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literature

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Wilde, Oscar (1854-1900)  
 
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Perhaps more responsible than any other single English work in forging the stereotypical link between art, decadence, and homosexuality, The Picture of Dorian Gray--for all its moralistic posturing--mourns the loss of a golden age and art's inability to recreate that homoerotic harmony of flesh and spirit nostalgically associated with Hellenism.

De Profundis

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Wilde's most important and least ambivalent contribution to gay literature is the remarkable letter written in prison, De Profundis, a work that creatively transmutes the disaster of his prosecution and imprisonment into a ludic triumph.

Written over a period of three months in 1897, after he had been imprisoned for some eighteen months, and addressed to Lord Alfred Douglas, De Profundis is far more than the recriminatory attack of a disenchanted lover or a self-serving, self-pitying tract.

It might best be described as Wilde's attempt to create and present a complex and contradictory but nevertheless authentic self, one to displace or qualify the masks he had himself created earlier and the ugly images attributed to him in the popular press.

The importance of Wilde's prison letter for gay literature is that in it the writer breaks out of the bourgeois mold he had so frequently attacked yet to which he so tenaciously clung. As a result of his imprisonment, he discovers a new freedom and emerges as Saint Oscar, the victim of gay oppression who finally triumphs over a philistine society.

The key faculty of the authentic self that Wilde creates in De Profundis is imagination. Imagination, as used in the work, is a preexistentialist term for the individual's attentiveness to received ideas and relationships; it indicates a liveliness of the spirit, an awareness of the meaning of experience, a critical alertness to the nature of one's relationships both to others and to social institutions, and a constant questioning of established social codes.

In De Profundis, imagination is Wilde's means of liberating himself from his problematic relationship to society.

The most daring aspect of De Profundis is Wilde's simultaneous depictions of Christ in his image and himself in Christ's image. Christ is presented not as a supernatural being but as a fascinating artist whose power of imagination "makes him the palpitating centre of romance."

The embodiment of agape, Christ understands the sufferings of others. He is also the proponent of radical individualism, and rather than consisting of moralistic prohibitions, Christ's "morality is all sympathy."

Wilde also depicts Christ as an imaginative social critic, alert to the injustices of society and waging a war against social tyranny. Christ's antagonists are the philistines, who never question the dehumanizing and limiting social codes that they enforce, codes that have created a thoroughly inhumane prison system, incarcerated Wilde for his homosexuality, and robbed him of his children.

The portrait of Christ as the romantic artist martyred by a philistine society functions for Wilde not merely as self-aggrandizement but also as a means of attacking the religious base of philistine morality.

In De Profundis, Wilde defends his homosexuality, or , obliquely but strongly, and the work deserves a prominent place in the literature of homosexual apologias. Wilde's frank admission of his homosexuality as "a fact about me" translates his sexual identity into an element of the new self-knowledge he has gained in the crucible of suffering and one that he will not willingly deny or surrender.

Skeptical of the medical model of homosexuality emerging in the late nineteenth century, he refers dismissively to Cesare Lomboroso, an Italian criminologist who believed homosexuality was a congenital dysfunction, to be treated in insane asylums rather than prisons.

Although open to a theoretical connection between homosexuality and artistic creativity, as implied by homosexual apologists like John Addington Symonds and Edward Carpenter and endorsed in "The Portrait of Mr. W.H." and The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde observes laconically that "the pathological phenomenon in question is also found among those who have not genius."

Rather than belaboring the causes of homosexuality, he is defiant of those who would condemn him. He resolutely denounces the "wrong and unjust laws" of the "wrong and unjust system" that convicted him, and confesses that "The one disgraceful, unpardonable, and to all time contemptible action of my life was my allowing myself to be forced into appealing to Society for help and protection. . . . "

This new awareness of his relation to a society whose code he violated yet naively looked to for protection is an important measure of his growth in imagination as a result of his experience.

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