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Posts Tagged ‘Oscar Wilde’

Sympathy for the Devil

October 29, 2015 | by

Melmoth the Wanderer and the bizarre appeal of gothic horror.

From the Penguin Classics edition of Melmoth.

I have long been a rather reluctant fan of gothic horror. The reluctance comes from never quite knowing if it’s a genre worth caring about. How well, really, do any of my favorite works hold up? Is The Castle of Otranto actually good, or just campy? Is The Monk great literature? Probably not—but as genres go, there’s none quite so pleasingly ridiculous as this one.

Gothic horror usually revolves around the sinister absence of God inside some religious framework. These are stories that couldn’t exist outside a culture obsessed with sin and hellfire, and yet they’re not morality tales: the only lesson to be drawn from most gothic romances is that the supernatural can be easily substituted for the divine. Any benefits to leading a religious life seem to be completely erased in these stories, with paranoia and persecution complexes to take their place. There seems barely time to contemplate the afterlife when everyone’s so busy trying to escape the traps laid for them on earth—traps set by heredity and fate. The “good” characters are, for the most part, idiots: foolish clergyman, one-dimensional lovers doomed to die horrible (sometimes cannibalistic) deaths, and so on. The only character with any power of personality happens, more often than not, to be the devil himself.

This is especially true of Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer, a shapeless tale of transformation, loneliness, and evil as shown in complete isolation from good. Maturin, an Irish clergyman and great-uncle to Oscar Wilde, wrote the book in 1820, at the height of the vogue for gothic romance. By the end of the nineteenth century, the book had taken on cult status. Baudelaire adored it. Balzac wrote a sequel to it. Wilde himself, after being released in disgrace from Reading Gaol, based his entire identity around his uncle’s story, renaming himself after its hero, Sebastian Melmoth. What was it in the story that spoke to them so deeply? Read More »

Suffering Is One Very Long Moment

October 13, 2015 | by

How Oscar Wilde’s prison sentence changed him.

Oscar Wilde and Lord Douglas, ca. 1893.

Max Nelson is writing a series on prison literature. Read the previous entry, on writers who found God from behind bars, here.

The first time Oscar Wilde saw the inside of a prison, it was 1882—thirteen years before he’d serve the famous criminal sentence that produced De Profundis, his 55,000-word letter to his lover Lord Alfred Douglas. Financially pressed and known primarily as a public speaker—by then he had only published a thin volume of poems—he’d committed to a nine-month lecture tour of America. During his stop in Lincoln, Nebraska, he and the young literature professor George Woodberry were taken to visit the local penitentiary. The warden led them into a yard where, Wilde later wrote the suffragist journalist Helena Sickert, they were confronted by “poor odd types of humanity in striped dresses making bricks in the sun.” All the faces he glimpsed, he remarked with relief, “were mean-looking, which consoled me, for I should hate to see a criminal with a noble face.”

By 1889, Wilde’s judgments about prison had become less snobbish, if no less flippant. Reviewing a volume of poetry by Wilfred Blunt “composed in the bleak cell of Galway Gaol,” he agreed with the book’s author that “an unjust imprisonment for a noble cause strengthens as well as deepens the nature.” And yet the idea that prison was basically common, a strengthening exercise for the lower classes, still attracted him as a dark, wicked opportunity to conflate the awful with the trivial. As late as 1894, he could have the mischievous, debt-ridden Algernon insist midway through The Importance of Being Earnest that “I am really not going to be imprisoned in the suburbs for dining in the West End.” When Algernon hears from a threatening solicitor that “the gaol itself is fashionable and well-aired; and there are ample opportunities of taking exercise at certain stated hours of the day,” he answers indignantly: “Exercise! Good God! No gentleman ever takes exercise.” Read More »

The Service Industry’s Snobbiest Sector, and Other News

February 24, 2015 | by

Who could say no to that face?

  • Your stereotypical French waiter is condescending, arrogant, and rigid with hauteur—a veritable seven-course meal of Gallic clichés. But that radiant superiority is earned: French waiters are still more talented than most everyone else in the game. No one has perfected the art as they have. Sartre wrote of their “lively and exaggerated manner, a little too precise, a little too fast … trying to mimic the rigor of a robot while carrying his tray with the temerity of a tightrope walker.”
  • It’s time to bury Pablo Neruda again, a Chilean judge has ruled. Forensic scientists exhumed Neruda’s remains nearly two years ago to investigate a claim by his former driver, who’d said the poet “had been murdered by an injection to his stomach by political enemies.”
  • On Oscar Wilde’s long journey from tasteless sodomite to canonized icon: “In the English classrooms of my youth, Wilde was taught as a pillar of classical learning and modern suavity, not some licentious bogeyman. Wilde, now, is tame; safe. We canonize authors to pretend we understand them; we forgive authors who ought rather to forgive us.”
  • Charles Simic knows how to beat writer’s block: just stay in bed. “When you write in bed, you don’t feel like you’re doing something serious. I’ve been traveling, visiting European institutions, and they give you a gorgeous space to work, with perhaps a lake and a beautiful desk. I could never write there; I feel intimidated by the whole thing. When you’re in bed, you feel very casual about it. It’s just doodling.”
  • Industry analysts, publishers, and grown-ups are flummoxed by news that hip, digitally native young persons apparently prefer reading printed books to reading electronic ones. “These are people who aren’t supposed to remember what it’s like to even smell books,” said one wide-eyed, confused adult. “It’s quite astounding.”

Simon Says

January 12, 2015 | by


Photo: Toy Whirl, via Flickr

Not very long ago, family friends got in touch with me. Their son, Luke, was moving to New York for med school; it would be great if I’d see him and told him where to go in the city; he would be in touch. He was. 

“This is three hours of my life I’ll never get back,” I said bitterly to my boyfriend.

“What’s wrong with him?”

“Oh, nothing. He’s fine, from what I remember. He’s a perfectly nice guy. But, well, frankly … his parents carry on like he’s some kind of celebrated wit.”

“How do they do that?” Read More »

Hang Your Quiver on Your Wagon, and Other News

October 20, 2014 | by

An illustration of the Amazons from the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493.

  • In 1882, Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde spent an afternoon together. They had some homemade elderberry wine and talked about how to be famous.
  • And in 1817, Keats, Wordsworth, and Charles Lamb had dinner. Lamb said repeatedly, “Diddle idle don / My son John / Went to bed with his breeches on.”
  • Winning the Nobel Prize causes an intense, nearly insurmountable euphoria. But according to Patrick Modiano, there is one way to magnify this sensation: by having a family member who hails from the same country that gives the prize. “It gave me even greater pleasure because I have a Swedish grandson … It’s to him I dedicate this Prize. It is, after all, from his country.”
  • Historically, fiction has afforded writers the chance to break taboos—under the guise of the fictive, one can “talk about potentially embarrassing or even criminal personal experiences without bringing society’s censure on oneself.” So what happens when taboos fall away? “It could be we are moving towards a period where, as the writer ‘gets older’ … he or she finds it increasingly irrelevant to embark on another long work of fiction that elaborately reformulates conflicts and concerns that the reader anyway assumes are autobiographical. Far more interesting and exciting to confront the whole conundrum of living and telling head on, in the very different world we find ourselves in now, where more or less anything can be told without shame.”
  • The sexual congress of the Amazons “was robust, promiscuous. It took place outdoors, outside of marriage, in the summer season, with any man an Amazon cared to mate with … The sign for sex in progress was a quiver hung outside a woman’s wagon.”


This Week on the Daily

October 19, 2014 | by


Anders Zorn, Portrait of Emma Zorn, 1887, oil on canvas, 15.8" × 23.9".

In a not-so-glamorous Las Vegas, Kerry Howley watches as a UFC fighter starves himself before weighing in, visiting all-you-can-eat buffets just to see everything he’s missing:

In the twenty-four hours between weigh-ins and the fight, Erik would gain twenty pounds, and he took great pleasure in imagining of what those pounds would consist. The Rio Buffet, he informed me, offered three hundred distinct dishes, seventy varieties of pie, an array of “bars,” including a sushi bar, a taco bar, and a stir-fry bar. He knew its small army of friendly spoon-holding servers, its fifty yards of curving black countertop, its unaccountable progression from sausage pizza to cocktail shrimp to scrambled eggs to lentil soup to crab legs to fried fish to sushi to green salad to gravy-slathered pork chops to honeyed ham to flank steak to barbecue ribs to burritos to tacos to waffles to spring rolls to dumplings to sweet-and-sour pork to eggs Benedict to bacon to one giant vat of ketchup to croissants to cubed mango to green-bean salad to seven kinds of lettuce to the gelato-and-pastries bar whose delights are too many to enumerate but which Erik would attempt to enumerate if given the chance.

Forrest Gander on the mysterious end of Ambrose Bierce, a hundred years ago: “According to witnesses, Bierce died over and over again, all over Mexico.”

Jeff Simmermon started a band with a guitar, a typewriter, and a pair of chickens who peck at toy pianos. They wanted to tour Japan. Al Sharpton got mixed up in it, and the whole affair provided a strange and invaluable lesson about artistic ambition and closure...

A new Italian novel takes Antony Shugaar back into the Years of Lead, a time of kidnappings and earthquakes and cholera epidemics: “Those who say they want to leave this country, or simply spend their whole lives saying they want to leave, do so because they want to save themselves. Well, I’m staying here. Because I don’t want to be saved.”

Plus, Sadie Stein’s dispatches from Berlin, where the chefs carry around Spinoza’s Ethics and the cabbies are fluent in Patrick Modiano; Terry Southern goes skeet shooting; and all of us get an irrefutable, statistical answer, at last, to that most pressing question: How often do Oscar Wilde’s characters fling themselves onto couches, sofas, and/or divans?