“I hope that you may take a journey in life in order to arrive at the city of God.” These were the words of Pope Pius IX to none other than Oscar Wilde when he received him in a private audience in 1877. Prophetic words, since Wilde, a transgressive poet and writer, lover of all kinds of excess, jailed for his homosexuality, joined the Catholic Church shortly before his death.
But he himself had foretold it years before his encounter with the elderly pontiff, when he wrote, “Catholicism is the only religion to die in,” and when he bitterly criticized his father for not having allowed him to become Catholic in his adolescence.
When we consider the figure of Oscar Wilde, we see an extremely complex personality, full of deep shadows in which there were also great flashes of light.
In his review of Paolo Gulisano’s book on Wilde, A Picture of Oscar Wilde, Andrea Monda points out that, unlike many authors who pass into oblivion a century after their death, Wilde continues to be studied in schools and to fascinate new generations. Nonetheless, “the problem arises of exactly ‘which’ Wilde is presented to the students.” His homosexuality and his transgressive aestheticism have made him a cultural icon, but for that same reason, they do not do justice to the great complexity of his personality and his work. Because Wilde was those things, it is true, but he was much more.
In Monda’s view, Gulisano is faithful to Wilde’s spirit, expressed in “one of the Irish poet’s aphorisms: ‘Ideals are dangerous things. Realities are better. They wound, but they’re better.’ In other words, while reconstructing a faithful portrait of Wilde, [Gulisano] has tried to avoid the easy path of idealization and consequent labeling…”
Gulisano’s thesis, Monda affirms, is that the enigmatic writer constitutes “a mystery that has not yet been fully unveiled.” Delving into his works, Gulisano finds in all of them “a common thread of profound religiosity, of a search for Beauty which supposed a thirst for Truth.”
“Beauty hurts, but as such it draws man to his ultimate destiny.” This phrase is by Cardinal Ratzinger, but as Gulisado suggests, it could belong to Oscar Wilde—as can be seen from the disturbing Picture of Dorian Gray, or also the Ballad of Reading Gaol.
An attentive reader of his works may discover a Wilde beyond the stereotypes. In Monda’s words, Wilde was “not just a non-conformist who liked to shock conservative Victorian English society, but also a clear-minded analyst of modernity with its positive and above all disturbing aspects; not just an aesthete, a poet of the ephemeral, the brilliant protagonist of London salons, but also a man who, behind a mask of amorality, questioned himself and invited himself to confront the problem of good and evil, of truth and falsehood, even in his comedies of errors (such as The Importance of Being Ernest); an inconvenient and irritating man who preferred wisdom to platitudes, tenaciously fighting against the false certitudes of his time.”
“Wilde was a man of great and intense sentiments, who behind the lightness of his writing, behind the mask of frivolity and even cynicism, hid a profound awareness of the mysterious value of life. ‘Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing,’ he says in The Picture of Dorian Gray. He was also aware of how dramatic life is: ‘Behind every exquisite thing that existed, there was something tragic. Worlds had to be in travail, that the meanest flower might blow…’”
Monda joins Gulisano in affirming that Wilde was a man “in constant search of the Beautiful and the Good, but also of that God whom he never fought, whom he had perhaps elegantly respected, but whose embrace he sought after his dramatic experience of prison,” finally being baptized on his deathbed.
The life of Oscar Wilde can be understood as “a long and difficult path towards that ‘promised land’ that gives meaning to existence.” A path with many dangerous drop-offs and nearly sheer rock faces, with long stretches of dark undergrowth, not suitable for average people who want to live their faith comfortably and predictably.
But Wilde himself had already said it: “the Catholic Church is for saints and sinners alone —for respectable people, the Anglican Church will do…”
Source: When Oscar Wilde met Pius IX by Andrea Monda, published in L’Osservatore Romano on July 15, 2009.
This article was translated by Matthew Green.