Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Soul of Wilde


Probably one of the last people I expected to be an apologist - of sorts - for Jesus is Oscar Wilde. The neurotic relationship that the Irish have had with Christ is evident in even its expats, like Shaw and Joyce.

Wilde returned to Christianity's awful symbolism in his late masterpiece "The Ballad of Reading Gaol": "Nor feel upon his shuddering cheek/The kiss of Caiaphas." "And bitter wine upon a sponge/Was the savour of Remorse." He knew too well that it was to Christ's Passion that artists returned again and again for their metaphors of suffering and pain. Near the close of his astonishing essay "The Soul of Man under Socialism" (1891), he wrote about Christianity's worship of suffering:


Christ made no attempt to reconstruct society, and
consequently the Individualism that he preached to man could be
realised only through pain or in solitude. The ideals that we owe
to Christ are the ideals of the man who abandons society entirely,
or of the man who resists society absolutely. But man is naturally
social. Even the Thebaid became peopled at last. And though the
cenobite realises his personality, it is often an impoverished
personality that he so realises. Upon the other hand, the terrible
truth that pain is a mode through which man may realise himself
exercises a wonderful fascination over the world. Shallow speakers
and shallow thinkers in pulpits and on platforms often talk about
the world's worship of pleasure, and whine against it. But it is
rarely in the world's history that its ideal has been one of joy
and beauty. The worship of pain has far more often dominated the
world. Mediaevalism, with its saints and martyrs, its love of
self-torture, its wild passion for wounding itself, its gashing
with knives, and its whipping with rods--Mediaevalism is real
Christianity, and the mediaeval Christ is the real Christ. When
the Renaissance dawned upon the world, and brought with it the new
ideals of the beauty of life and the joy of living, men could not
understand Christ. Even Art shows us that. The painters of the
Renaissance drew Christ as a little boy playing with another boy in
a palace or a garden, or lying back in his mother's arms, smiling
at her, or at a flower, or at a bright bird; or as a noble, stately
figure moving nobly through the world; or as a wonderful figure
rising in a sort of ecstasy from death to life. Even when they
drew him crucified they drew him as a beautiful God on whom evil
men had inflicted suffering. But he did not preoccupy them much.
What delighted them was to paint the men and women whom they
admired, and to show the loveliness of this lovely earth. They
painted many religious pictures--in fact, they painted far too
many, and the monotony of type and motive is wearisome, and was bad
for art. It was the result of the authority of the public in art-
matters, and is to be deplored. But their soul was not in the
subject. Raphael was a great artist when he painted his portrait
of the Pope. When he painted his Madonnas and infant Christs, he
is not a great artist at all. Christ had no message for the
Renaissance, which was wonderful because it brought an ideal at
variance with his, and to find the presentation of the real Christ
we must go to mediaeval art. There he is one maimed and marred;
one who is not comely to look on, because Beauty is a joy; one who
is not in fair raiment, because that may be a joy also: he is a
beggar who has a marvellous soul; he is a leper whose soul is
divine; he needs neither property nor health; he is a God realising
his perfection through pain.

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