De Profundis: Oscar Wilde on toxic friendship–Part 2
Oscar Wilde was very relieved at the thought of losing Bosie out of his life, and soon got rid of his fever and began to feel better. But then a few days later, on his birthday, he got a letter from Bosie. He thought maybe it would be the usual “pretty phrase, an expression of affection, a word of sorrow” (typical hoovering) to get him back. But instead, it was
an elaborate repetition of the two scenes, set cunningly and carefully down in black and white! You mocked me with common jests. Your one satisfaction in the whole affair was, you said, that you retired to the Grand Hotel, and entered your luncheon to my account before you left for town.
You congratulated me on my prudence in leaving my sickbed, on my sudden flight downstairs [when he felt Bosie was going to harm him]. ‘It was an ugly moment for you,’ you said, ‘uglier than you imagine.’ Ah! I felt it but too well.
What it had really meant I did not know: whether you had with you the pistol you had bought to try and frighten your father with, and that, thinking it to be unloaded, you had once fired off in a public restaurant in my company:
whether your hand was moving towards a common dinner-knife that by chance was lying on the table between us:
whether, forgetting in your rage your low stature and inferior strength, you had thought of some specially personal insult, or attack even, as I lay ill there: I could not tell. I do not know to the present moment.
All I know is that a feeling of utter horror had come over me, and that I had felt that unless I left the room at once, and got away, you would have done, or tried to do, something that would have been, even to you, a source of lifelong shame.
Only once before in my life had I experienced such a feeling of horror at any human being. It was when in my library at Tite Street, waving his small hands in the air in epileptic fury, your father, with his bully, or his friend, between us, had stood uttering every foul word his foul mind could think of, and screaming the loathsome threats he afterwards with such cunning carried out.
In the latter case he, of course, was the one who had to leave the room first. I drove him out. In your case I went. It was not the first time I had been obliged to save you from yourself.
Both this letter and the scene itself would qualify as narcissistic rage episodes.
Bosie ended his letter with, “When you are not on your pedestal you are not interesting. The next time you are ill I will go away at once.” As Wilde wrote,
For you to write thus to me, when the very illness and fever from which I was suffering I had caught from tending you, was of course revolting in its coarseness and crudity; but for any human being in the whole world to write thus to another would be a sin for which there is no pardon, were there any sin for which there is none.
Then Wilde wrote, “I confess that when I had finished your letter I felt almost polluted, as if by associating with one of such a nature I had soiled and shamed my life irretrievably.”
This is exactly how I felt after receiving the e-mail from Richard and Tracy and copied here. Whether they both had written it, or just one of them, the e-mail was just as “revolting in its coarseness and crudity” and revealed the same “coarseness of fibre” as Wilde had described Bosie’s letter, and inspired similar revulsion.
But unfortunately, Bosie’s brother was found dead in a ditch, so Wilde decided to put off breaking off relations with him in his grief.
The gods are strange. It is not of our vices only they make instruments to scourge us. They bring us to ruin through what in us is good, gentle, humane, loving. But for my pity and affection for you and yours, I would not now be weeping in this terrible place.
…And but for my pity and affection for Richard’s family in their poverty, I would never have allowed them into my house…and they never would have become so entrenched in my life that they could bully me. But we can’t become cold and hard in order to keep away such sorrow; that won’t do, either.
For Wilde to have cut off Bosie at such a time would have been cruel.
Through your father you come of a race, marriage with whom is horrible, friendship fatal, and that lays violent hands either on its own life or on the lives of others.
This is an apt description of Borderline or Narcissistic Personality Disorders.
Wilde then describes Bosie’s leechlike behaviors, going on about how his devotion to Wilde (to the exclusion of his family) “was a proof of your wonderful appreciation of me, and your great affection,” but attaching himself to someone who provided money and “intellectual attractions.”
Bosie lived it up with Wilde, living off Wilde’s dime, making a show of giving up his allowance from his father rather than giving up Wilde, but not giving up “even one of your most superfluous luxuries, or most unnecessary extravagances.”
In fact, Wilde had been detained at a hotel because of trouble paying expenses incurred when Bosie stayed there with him for 10 days, then–without Wilde’s permission–brought a friend to stay there as well. Because he was detained, he found the card from Bosie’s father which led to the libel suit which led to his ruin, rather than off in France knowing nothing about the card.
Bosie financially drained not only Wilde, but, to some extent, his mother; “the continued drain…was never so distressing, because…never so completely unaccompanied by the smallest word of thanks, or sense of limit.” Wilde even ended up going bankrupt, and lost everything.
Wilde chides Bosie for thinking
that in attacking your own father with dreadful letters, abusive telegrams, and insulting postcards you were really fighting your mother’s battles, coming forward as her champion, and avenging the no doubt terrible wrongs and sufferings of her married life. It was quite an illusion on your part; one of your worst indeed.
The way for you to have avenged your mother’s wrongs on your father, if you considered it part of a son’s duty to do so, was by being a better son to your mother than you had been: by not making her afraid to speak to you on serious things: by not signing bills the payment of which devolved on her: by being gentler to her, and not bringing sorrow into her days….
You were wrong even in fancying that it would have been an absolute delight and joy to your mother if you had managed through me to get your father put into prison…And if you want to know what a woman really feels when her husband, and the father of her children, is in prison dress, in a prison cell, write to my wife and ask her. She will tell you.
It has been a year and a half since the sentencing, but Wilde’s memories still haunt him, as they do with many of us who have experienced the pain of being connected to a narcissistic or borderline personality disorder, but with the added trouble of being in prison.
Because he’s in prison, he doesn’t have those daily tasks or human interactions which keep most of us occupied during our grief; for some of us, our mind is that prison, because even our daily tasks cannot keep our minds from straying to that same topic, our memories and emotions about that person.
He writes that Bosie was once described by a newspaper as following Wilde about like his shadow:
[T]he memory of our friendship is the shadow that walks with me here: that seems never to leave me: that wakes me up at night to tell me the same story over and over till its wearisome iteration makes all sleep abandon me till dawn:
at dawn it begins again: it follows me into the prison-yard and makes me talk to myself as I tramp round: each detail that accompanied each dreadful moment I am forced to recall:
there is nothing that happened in those ill-starred years that I cannot recreate in that chamber of the brain which is set apart for grief or for despair:
every strained note of your voice, every twitch and gesture of your nervous hands, every bitter word, every poisonous phrase comes back to me: I remember the street or river down which we passed, the wall or woodland that surrounded us, at what figure on the dial stood the hands of the clock, which way went the wings of the wind, the shape and colour of the moon.
He acknowledges that Bosie loved him.
But you, like myself, have had a terrible tragedy in your life, though one of an entirely opposite character to mine…In you Hate was always stronger than Love. Your hatred of your father was of such stature that it entirely outstripped, o’erthrew, and overshadowed your love of me….
So to gratify it, you gambled with my life, as you gambled with my money, carelessly, recklessly, indifferent to the consequence. If you lost, the loss would not, you fancied, be yours. If you won, yours, you knew, would be the exultation, and the advantages of victory.
He describes how hate had blinded Bosie and gnawed at his nature. Then Bosie’s father sent Wilde a letter “with its obscene threats and coarse violences,” which sounds familiar to those of us who have dealt with the personality disordered.
Wilde sensed danger, said he “would not be the catspaw between you both in your ancient hatred of each other,” that it was not fair to Wilde, and in a familiar sentiment to those of us who have had to deal with drama queens/kings, “that I had something better to do with my life than to have scenes with a man drunken, declasse, and half-witted as he was.”
But Bosie insisted that it had nothing to do with Wilde, that he would not let his father dictate his private friendships, “that it would be most unfair of me to interfere.” Turns out Bosie had already, before speaking to Wilde, sent his father “a foolish and vulgar telegram, as your answer. That of course committed you to a foolish and vulgar course of action to follow.”
The telegram would shame “the commonest street-boy.” It went from “pert telegrams to priggish lawyers’ letters”; this urged on his father “still further,” makes it into a point of honor for his father; so the next attack comes to Wilde publicly instead of in a private letter.
I have to expel him from my house. He goes from restaurant to restaurant looking for me, in order to insult me before the whole world, and in such a manner that if I retaliated I would be ruined, and if I did not retaliate I would be ruined also.
This order of events is familiar to those who have entered into such wars with the personality disordered. In fact, it sounds familiar to me, because I have had to expel Richard and Tracy from my life, only to have them stalk my blog looking for something to use against me, and come to my church just so I can see them after I told them I did not want to see or hear from them again.
Rather than end the friendship with Wilde to spare him the wrath of his father, all he
could think of (besides of course writing to him insulting letters and telegrams) was to buy a ridiculous pistol that goes off in the Berkeley, under circumstances that create a worse scandal than ever came to your ears.
Indeed the idea of your being the object of a terrible quarrel between your father and a man of my position seemed to delight you. It, I suppose very naturally, pleased your vanity, and flattered your self-importance….I never remember you in higher spirits than you were for the rest of that season.
There’s that drama queening! Bosie then starts sending his father so many “telegrams of such a character” that his father finally tells his servant to stop bringing him telegrams.
(I’ve gotta wonder: Telegrams? Doesn’t that mean that the telegraph operator has to see the whole thing? Has Bosie no shame, letting telegraph operators see the telegrams he sends to his father and to Wilde? Or is this just what he wants?)
So Bosie switched to the open postcard! They both kept up the war, since Bosie’s father hated him as much as Bosie hated his father. And poor Wilde is made the scapegoat in the middle of an ancient hatred he never had anything to do with, with Bosie’s father going so far as to attempt to disrupt a performance of one of Wilde’s plays.
The thing that mattered most to Wilde, “the great primal note by which I had revealed, first myself to myself, and then myself to the world; the real passion of my life; the love to which all other loves were as marsh-water to red wine, or the glow-worm of the marsh to the magic mirror of the moon,” Bosie and his father very nearly destroyed as a casualty in their war.
What you had to do was quite simple, and quite clear before you, but Hate blinded you, and you could see nothing. I could not apologise to your father for his having insulted me and persecuted me in the most loathsome manner for nearly nine months.
I could not get rid of you out of my life. I had tried it again and again. I had gone so far as actually leaving England and going abroad in the hope of escaping from you. It had all been of no use.
You were the only person who could have done anything. The key of the situation rested entirely with yourself. It was the one great opportunity you had of making some slight return to me for all the love and affection and kindness and generosity and care I had shown you. Had you appreciated me even at a tenth of my value as an artist you would have done so.
But Hate blinded you. The faculty ‘by which, and by which alone, we can understand others in their real as in their ideal relations’ was dead in you. You thought simply of how to get your father into prison.
To see him ‘in the dock,’ as you used to say: that was your one idea. The phrase became one of the many scies of your daily conversation. One heard it at every meal. Well, you had your desire gratified. Hate granted you every single thing you wished for. It was an indulgent Master to you. It is so, indeed, to all who serve it.
For two days you sat on a high seat with the Sheriffs, and feasted your eyes with the spectacle of your father standing in the dock of the Central Criminal Court. And on the third day I took his place. What had occurred? In your hideous game of hate together, you had both thrown dice for my soul, and you happened to have lost. That was all.
Wilde hoped that when the sentence was given, Bosie would realize what he had done. But he did not. “It did not occur to me then that you could have the supreme vice, shallowness.” He hears nothing of Bosie until, second-hand, he discovers that Bosie wants to publish excerpts of his letters. Bosie had said his family would pay for their taxed costs, but it comes from Wilde, who is bankrupt.
This part is especially poignant and familiar, even though Wilde’s reason is being imprisoned, where pain and sorrow fill everything:
All this took place in the early part of November of the year before last. A great river of life flows between you and a date so distant. Hardly, if at all, can you see across so wide a waste, but to me it seems to have occurred, I will not say yesterday, but today.
Suffering is one long moment. We cannot divide it by seasons. We can only record its moods, and chronicle their return….
The thing that you personally have long ago forgotten, or can easily forget, is happening to me now, and will happen to me again to-morrow. Remember this, and you will be able to understand a little of why I am writing to you, and in this manner writing.
Wilde’s mother dies; various people, even ones he doesn’t know personally, send their condolences; Bosie sends not a word.
Wilde complains to Bosie’s brother about Bosie, in a letter meant to prohibit a dedication which is offensive to Wilde, and asks that the words about Bosie be copied and sent to him.
Bosie is upset, he gets his mother upset about it as well, and they spread the news far and wide of just how horrible the words are, yet Bosie never actually writes to Wilde himself about them.
Wilde complains that Bosie has feet of clay, that now it’s impossible to feel anything for him (or himself) but contempt and scorn.
And setting aside all other reasons, your indifference, your worldly wisdom, your callousness, your prudence, whatever you may choose to call it, has been made doubly bitter to me by the peculiar circumstances that either accompanied or followed my fall.
The following is especially familiar:
And the end of it all is that I have got to forgive you. I must do so. I don’t write this letter to put bitterness into your heart, but to pluck it out of mine.
For my own sake I must forgive you. One cannot always keep an adder in one’s breast to feed on one, nor rise up every night to sow thorns in the garden of one’s soul. It will not be difficult at all for me to do so, if you help me a little….
And I shall really have no difficulty in forgiving you. But to make it a pleasure for me you must feel that you want it. When you really want it you will find it waiting for you.
In a very familiar feeling, in the beginning of his imprisonment, Wilde wanted to die. Then he was filled with rage, and decided to commit suicide the same day of his eventual release.
Then he decided he wanted to live, but to always be sad and make his friends sad as well. Then he decided that would be unfair to his friends, so he must try to be happy for them. Finally, he decided he had so much to do that it would be a tragedy to die before he finished.
He remembers the people who laughed at him in the pillory. In a side-dig at Bosie, who once told Wilde that Wilde was not interesting when not on his pedestal, he writes,
But it is a very unimaginative nature that only cares for people on their pedestals. A pedestal may be a very unreal thing. A pillory is a terrific reality. They should have known also how to interpret sorrow better.
I have said that behind Sorrow there is always Sorrow. It were still wiser to say that behind sorrow there is always a soul. And to mock at a soul in pain is a dreadful thing. Unbeautiful are their lives who do it. In the strangely simple economy of the world people only get what they give, and to those who have not enough imagination to penetrate the mere outward of things and feel pity, what pity can be given save that of scorn?
It seems that mutual abuse was frequent between Bosie and his father. Wilde writes of a time in 1893 when Bosie’s father sent Bosie a “very vulgar, violent and abusive letter,” but Bosie’s reply
was in every way worse, and of course far less excusable, and consequently you were extremely proud of it. I remember quite well your saying to me with your most conceited air that you could beat your father ‘at his own trade.’ Quite true. But what a trade! What a competition!
You used to laugh and sneer at your father for retiring from your cousin’s house where he was living in order to write filthy letters to him from a neighbouring hotel.
You used to do just the same to me. You constantly lunched with me at some public restaurant, sulked or made a scene during luncheon, and then retired to White’s Club and wrote me a letter of the very foulest character.
The only difference between you and your father was that after you had dispatched your letter to me by special messenger, you would arrive yourself at my rooms some hours later, not to apologise, but to know if I had ordered dinner at the Savoy, and if not, why not. Sometimes you would actually arrive before the offensive letter had been read.
On one such occasion, Bosie got Wilde to invite a couple of Bosie’s friends, one of whom Wilde had never met before, to a “specially luxurious luncheon,” then instead of showing up, sent an abusive letter to Wilde, timed to reach him half an hour after he was supposed to have arrived. Rather than read it, Wilde stuck it in his pocket, lied to his guests that Bosie was ill, then read the letter later that evening.
As I was in the middle of its mire, wondering with infinite sadness how you could write letters that were really like the froth and foam on the lips of an epileptic, my servant came in to tell me that you were in the hall and were very anxious to see me for five minutes.
Sure, Bosie is in trouble because a solicitor is looking for him, and now he comes to Wilde for help after having manipulated and narcissistic-raged at him! Neither of them mentioned the letter, and Wilde was too easily forgiving.
When Bosie’s father’s letters were read in court, he “naturally felt ashamed and pretended to weep.” But Bosie’s own letters, if read in court, would have inspired “still more horror and repugnance…by everyone.”
But he beat his father’s own trade not just in style, but “in mode of attack you distanced him completely,” using public telegrams and open postcards. And while Wilde was in prison, Bosie began doing the same to Wilde’s friends as well!
Bosie’s mother made things difficult for Wilde as well. Instead of confronting her own son directly, she kept writing to Wilde, asking him to do it, because “I am afraid to: he gets so angry when he is spoken to.” Then she’d write, “On no account let Alfred know that I have written to you.”
He thought for sure she could’ve done something to stop the escalation between Wilde and Bosie’s father by taking “some serious steps,” but instead she sent a friend to suggest that Wilde “gradually drop” Bosie.
As if it had been possible for me to gradually drop you! I had tried to end our friendship in every possible way, going so far as actually to leave England and give a false address abroad in the hopes of breaking at one blow a bond that had become irksome, hateful, and ruinous to me. Do you think that I could have ‘gradually dropped’ you?
Do you think that would have satisfied your father? You know it would not. What your father wanted, indeed, was not the cessation of our friendship, but a public scandal. That is what he was striving for. His name had not been in the papers for years….
For what he was aiming at was popularity, and to pose as a champion of purity, as it is termed, is, in the present condition of the British public, the surest mode of becoming for the nonce a heroic figure.
Near the end, he writes,
I have now written, at great length, to you in order that you should realise what you were to me before my imprisonment, during those three years’ fatal friendship: what you have been to me during my imprisonment, already within two moons of its completion almost: and what I hope to be to myself and to others when my imprisonment is over.
I cannot reconstruct my letter, or rewrite it. You must take it as it stands, blotted in many places with tears, in some with the signs of passion or pain, and make it out as best you can, blots, corrections and all….
I will admit that it is a severe letter. I have not spared you. Indeed you may say that, after admitting that to weigh you against the smallest of my sorrows, the meanest of my losses, would be really unfair to you, I have actually done so, and made scruple by scruple the most careful assay of your nature. That is true. But you must remember that you put yourself into the scales.
More information on this letter is here. Wilde spent three months, near the end of his imprisonment, writing this 50,000-word letter. He had a friend copy it. As written in the link here referenced,
In 1913, the entire letter was read to the court after Douglas sued Arthur Ransome for libel, and parts published in the London Press. Douglas testified that he had received the letter from Ross, but after reading Ross’s cover note threw it in the fire unread.
He later claimed that he had never received the package at all. Observers reported that Douglas could not bear it when he learned that the letter was addressed to him and heard its full contents.
Although Douglas had been the cause of his misfortunes, he and Wilde were reunited in August 1897 at Rouen. This meeting was disapproved of by the friends and families of both men.
Constance Wilde was already refusing to meet Wilde or allow him to see their sons, though she kept him supplied with money. During the latter part of 1897, Wilde and Douglas lived together near Naples for a few months until they were separated by their respective families under the threat of a cutting-off of funds.