Writing From Out of the Depths – Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis*

“It is tragic how few people ever ‘possess their souls’ before they die.”

 

In May 1895, Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde began his prison sentence. Wilde, arrested on charges of indecency, and convicted of “committing acts of gross indecency with certain male persons” was sentenced to two years hard labor. The “love that dare not speak its name” became a source of deep regret for Wilde, not because of what it was, but because of what it became. The passion for youth and beauty that had inspired Wilde had run unchecked and had flung him into ruin. Wilde took on full culpability writing, “I ruined myself, and nobody great or small can be ruined except by his own hand.” (32).

Wilde was transferred from Pentonville to Wandsworth before finally being sent to Reading, where he began writing De Profundis.

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31st edition published 1915

Wilde spent three months crafting his personal manifesto. He was permitted to write during the day, surrendering the pages to the warden at night, and having them returned to him the next morning.

In a letter to his friend Robert Ross, dated April 1, 1857, Wilde wanted Ross and others to understand why he wrote it. Wilde wanted to make certain his intentions were not seen as a defense of his behavior, but rather an explanation.  Wilde was in a sense documenting the “evolution of (his) character and intellectual attitude towards life.” (11). He wanted to make certain Ross knew he would not emerge from the prison walls the same man as when he entered them.

Upon his release, Wilde gave Ross the epistle, who had two copies made. One of those copies was sent to Lord Alfred Douglas, (though Douglas claimed he never saw more than a few quotes from it), the man Oscar had written it for and who had been the source of Wilde’s catastrophic ruin. Fate, however, is a funny thing as Douglas himself was imprisoned in 1924 and would pen his own volume of poems titled In Excelsis (in the highest) while incarcerated. 

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Douglas and Wilde

There is a desperation in De Profundis as if Wilde suspected he would not be long for the world. Having lost his family and all his possessions, Wilde opened his soul and allowed it to bleed onto the page.

De Profundis, (out of the depths) is a work overflowing (perhaps too much at times) with elegant, fluid lines where Wilde muses about love, art, forgiveness, and humility and the romanticism of Christ.  It is also Wilde’s self-reflection, full of anxious and despairing prose where Wilde, wrapped firmly in the arms of depression, bares his soul, “seeking a fresh mode of self-realization,” and “acknowledging the value of humility” (37).  However, what De Profundis really is, is Wilde’s acceptance of his fate. He realized he was up against an opponent, even his wit could not defeat; he was losing the war with himself. Or was he?

Wilde wrote, “I had lost my name, my position, my happiness, my freedom, my wealth. I was prisoner and pauper…I saw then that the only thing for me was to accept everything. Since then-curious as it will no doubt sound- I have been happier.” (71).   Wilde believed, or so his writings indicate, that the only truth was truth to oneself, to one’s nature. Conformity was the ultimate prison sentence. The true sense of freedom could only come from defiance of morality imposed by society, in favor of loyalty to the self.  The new-found liberation of his soul caused Wilde to consider that it “may be worthwhile going to prison,” (93), despite its miseries or perhaps because of them.

“Suffering is one very long moment.” (21), and suffer, Wilde did.  Wilde was subjected to hard labor, illness, injury, oscar-wildeand humiliation, “…in prison tears are a part of every day’s experience.” (103). But Wilde’s arrogance sustained him and it was those tears that emboldened Oscar to write. It was not that prison made him a better person, but rather made him a stronger opponent against cruelty.    For all that Wilde lost, what he kept was the very thing that defined him, his art.

A self-proclaimed “Lord of Language” Wilde never lost sight of his strength. Society may have stripped his pride, but it could not strip his genius. Wilde was determined to make happiness, no matter how humble, his objective. Even if it meant being on his own. Wilde wrote “I can be perfectly happy by myself. With freedom, flowers, books and the moon, who could not be perfectly happy?” (98).

In 1898, after his release, Wilde published his final poem, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol.” Instead of being published under his name, it was published under his prison number, C.3-3. Wilde would die two years later in a Paris hotel room at the age of 46.

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Wilde’s cell

 

*The edition I am reviewing is from 1915 and was published in London by Methuen & Co. LTD, and includes additional text from Wilde in the form of letters. It is edited and does not contain the complete text. The reason being that Douglas was still alive and Ross wanting to avoid a lawsuit, had all mentions of Douglas removed. An expanded, yet still incomplete version was published in 1949.  The complete text was first published in 1962.

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Why Donald Trump Needed to Happen

If you are like me, you are probably stunned right now. Feeling a bit uncertain, angry and even ashamed. Sometimes, events are a message from the universe showing us there is a reason why they happened. The answer is because they needed to.

Think about how you felt as you watched the results, never losing hope or faith that Hillary would prevail. Think about how good and secure you felt at that moment. Now, think about how you felt when that security was pulled out from underneath you. It was all a bit surreal, so you went to bed thinking it was a bad dream and in the morning things would be right with the world again. Then you woke up and found out it wasn’t. This leads to the first reason why Donald Trump needed to happen. Complacency.

I am calling myself out on this one. I am so incredibly guilty of this. My insidious complacency helped propel us into the new epoch we are about to enter. I signed petitions on climate change, animal abuse and the draconian actions taken by big pharma, but I never contacted the people involved or those who were in a position to make a difference. I didn’t bother to educate myself beyond what was given to me. I read some articles but never asked any questions. That is another reason.

We need to stop accepting things at face value. I am grateful to social media. Without it, I wouldn’t have met the motivating and inspirational people I’m fortunate to call friends. However, it’s also turned us into the boy who cried wolf, spreading myopic and often false information at an alarming rate. It’s also become a new playground for schadenfreude. You need to question and challenge everything, including this essay. We tend to classify something as being good or bad, right or wrong, based on our emotional response to it. We mistake fact for emotion. Simply agreeing with something because it elicits an emotional, subjective response in us does not mean it’s true. In other words, you have to also question yourself and your reaction to things. Maybe it’s because we are afraid to challenge ourselves, but educating yourself is always the right answer, even if it isn’t the answer you wanted.

Books. Yes, you knew this was going to come up. They are your best weapon and your best defense against being ignorant. Every time I see a statement that claims one must stop being a sheep and get out of the box, I cringe. First, I like sheep. They are adorable, and without them, we wouldn’t have ugly holiday sweaters. However, resorting to calling anyone who disagrees with you, without you having done your homework makes you exactly that. Sharing a post because you agree with it only adds you to the flock. What you put in your mind is just like what you put in your body. Some things are good and somethings will fucking kill you. If you feel strongly about something, read a book, not a Facebook post.

Inspiration comes from tragedy. If you look back at history, some of the greatest literature and art and music have come from artists trying to express themselves. The Romantics were rebelling against the church and the Industrial Revolution and created what are still some of the most sublime creations ever to come from the minds of men and women. The poets of WWII wrote poems that will never be equaled in anguish and desperation, and yet are so profound we can’t help but be drawn to them. There are writers from Africa, Russia, and the Middle East who are creating intellectual revolutions with their words and paintbrushes instead of their weapons. Donald Trump gives artists so many opportunities to express themselves that we may be on the verge of a new era of art, music, and literature. He may claim he is going to “drain the swamp, ” but it’s only so he can refill it with his own amphibians. Trump has given me a very deep pond to fish from. They may be ugly fish, but they are better than an empty hook.

What all this comes down to is that through our complacency, our emotional acceptance of things and our failure to ask questions and educate ourselves is what has led us here. T.S Eliot wrote, “There is certainly no purpose in remaining in the dark except long enough to clear from the mind the illusion of having ever been in the light.”
Through art and self-expression, we can make a difference. Protest with your words, your pictures, your music and your voice, but never lower yourself to Trump’s level. Michelle Obama, an elegant and intelligent woman recently said, “When they go low, we go high.” These are the words we need to live and create by. We cannot let fear destroy what we have worked so hard for.

America isn’t great, and Trump isn’t going to make it that way. He is mainly the wrecking ball that needed to come in so we can start over again. Instead of building walls, we will build pride, instead of minorities living in fear, they will live in love. Sometimes we have to hit bottom before we can build ourselves up and become stronger.
This is why Donald Trump needed to happen.

Happy Birthday Mr. Huxley

 

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Aldous Huxley

 

I read Brave New World several years ago. It was one of the books, like many others, that I read because I felt I should. Now it is time for a confession; I did not like it. I stuck with it to the end, because once I crack a spine and read a few pages, I have entered into a commitment. Giving up on a book is like breaking a promise to a friend; it happens, but you never get over the guilt. I stayed with it and checked it off my “need to read” list, and decided I was done with Mr. Huxley. However, Mr. Huxley was not done with me.

A few years later my philosophy professor assigned us Brave New World Revisited. I was thankful I had read its predecessor, but spending more time with Mr. Huxley was not something I approached with optimism until I started reading.

Huxley hooked me on the opening sentence. “In 1931 when Brave New World was being written, I was convinced that there was still plenty of time.”

Time for what? I wondered and kept reading. Huxley started with over-population, going on to state over-population was creating “greater numbers [of] biologically poorer quality.” Much of this was due in part, according to Huxley, with advances in science. Drugs were keeping us alive longer, but were little benefit as these “wonder drugs” were causing deterioration in health and a “decline in average intelligence.” Huxley went on to examine propaganda, brainwashing, various persuasion methods and education for freedom. This was serious shit; it was also terrifying. I had found my Soma and wanted more. I decided I had been rather unfair to Huxley. Brave New World Revisited had been a good, sharp smack on the back of my head. Stuff was happening, and Mr. Huxley knew it wasn’t the good kind.

I became obsessed with Huxley, even naming my cat after him. I began collecting everything I could get my hands on three volumes of essays, a collection of letters, a biography, a few of his other novels, including his first three, and watching interviews and documentaries on YouTube.13442223_1075822155837863_8946657273670261987_n

Huxley had a sharp satirical wit. In “Silence is Golden,” an essay he wrote in 1929 Huxley describes his first experience with Jazz.

“The jazzers were forced on me; I regarded them with a fascinated horror. It was the first time, I suddenly realized, that I had ever clearly seen a jazz band. The spectacle was positively terrifying.”

Huxley’s first novel, Crome Yellow, has become one of my favorite books. It has often been criticized for being a book with no plot, but that is the genius behind it; Crome isn’t a single plot, it’s several. Each of Crome’s characters inhabits their own self-absorbed private world. Written in the style of Wodehouse and Waugh, Crome Yellow, exposed me to a side of Huxley I didn’t know existed. Crome Yellow and Antic Hay, Huxley’s second novel, made me laugh as much as Brave New World Revisited had frightened me.

Huxley didn’t stop at novels and essays. He also wrote poetry. Even though T.S. Eliot accused Huxley of “borrow[ing] a good deal from my poetry” he felt Huxley’s talent was in prose instead of verse. Finding a good selection of Huxley’s poetry is not easy. I had to do a bit of searching before I finally found a decent collection of them. In spite of Eliot’s (one of my favorite poets) criticisms, I found Huxley’s poetry meaningful and contemplative.

Darkness had stretched its colour,

Deep blue across the pane:

No Cloud to make night duller,

No moon with its tarnished stain;

But only here and there a star,

One sharp point of frosty fire,

Hanging infinitely far

In mockery of our life and death

And all our small desire. ~ From Waking

For Huxley, writing was essential. “I never feel I am performing a really moral action, except when I am writing,” I find that a very romantic view. Writing defined Huxley and that definition goes far beyond Brave New World. Huxley saw the world, perhaps because of his limited eyesight, differently than those around him, without losing his humanity. If anything, he can only be blamed for being too human.

I’ve got a long way to go before I exhaust all of Huxley’s writing if that’s even possible. I have learned something from every essay, novel, poem and letter Huxley wrote. Perhaps, one of the most important lessons I’ve learned is not to judge a writer by one book. I may never come to appreciate Brave New World, but I will never stop appreciating the man who wrote it.

Happy 122nd birthday, Mr. Huxley.

Why I Write

There’s a great misconception that writing is easy; that all writers do, is make shit up and then write it down. If only it were that easy. Writing is demanding, both physically and mentally. It is a brutal, unforgiving bastard, that at times mocks you and makes you feel worthless and defeated. So you ignore it, or you try to, but as George Orwell wrote “I tried to abandon this idea, but I did so with the consciousness that I was outraging my true nature and that sooner or later I should have to settle down and write…”

Orwell writes “I think there are four great motives for writing…they exist in different degrees in every writer…” Narrowing it down to just four, is a rather brave (or foolish) thing to attempt. However, his reasons are so infallible and intrinsic that even in the epoch of social media and instant messaging, these four core motives are as relevant now, as they were in 1946, when Orwell wrote his essay.

The first one Orwell lists is “sheer egoism.” As much as I’d like to deny this, it is as Orwell writes, “humbug to pretend this is not a motive.” There’s a drive in all of us to be recognized for something; to be acknowledged as being better than others at this something.  Competition is an instinct, and a rather important one. Without it nothing would ever move forward. It is selfishness at its finest. Writers, musicians and artists of all media tend to have an overabundance of this trait. It isn’t because we are arrogant jerks, or insecure souls looking for validation, it’s because we feel the need to contribute, even if that contribution is an unwelcome one. It’s the fight against losing who we are and conforming to the masses.

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photo by the author

The next one is “Aesthetic enthusiasm.” It’s the beauty of words, but also the ugliness. It is the means in which we communicate and “the desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable.”  What one person finds value in, another is certain not to. However, the value in that thing, is in the way it is communicated, and that is where aestheticism comes in. Most people can recognize that a book is well written even if they don’t care for the story. I will admit, even as an English major, I don’t like Shakespeare, but I’d give anything to be able to write like him. For me, there is something magic, not just in words alone, but in the way they are linked together. The blending of words is very much like the blending of notes or paint; too many of the same become redundant, too many opposites and you create cacophony. There’s a fine line between the two, which shifts with every piece one writes. There is no magic formula. Writing is a way of corralling your wild ideas and training them to become an organized group of thoughts, at the same time training yourself how to think about and express those thoughts.

The third on Orwell’s  lists is “historical impulse.”  Orwell states it is the “desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts…” But if facts are subjective, and they are, then how can we ever determine what is true? Well written historical accounts are more likely to be taken as factual, even if they aren’t. Historical “facts” are constantly being proved or disproved.  What is the truth on one side, maybe propaganda on the other.  It may  be the desire to record things as we believe they are, rather than the “desire to see things as they are.” Writing is what forces you to look at events objectively, if for no other reason than to find your own truth.

Orwell’s fourth and final motive is one he applies in, “the widest possible sense,”and that is “Political purpose.” Here is where things get interesting. Orwell states it is the “desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.” What Orwell argues is that art and politics can’t be separated. Nothing inspires creativity like injustice.

Writing is, as Orwell states, “a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness…(and) by the time you have perfected any style of writing, you have outgrown it.” So why do writers subject themselves to this self inflicted torment? Perhaps it is the search for our own understanding, or the desire for self-preservation by what we leave behind. Maybe it is the essential aspiration to be heard and recognized. Or maybe, just maybe we are “driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”

 

The Sky is Flesh

Caspar_David_Friedrich_-_Mann_und_Frau_in_Betrachtung_des_Mondes_-_Alte_Nationalgalerie_BerlinKeeper of winds that rage and clouds that weep,

of gusts that blow and souls that sleep.

The sky is deaf to prayers and pleas.

It does not answer, it does not grieve.

The sky is blind, it does not see;

it does not judge earth’s vain beauty.

The sky is truth, naked and bare,

it holds the secrets that we not dare.

The sky is where we send hopes on high.

The sky is truth.

The flesh a lie.

I Killed the Zeitgeist – The Unorthodox Romance of Nicky Wire

I Killed the Zeitgeist– Nicky Wire

I Killed the Zeitgeist
I Killed the Zeitgeist

Strong, confident, beautiful, romantic…words that will never be used to describe the quality of Nicky Wire’s singing voice. Except, maybe the last one.

Wire’s voice, for all it lacks, does possess an undeniable innocence, charm, and yes, romanticism. Underneath of what sounds like a bizarre collage of inarticulate droning, is really something quite beautiful. Nicky Wire has given us a bit of himself; naked, unpolished, vulnerable. He trusts us to find beauty among the wreckage. We need to stop listening to the quality of Wire’s voice and listen to what he is saying. I have listened to Zeitgeist continuously over the last few days, and admit I have become a bit obsessed with it.

In the opening track, “I Killed the Zeitgeist” the line “Pain like the shattering of glass”, is one you would expect to hear erupting from James Dean Bradfield on a Manic Street Preachers album. However, sung in Wire’s flat, nondescript tone makes it feel more sincere, a little more…painful.

“Break my Heart Slowly” opens with a magnificent quote from Eleanor Coppola. The title alone is one of the most romantic I have heard. Especially when Wire has them spoken by Dora Maar. Maar was a poet, artist and photographer. However, she is best known for her volatile relationship with the artist Picasso. She was a fascinating dark beauty, who became Picassos muse; it isn’t surprising she also became Wire’s. It is the only single released from the album.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YFpdwY75CUs

Later tracks like “The Shining Path” and “Bobby Untitled” are where Wire showcases his real lyrical aptitude. The Shining Path is a Peruvian guerilla group whose ideology, (funded by cocaine) is based on Maoism. The group uses violence and terrorism against the “bourgeois democracy” in order to create a communist state. In the song Wire, a student of politics, sings about his own revolution “creeping up and making plans” as “governments crash” and “hope dead like Jesus on the cross.” Wire’s Shining Path is obviously more personal and less violent, but the song suggests that we all eventually have to deal with conflicts outside of our control. Our own revolutions.

IMG_3168“Bobby Untitled” opens with the closing stanza of Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. Bobby Sands was a member of the IRA who died in prison during a hunger strike at the age of 27. Richey Edwards,Wire’s closet friend and bandmate, was confined in his own prison of mental illness. Edwards suffered from amongst other things, self-mutilation and anorexia. He disappeared in 1995, he was also 27. Wire’s confession “bits of me don’t exist anymore, I can’t replace what’s been and gone” are undoubtedly in reference to Richey. It is a touching tribute.

For me, the one track that stands alone as being the most romantic is the haunting “Everything Fades.” This is the darkest track on the album and that’s probably why I’m so attracted to it. Wire lyrics “Tied to a place we don’t belong” and “Frozen not dead, but grey and decayed” portray a sense of deep loss, not only of those close to him, but loss of the self.

Having nothing to lose, Wire described the process as “effortless” and himself as having “no expectations.”

Loss, confrontation and reflection. These are things we all relate to as we struggle to manage our way. This is Nicky Wire doing his own thing. It is brave and soul bearing, earnest and at times uncomfortable. This is his revelation, his purging. It is spectacular and beautiful.

This is NOT a Manic Street Preachers album. It is NOT an attempt to compete with James Dean Bradfield’s solo release, (Bradfield does lend his talents to two of the tracks), this is all Nicky Wire. Love him or hate him, he doesn’t give a fuck. That, is the romanticism.IMG_3166

Why is Richard Butler so Cool?

Richard Butler 1994, Washington D.C
Richard Butler 1994, Washington D.C -Photo by MJ Zander

Richard Butler is cool. The guy is absolutely dripping in the stuff. From the iconic Psychedelic Furs, to Love Spit Love, back to the Psychedelic Furs, Butler proves he’s got the one thing a lot of bands from the 80’s were missing….staying power based on originality.

Formed in 1977, the Furs released their self-titled debut album in 1980. A combination of punk and sixties psychedelia, the Furs became one of the most distinctive bands of the post punk genre. Butler, an art student who could be considered a bit of a visionary, saw music as a way to express things that painting couldn’t. After seeing the Sex Pistols at the 100 Club in London and realizing music didn’t have to be complicated or even, well, musical, to become a vehicle of expression, Butler decided it was time to form his own band. Butler claims he doesn’t think “anybody starts out being original.” However, with Butler’s cryptic lyrics and raw, sultry rasp, it didn’t take long for the Furs to do exactly that.

The Furs music was filled with an energy similar to punk. What separated them from bands like the Pistols was the delivery. Where Johnny Rotten spitted slogans and anti-establishment angst, Butler chose an enigmatic, ambivalent approach as if to say “here’s our music if you don’t like it, oh well.”

Seven albums later, after the 1991 release World Outside, the Furs called it a day. Butler, went on to form Love Spit Love with help from bandmate and brother Tim Butler. The band’s self-titled debut released in 1994 was well received. Butler’s rasp had been slightly polished and the music, while having elements from the Furs, sounded a bit tighter and mature thanks to the addition of guitarist Richard Fortus. 1995 found the band recording a cover version of The Smiths iconic “How Soon is Now” for the movie The Craft. This was a brave move. There are a certain songs that have already reached infallible perfection and should never be covered.  To do so is rock n roll sacrilege. “How Soon is Now” is one of those songs. It was the first time Richard Butler had disappointed me. However, he made up for it with the 1997 release of Trysome Eatone.

Richard Butler -Washington D.C. 1994  Photo taken by MJ Zander
Richard Butler -Washington D.C. 1994 Photo taken by MJ Zander

Richard Butler’s artistry goes beyond his music. A 2013 exhibit in New York entitled “ahatfulofrain” showcased his work that falls somewhere between abstract and visionary. Butler’s paintings are full of bizarre beauty with a dreamy quality that draws you into them. You can check them out here. https://player.vimeo.com/video/64023283?api=1&player_id=player_1

Butler has reunited with the Furs and is currently on tour.  You can find out more info here. http://www.thepsychedelicfurs.com/tour.html