Thursday, July 23, 2009

"I fear that if I went before the Holy Father with a blossoming rod it would turn at once into an umbrella."

The Daily Mail and the Times are both surprised that L'Osservatore Romano would say nice things about Oscar Wilde. The Times explains its surprise:
Wilde, who was married and had two children, was arrested and tried in 1895 over his relationship with Lord Douglas (known as Bosie), son of the Marquess of Queensberry, who had accused Wilde of sodomy. The writer sued Queensberry but lost, and was sentenced to two years’ hard labour and imprisoned in Reading Gaol.

He displayed a long fascination with Catholicism, once remarking: “I am not a Catholic — I am simply a violent Papist.” He was born in Dublin to a Protestant family but fell under the spell of Catholicism at Oxford. He even made a journey for an audience with the Pope but declared: “To go over to Rome would be to sacrifice and give up my two great gods: money and ambition.”
To say that Wilde "fell under the spell of Catholicism at Oxford" makes him sound like that young freshman who read Brideshead Revisited too many times and developed an affected, unserious interest in smells and bells. The strange prevalence of Catholics among the Decadents has been attributed to that sort of adolescent attraction (exactly the theory my senior thesis tried to refute), but it's not quite fair of the Times to cast Wilde that way. The best one-sentence take on Wilde's Catholicism that I've found was an off-handed one from an actor, Kyrle Bellew: "I am a Catholic – you would have been one too had you been spared Greece." After Wilde picked Greece over Rome, he took Greece seriously, which suggests that the young Wilde was looking for a philosophy, not an accessory.

(Also, for what it's worth, I think Wilde's commitment to Platonic paganism was the biggest obstacle to his conversion, not his attraction to men — the two are obviously related, but I think Plato mattered more than Bosie.)

Both articles project the Catholic Church's reputation as homosexuality's ultimate enemy back onto Wilde's time, which isn't fair, either. Here's how Charles Kingsley talked about Catholics and Tractarians in 1851:
. . . there is an element of foppery—even in dress and manner; a fastidious, maundering die-away effeminacy, which is mistaken for purity and refinement; and I confess myself unable to cope with it, so alluring is it to the minds of an effeminate and luxurious aristocracy.
Where else would queer-leaning Victorians have ended up? (More here.)

In any case, Catholic rehabilitation of Oscar Wilde is not new, and the more of it, the better.

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