In the Beginning, there was the Word. And the Word was written by Oscar Wilde, and it was good.
This is naturally an incontrovertible fact. You have the luminous, prolific, fearlessly inventive vision that is Oscar, shining out in the fusty darkness like a glittery vampire in a pack of not really werewolves…and you have everyone else.
Merely knowing that Oscar existed, dearly beloved, is enough to make us better able to cope with the unrelenting and depressing general crappy-ness that is the rest of existence.
This is a pretty widely held belief nowadays, Oscar is one of your archetypal ”Great Writers”, he is considered a great poet, a great playwright, and a great novelist (based on one, admittedly great, novel). He is considered the embodiment of the fin-de-siecle aesthetic, a great gay writer and a huge influence upon later wordsmiths and indeed, culture as a whole. You won’t get any argument from me, he has a place booked in my waiting room (I take particular quiet joy in knowing that there is exactly one person out there in the world who will know what I’m talking about).
However, this was not always the prevailing opinion, things change (there are for example some people that actually like D.H. Lawrence, but I live in hope…), and if you are going to be slaughtered in print over a decade after your death by someone who better than this chap:
And here is the putative point of this post:
As well as containing a short story (“The Chute”) by Crowley, it also contains his supremely scathing and quite incandescently bitchy review of Frank Harris’s “Contemporary Portraits”. The Great Beast’s assessment begins as it means to go on:
“It is a little hard to be asked to review “Contemporary Portraits,” since it has already been done by the Philadelphia Evening Ledger, whose tame Master of English writes of England as Frank Harris’ “Once Native Land.” One can hardly be expected to compete against that…”
In general Mr. Crowley is complimentary of Harris himself (they knew each other fairly well), occasionally he verges on the effusive:
“The whole style in which this book is written is amazingly vivid, one may say the best chiselled English that one has read for a long time…”
However, once he gets to Harris’ grief stricken portrait of Oscar, with barely a break in his stride…this happens:
“Wilde was far too insincere to be a great artist. He hardly wrote a word which was not stolen from his immediate predecessors. Nor at any point did Wilde touch a genuine cosmic chord. “The Sphinx” is merely Gautier. “Salome” is a mixture of Moreau, Flaubert and Maeterlinck. And he did not even write French himself. He drafted it in school-boy French, and had it made over by Marcel Schwob. As for “The Ballad of Readin Gaol” it is only Eugene Aram spoilt, and De Profundis is really so bad that, as I could never read it, I am prepared to believe it original.
The plays are the bright spots. They do really represent the manners of the English of the period. And the reason for this is that society with a capital S was the genuine spot in Wilde’s huge mass of humbug. He was the incarnation of all snobbery. He was not more homosexual than Adam. He adopted his vices because they were “good form” at Oxford.”
Okay, I think somebody felt neglected. Later in the (enormous) review, he goes on to describe the great sculptor Rodin “…Rodin has no power of speech at all. I once went to stay with him for a book I was writing and I looked to him for his Views on Art. He told me nothing his own gardener did not know. And this is the great strength of Rodin. His mind has not been spoiled by education.”
Aaaaaand, rest. Now, what do you get for the man that doesn’t like anything?