Sunday, October 16, 2005
Happy Birthday, Oscar
A very happy birthday going out tonight to the father of modern homosexuality, the one, the only, Oscar Wilde, born October 16, 1854. We all know the stories about Oscar--his dandyism, his epigrams, his affection for Robbie, his tortured love for the beautiful and despicable Bosie, his deep love for his wife and children, who were forced to renounce his name in order to move freely about the world with some shred of respectability after his imprisonment and death. We know Oscar the wit, naughtily waving a cigarette at audiences mad for his plays. We know the self-made man, the tragically proud genius brought low by his belief in the invincibility of art, the sorrowful and wise poet in prison, the broken victim of his culture's homophobia killed prematurely by a penal term of hard labor. We know the poser, the connoiseur, the flamer.
The side we often forget, or are encouraged to forget, is the Wilde who loved children, wrote for them, took them seriously, and was kind to them. Natalie Barney writes of meeting Wilde when she was a very young girl:
"My first adventure of the mind took place in a resort near the Atlantic, when I, hardly out of diapers, ran across a hotel room to escape a pack of vacationing children. Among the empty chairs awaiting an event there was but a single figure. He lifted me out of my terrified course to his considerable height. I was reassured by his eyes which had sympathetically witnessed my flight, by his hair which was as long as mine, and especially by his voice which swept me into a story.
As the two of us sat together on a raised throne facing the arriving public, he never stopped astonishing me; and even when my mother, who had been searching for me, lifted me from his knees, all the while apologizing for us, he finished his tale with compliments on my paleness, my lace dress, and my precious attention.
When I learned, as an adolescent, that my friend had just been imprisoned in England, I wrote to him at Reading Gaol, hoping to comfort him as he had comforted me, reminding him of his marvelous protection of me against the pursuits of other little people.
But did he ever receive my letter?" (Natalie Barney, Adventures of the Mind)
I hope you receive this one, Oscar. Thanks for giving us a model of funny, smart, devil-may-care queerness as an alternative to stuffy bourgeois respectability. Happy 151st Birthday.