de profundis

A while back, Erik, a friend of mine gave me an old copy of this book written by Oscar Wilde.  Perhaps he was purging possessions he no longer needed; he gave it a hearty recommendation and probably believed I would also enjoy reading it.  I had been involved in a prison ministry bible study, and from one perspective, Wilde’s book is certainly a letter which was written during his imprisonment. In this respect, it belongs to the genre of prison literature, along with many others set in a similar circumstance.   St Paul wrote several letters from captivity as did Boethius, Marco Polo, Dietrich Boenhoffer, Doetoesky, Wittgenstein, Jack London, and of course the Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” also belongs to the collection.  A quick internet search  will reveal that these are merely a sampling by far vast and diverse array.

The book was only published posthumously and with the Latin title De Profundis, meaning Out of the Depths. I must concur, the title is apt. Psalm 130 might well have been the inspiration.  It’s first verse begins. “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.”

Near the end of his life, Oscar Wilde, the well known 19th century Irish playwright, was imprisioned for bankruptcy and gross indecency. This was the then socially respectable term for active homosexuality in a society which did not want to dignify the so-called crime with such a name. The manuscript is a lengthy letter addressed to his former lover, who apparently enjoyed spending Wilde’oney with abandon. The letter discusses Wilde’s failed attempts, or inability to set any financial limits on an arrogant and undisciplined younger man who had every intention of living beyond the means of the very successful man who loved him anyway.  His young lover’s gambling losses and extravagant lifestyle eventually forced Wilde into bankruptcy, and being a public figure had exposed him to a multitude a others happy to blackmail for their own financial gain. In the end, the assault on his character was too much to bear and instead of mounting an advisable defense in the courts, Wilde chose to fight a legal attack which would result in his incarceration.

The history of their relationship and its heart-wrenching consequences are beautifully exposed in the letter. As Wilde tells the story, it is clear that he fell victim to some unsavory characters from whom he would have done well to disassociate. Yet sometimes we chose the wrong friends.  Perhaps we believe that the relationship will be mutually beneficial or that our influence will be greater and the other will be better for it, but sometimes the opposite is true. And the fault belongs to us for continuing a relationship with a person who has no intention to change or be held accountable. In fact, some people have more negative influence on us than we like to admit.  Even with the best intentions, some relationships are I’ll-fated and lamentable, especially if they are not subject to the freshness of the open air in a community which values the same virtues you also treasure and hope to cultivate.

The beauty of the book is not that Wilde is caught in this position.  In the human experience, I suppose that this situation is more common than rare. The beauty of the book is that Wilde acknowledges his weakness and poor judgement and takes responsibility for it.  It is unfortunate that it took nearly two years in prison for him to put this conclusion in writing.  But the literature he leaves behind testifing to his experience and depth of reflection is a treasure.  Of course if homosexuality had not been a crime, perhaps Wilde’s life might not have come to ruin; neither would he have been so vulnerable to those predisposed to take advantage of his love and wealth. It is with some consolation that gay men are no longer subject to a basement of underground living and forced to find companionship only in the shadows of society while risking nearly everything for affection.  Well, at least this is the case in most of the western world, save the Roman Catholic clergy.  In some other places, Wilde’s conduct today would result in state sponsored execution.

Having been a victim of blackmail myself, I also know what it means to cry from the depths. Not all unsavory characters are seeking money, some just want sexual favors and will find a way to obtain them, even if by manipulation or force, especially if there is some assurance that the victim will need to remain silent. There is a certain benefit to coming out of the closet: you can’t be blackmailed anymore, not by an ordained cleric, not by anyone.  There might be other consequences to pay, but at least you will no longer need to blame yourself for the complicity of your silence and cowardice.

With St Paul, I pray that God’s grace will be “bestowed in abundance so that more and more people may cause the thanksgiving to overflow for the glory of God.” (2 Cor 4:15) it is sad that some people believe that God’s grave is scarce, and therefore needs to be restricted to fewer and fewer people instead. Jesus invited us to see that our family of faith much larger than we sometimes assume. (Mk 3:34-35)