In Berlin in 1892, Max Nordau published his extraordinary book Entartung, or “Degeneration.” Dedicated to the pseudoscientist and (let me risk a tautology) phrenologist Cesare Lombroso, this dense and lengthy diatribe sought to lay bare the origins and effects of national and individual self-hatred and self-destructiveness. Directed at the languor and amorality of what Nordau was already terming the “fin de siècle,” it exalted the “normal,” the “manly,” and the utilitarian over the neurotic and the aesthete. Herr Nordau had some unresolved difficulties of his own—he had changed his name from Südfeld or “Southern Field” to the more bracing and valiant-sounding “Northern Meadow”—and he was the most militant deputy of Theodor Herzl in proposing a Zionist solution to the Luftmensch question; the nagging problem of the enfeebled and deracinated and feminized Jew. (The fact that the National Socialists later borrowed his book and his concept, and staged taunting exhibitions of Entartete Kunst and Entartete Musik, is not to be charged to Nordau’s account, though it would make a fascinating appendix to any study of the relationship between self-loathing and ultranationalism.)
A principal exhibit in Nordau’s gallery of the decayed and the corrupting was a man who did not yet enjoy a Continental reputation:
Decadentism has not been confined to France alone [Nordau had been railing against Baudelaire]…. The ego-mania of decadentism, its love of the artificial, its aversion to nature, and to all forms of activity and movement, its megalomaniacal contempt for men and its exaggeration of the importance of art, have found their English representative among the “Aesthetes,” the chief of whom is Oscar Wilde.
Nordau did not recognize Wilde as an Irishman, or understand his outsider relationship to Anglo-Saxondom, but he did take a strong view about the practice of parading down Pall Mall in a doublet, sunflower in hand. (“This anecdote has been reproduced in all the biographies of Wilde, and I have nowhere seen it denied,” he snorted.) Moreover:
Phrasemakers are perpetually repeating the twaddle, that it is a proof of honorable independence to follow one’s own taste without being bound down to the regulation costume of the Philistine cattle, and to choose for clothes the colors, materials and cut which appear beautiful to one’s self, no matter how much they may differ from the fashion of the day. The answer to this cackle is that it is above all a sign of anti-social ego-mania to irritate the majority unnecessarily…
Nordau identified Wilde as an enemy of Nature and an admirer of “immorality, sin and crime.” If Wilde had read the book when it was first published, he might have mocked it gently, as did George Bernard Shaw, for its heaviness or—conceivably—have felt a premonition of the odium that would engulf him when his luck ran out. In fact, he did not refer to the book until he was in Reading Gaol and composing a piteous letter in which he begged for release. In that petition, he abjectly cited Nordau as the authority for considering himself, and his sexual appetites, to be diseased. Thus, he argued, he required cure, not punishment. It was a moment of almost masochistic prostration which makes one wince even now. But then, it makes one wince to read the other letter he wrote from his Reading cell, the long diatribe of resentment that we know as De Profundis, and that was addressed to the awful young man who had in effect put him there.
Nordau employs the terms “degenerate” and “decadent” almost interchangeably, and there is perhaps a subliminal connection between “decadence” and the expiring decade—the low, dishonest Nineties—which he was excoriating. But if Wilde was a proud and warm-blooded decadent, it might be said that Lord Alfred Douglas was a cold and arrogant degenerate. His irritating nickname “Bosie” was the lisping remnant of a childhood pet-name “Boysie,” and indeed almost everything about him might have been designed to illustrate Cyril Connolly’s proposal, in Enemies of Promise, of the “Theory of Permanent Adolescence.” The greater portion of the British ruling class, wrote Connolly, suffered from arrested devel-opment and remained throughout life “adolescent, school-minded, self-conscious, cowardly, sentimental and in the last analysis homosexual.”
The remarkable book under review—partly remarkable (if I do not sound condescending in saying so) for being written by a young undergradu-ate still at “Bosie’s” old Magdalen College, Oxford—vindicates Connolly at every stage. Born into the Anglo-Scottish dynasty of Douglas, a family with roots that disappear into myth and legend north of the border, Bosie—as I’ll have to call him—was chronically spoiled by his mother and brutally dominated by his father, the notorious Marquess of Queensberry. Mr. Murray makes a strong case for the existence of a taint of hereditary insanity in the bloodline, and indeed in every published photograph from boyhood to old age the eyes of Bosie exhibit either a manic glare or a stony aspect.
He seems to have been either a troublemaker or a cause of unspecified but guessable “trouble” even at his preparatory schools, from one of which he had to be withdrawn, and at Winchester—then as now a forcing-house for the future Establishment—he was swift to apprehend the power that epicene good looks might confer on him. One says “epicene” because his portraits and photographs of the period seem to require the word; however, he excelled as an athlete into the bargain. (Wilde, incidentally, was no drooping pansy either; when challenge or affront demanded it he was good with his fists and—as Bosie’s father was to discover—hard to intimidate.) The boy Douglas’s chief success, however, was in the editing of a highly affected school magazine called Pentagram, to which he contributed much florid hothouse verse.
Wilde’s meticulous but rather pedestrian biographer Richard Ellmann once inquired of a gay colleague what it was that male homosexuals actually “did.” More is at issue here than Professor Ellmann’s dogged fieldwork; the old limerick question about “who did what, and with what, to whom” was to prove decisive at trial and also formed part of Douglas’s on-again, off-again assertions of whether he himself was or was not a homosexual. A heuristic parenthesis is therefore necessary. English public-school homosexuality, which has given so much to the world of letters, is paradoxically egalitarian. A certain amount of sighing and yearning is pardonable (Connolly was more amused than shocked to find the stern young Eric Blair describing himself as quite “gone” on a boy at Eton) while kissing can be considered quite ridiculous. Mutual and manual gratification is the rule. The employment of orifices risks the imputation of unmanliness.
Torrid but unconsummated romantic friendships are not by any means unknown. Thus it’s of interest to learn that Bosie, having gone like an avenging flame through numberless boys at Winchester, and youths at Oxford, and having had many passionate but platonic friendships on the side, was not introduced to oral sex until he went home with Wilde to the latter’s rooms in Tite Street, Chelsea, in January 1892. This was two years after Lippincott’s magazine had published The Picture of Dorian Gray, and Wilde was to discard the original of this story, one John Gray, on taking up with the more beautiful and fashionable Bosie. In 1892, also, Bosie composed his famous poem “Two Loves,” the title of which comes from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 144 (“Two loves I have of comfort and despair”). Most people know at least the last line:
Then straight the first did turn himself to me
And cried, “He lieth, for his name is Shame,
But I am Love, and I was wont to be
Alone in this fair garden, till he came
Unasked by night; I am true Love, I fill
The hearts of boy and girl with mutual flame.”
Then sighing said the other, “Have thy will,
I am the Love that dare not speak its name.”
In the underworld argot of the time (homosexuality had only recently been criminalized in English law) “shame” was one of the cover words for being gay. Another, amusingly enough, was “earnest,” as in “I hear he’s extremely earnest”; Wilde’s glee at getting this private joke up in lights over a West End hit must have been extreme also.
Douglas’s next poem was—eerily in retrospect—entitled “De Profundis.” Its opening line (“I love a love, but not as other men”) introduces a cataract of self-pity and, no less eerily, touches on a tune “sung in a prison by the lips of Fear.” Mr. Murray has a higher opinion of Bosie’s verse than I do, and seems to believe that Douglas might have enjoyed a literary posterity separate from the name of Wilde on the strength of his sonnets alone. He has brought off a minor coup by inducing the British penal bureaucracy to release its file on the poems Douglas composed while serving his own time in prison much later on. Entitled In Excelsis, this sonnet sequence displays a great technical virtuosity which in my untutored judgment merely emphasizes the narcissism and viciousness of its subject and author. But all this was still to come when Wilde wrote Bosie a highly incautious letter praising his work:
My Own Boy,
Your sonnet is quite lovely, and it is a marvel that those red rose-leaf lips of yours should have been made no less for music of song than for madness of kisses. Your slim gilt soul walks between passion and poetry. I know Hyacinthus, whom Apollo loved so madly, was you in Greek days.
Many a whiskered Victorian father might have bitten clean through his umbrella handle at uncovering such a letter written to his son by a much older man, and the Marquess of Queensberry was a man capable of much more violence at even less provocation. Before he turned up, on the opening night of The Importance of Being Earnest, with a bodyguard of thugs and a contemptuous bouquet of phallic-shaped vegetables, he had become quite a hardened disrupter of theatrical events. He created chaos in the theater on the third night of Lord Tennyson’s play The Promise of May, because he objected strenuously to the Poet Laureate’s hostile depiction of atheists and atheism. (He was, like Wilde, to be “received” into the Roman Catholic Church on his deathbed.) A man of the ringside and the racetrack, much given to floods of Tourettish obscenity, he liked to taunt his children by denying that he had fathered them and was repaid in his own coin when one of his wives petitioned for divorce on the grounds of nonconsummation. Nobody knew better than young Alfred what sort of man his father was; he had even penned and published a poem of filial loathing—“A Ballad of Hate”—in the Pall Mall Gazette. And yet, and one is always forced back to this: he encouraged Wilde to sue the old brute for libel, agreed not to appear in the witness box himself (an appearance which might well have led to a reversal of fortune for Queensberry), and later made the false claim that he had been willing to risk such an appearance. The remainder of the tragedy is well known, and has been exhaustively set out by H. Montgomery Hyde in his Trials of Oscar Wilde. In three short courtroom acts, which horribly parodied his own preferred and perfected dramatic form, Wilde was shamed in earnest, and ruined, and confined In Carcere et Vinculis.
That, indeed, was the original title of his letter De Profundis. Murray gives an excellent account of the fate of this dismal missive; the only humorless thing that Wilde ever wrote. Though it was addressed to Bosie, and filled with recriminations grand and petty about everything from love to money, it was given to Robert Ross, who either did or did not forward it to Douglas as requested. Murray leaves the question open; it seems to me quite plain by induction that Ross could not have given the whole manuscript to its intended recipient. If he had, then Douglas and Wilde could not have had their brief and rather affecting reunion and reconciliation at Posilipo after Wilde’s release, the same interlude in which the traumatized ex-con, his health wrecked by the deliberate sadism of the British authorities, composed “The Ballad of Reading Gaol.” Not long afterward, Bosie was in Paris with, after the death of his appalling father, money to spend on Wilde. (Wilde reported that the Douglas family was “in deep mourning and the highest spirits,” a game echo of the noble widow in The Importance whose hair turns “quite gold from grief.”) No, Douglas only read De Profundis when it was published for all to read in 1905, five years after Wilde’s death in Paris. The exposure appears to have been one of the many things that made him ever more cracked, bigoted, solipsistic, and litigious.
The fin de siècle came in such a way as to gratify Max Nordau and all the other Puritans and engineers of the soul who were to get their way in 1914. Aubrey Beardsley died aged twenty-six. Ernest Dowson, the poet of combined dissipation and admonition, died aged thirty-three. Wilde himself was to be outlived by Queen Victoria. If Alfred Douglas had expired at about the same time, he might be remembered as a febrile but romantic, or better say romantic and febrile figure. As it was, he lived on until almost the end of the Second World War, wholly absorbed in his own morbid quarrels and justifications.
Murray gives an excellent example of the difference in temperament between Wilde and Douglas. Wilde’s tour of the United States was a vast success because he entered into the spirit of the thing, managing without strain to captivate Philadelphia hostesses and Colorado lead miners. Douglas’s voyage across the Atlantic, which took place just after Wilde’s death, was a dreary fiasco because it was undertaken in a mercenary spirit and executed in a frigidly snobbish one. This was still the time when American money was seeking English cachet; the epoch of the Curzon-Leiter and Churchill-Jerome matrimonial alliances. Douglas decided that he could retrieve his position in this way:
My idea was that I would marry for her money an American girl who had a superabundance of it, and that she would marry me because I had a title and an historic name, and because I knew, and could easily show her, or anyone else concerned, that, with plenty of money, there would not be the slightest difficulty in getting back again into the social circle from which I was then partially excluded.
But nothing went right; Douglas brought all his baggage of prejudice with him and departed saying that America “will be a nice place to live in about 500 years time when the people have got civilised and when they have built up a few traditions of conduct and manners.” He wrote a bad sonnet impugning the United States for (the cheek of it) excessive materialism.
Returning to England he did eventually wed a respectable girl named Olive Custance, with whom—and without renouncing his covert homosexual life—he had a son. He continued to produce poetry and became a figure in the world of London literary magazines, giving encouragement to Siegfried Sassoon and Rupert Brooke for, one suspects, something more than their poetic gifts. He might have made a sort of niche for himself, were it not for his maniacal attachment to litigation. Every time anyone wrote anything about his relationship with Wilde, Douglas would sue. He sued, what is more, with all the moralizing zeal of a recent convert to Catholicism—a faith he had embraced in 1911 and to which he brought a twitchy fanaticism. Eventually, he was to stand in the court, having accused Arthur Ransome of libel, and suffer the same “blowback” of evidence that Wilde had had to endure. The judge even ordered the reading of De Profundis. When this was over, Douglas was bankrupt and discredited, deserted by his wife and committed to another long legal wrangle over the custody of his son Raymond, who eventually died in a mental institution.
His rancorous nature also asserted itself politically. He identified with the most extreme faction of the Tory aristocracy in its battle to preserve the House of Lords and thwart the independence of Ireland. Denied a part in the First World War (no regiment would have him), he played an especially odious role on the home front. The Pemberton Billing case is now largely forgotten, but in its day it was the British equivalent of the McCarthy hearings. Noel Pemberton Billing was a demagogic Tory MP of the extreme right, who ran a scabrous newspaper called the Vigilante. In January 1918, when wartime hatreds and paranoias and resentments were at their height and when things were going very badly in the trenches, he published an extraordinary “stab in the back” manifesto, asserting that there existed a “Black Book.” In this book were the names of those who had been corrupted by “German agents who have infested this country for the past twenty years, agents so vile and spreading such debauchery and such lasciviousness as only German minds can conceive and only German bodies execute.” The real target, of course, was the Liberal elite gathered around Asquith and his rather too celebrated wife, Margot.
Numbers count in this sort of thing, and Billing rode the mood of xenophobia and spy-mania by claiming that no fewer than 47,000 “perverts” were listed in the “Black Book.” Some of those so defamed sued Billing, and Douglas appeared as a witness for the defendant. One proof of the general sapping of morale, offered by him in evidence, was the continuing cult of Oscar Wilde, kept up by men like Robert Ross. When cross-examined he claimed, astonishingly, that his father the marquess had only been trying to rescue him from the cult. Of Wilde himself he said:
I think he had a diabolical influence on everyone he met. I think he is the greatest force of evil that has appeared in Europe during the last 350 years. He was the agent of the devil in every possible way. He was a man whose sole object in life was to attack and to sneer at virtue, and to undermine it in every way by every possible means, sexually and otherwise.
Murray points out that “during the last 350 years” means in effect “since the Reformation.” And “diabolism,” I might add, was one of the charges leveled by Max Nordau against Wilde, so in this hateful utterance are combined the influences of an extremist Catholicism and a protofascist attitude toward deviance.
Despite the efforts of a decent judge to keep order, the mob atmosphere inside and outside the courtroom prevailed, and Pemberton Billing was acquitted of the charge of libel. On the steps of the Old Bailey he and “Bosie” were cheered by the same sort of throng which had jeered and pelted Wilde two decades previously. The “Black Book,” I need hardly add, was a complete and deliberate fabrication.
Anti-Semitism is a classic symptom of the persecution complex, and it’s no surprise to find that Douglas suffered from it to an extreme degree. In his magazine Plain English, in the immediate postwar years, he acted as a publicist for that other fabricated confection, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (difficult to imagine Nordau approving this move) and authored the then-notorious quatrain:
This may contain a saving element of understatement. (I forget who it was who replied in the same form: “Not odd/Of God/The Goyim/Annoyim.”) But there was no understatement in his next public allegation, which was that Winston Churchill had acted as the agent of a Jewish conspiracy in plotting to sink Lord Kitchener’s ship on its way to Russia in 1916, thus helping to deliver Russia into the hands of “Bolshevik Jews” and incidentally allowing him to make a killing, with other leading Jews, as a war-profiteer. This time it was Churchill who sued for criminal libel, and Douglas found himself sentenced to a term in prison. There he wrote the In Excelsis sonnet sequence, of which number XV begins:
The leprous spawn of scattered Israel
Spreads its contagion in your English blood…
He dropped the subject of the Jews and their machinations upon leaving prison in 1924 (it was a condition of his release that he not repeat the libels) and turned his attention to literary modernism, writing liver-ish and forgettable attacks on the Bloomsbury set and subsequently on Eliot and Auden. Murray gallantly traces the remaining years, spent mainly in genteel poverty (much complained of) in a south coast resort-cum-retirement town. Bosie managed to form two late and improbable friendships as his fires burned low: one conducted mainly by letter with George Bernard Shaw and one with Marie Stopes, who lived nearby. He died, having just placed the latest in a long succession of losing bets on a racehorse, in the closing months of the war and of Winston Churchill’s prime ministership. In the course of a relatively lucid interval in 1938, during the composition of his memoir Without Apology, Douglas had written:
The thought which has only recently occurred to me is a terrible one. Did my father really love me all the time, as I certainly loved him before he turned against me, and was he only doing what Oscar says in his great Ballad all men always do, killing the thing he loved? Didn’t we all three, Wilde, my father, and I, do it, more or less?
The evidence of this book, and of this life, prompts the somewhat more disturbing reflection that some men, at any rate, love the thing that kills them.
September 21, 2000