of it the statue of joy, of the joy which dwells only in the moment."
Wilde believed in some sort of fatality of the artist, and that the idea is stronger than the man.
"There are," he would say, "two kinds of artist: one brings answers, and the other, questions. We have to know whether one belongs to those who answer or to those who question; for the kind which questions is never that which answers. There are works which wait, and which one does not understand for long time; the reason is that they bring answers to questions which have not yet been raised; for the question often arrives a terribly long time after the answer."
And he would also say:
"The soul is born old in the body; it is to rejuvenate it that the latter grows old. Plato is the youth of Socrates ..."
Then I remained for three years without seeing him again.CHAPTER 2
Here begin the tragic memories.
A persistent rumor, growing with each of his successes (in London he was being played at the same time in three theatres), ascribed strange practices to Wilde; some people were so kind as to take umbrage at them with a smile, and others took no umbrage at all; it was claimed moreover that he took no pains to hide them, that, on the contrary, he flaunted them; some said, courageously; others, cynically; others, affectedly. I listened to this rumor with great astonishment. Nothing, since I had been associating with Wilde, could have ever made me suspect a thing.—But already, out of prudence, a number of former friends were deserting him. People were not yet repudiating him outright, but they no longer made much of having met him.
An extraordinary chance brought our two paths together again. It was in January 1895. I was traveling; I was driven to do so by a kind of anxiety, more in quest of solitude than in the novelty of places. The weather was frightful; I had fled from Algiers toward Blidah; I was going to leave Blidah for Biskra. At the moment of leaving the hotel, out of idle curiosity, I looked at the blackboard where the names of the travelers were written. What did I see there?—Beside my name, touching it, that of Wilde ... I have said that I was longing for solitude: I took the sponge and rubbed out my name.
Before reaching the station, I was no longer quite sure whether a bit of cowardice might not have been hidden in this act; at once, retracing my steps, I had my valise brought up again and rewrote my name on the board.
In the three years that I had not seen him (for I can not count a brief meeting at Florence the year before), Wilde had certainly changed. One felt less softness in his look, something raucous in his laughter and something frenzied in his joy. He seemed both more sure of pleasing and less ambitious to succeed in doing so; he was bolder, stronger, bigger. What was strange was that he no longer spoke in apologues; during the few days that I lingered in his company, I was unable to draw the slightest tale from him.
I was at first astonished at finding him in Algeria.
"Oh!" he said to me, "it's that now I'm fleeing from the work of art; I no longer want to adore anything but the sun ... Have you noticed that the sun detests thought; it always makes it withdraw and take refuge in the shade. At first, thought lived in Egypt; the sun conquered Egypt. It lived in Greece for a long time, the sun conquered Greece; then Italy and then France. At the present time, all thought finds itself pushed back to Norway and Russia, places where the sun never comes. The sun is jealous of the work of art."
To adore the sun, ah! was to adore life. Wilde's lyrical adoration was growing wild and terrible. A fatality was leading him on; he could not and would not elude it. He seemed to put all his concern, his virtue, into overexaggerating his destiny and losing patience with himself. He went to pleasure as one marches to duty.—"My duty to myself," he would say, "is to amuse myself terrifically."
Nietzsche astonished me less, later on, because I had heard Wilde say:
"Not happiness! Above all, not happiness. Pleasure! We must always want the most tragic ..."
Excerpted from Oscar Wilde by André Gide, Bernard Frechtman. Copyright © 2011 Philosophical Library, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Philosophical Library.
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Posted January 29, 2013
There is not much here, just a few memories of Wilde's conversation and appearance, and Gide's judgment of Wilde's artistic failures. More of a pamphlet than a book, very short.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.