It is the Prison Board, with the system that it carries out, that is the primary source of the cruelty that is exercised on a child in prison. The people who uphold the system have excellent intentions. Those who carry it out are humane in intention also. Responsibility is shifted on to the disciplinary regulations. It is supposed that because a thing is the rule it is right.
The present treatment of children is terrible, primarily from people not understanding the peculiar psychology of a child’s nature. A child cannot understand a punishment inflicted by society. It cannot realise what society is. With grown up people it is, of course, the reverse. Those of us who are either in prison, or have been sent there, can understand, and do understand, what that collective force called society means, and whatever we may think of its methods or claims, we can force ourselves to accept it.[…]
A child is utterly contaminated by prison life. But the contaminating influence is not that of the prisoners. It is that of the whole prison system — of the governor, the chaplain, the warders, the lonely cell, the isolation, the revolting food, the rules of the Prison Commissioners, the mode of discipline as it is termed, of the life.
Oscar Wilde (1898) Children in Prison and Other Cruelties of Prison Life London: Murdoch & Co., pp.
The entire letter was reproduced in Slate (2018) “Should We Be Putting Migrant Children in Detention Centers? Let’s Ask Oscar Wilde!” Slate [16 June 2018].
‘The land is free,’ said the young King,
‘and thou art no man’s slave.’
‘In war,’ answered the weaver, ‘the strong make slaves of the weak, and in peace the rich make slaves of the poor.
We must work to live, and they give us such mean wages that we die. We toil for them all day long, and they heap up gold in their coffers, and our children fade away before their time, and the faces of those we love become hard and evil.
We tread out the grapes, and another drinks the wine. We sow the corn, and our own board is empty.
We have chains, though no eye beholds them;
and are slaves, though men call us free.’
In Fortune Linsey McGoey asks Do today’s philanthropists hurt more than they help?. The article quotes Oscar Wilde:
In his essay, “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” Oscar Wilde berated the tendency of benefactors to use their charity as a bulwark against redistributive demands.
“The best among the poor,” Wilde wrote, “are never grateful. They are ungrateful, discontented, disobedient, and rebellious. They are quite right to be so … Why should they be grateful for the crumbs that fall from the rich man’s table? They should be seated at the board, and are beginning to know it.”
Wilde’s essay covers much more ground than this, however, ranging from the purpose of living, the effects of contemporary capitalism, the possible results of mechanisation and the question McGoey cites as one of the biggest questions facing 19th-century philanthropy, the ironic possibility that “growing charity simply exacerbated economic inequality by thwarting demands for better wages and the right to unionize.”
To that question, Oscar Wilde gives an emphatic yes. Many people are truly concerned with poverty and are going as far as spoiling their lives in an attempt to relieve it. “But this is not a solution: it is an aggravation of the difficulty. The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible.” Just as slave owners who were kind made slavery seem less horrible and therefore encouraged it to persist, altruists perpetuate the system that creates poverty.
Continue reading “Sailing to Utopia: Oscar Wilde on Altruism and Anarchism”
…is not being talked about. Here is a roundup of links for Oscar Wilde’s 160th birthday.
With the release of a new play The Trials of Oscar Wilde the Independent asked Is Oscar Wilde’s reputation due for another reassessment? One of the authors is Merlin Holland, Wilde’s only grandchild.
An Oscar Wilde photograph from Ashford Castle is to go to auction, while a photograph of Harry Bushell, who may be been the fellow prisoner Wilde mentioned in letters, has been in the papers today. The photograph is just one item turned up by Prof Peter Stoneley, University of Reading, which will form part of a new exhibition, Oscar Wilde and Reading Gaol.
Continue reading “The Only Thing Worse Than Being Talked About…”
I would say that the more objective a creation appears to be, the more subjective it really is. Shakespeare might have met Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in the white streets of London, or seen the serving-men of rival houses bite their thumbs at each other in the open square; but Hamlet came out of his soul, and Romeo out of his passion. […]
[J]ust as it is because he did nothing that he has been able to achieve everything, so it is because he never speaks to us of himself in his plays that his plays reveal him to us absolutely, and show us his true nature and temperament far more completely than do those strange and exquisite sonnets, even, in which he bares to crystal eyes the secret closet of his heart. Yes, the objective form is the most subjective in matter. Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.
From The Critic as Artist by Oscar Wilde.
Image source: Steve Sawyer
Clery was far from endorsing Wilde – in an intriguing speculation he suggested that “an over-dose of patriotism in his Merrion Square home had something to do with the sinister frivolity” of his outlook; nonetheless he regarded him as a significant, contrarian intelligence. From his own Catholic perspective, he saw Wilde as an enemy of Victorian materialism who, by means of paradox, sought to undermine the great nineteenth century commonplaces, those misapprehensions of the nature of the world which seemed so obvious and were yet untrue. “It must,” Clery reflected, “have been a sense of this underlying falsehood in so much popular truth that led Wilde to attack platitude with the weapon of paradox, a weapon which was to gain for him before his fall the intellectual supremacy which I, for one, am old enough to remember.”
From Oscar Wilde and the Irish by Brian Earls in the Dublin Review of Books.
The essay explores how Wilde, far from being marginalised or excluded from Irish discussion in the early twentieth century was evoked by Free State supporters (Béaslaí and O’Hegarty), republicans (Clery and Corkery), and cultural figures such as Austin Clarke and Liam Mac Liammóir. The extract above outlines Arthur Clery’s thoughts on Wilde, as published in the Jesuit journal Studies.
Tomorrow is Yeats Day, marking the birth of William Butler Yeats (13th June 1865). (Thanks to Annie West for permission to use the picture above. Her website, chock full of pictures of the incidents of his life Yeats would prefer to forget, is here).
Yeats Day is relevant to this blog because William Butler Yeats had philosophic interests (and is listed in DIP), which went beyond his habit of reading Plotinus to dutchesses. He developed a philosophic system regarding the self and anti-self, and these reflections on the self have parallels to Wilde’s thought (hence the picture above). The occasions Yeats met Wilde made a strong impression on him.
Continue reading “Wilde About Yeats”
Yes; there are suggestive things in Individualism. Socialism annihilates family life, for instance. With the abolition of private property, marriage in its present form must disappear. This is part of the programme. Individualism accepts this and makes it fine. It converts the abolition of legal restraint into a form of freedom that will help the full development of personality, and make the love of man and woman more wonderful, more beautiful, and more ennobling. Jesus knew this. He rejected the claims of family life, although they existed in his day and community in a very marked form. ‘Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?’ he said, when he was told that they wished to speak to him. When one of his followers asked leave to go and bury his father, ‘Let the dead bury the dead,’ was his terrible answer. He would allow no claim whatsoever to be made on personality.
Quote from Oscar Wilde’s The Soul of Man Under Socialism (1891)
This essay is full of optimism for the future, and as Thomas Duddy says in A History of Irish Thought, this makes it poignant reading for modern readers. Oscar Wilde foresees a future socialist and individualist utopia of a rather idiosyncratic kind. Wilde rejects collectivism, seeing the abolition of private property and marriage as allowing the atomisation of society, allowing unfettered development of the individual.
If America did not always know what to make of Wilde, the country was in many ways the making of him as an artist. He returned to England richer in pocket and, more importantly, in experience. The tour marked a divide between what Wilde himself designated ‘the Oscar of the first period’ (‘the gentleman who wore long hair and carried a sunflower down Piccadilly’) and what was to come. In the following decade Wilde would assiduously cultivate the Oscar of the second period, publishing the stories and plays that made him famous. His fall, when it came, was colossal. When The Importance of Being Earnest opened to wild acclaim on 14 February 1895, its author was the toast of London society. Less than two months later, having lost a disastrous libel claim against the 9th Marquess of Queensberry for imputations of homosexual conduct, Wilde was arrested on charges of gross indecency and later sentenced to two years’ hard labour. The physical and moral devastation of the trial and its fallout shattered him. Three years after his release, Wilde died as an impoverished and ignominious exile in Paris.
Justin Beplate reviews In Declaring His Genius: Oscar Wilde in North America by Roy Morris Jr, “a lively account of Wilde’s rollicking tour through post-Civil War America, fleshing out the varied impressions of contemporary newspaper reports with fascinating digressions on the caste of characters Wilde met along the way.”