The Love that Dare Not Speak its Name: A Letter to Oscar Wilde

My dear friend,

I was saving you for when I needed lighter fare. You are one of my very favourites, and yours is one of the voices I aspire to – your wit, your charm, your sauciness have informed my own for 32 years. Your plays are among my best friends in literature. I was looking forward to a good romp among words with you.

 

But life, as it tends to do, has provided a call for serious pause. A week ago (only a week? Really?) a man opened fire in an Orlando nightclub. He credited a terrorist group, he has been remembered as unstable, abusive, mentally ill, and these are words we have heard often in relation to random, mass shootings. The United States, in their refusal to place effective regulations on the purchase of guns, have developed a rich lexicon for words to describe mass shootings. ‘Horrific’, ‘senseless’, ‘devastating’. They are usually the acts of individuals who are very broken, very lost. They are tragedies, every time. There are no words.

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But this is a new kind of tragedy. This was not random. This was a gay nightclub. This was an attack on a specific community of people, which brings this particular tragedy into a larger call to awareness. This is a very specific type of hate, and it is acted out daily, all over the world, on many different levels. It is endlessly frustrating that so many human beings all over the world have to fight so hard to be accepted for who they are. I take this act personally. I have many friends who identify as LGBTQ+ and without exception I have been welcomed into their arms, their homes, their creative projects, and yes, their nightclubs. I can say from vast experience that you would be hard pressed to find a warmer, more joyous, more inclusive community.

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In 1895, after enormous literary success, you were sent to prison for two years and hard labour. You had a lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, ‘Bosie’, an aristocrat, whose father openly accused you of being a ‘posing sodomite’. You charged him for libel. After some time you withdrew your charges, but this act, which you later regarded as a mistake, drew enough attention to have you subsequently charged and imprisoned for ‘gross indecency’. You refused to admit wrongdoing. At this time in England, under the Labouchere Agreement, ‘gross indecency’ was a criminal act, and this was used to persecute homosexual men in particular. Your trials gained a feverish attention, there was much public humiliation at your expense. You did not deny the charges. You did not admit fault, as per the law’s description of your charges. When the prosecution asked (quoting the ‘incriminating’ poem ‘Two Loves’ by Bosie, “What is ‘the love that dare not speak its name?'”(a phrase that also became a euphemism for homosexual love),  you responded thus:

“It is that deep spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect… It is in this century misunderstood, so much misunderstood that it may be described as “the love that dare not speak its name,” and on that account of it I am placed where I am now. It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it… That it should be so, the world does not understand. The world mocks at it, and sometimes puts one in the pillory for it. “

1895, a beloved playwright is forced to stand on a platform in the town square to be mocked for his homosexual acts.

I looked up ‘history of violence against LGBQT+ people’ and the list was so staggeringly long and volatile that it nearly made my heart stop. This list was just was what documented in the United States. It only documented the last 30 years. There are centuries and countries and probably millions of names of people who have been persecuted. There has been progress, Oscar. There has been change. There are many countries around the world where same-sex marriage is legal. I am so proud to live in one of them. There is incredible activism, there are support and inclusion groups in schools, there are artistic festivals and gay Pride is celebrated in various forms all over the world. In the wake of this most recent act of hate, I have witnessed such a pure and steady outpouring of love and solidarity towards the victims, their families, the community. I have read so many personal stories, calls to action, words of heartbreak and frustration. I have seen so, so, so much courage in the words and works of the LGBTQ+ community.

None of this removes their wounds.

June 12th 2016, a gunman enters an Orlando gay bar and opens fire.

Here is what I know about hate: it is almost always rooted in fear. People who hate so actively are threatened by what is unknown to them, what seems different, what they feel invalidates their own values, themselves. People who are so easily threatened are rarely happy, evolved, or truly secure in themselves. The more we learn about the man who expressed his hate so violently in Orlando last week, the more possible it seems that he himself was gay. Perhaps this was something he was unable to accept in himself. How tragic, how he chose to manifest this.

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You did not do well in prison. Your health failed. You became depressed. It took a long time, and a liberal warden, do get you access to books, longer still for writing materials. How this must have killed you. You were given a page at a time, and could only write to friends and your lawyer.

You are Oscar Wilde. You found a way around it.

You wrote a letter to Bosie, outlining your past months, your affair, your trial, your feelings of desertion and disappointment in him. You offered your forgiveness. You called it ‘De Profundis’. This, and a poem about your time in prison were your final works.

“When first I was put into prison some people advised me to try and forget who I was. It was ruinous advice. It is only by realising what I am that I have found comfort of any kind. Now I am advised by others to try on my release to forget that I have ever been in a prison at all. I know that would be equally fatal. It would mean that I would always be haunted by an intolerable sense of disgrace, and that those things that are meant for me as much as for anybody else – the beauty of the sun and moon, the pageant of the seasons, the music of daybreak and the silence of great nights, the rain falling through the leaves, or the dew creeping over the grass and making it silver – would all be tainted for me, and lose their healing power, and their power of communicating joy. To regret one’s own experiences is to arrest one’s own development. To deny one’s own experiences is to put a lie into the lips of one’s own life. It is no less than a denial of the soul.”

De Profundis

I keep thinking about your choice to charge your lover’s father for libel. His aim was to disgrace your name. Did you fight because you were ashamed? You were married to a woman, you had children, you were a public figure. It would have been fair to try to defend yourself for these reasons, in this time you were living in. Were you under Bosie’s influence, part of his efforts to provoke his father? Or were you simply defiant? Were you taking a stand for what you knew to be true, what you felt was fair and valid and worth the fallout? Were you one of the first gay activists, in your own way?

You were released from prison and lived in exile in France for the rest of your years. They were not many. Your spark was gone. You could not write. You died in a Paris hotel, quite broken and broken. This does not define you. Your story holds such power – it is being told (notably in the recent David Hare play ‘The Judas Kiss’, and its star, the perfectly cast Rupert Everett is making a film of your final days).

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There are so many stories. There have been so many voices silenced by hate and fear. There are endless cries of ‘love is love is love’ and they are earnest and they are a sweet flicker of light in a dark time. There is a complex and beautiful blend of nuance in identity. There is fierce pride. There is such inspiring courage. Our world is changing. We have a long way to go. We have a lot of healing to do, a lot of stories to tell, and a lot of fighting for basic human rights that many of us enjoy without a second thought. It is on all of us to do this. It is everyone’s responsibility. There will be many more battles to wage.

There will also be dancing in the street in my city, in celebration of the freedom you began to fight for.

I will see you there.

xo  L

 

 

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The Martyr: A Letter to Elizabeth Smart

Dear Elizabeth –

Some years ago a man stood in my living room and picked up a book.

‘I can’t believe you’re reading this,’ he said.

‘It’s great. You like Elizabeth Smart?’

‘Oh sweetheart,’ he sighed. ‘This changes the course of things entirely.’

What he meant, I think, was that he couldn’t believe that such a silly young thing could possibly be even aware of such a book, let alone absorb it, let alone have a key to the servant’s entrance to his heart. We had been distracting each other for about a month – me, from a slowly healing heartache, him, from a dissolved marriage. It was never meant to mean anything. Perhaps he just couldn’t believe the irony.

The book was ‘By Heart: Elizabeth Smart – A Life’,  Rosemary Sullivan’s remarkable biography of you. I saw the irony. Five minutes prior to this he had been lying on the floor with my cat, charming her with the same masterful blend of focus and detachment that he applied to me. She melted under his hand, purring shamelessly and I noticed this with amusement and dread and recognition.

A passionate young woman testing her powers is a dangerous thing. I was curious. He was a challenge. A tremendous, compelling challenge. He found me via online courtship, wrote to me, managed to combine Greek mythology, a photo of a dark haired man staring pensively at the sea, and the line ‘I’m sure I’m too old for you, but I had to say hello’. He was too old for me. His divorce wasn’t final. He was moving to Rome. Challenge accepted.

We wrote for a week, and by the time we met in a garden by the lake I had already decided that this would be a heady rabbit hole indeed, and that I was in exactly the mood to lose myself. And oh, I did.

It was a decision. It was a decision every time I went back, down the steps to his basement apartment. Whatever limits he had emotionally were well compensated for with other fire. He was an artist. He read poetry. Sometimes our intellectual conversation was more compelling than our physical one. But he held me at arm’s length. Sometimes I would enter his home and he wouldn’t look up, such was his focus. I tried waiting patiently. It didn’t suit me.

I got fed up. I ended it.

Two months later, though, a farewell drink before he moved to Rome. Just one drink, to say goodbye. Ay, me. Down the rabbit hole I went. We said goodbye in all of our languages, a sudden spew of longings and declarations, one huge heart surge towards each other, and a few days later he was gone.

Words from Rome, his voice on my computer, late night pleas to join him there. I was tempted. Somehow I was more under his thumb from a continent away –  it was so romantic to have a beautiful, soulful, tormented artist aching for me in Rome. I was writing a lot of poetry. Ache begets ache. It’s good for the writing. I looked up plane fares.

I was a plaything. He found me charming, I think, but he didn’t take me seriously until he saw a book on my table, a book about a woman so intoxicated by an artist that she submitted her whole life to him. A man who was married. A man who would never really exist. You had decided about your poet as I decided about my painter.

We are both a bit brazen, you and I. We are educated women, artists, and uncomfortable accepting society’s usual options. It’s a dangerous elixir. It was not enough to write a narrative, to explore the world through words. No. We – you, had to live the narrative, let the words be born of your life.

You were born in Ottawa in 1913. Your family was wealthy. You went to private school. Your mother was needy, manipulative. You could have easily settled into the life of a socialite, married a nice Canadian lawyer, born him children, tended to your garden. In early photos of you it is so clear that this life would not suit you. There is always wind in your hair, fire in your eyes, love on your mouth. You look determined to make more of the world than the comfortable patch given to you. You are a woman who will plant her own seeds.

You wanted experience. You wanted adventure. You went to England to study. One day, in a London bookshop you found a volume by the British poet George Barker. You fell madly in love with him through his words. For months you made the declaration that you would meet and marry him – no matter that he was already married. I wonder how much was unhinged lust, and how must was pointed stubbornness; you tracked him down. You posed as a Canadian collector of manuscripts (well, true in a sense!) and collected funds to pay forBarker and his wife to fly from Japan to meet you at a train station in New York.

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Thus began one of the most epic, twisted and fueled love affairs in literary history. You wrote a famous, firey,  fictionalized account of it, the long prose poem ‘By Grand Central Station I sat Down and Wept’ in 1945. Your mother bought as many copies as she could find and had them burned. He fathered four children with you (fifteen in total, between other women) and even after he left his wife, many years after, he didn’t marry you. There was drinking, there were bitter fights. He left. He came back. You were devoted to him. You were a martyr.

‘He has martyred me, but for no cause, nor has he any idea of the size and consequence of my wounds. Perhaps he will never know, for to say ‘You killed me daily and O most especially nightly’, would imply blame. I do not blame.’

You raised four children alone, working as a copy editor, keeping a hand in the Bohemian literary scene of London. As the children grew older you wrote more. You moved to Suffolk, to a little cottage called ‘The Dell’, and wrote and wrote, and loved your children, and built a garden, and Barker came and he went.

‘Under the waterfall he surprised me bathing and gave me what I could no more refuse than the earth can refuse the rain.’

I used to feel quite smug about you – yes, I loved your work. It was rich, dangerous, all the more because of its real life origins. I will admit that I judged you. How could you wait around for this jackass, however beautiful his poetry? How could you let him leave and return as he pleased? I would beat down the door for child support! I wouldn’t stand for that shit!

Or would I? Maybe I would quietly enter a room and sit in the corner, so as not to block the light he was working in. Maybe I would search every line he wrote me for a sign that he really did want me. Maybe I would feel so strung out on a man that I would hate myself. Maybe I would write about it too.

Perhaps this was your quiet revenge, this famous book of yours, this airing of passions. Maybe this was your way of making it belong to you, not just in the small shared world between your sheets, but out in the raging world. You howled how he terrorized you, how he pulsed through your blood.

If you put it all out there, it belonged to you. You owned your choice. I’ll give you that. You are entitled to that.

I did not fly to Rome.

After a couple months of spin, then silence, then the spin again, and again, I dragged a letter out of myself. A tear-stained message more full of feeling that I like to remember. It said ‘Leave me be.’ It said ‘I deserve a full love, and I need to be free from you to find it’. His reply was tender, remorseful, wine-stained. I never wrote back.

I watched an interview with you, late in your life. While the host introduces you you look down, smiling uncomfortably. You cling to your cigarette (‘I have learned to smoke because I need something to hold on to,’ you said.) The smoke half-covers your face and this almost seems deliberate. You are shy at first. Your laugh is sharp sudden, head bent down, girlish, and under the lines in your face, the wear of age, there are shreds of the beauty you were. Your confidence grows as you speak, and as it builds you seem almost pleased to be the centre of attention. You’ve waited a long time to be.

‘…this is the beginning of my life, or the end. So I lean affirmation across the table, and surrender my fifty years away with an easy smile. But the surety of my love is not dismayed by any eventuality which prudence or pity can conjure up, and in the end all that we can do is sit at the table over which our hands cross, listening to tunes from the Wurlitzer, with love huge and simple between us, and nothing more to be said.’

Two months after I cut the cord with Rome, I met my real love on a subway platform. We were going to the same birthday party. I recognized him from my friend’s photos, and though I didn’t speak to him until we arrived and were seated together, I had already decided to love him.

Oh, how huge and simple that love is.

 

Besos,

L