the secret chord

Yes, yes, I’m still thinking about the same issues. I have ridiculous working and thinking practices. I’d blame my education, but it’s probably me. I’ve always been inclined towards intense bursts of activity, short-lived obsessions with no follow through whatsoever.

I just finished reading Neil McKenna’s The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde. I think there are probably two kinds of biography, the scholarly and the sensationalist and this is assuredly the latter. It’s written with a sweeping conviction that makes it quite absorbing to read but there’s also an awful lot of unsubstantiated claims and rampant speculation. I mean he quotes liberally from Sir Edmund Trelawny Backhouse, as though a man who claimed to have had affair with the Empress Dowager of China would somehow come over all accurate when related his doings with Oscar Wilde. I’ve actually read Backhouse’s ‘memoires’, by the way, and my reaction is best encapsulated as LOL. So much so, I almost suspect he is trolling. TSLOOW also has quite an explicit agenda, not just to centralise the importance of Wilde’s sexuality to his personal life but to specifically cast Wilde as a politicised agent of The Cause (i.e. the emancipation of same-sex desire). I dunno. I ain’t convinced. Especially considering The Cause, when you get right down to it, isn’t actually about the validity of love between two menz, it’s about bonking fifteen year old boys.

But it is a very emotive subject – it’s hard not to get all riled up and heart bleedy over the sheer awfulness of being gay in Victorian England. Not that it was ever a bundle of joy, but I think it was largely due to the sterling work of the psychologists and medical professionals of this period that homosexual desire first began to be associated with moral weakness and actual disease, rather than mere deviancy (or … y’know … demonic possession depending on who you asked). But you can’t really talk about Wilde’s sexuality without touching on people like John Addington Symonds, whose Memoires are such a cry of anguish it brings honest to goodness tears to my eyes. He is top of my “give a historical person a hug” list. And Wilde can go take a flying leap.  Or poor old Simeon Solomon who died basically penniless and alcoholic in a workhouse, shunned by all.

Also, although McKenna is very good at reading the encoded signs of fin de siècle homosexuality (not that the term existed … uranism I suppose) , I do feel his attempts at literary analysis are reductive to the point of hilarity. I mean, yes, there’s a hell of a lot of gay subtext (gay text) even in nearly everything Wilde wrote (and the least said about his execrable poetry the better, except Gaol, of course, that was quite good) but you diminish his talent if you interpret everything so narrowly. The most egregious example is Dorian Grey, which McKenna reads purely as being the conflict between spiritual love (Basil) and corrupting lust (Henry) – which is supportable but banal. And then we get things like this:

Lord Henry’s words have ‘touched some secret chord that has never been touched before but that Dorian feels is now vibrating and throbbing to curious pulses.’ The sexual imagery is deliberate and obvious. Lord Henry has touched the ‘secret chord’ of Dorian’s anus and he experiences a kind of spiritual and penile erection in consequence.

Ummmmm? Really? No, really? The thing is, although this image is assuredly sexual and although there is definitely an extent to which Lord Henry does symbolically/spiritually (potentially literally) penetrate Dorian’s soul and self … it doesn’t have to be literally about the bum. In fact, it strikes me as kind of important it isn’t because, contrary to popular belief, sexuality, or rather homosexuality, is not located in the arse.

Secret chord of his anus… ye Gods.

I actually succumbed to laughter when I was reading this. And when I tried to explain to H, they made it infinitely worse by singing Leonard Cohen’s beautiful Hallelujah at me … which contains the line “he heard there was a secret cord, that David played and it pleased the lord.” Or as H now insists on rendering it: “he heard there was a secret cord, his anus played and it pleased the lord.”

Thank you, Neil McKenna and Oscar Wilde. You have RUINED Leonard Cohen for me.

But, despite these missteps and my occasional frustrations with the book, I have found it quite valuable for a number of reasons. It’s one of the few biographies of Wilde that seems willing to not only admit but embrace the notion that, in being interested in sleeping with members of the same sex, Wilde would likely … y’know … sleep with members of the same sex. It’s been a long time since I read the big heavy hitters, the Ellman biography for example, but I remember feeling as though Wilde’s sexuality identity was accepted as long as his sexual behaviour was underplayed. The general notion, I believe, is that Wilde lost his homosexual virginity to Robbie Ross aged about 31 and only really started boning rentboys because Bosie encouraged him. And whereas, although some of McKenna’s “and Wilde slept with so and so” speculation seems a little far-fetched sometimes (really, by his accounting, there isn’t a man in Victorian England who hadn’t sleep with Wilde), at least it acknowledges Wilde as a sexual agent in his own right, perhaps even a sexual predator, not some helpless victim of Bosie’s depraved lust for boys and excitement. This strikes me as important. And strangely subversive. I was, for example, rather entertained by Wilde’s flirty little letters to potential conquests.

The other thing I appreciated, and also found subversive and interesting, about TSLOOC was the portrayal of Bosie. I do feel sort of sorry for Bosie. He’s gone down in history as the whiny little shit who broke Oscar Wilde – largely, to be honest, because that’s how Wilde generously portrayed him in De Profundis. I might talk about Bosie in more depth in a future post but McKenna, at least, is one of the few biographers I’ve read willing to accept that Bosie was, in many ways, a worthy and suitable lover for Wilde, rather than an incomprehensible aberration Wilde endured. And that their lifestyle of eating at fancy restaurants, writing profoundly homoerotic poetry and shagging rentboys was a mutually chosen one, instead of Bosie being a pissy little slut while Saint Oscar looked on sadly.


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