Wilde as Des Esseintes reading Flaubert?

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As before I started to read Gustave Flaubert’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony I heard that this was one of the favorite books of Oscar Wilde, who would ask for it during his imprisonment from 1895 to 1897 (as far as I understand, with no successful results though), I took up this prose-poem wondering what might be the reasons why Wilde was attracted to this book so much that he would feel a strong urge to immerse himself in it even during his imprisonment. Thus, this reading response is a speculation resulting from such wonderings.

Harford Montgomery Hyde in The Trials of Oscar Wilde (1962) describes the cell at Pentonville where Wilde had to spend the first term of his imprisonment as “bare and repellent as it was possible to make it,” a space where prisoners were not allowed to have anything that “might break the monotony of the cell wall.” (Montgomery Hyde, 278) When one imagines the conditions that Wilde was confined to live in and the mental suffering that the writer might have experienced as a result of the state he was in, it would be hardly surprising that Wilde might have been able to identify himself with Saint Anthony as he was depicted by Gustave Flaubert from the very first pages of The Temptation of Saint Anthony – a hermit who would contemplate his existence and pass by every day by grievous but somewhat relieved exclamation: “Another day! another day gone!” (Flaubert 10) It is not hard to imagine Wilde quietly agonizing: “What solitude! what weariness!—will this never end? Surely death were preferable! I can endure it no more! Enough! enough!” (Flaubert 14-15) Wilde would not even have as much freedom as Saint Anthony had, who attempted to escape his suffering to some extent through the amusement of “arranging everything in my hut.” (Ibid.) Similar mundane routine would not be unfamiliar to Wilde. In his case, however, “arranging everything” would by no means be an amusement. On the contrary, it would be enforced by strict and regular examinations of the arrangements in his prison cell by the guards under whose strict surveillance the writer was. It did not give him freedom of amusement but rather robbed him of yet another kind of freedom of expression, which later, as H.Montgomery Hyde points out, would developed into a nervous habit of the writer to arrange all the things symmetrically. (Montgomery Hyde 278)

As Montgomeny Hyde indicates, during the first three months of his incarceration Wilde would have an access only to three books – a Bible, The Prayer Book, and a hymn-book. (Ibid 278) Without further examination of the materials related to Wilde, it is difficult to judge to what extent Wilde might have felt the inclination to question the religious scripts accessible or to claim that the writer identified himself with Saint Anthony and perpetually struggled with his own temptations in identic way. It is also hard to imagine that self-pity and a masochistic inclination to torture himself even more by read over and over such statements as – “Assuredly there is no human being in a condition of such unutterable misery!” (Flaubert 19) – made by Saint Anthony, which might seem to be Wilde’s own voice imprinted in the book, were only reasons why the writer wished to have an access to Flaubert’s work.

Rather than struggling with temptations, it seems more likely that Wilde, a widely known dandy and a great admirer of the beauty, would be suffocating in the horrible reality of his existence in the prison as he was deprived of all that he could not exist without. Thus, one could imagine that, not unlike Des Esseintes in À rebours, Wilde would be searching for a possibility not only to enter “into complete intellectual communion” with Flaubert or, perhaps, even Saint Anthony, but also “soar up, more so than with other books, high above this petty existence of which he was so weary.” (Huysmans 146) The Temptation of Saint Anthony for Wilde would be also a means to escape the death of his own imagination and emotional world that he might have been feeling insistently creeping closer. One can easily imagine that Wilde would be able to channel the thoughts of Des Esseintes during the ventriloquist’s performance of the dialogue between the Chimera and the Sphinx: “It was to him that this voice, as mysterious as an incantation, was speaking; it was to him that it was describing its feverish craving after the unknown its unattained ideal, its need to escape the horrible reality of existence, to pass beyond the confines of thought, to cast about, without ever arriving at a certainty, in the misty reaches that lie beyond art!” (Ibid 88-89)

It seems that it would be Des Esseintes, the character that “poisoned” Dorian Grey, which would perfectly verbalize Wilde’s relationship to The Temptation of Saint Anthony: “in reading them [such books as The Temptation of Saint Anthony], he who had engendered them, because they had then been in a spiritual state analogous to his own. Indeed, when the period in which a man of talent is condemned to live is dull and stupid, the artist is haunted, unknowingly perhaps, by a yearning for a different era. —He recalls memories of beings and things, which he personally has never known, and the time comes when he breaks violently out of his prison of his century” and wander “in complete freedom in a different period with which – as an ultimate self-deception – he imagines he would have been more in harmony.” (Ibid 147)

-Wanda

Hyde, Harford Montgomery. The Trials of Oscar Wilde. New York: Dover Publications, 1962.

Other texts cited are the ones that are used in our class.

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