Oscar Wilde’s Nietzschean Notes In De Profundis

In ‘Suffering is One Very Long Moment‘–part of a series of essays on prison literature–Max Nelson writes on De Profundis–“a letter written by Oscar Wilde during his imprisonment in Reading Gaol, to “Bosie” (Lord Alfred Douglas)”–and makes note that:

Certain passages in De Profundis do seem to credit prison with strengthening and deepening their author’s nature, but only to the extent that, by subjecting him to intolerable, constant, and thoroughgoing misery, it gave him something against which to muster all his creative energies and all his verbal powers. “The important thing,” he writes himself telling Douglas at one of the letter’s turning points, “the thing that lies before me, the thing that I have to do, or be for the brief remainder of my days one maimed, marred and incomplete, is to absorb into my nature all that has been done to me, to make it part of me, to accept it without complaint, fear or reluctance.”

There are two Nietzschean notes at play here.

Nelson suggests that for Wilde, prison has become that form of adversity which enables a kind of ‘overcoming’; it is that zone, that space, within which Wilde is able to express himself through ‘his creative energies’ and ‘verbal powers,’ thus enhancing them, and thus too, enabling a kind of self-discovery or transformation on his part. It is within this space–with its provisions for ‘testing’ him–that Wilde might find out whether he is a ‘noble soul’ or a ‘slave.’ (This is a point made in many forms and locations in Nietzsche’s writings; in the The Gay Science for example, Nietzsche had made note of the relationship between pain and profundity, suggesting that ‘great pain…the ultimate liberator of spirit’ could make us ‘more profound.’)

The Wilde quote that Nelson points to seems to invoke Nietzsche’s ‘amor fati‘: Wilde is determined to integrate into himself his experiences, his fate and to not reject them; these experiences are part of his life, they are matters of record, they have left their imprint, one which must be reckoned with and incorporated into his life’s economy. To walk away from them, to fail to acknowledge them, is to merely initiate pathology: perhaps of repressed memories, sublimated into self-destructive behavior, perhaps of futile, life-wasting rage. We must accept all that is our lot, all that is a component of our lives; to do otherwise is to be inauthentic, to be unfaithful to oneself. Wilde must have been aware that anger and bitterness and resentment could continue to imprison him even after he had left Reading Gaol; the very thought of that continued incarceration of his mind, must have struck him as a terrifying burden for the creative person to carry; it would mean the end of his life, or at least, that component of which mattered to Wilde, its productive, artistic one. Perhaps it might also have occurred to Wilde, even as he wrote De Profundis, that his attempts to integrate his life’s experiences to his notion of himself had already proved creatively and artistically fruitful; after all, it was making him write about that attempt.


The Undignified Business Of ‘Exercise’

In The Importance of Being Earnest Algernon reassures himself that he is “not going to be imprisoned in the suburbs for dining in the West End.” Upon hearing that “the gaol itself is fashionable and well-aired; and there are ample opportunities of taking exercise at certain stated hours of the day,” Algernon is dismayed: “Exercise! Good God! No gentleman ever takes exercise.” Algernon was right. The popularity of exercise in our times–or, as it is now called, ‘the pursuit of fitness’–speaks to the fact that there are fewer gentlefolk among us now; very few gentlemen and very few ladies. (We can well imagine some dignified female counterpart of Algernon’s exclaiming “Exercise! Dear Lord! No lady ever takes exercise.)

Exercise is an undignified business.  Most descriptions of the indignities of exercise restrict themselves to wallowing in descriptions of the engendered sweat,  and sometimes the blood and tears, the body odor, the rumpled and stained clothes, the ungainly bodily contortions, the falls, the slips, the many losses of grace that engaging in exercise inevitably entails. These descriptions all too often elide the profoundly misanthropic nature of exercise, its ungraceful response to human adversity.There is nothing dignified about making explicit your painful anxiety about increasing infirmity, your insecurity and vanity about your personal appearance, your abiding fear of your inevitable fate; there is nothing dignified about a desperate, overt rejection of a fate shared by all humans, nothing dignified about this disavowal of community and commonality in the face of an advancing misery of body and mind.  To be exercising when others around you are not is a profoundly elitist and vain notion, an indulgence in a deadly sin. It is a pathetic grasping at the sublime when resting content with the sordid speaks so much more clearly and distinctly to our essential natures: being sedentary, resting in repose and grace.

Small wonder then that the reaction to exercise and all the frenetic rushing about it entails is already manifest: the injunction to do precisely nothing. Mindfulness bids us be calm and stationary; it urges us to count breaths rather than gulping down more of them in a minute than was ever thought to be a good idea; it bids us slow down and sit down; it tell us that the flat stomach is to be disdained in favor a flat surface on which we may lie down and make like a corpse (the popularity of the shavasnana, the yogic ‘corpse pose’ bears adequate testimony to this fact.) More than anything, the modern acolyte of mindfulness hears the message: stop rushing around (or pulling or pushing yourself up); take that weight off your shoulders and stop trying to stand up with it. Exercise puts a weight on our backs (and other parts of our body); it makes us run around in circles, hypnotized by ersatz indicators of ‘progress’; mindfulness bids us put our feet up (and to close our eyes.)

We should be surprised it took us so long to figure this simple preference out.

Might Same-Sex Relations Be Evolutionarily Advantageous?

A prominent fallacious argument used against same-sex marriage is the good ‘ol ‘we’re only protecting our species’ one. I referred to it in a post a while ago:

[R]oughly, same-sex marriage is problematic because a) marriage is all about procreation and the raising of children and because b) evolution tell us that reproductive success is important, therefore: Gay marriage should be frowned upon.

I then went on to note the naturalistic fallacy committed by the proponents of this argument.

But there is a flip-side to this argument against same-sex relations from a supposedly evolutionary perspective. Might same-sex relations be evolutionarily advantageous? A affirmative answer to this question would not, of course, imply that same-sex relations were thereby to be understood as morally praiseworthy; that would be committing a naturalistic fallacy of its own. Rather, quite simply, it might show that contributions to evolutionary ‘success’–a poorly understood notion at best–can take many more forms than just the mere reproduction of offspring and thus defuse, in yet another fashion, the so-called ‘arguments from evolution against gay marriage.’

In reviewing Lisa Cohen‘s All We Know: Three Lives (a biography of Esther Murphy, Mercedes de Acosta, and Madge Garland), Terry Castle writes:

For same-sex desire [Cohen] implies, has as much to do with introspection as it does with carnality, and in the ‘inopportune ardour’ of her subjects she recognises the potential for a certain radical mental freedom. It makes sense: to embrace one’s sapphic feelings – to come out to oneself – is necessarily to rethink the world. For not only is one made at once to confront one’s apparently permanent alienation from the ‘normal’ or mainstream, one finds one has to adjudicate, in the most piercing and personal way, on a raft of ethical, religious and scientific questions. Are one’s desires felonious or unnatural, as most traditional belief systems (distressingly) continue to insist? Or are they something rather more benign – simply a ‘variant’ expression of human sexuality? If the latter is the case, couldn’t one view same-sex passion, in turn, as a perhaps useful evolutionary adaptation? As an age-old demographic reality, possibly hardwired into the souls of some, that actually enriches and diversifies human civilisation? [From ‘You Better Not Tell Me You Forgot‘, London Review of Books, 27 September 2012]

Castle reminds us that reproductive success in producing offspring might not be the only way to understand successful ‘evolutionary adaptations’. Perhaps members of the species can, through their ‘variant expressions of human sexuality’ contribute to the ‘success’ of their species in other ways? The ‘radical mental freedom’ of the same-sex members of our species might spark an efflorescence of activities–perhaps artistic, scientific, literary, cultural–that make possible its  adaptive success in a variety of environments. (Think Tchaikovsky, Wilde, Woolf, Turing – the list goes on and on.) Indeed, these activities by: enriching our lives, making them worth living, enabling us to find meaning in this world, might even(!) facilitate the reproductive success of the species.  (Some might think, of course,  that the excessive devotion paid to Turing’s children–the modern electronic computer–does no such thing.) Viewed in this light,  the presence of species members who do not partake in opposite-sex relations–with or without producing offspring–might come to appear as a positive characteristic of the species.

Oscar Wilde on Kidney Markets

Reader Austin Donisan has a long comment worth reading in response to my post on why kidney markets might offend me. I’m not going to engage with every single point Donisan makes, because in doing so I would be repeating myself (please read the post which started this discussion). But let me make a few responses in any case.

First, Donisan suggests I have “an a priori opinion on the matter of paid organ donation.” Well, yes, I do. As I stated in my last post, I have a strong, instinctive revulsion to the possibility of poor folks in this country, in these times, selling their kidneys for pittances; my revulsion is not directed toward paid organ donations per se. Call it a preference if you like; no worries. But do indicate what my preference is for in more specific terms.

Second, Donisan is too keen to convince me in economic terms; that is not going to work in this situation. You are asking me to make commensurate two scales: one, which measures markets in terms of efficiency; the second, which reacts to markets in less tangible terms like distaste. We might be talking past each other.

Third, Donisan says:

The ability to donate a kidney may be poor’s biggest comparative advantage, and comparative advantage is the only way to get ahead in the world.

So, presumably, the best way to help the poor would be to encourage them to sell their kidneys. This doesn’t sound right to me; I can think of many other strategies that would enhance the “comparative advantage” of the poor, which do not require them to sell their vital organs.

I’d like to evaluate kidney markets in a broader context and Donisan wants to make the context narrower; it will enable a market-based argument to go through, but it does so at the cost of making the argument uninteresting to me. A poor man selling a kidney in the US today is just an abstract agent seeking comparative advantage for Donisan; not so for me.

Anyway, I’d like to stop repeating myself and let Oscar Wilde have the last word. So, from Lady Windermere’s Fan, Act 3:

CECIL GRAHAM. What is a cynic?

LORD DARLINGTON. A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

CECIL GRAHAM. And a sentimentalist, my dear Darlington, is a man who sees an absurd value in everything, and doesn’t know the market price of any single thing.