Oscar Wilde and the burden of respectability

  • Dhrubo Jyoti
  • Updated: Oct 18, 2016 13:30 IST
A far-more enduring bequest of the Irish playwright is the contradiction around respectability and keeping up social dignity. Oscar Wilde’s statue in Merrion Square, Dublin, Ireland (Lucian Milasan / Shutterstock)

In Oscar Wilde’s birthday week, a young gay person writes about the Irish playwright’s legacy in the Indian context

For decades, tourists travelling to the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris were treated to a surreal sight: Thousands of lipstick marks and kisses on the massive tombstone of Irish playwright and wit Oscar Wilde.

But no more. Five years ago, Wilde’s family ordered a cleaning of the tomb and encased it in a thick glass shield. The reason given was preservation but the anxiety around the loving vandals and the consequent loss of respectability for a national icon was palpable.

This is both ironic and not – in his prolific writing, Wilde didn’t care much about sounding respectable and some of his best work – Lady Windermere’s Fan and The Importance of Being Earnest – are often read as a scathing exposition of the hollow underbelly of London’s elite.

But this is only a surface reading of the man. Unease and confusion about sounding respectable effused Wilde’s real life – and his tragic romance with Bosie that landed him behind bars and ultimately led to his ignominious death.

The transcripts of his three public trials bear witness to this. When pushed to explain his love for the male form and his ornamentally romantic letters to Lord Alfred Douglas – Bosie –Wilde repeatedly lashes out at the prosecution’s poor understanding of love between males. The writer elevates his attraction towards boys as a higher form of art – one that “brutes and illiterates ” would never get.

He is at his most lyrical when explaining the love between males – alluding to Michelangelo and Shakespeare, among others -- as people with “deep, spiritual affection” for younger men that is “pure and perfect”.

But he stumbles when asked to explain his desire for the commoner – the bellboy, the newspaper boy or the blue-collar worker.

The prosecution senses his discomfort around his less respectable travails – that can only be explained with the rubric of desire. The lawyer repeatedly asks him whether his relationship with the lower classes was purely spiritual. Wilde has no answer because there is no respectability involved in bedding a bellboy.

We often think Wilde’s legacy is his irreverence to authority, his wit and his tragic ending – his homosexuality.

But a far-more enduring bequest of the Irish man is the contradiction around respectability and keeping up social dignity. As a respectable white man, he could take on social facades and mock the aristocrat but as a “somdomite”, he was pulled to what he ridiculed his entire life.

Wilde’s deep imprint on Western canon and his influence in shaping the memory of homosexual persecution has meant that we still carry the burden of respectability as queer people.

So a gay icon is always a white man – Harvey Milk, for example – and never black or brown men, women or transfolk; someone like black civil rights leader Bayard Rustin doesn’t make the cut.

In India, the anxiety around respectability is further vitiated by the colonial experience and the need to uphold Bharat Mata. This makes a Pandey Bechan Sharma to write gruesome ends for his male protagonists who indulge in rancid, sweaty sex with each other – to keep up the nationalist fervour in his seminal collection of stories, Chocolate.

This was in 1927. But a century on, things haven’t changed much. Respectability hangs over our heads every day as we push young boys and girls to suicide, negotiate dowry on the sly and kill people daring enough to attempt transgressive love.

Our anxiety with respectability makes us forget certain kinds of bodies that can’t speak English, are disabled, Dalit, female, trans – we erase them from popular culture.

Nation is also a constant lurking presence, supplanted in current times by the soldier, who keep a vigil on our moral character and rebuke/kill us if we transgress too much. “What will people think,” should replace “Satyamev Jayate”.

This forces us to abandon any articulation of desire, of sex between bodies that don’t look good on television. Even as queer people, we stop talking about who we want to sleep with and instead talk of privacy -- doing it in the bedroom is respectable, hooking up in the park isn’t. We have sex but feel embarrassed talking about us as sexual selves. That dichotomy, unfortunately, is the tragic legacy of Wilde. Respectability kills.

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