Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Oscar Wilde and the Passion

I greatly enjoyed and learned from Alex Ross's lovely essay on Oscar Wilde in the New Yorker, but I want to pause to register a quibble. Ross writes,

Last spring, I spent a few hours looking at the autograph manuscript of “Dorian Gray,” at the Morgan Library. When Dorian attempts to destroy his portrait, the manuscript has him “ripping the thing right up”; Wilde then adds the phrase “from top to bottom.” Nicholas Frankel, the editor of the new Harvard edition of “Dorian Gray,” notes that the eviscerating gesture evokes Jack the Ripper, whose crimes had filled the papers two years earlier.

I think Frankel is quite wrong: the line Wilde added has nothing to do with Jack the Ripper. The genuine and key reference here is to the Passion narrative in the Gospels:

Jesus, when he had cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost. And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent; And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.

At times Wilde tried to downplay his Biblical knowledge. (One of my favorite anecdotes about him concerns his taking a viva voce examination at Oxford to demonstrate his competence in New Testament Greek, during which he fluently translated at sight a passage from the Passion narrative. After a few lines the examiners, thoroughly satisfied, told him he could stop, but Wilde replied, "Oh do let me continue. I want to see how it comes out." I testify not to the truth of this story.) But his writings, like those of most of his contemporaries, are saturated with Biblical allusion.

The tearing of the picture "from top to bottom" is an especially powerful and rich one. Wilde would have known that this event in the Passion story was widely thought to indicate that the sacrificial death of Jesus ends the separation between God and humanity (represented in the Temple by the veil separating the Holy of Holies from the rest of the world, the veil that only the High Priest could cross) and effects a reconciliation that makes further sacrifices at the Temple unnecessary. Here, then, Dorian's slashing of his own portrait — which brings about his own death, as he surely knows it was likely to do — ends his own bifurcation. It makes him whole again, though at the cost of his own life.

A hundred years ago most readers of The Picture of Dorian Gray, who were educated much as Wilde was, would have caught the reference; now even the experts are likely to miss it. Jack the Ripper is the kind of thing we are interested in, thus we see Jack the Ripper — even though what Dorian does is a deeply guilty man's self-mutilation, not a monstrous killer's preying upon innocent victims; while the Bible is not the sort of thing we are interested in, thus even a direct quotation can be invisible to us. Given that this alteration has happened in little more than a century, it makes one wonder how much else we scholars have managed to lose sight of. Perhaps every English department should keep a Christian around just to catch Biblical allusions that his or her colleagues won't recognize.

8 comments:

  • I'm a doctoral student in Jewish history, and my adviser tells a story about a meeting of The American Academy of Jewish Research where one of the talks was about a 20th century Jewish poet. The speaker spent a long time on certain images of vineyards, which he attributed to the influence of Whitman. My adviser then pointed out that most of those images were direct citations from a Rabbinic text from the second century, though they could have been selected under the influence of Whitman. So, should the modernist be required to have the broad knowledge of Rabbinic literature necessary to catch this obscure reference? (And it's obscure, the quote was not to a major text that most Rabbinicists would recognize either).

    I think the solution is less in keeping somebody around with a certain knowledge set and more in increased humility and collaboration. Past cultures had all kinds of reference sets that we don't, and even those of us who try to become experts in them will not be able to catch all of them. The English department doesn't need a Christian to catch Biblical allusions, or a Rabbi to catch Rabbinic allusions. English professors need to cultivate friendships outside their departments, in Relgious studies departments, in History departments, etc..

  • Jesse, I was making a joke. I wasn't seriously recommending that English departments make hires based on religious affiliation — especially given that in public institutions that's illegal.

  • Oh, I didn't understand you to be suggesting that hires be made based on religious affiliation. That part was clearly non-serious. But I did take seriously the idea that there should be somebody in every department who has a knowledge base that others lack, and that is likely to be useful. So I was responding to that, by suggesting that maybe looking outside the department might be more fruitful.

  • Yes, that makes sense. Thanks for the clarification.

  • Thank you for this. I've taught Wilde for two years now at a Christian University and the more I read him and about him, the more I am fascinated by his complex understandings of Christ (I believe Wilde called him 'the first aesthete') and Christianity. When I read the New Yorker piece I had similar thoughts about Frankel's interpretation of the portrait's destruction. I'm wondering what your thoughts are on Wilde's deathbed conversion and the lines in De Profundis where he seems to seriously recant the sins of his private life. (How the sins committed in private must one day be shouted from the rooftops). My students have always found Wilde's late conversion and his confession unsettling and hard to swallow.

  • Very nice. Next could you respond to Greenblatt’s “There were more important things to worry about than the fate of books” (same issue, p. 29).

  • Sometimes I wonder how deep of a knowledge of the Christian tradition scholars can get without a religious background.

    My evangelical Christian upbringing gave me a significant advantage over my fellow Ivy League graduate students. While listening to class discussions of texts, I was regularly surprised to see the Christian allusions that the supposed cream of the intellectual crop missed or refused to allow to constrain their interpretation.

  • Michael Straight said...

    I wonder what Wilde himself would have thought of this question. Notwithstanding any repentance he may have made later in life, he seems to have spent much of his life wishing for a society in which Christianity's influence was less pervasive.

    Did he imagine a world in which most educated readers would completely miss a reference like that? Would he have mourned or welcomed such a change?

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