When most people think of Oscar Wilde they think of a daring, flamboyant wit rebelling against the dull, uptight Victorians. But Wilde was also a serious artist and intellectual whose ideas continue to fascinate and inspire. And one of the most serious (and fascinating) of these works is sadly among the least read – De Profundis. This was a long letter composed towards the end of his time in prison and addressed to his former lover. In it, he reflects on the terrible suffering he has endured and, more importantly, how he has learnt to cope.
Wilde was born in Dublin in 1854 and moved to England in 1874 to study classics at Oxford. During his time at the university he became, in his own words, "the bad boy", decorating his room with peacock feathers and declaring that people should live for beauty alone. After graduating, he moved to London, wrote poetry, published the novel A Picture of Dorian Gray, and composed a series of plays. He later met a young English aristocrat named Alfred Douglas, with whom he had a relationship. In 1895, at the height of his fame, he was prosecuted for "gross indecency," meaning homosexual acts, and sentenced to two years hard labour.
So why read Wilde? Surely there are plenty of self-help books on how to cope with depression, bereavement and trauma. Wasn't Wilde just a flamboyant wit and homosexual martyr? No doubt his end was sad and unjust, but what does he have to say to a modern reader? It should be remembered that Wilde was more than just a celebrity and wit. He was a man of dazzling intelligence who graduated from Oxford with the highest grades of his year. He knew Latin, Greek, Italian, and French and had read most of the classics in those languages. When he tries to make sense of his pain, he does so by drawing upon a lifetime of study and thought.
Though Wilde does not use such language, it is clear from his letter that he has been suffering severe clinical depression. First, there was the loss of status and rank. Wilde's imprisonment occurred at the height of his fame. Not only has he lost his reputation, he has also brought disgrace on his family name. Next, there is the loss of money and possessions. Wilde is in danger of bankruptcy, and he knows it. His beautiful London home has been sold and his precious books and art treasures auctioned in the street. Not long into his sentence he received news that his beloved mother had died. But the greatest blow of all came when Wilde learnt that he was no longer to be allowed to see his two sons.
He is clearly still in immense pain, describing his suffering (or depression) as "one very long moment". Later, he adds that for him "time does not progress" but "seems to circle around one centre of pain." At first, nothing was of any use. He lists the things he has turned to for comfort: "morality," "religion," "reason" – none have helped.
Before he was able to learn from his suffering, Wilde had first to cleanse himself and then to forgive. And the only way to do so was to fully experience his pain and not resist or deny what he felt. He writes without restraint of his "bitterness", "rage", "wild despair", and "abandonment to grief" – of depression so severe that he, a master of words, could "find no voice" to express it. At first he seriously contemplated suicide. When he was told he would never see his children again, the torment reached a sort of climax. He returned to his cell, fell to his knees and sobbed. At that moment, writes Wilde, "I saw that the only thing for me was to accept everything."
And yet Wilde also experienced kindness. On his first day in prison, walking around the exercise yard, another prisoner whispered to him that he was sorry for what had happened. The prison guards who escorted him to jail also tried to comfort him. Such simple acts of kindness, and others like them, preserved his humanity.
Before he can heal, Wilde acknowledges, "the first thing I have got to do is to free myself from any possible bitterness of feeling against the world." Bitterness and blame, he realizes, will prevent him from growing and healing. On his way to prison, standing handcuffed on a train platform, he was ridiculed and laughed at by the commuters. In one of the most touching passages, Wilde writes that he now feels sorry for those who jeered at him. Taking pleasure in another's misfortune, as they did, revealed the small, narrow, ugly little minds in which they were trapped.
When he was first sentenced, friends came to see him and advised him to try to "forget who I was." But he now sees how foolish that would have been: "to deny one's own life experiences is to put a lie into the lips of one's own life." And there must be no self-pity – or "pity against myself," as Wilde puts it. The man to whom he is writing, Lord Alfred Douglas, was largely responsible for what happened and remains a hate figure among Wilde's fans to this day. But Wilde makes it clear that he forgives Douglas and that "I ruined myself."
He has not tried to shut out grief or pain but has allowed them to wash over him and do their worst. He has also resisted the temptation to give way to hatred and bitterness or to look for others to blame. Many people, when confronted with trauma of some kind – whether that be divorce, infidelity, bankruptcy, or bereavement – become locked up in a self-imposed hell of misery and hate. Or they simply clam up and refuse to acknowledge what is happening. But Wilde has opened up the wound, cleansed it, and is now ready to heal.
For Wilde, the fear that his suffering meant nothing was the greatest torment of all. But, he concluded, suffering does have meaning and value. Through suffering, a deeper and more profound self-understanding can be reached. Living solely for happiness and pleasure, by contrast, means "starving the soul." To Wilde, every individual is an artist because everyone creates and lives their own story. And this self-development requires the "frank acceptance of all experiences"; through such acceptance, the personality can reach the "full stature of its perfection."
But you have to discover this for yourself. Had someone tried to tell him that suffering had meaning and value, Wilde adds, he would have dismissed this as nonsense. This understanding, "has come to me right out of myself, so I know that it has come at the proper time." As he found the will to live, he wished others to know what he was going through, "to turn whatever house I entered into a house of mourning." Anyone who has suffered will recognize the truth of this. When shaken by bereavement or redundancy, people often resent the happiness of others and want them to suffer as well. Gradually, however, Wilde recognized the mean cowardice of such an attitude and, when his friends visited him, determined to be cheerful so they would not worry.
Wilde writes at one point of the way priests define suffering as a mystery; for him, suffering is not a mystery but a revelation: "one discerns things one never discerned before." The life of pleasure is wrong not because it is immoral but because it is "limiting." Now, his understanding and empathy have deepened. Suffering has enriched his imaginative sympathy. In one of the most beautiful passages in the letter he adds "imagination is simply a manifestation of love, and it is love and the capacity for it that distinguishes one human being from another."
Suffering has broken down Wilde's pride and ego. At first, such a process is difficult and painful. The ego resists and pride keeps reasserting itself. But humility is, in Wilde's words, "the ultimate discovery at which I have arrived." Fame and glory no longer appeal to him. Having been so low and so helpless, the only way is up. When he is released, he will revel in the most petty, trivial pleasures – in the things that other people take for granted, or barely notice at all. "I have a strange longing for the great simple primeval things" he adds, "such as the sea". Simply to have unlimited access to friends, books and the beauty of nature is all he wants.
Of course, Wilde was no fool, and he realised that his suffering was unlikely to end with his sentence. Indeed, his health was broken by the experience and he continued to suffer even after his release, dying a hard death from cerebral meningitis only a few years later. But his serious, thoughtful response to suffering still has much to teach.