The general outline of Oscar Wilde’s life is well known and his legacy is still with us. He remains famous enough to be the subject of 2020 street art by Banksy, who painted the image of a prisoner climbing down a ladder made of typewriter paper on the wall of the now defunct Reading Prison where Wilde was held for LGBTQ+ History Month. Unlike some of our other Gnostic Saints, the basic facts of Wilde’s life are not in dispute. They are well established in numerous records, though we summarize below for those who are familiar with Wilde only from quips and comedy routines.
With many of our other Gnostic Saints, particularly those close to Crowley, we have been at pains to disentangle them, removing their rightful accomplishments from his over-large shadow. With Wilde, who never met Crowley, we must do the opposite, showing how the two men’s lives and fates are twined together with Wilde becoming, as much as Rabelais, an essential part of the makeup of Thelema.
Wilde was born in Dublin to Anglo-Irish parents. His mother was an Irish nationalist who wrote revolutionary poetry for the Young Irelanders in 1848. His father was a surgeon who was knighted for his philanthropy and wrote books on Irish folklore. Wilde was baptized and instructed as a Catholic. The family was well-to-do, owning several properties, and Wilde was educated by tutors until he was nine.
Attending Trinity College Dublin, he won a scholarship and matriculated at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he was active as a Freemason. He was active in the aesthetic and decadent movements at Oxford, wore his hair long, and affected showy costumes. While there, he met leading arts influences such as Walter Pater and John Ruskin.
Back in Ireland, he wooed Florence Balcombe. She married Bram Stoker, prompting Wilde to resettle in England where he began living as a bachelor in London. In mid 1881, he published a collection of poetry which sold well, but got little critical acclaim. At the time, aestheticism was a fashion rage, and an impresario convinced him to make a lecture tour of the U.S. He began to model himself as an aesthetic figure, suggesting that “life imitates art,” and building a legend of himself as a consummate aesthete and dandy. Wilde became one of the earliest counterculture superstars who made a living from their lifestyle, dress and manners first, and their art only secondarily.
Touring the US, Wilde was subject to lampooning on account of his manners, but also for being Irish. A racist caricature of Wilde as a monkey graced the cover of Harper’s Weekly. As much as the press loved to hate Wilde he was well received by most of the people he encountered.
Wilde married Constance Lloyd in 1884 and settled into a London residence. There, he made a living from a combination of journalism and work as editor of “The Lady’s World” magazine. He was notably pro-Irish and progressive, which showed in his publications. He defended Parnell in print over charges that the Irish Home Rule Leader had incited murder, and was the sole literary signatory to George Bernard Shaw’s petition to pardon the Anarchist Haymarket Bombers in Chicago.
His plays during this period, mostly tragic, met with little success and never made it to the stage. The last of these “Salome”, a tragedy written in French in Paris in 1891, contained glimmers of his later success. It was denied a license for performance in England on the grounds that it contained biblical figures which could not be portrayed without special license from the Lord Chamberlain. This type of ban was enforced as late as 1968 when William Gaskill contested to perform the surrealist farce “Early Morning,” leading to a new Theatres Act.
Novelist and Playwright
Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Grey,” was roundly condemned when it appeared in 1890. It was considered too decadent, containing homosexual themes and imagery, and he was forced to revise it for book publication in 1891. By 1892, he had hit on the formula of witty comedies, which contained a subversive influence. Conservatives hated it, but it made Wilde a fortune and toured for months. He proved to be a master at the genre and soon had a number of plays in production. By 1894, he had launched another enormously successful play, “The Importance of Being Earnest.” The reception was spectacular and Wilde’s reputation seemed secure.
Wealthy and full of success in 1893, he met Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, the son of the Marquis of Queensbury of boxing rules fame. Douglas introduced Wilde to London’s homosexual underground, complete with prostitution and secret liaisons. The rather public relationship between Wilde and Bosie became a subject of contention between the Marquis and his son. Over the next several years Wilde and the Marquess would come into contact several times. While the accounts of these conflicts do not always agree it is clear that Wilde in these cases wished to avoid a fight while the Marquess intended to bully and threaten him, in order to drive him away from Bosie.
In February of 1895, the Marquess dropped a card at the Albemarle Club, on which was printed “For Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite.” This put Wilde in a very difficult position. If he refused to take action against the Marquess, the Club would assume the libel was true and close its doors to Wilde, rapidly followed by the rest of the London social scene. If he did take action, the matter would be heard in a court of law, where Wilde’s personal life could be dragged through the press.
The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde
Wilde’s friends encouraged him to let the scandal blow over but, doubtless expecting further provocation from the Marquess, Wilde initiated a private prosecution against Queensbury for libel. Arraigned, Queensbury’s only viable defense to avoid a guilty plea and a possible two year prison sentence was to prove that he had been telling the truth, and he hired private detectives to do so.
Well before there was any verdict, details of Wilde’s private life were leaked by the Marquess’ team to the London Press. Given the mass of evidence against Wilde, largely from paid witnesses, the outcome was a foregone conclusion. A warrant was issued for Wilde’s arrest for sodomy and gross indecency, and his lover, journalist Robbie Ross, urged him to flee to France while his mother urged him to stay and fight. The trial ended with a hung jury.
There was some hope the matter would end there, but the Crown felt the case was too “high profile” not to prosecute further. Any wavering might give the appearance that the “bloods” from English Public Schools, who pervaded the High Offices of the Empire, were banding together to protect one of their own. Wilde had broken the essential code of being discreet, and no hand would be lifted to help him. In a second trial, the prosecution made none of the stumbles it had in the original, and Wilde was found guilty. While some authorities have suggested that Wilde would be prosecuted for the same offenses today, as some of the boys he paid to have sex with were under the age of 18, it is worth noting that, to this date, the age of consent in England and Wales is 16, and that certainly they were not seen as “underage” in any social sense at the time.
This period in Wilde’s life has been dramatized admirably by Moises Kaufman in 2001, whose “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde” formed the core of modern understanding about the trials. The play was researched from the mass of documents around the trial, and the actors often read from them and even cite their sources.
Wilde was sentenced to hard labor on the treadmill from 25 May 1895 to 18 May 1897.
In prison, he became malnourished and ill, and received an injury to his eardrum from a fall which was considered to have contributory to his death. Eventually he was allowed pen and paper and he wrote a long letter to “Bosie” which was eventually published as “De Profundis.” He sailed to exile in France immediately upon his release.
Wilde had developed a spiritual vocation in prison but was denied a Catholic retreat with the Jesuits. He told several journalists about his intention to be received as a Catholic. His repentance is not entirely conventional. In “De Profundis,” he sets out an emotional case for his behavior, then focuses upon his spiritual growth independent of his sexuality. In the end, Wilde sets himself on a spiritual course, but in his defense of his own life he lays out the aesthetic and artistic arguments that led him so well that he makes an elegant argument for the development of personal spirituality and the irrelevance of contemporary Christian morality, never stated, but obvious to most who read it afterwards.
Abroad, he lived largely alone, advocating for prison reform, and writing “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” which tells of an execution which took place during his imprisonment there. Robbie Ross made a long visit during 1897, finding Wilde alcoholic, impoverished, and in poor health. Back in London, Ross struggled to find a publisher who would handle his work, eventually settling on Leonard Smithers.
If Wilde does not present the picture of a homosexual martyr unrepentant, sorry only for the narrow society that condemned him, he neither presents a picture of a man wholly contrite and full of the self-loathing that homosexuality was supposed to engender. He declares an intention to reclaim his life and a refusal to live in sorrow or accept himself as evil lies beneath every word. It is defiance muted – qualified and encoded, but defiance still.
Even in France he was reviled, meeting hostile English visitors, and he drank heavily. By November 1900, he had developed meningitis. Robbie Ross arrived at his side and he was baptized as a Catholic. His physicians believed the origin of the condition stemmed from the injury to his right ear. He died at the end of November.
Wilde’s death has long been attributed to health broken in prison, but it is possible to see his depression as also related. In understanding that he did not “bounce back,” going on to a career in Europe or America in the iconoclastic fashion that Crowley would ten years later, it is worth considering that modern research indicates that his injury and the infection that may have led to his death carry the potential for mood disorders and depression. Paris had a vibrant gay underground, with clubs, performances, and night life. Why did Wilde not become a fixture of it, to regain his reputation in the 20s? His injury itself, or an initial bout of septicaemia or meningitis may have left him with acquired brain injury, not only leading to his early death, but casting a pall over his remaining life.
Wilde was buried outside Paris but in 1909 his remains were transferred to Pere Lachaise Cemetery into a tomb designed by Sir Jacob Epstein. His literary executor, Robbie Ross, was responsible for doing much to restore his reputation.
Life Imitates Art
Wilde may, at first, appear to be a strange candidate for a Gnostic Saint. He repudiated his “sins,” though conditionally and eloquently, and was largely broken by his jail term, turning to Roman Catholicism at the end. The key to Wilde’s inclusion is his doctrine that life imitates art. Wilde very much became a martyr to the cause of persecution for sexuality. His name is cited as early as 1910 by Crowley among artistic talents cut short by persecution for sodomy. Over the 20th century, his was the case most often cited as that of a largely unjust persecution, while his work continued to stand on its own, reminding the world of what a talent had been wasted. It was impossible to see one of Wilde’s plays and not realize that the persecution of homosexuals had deprived not just Wilde, but everyone, of something good in their world.
There is no doubt that Wilde has been an inspiration to generations of queer people. Writing in “The Hirschfeld Archives, Violence, Death, and Modern Queer Culture,” author Heike Bauer says: “During the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, for example, when the epidemic loss of queer life was widely treated with cynicism, contempt and discrimination, the British Novelist Neil Bartlett wrote an imaginative biography, ‘Who Was That Man?’ that affectively linked Wilde’s life and suffering to Bartlett’s own existence as a gay man in Londonin the 1980s. Bartlett’s assemblage of historical fragments and autobiographical narrative demonstrates that the figure of Oscar Wilde continues to animate gay lives long after his death.”(Bauer, 2017, p. 133) Still, while Thelema embraces queer culture, it is not defined by queer culture. We need to look deeper to understand why Wilde must be not just a queer icon, but a Gnostic Saint.
German physician and crusader for sexual freedom, Magnus Hirschfeld, founded one of the first modern queer-rights organizations focused on legislative change – the Wissenschaftlich-humanitares Kommitee or Scientific Humanitarian Committee – in May 1897, shortly before Wilde was released from prison. Hirschfeld was profoundly affected by Wilde’s death and would return to it repeatedly in his writings over the years. Initially motivated by the suicide of one of his queer patients, Hirschfeld was the first to bring a scientific understanding to the concept that “same sex lives, however distinct, were governed by similar, hostile terms of reality.”
To understand the intimate link between Wilde, Crowley, and Thelema, we need to understand Crowley’s proximity to Wilde’s martyrdom, and the tidal wave it provoked. What is, to us, a distant historical event was, to Crowley, the principal influence upon his community.
Crowley and Wilde shared social circles and intimates. Wilde and Yeats (whom Crowley would come to dislike intensely) knew each other well. Wilde knew George Bernard Shaw and met him on a number of social occasions, though accounts of their mutual dealings range from friendship to a strained admiration. Shaw’s partner was Florence Farr who was Crowley’s Golden Dawn initiator. Crowley was a rival of Waite, who worked with Pamela Colman Smith, but her formal employer for a time was Bram Stoker, who had married Wilde’s childhood sweetheart. An early and intense love of Crowley, Herbert Pollitt, was friends with Wilde’s publisher, Leonard Smithers, and Smithers became Crowley’s publisher later on.
Certainly, Crowley quarreled with these people as he did most of the people in his life, but the point is that the society shared by Crowley and Wilde put them at not much greater distance than people who attend the same modern, rather large high school in the same medium-sized town. For anyone gay or harboring bisexual urges, Wilde’s prosecution had been a cannon-shot that ripped through the London arts world, which had otherwise, at that time, been rather complacent about the growing envelope for “don’t ask don’t tell” underground sexuality.
The Cult of Wilde
It is important to understand that Crowley was not the only young man of his era who wished to reclaim, vindicate, validate Wilde. It must be understood that Crowley was a focused advocate for queer rights in the modern sense. Otherwise, Thelema becomes an abstract hunger for syncretic religion, rather than a focused drive to create a religious framework that is congruent with modern understandings of gender, sexuality and both personal freedom and social responsibility.
Hirschfeld made a visit to Cambridge university which researcher Heike Bauer dates to 1905-1907. At this time, says Bauer, “Hirschfeld mentions an encounter with ’a group of beautiful young male students’ who had gathered to read aloud ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol.’ What is remarkable is that the young men marked their allegiance to Wilde by attaching his prisoner number to their shirts. The students thus symbolically aligned themselves with Wilde in an embodied form of memorialization that suggests that Wilde’s tragic death—as much as his celebrated life—helped shape a sense of queer community…”
The odds are good that one of the students was Victor Neuburg. While nothing can be proven at this remove, the number of men willing to engage, even secretly, in a ritual honoring Wilde must have been limited. Further, they would have been those “in the loop” regarding visiting speakers. Neuburg invited Crowley to speak in February of 1907 for his Pan Society and, whether he attended or not, certainly fit the target demographic for that secret event. Norman Mudd was also a member of Neuburg’s Pan Society and may have been in attendance. Given its focus on poetry and courting Crowley, it seems entirely possible that the Pan Society was the organizing body of this event, as Kenneth Martin Ward would not form the Cambridge Freethought Association for another two years. In any case, within the narrow confines of Cambridge culture, Wilde was already a cult figure when Crowley was recalled to speak there.
Crowley as Wilde’s Proxy
Crowley, in many senses, modeled not only his life’s work, but his appearance and even social affectations on Wilde’s. While some similarities can be put down to the influence of the Decadent movement on both, there are many cases where Crowley’s presentation seems to have strongly evoked Wilde’s. Nowhere is this congruity more developed than in Nick Freeman’s “Wilde’s Victorian Afterlife: Somerset Maugham, Aleister Crowley, and The Magician.” While most Thelemites are at least vaguely aware that Somerset Maugham’s character of Oliver Haddo in “The Magician” was modeled on Crowley, Freeman goes a step further. Says Freeman “I argue that although an awareness of Crowley’s reputation is important for an understanding of The Magician, the novel actually uses his public image, the larger-than-life Haddo, as a front for a more subversive engagement with the literature and culture of the fin de siècle. Magic and the occult may provide a frightening (or alluring) backdrop to the novel, but its true anti-hero is a figure far more unsettling to Edwardian ears than the then little-known Crowley: Oscar Wilde. ‘The Magician’ emerges as a profoundly ambivalent work that both pastiches the decadent writing of the 1890s and recoils from it in fascinated horror.“(Freeman, 2007, p. 16)
This sort of writing is familiar to anyone who reads literature written much before the 1960s. When one writes about fascinating subjects, particularly the occult underground or homosexuality, there must always be a moralistic conclusion – a final recoil away or repentance to satisfy the censor’s insistence that the only cause for writing about such things is to insure that the public is duly informed to be revolted by them. While it is notable that Crowley quibbled over magickal details, in all he seemed satisfied with his portrayal by Maugham. In this sense, Crowley’s minor complaints can be seen as much as an attempt to establish his own identity as being any true objection.
Herbert Pollitt and “the name of Oscar Wilde.”
Crowley’s conflicted relationship with Herbert Pollitt is a matter of record. It is clear that Crowley was, at the time, grappling with his own homosexuality. He wrote two “scathing sonnets,”(Kaczynski, 2010) with the comment that “the virulence of these sonnets is excusable when it is known that their aim was to destroy the influence in Cambridge of a man who headed in that University a movement parallel to that which at Oxford was associated with the name of Oscar Wilde. They had their effect.”(Crowley, 1905, p. 115)
The idea of Crowley seeking to destroy anything associated with Wilde’s name in the interests of purity seems out of place. This sentiment appears in print in 1905 and must have represented either a legitimate struggle or misdirection. It seems likely that he felt ashamed of this bitterness. By 1910, he would wistfully encode Pollitt’s name as an acrostic in the text of “Bagh-I-Muattar.“ While it is at odds with Crowley’s open defense of sodomy in 1910 in the introduction to “The World’s Tragedy,” it does establish is that Pollitt was the homosexual icon of Cambridge and Wilde was recognized even by Crowley as its guiding spirit. It may also represent a genuine internal conflict within Crowley that gives some credence to his protestations regarding his initial refusal to accept Liber AL.
The Paris Statue
Over his life, Crowley would make a number of homages to Wilde. When Crowley bound “Snowdrops from a Curate’s Garden,” the imprint gave the location as “Cosmopoli,” a reference to the homosexual novel “Teleny” which is attributed to Wilde.(Kaczynski, 2010) None is more telling than his actions around Jacob Esptein’s controversial sculpture for the Tomb of Oscar Wilde at the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. When the manager declared the statue obscene, Epstein was forced to work on it under a tarp, bribing the police to look away. After the Paris authorities determined the testicles were “too large,” Wilde’s literary executor Robbie Ross arranged for them to be covered by a bronze butterfly.
In “Perdurabo,” Kaczynski relates how Crowley issued a manifesto on this matter to a local newspaper.
I noticed that, in obedience to the order of the prefect of Seine the Oscar Wilde Memorial in Pére-la-chaise has been mutilated by the placing of an enormous black butterfly over the criticized parts, thus rendering Jacob Epstein’s masterpiece as ridiculous and obscene as its critics themselves. And still the aforesaid prefect of the Seine keeps the tarpaulin on the statue.
At noon on the fifth of November, Guy Fawkes’ Day, it is my intention to proceed to Pére-la-chaise and, armed with an instrument adapted for the purpose of cutting the cords which hold the tarpaulin in position and to cut the same.
I am yours, sir,
Using a concealed wire, Crowley made a speech and gesticulated while the tarp appeared to magically fly away. Crowley removed the butterfly and hid it under his waistcoat, then went to the Cafe Royale where he presented it to Epstein, wearing it either around his neck or, according to Kaczynski,(Kaczynski, 2010) as a codpiece, which given Crowley’s general nature can be considered reasonably likely.
Wilde and Thelema
Crowley’s exploration of Thelema was not simply a dry desire to formulate some novel pagan syncretism tradition. Like many sexual mystics, his drives made him, by the standards of religion of the day, a monster. His choice was a life burdened with the guilt that acts as protagonist in “De Profundis,” or a clean break – a renunciation of the very system of morality which made him “evil.” Crowley drew on his environment, learning, and influences for the elements to make a new system in which there would be no guilt for being what he, and others, were. From Nietzsche, he pulled the invalidity of socio-religious constructs of good and evil. From Plato, through Rabelais, he highlighted the invalidity of social constructs regarding sex and gender, and the concept that same-sex love could be both beautiful and powerful. Wilde’s iconic life and struggle, as well as his personal style and presentation leave him very much in the role of John the Baptizer to Crowley’s iconoclastic Jesus.
By the time he fired his shots in 1910 in “The World’s Tragedy,” threatening to reveal the homosexual secrets of the administration that had been willing to crucify Wilde, Crowley had set his course. Crolwey does not seem to have joined any of the specifically homosexual organizations of the time. By 1910 he was already moving towards a re-envisioning of Baphomet, away from the strictly Platonic ideal of manly love, and more towards a modern understanding of pansexuality and pangender. If he was to be an exile, he would not hang his head in shame but wear his mantle proudly. If Oliver Haddo was Wilde, Crowley would imitate art and become Haddo as well. As such, Wilde was as firmly a part of the genetic makeup of Thelema as Rabelais.