THE UNMASKING OF OSCAR WILDE. By Joseph Pearce (Ignatius Press, P.O. Box 1339, Ft. Collins, CO 80522, 2004); 1-800-651-1531; 412 pp. HB. $19.95.
Distinguished classical scholar in his college days at Trinity College in Ireland; gifted poet, dramatist, and author of fairy tales like “The Selfish Giant” and “The Happy Prince”; famed wit, dandy, bon vivant, and sophisticated conversationalist; celebrated writer of A Picture Of Dorian Gray and Lady Windemere’s Fan; and prominent exponent of aestheticism (art for art’s sake) in the late nineteenth century, Oscar Wilde achieved literary fame for plays like The Importance Of Being Earnest, earned the admiration of prominent literary figures of his time, and was honored as a celebrity in England and in Europe. Blessed by noble birth and by natural talent, Oscar Wilde—like many famous men and literary figures—fell from high to low because of a fatal flaw, the sin of lust.
Obsessed with the illusion that “life follows art” and demands dramatic thrills, strong sensations, and exotic pleasures so that a person always lives intensely and burns passionately with “a hard gem-like flame,” Wilde adopted the cant that there are no moral or immoral books and identified with the decadent school of art associated with writers like Baudelaire: “I flee from what is moral as from what is impoverished,” Wilde wrote.
In his quest for forbidden pleasures Wilde lived a double life, posing as a respectable married man and father while secretly indulging in homosexuality, a habit he eventually acknowledged as a “pathology.” His homosexual relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas ultimately led to charges of sodomy, scandal, the verdict of guilty, and a two-year prison term—a series of events that ruined his literary career, destroyed his marriage and his relationship with his two sons, left him in a state of desperate poverty, and culminated in his premature death of the age of forty. Wilde confesses his tragic flaw: “I am too ridiculously easily led astray,” and his wife Constance commented, “My poor misguided husband, who is weak rather than wicked.” Professor Pearce’s biography once again proves the reason for God’s first Commandment: one must worship God first, not art, beauty, pleasure, or self.
This moving, masterful biography is not only a thoroughly documented social history of the school of aestheticism and the literature of decadence in the late nineteenth century but also a heart-searching story of a soul who was first attracted to the Catholic faith as a romantic and aesthetic ideal and then skeptical of the truth of the Catholic Church, accusing it of “a beautiful lie,” and then finally assenting to the Church he longed to join all his life. In fact, he attributed all his failures and tragedies to his father’s adamant refusal to permit his son to enter the Church: “Much of my moral obliquity is due to the fact that my father would not allow me to become a Catholic.” Like many great sinners who see in the Catholic Church the medicine of confession, healing, and forgiveness, Wilde was received into the Catholic Church in his dying hours: “Father Dunne did not endeavour to administer the Holy Viaticum because of Wilde’s extreme condition, but he was fully satisfied that Wilde was compos mentis and understood that he was being received into the Catholic Church and receiving the last sacraments.” Like all souls who experience the shocking fall from high to low, Wilde also learned too late the hard moral truth he suppressed: it does not profit a person to gain the fame of the world but lose his soul. As Wilde wrote after his prison term and separation from his wife, “If we had only met once, and kissed each other. It is too late. How awful life is.”
In his complete, honest account of Wilde’s life, Professor Pearce presents all the sordid facts of a genius’s ruined tragic life, but he also brilliantly illuminates the theme of the power of God’s grace and mercy in bringing good out of evil and using Wilde’s self-destructive habits to lead him to the love of God—the “hound of heaven” who pursued Wilde as passionately as the soul of Francis Thompson and every sinner. Reading Dante in prison, Wilde learned that “Sorrow remarries us to God,” a truth he expressed again in a poem: “How else but through a broken heart/ May Lord Christ enter in?” Through the depths of his profound sorrow, Wilde glimpsed the truth about suffering he avoided all his life in his mad, wanton pursuit of pleasure: “Love of some kind is the only possible explanation of the extraordinary amount of suffering th-at there is in the world.” Wilde discovered not only that sin destroys the soul and kills the conscience, that every excess carries its own punishment, and that it causes untold tragedy but also that God permits tragedy, suffering, and tears to lead tortured souls to the healing, compassionate love of God. Professor Pearce’s keen Catholic sensibility affords him remarkable insight and sensitivity into reading Wilde’s soul and discerning the hand of God in his tempestuous life.
Mitchell Kalpakgian, Ph.D.