On this hot, humid day, with the possibility of a storm lurking not too far, we–Bob and I–made it to the Pere Lachaise Cemetery. After a long meandering walk and warm words to Balzac, Chopin and others, we arrived at Oscar Wilde. Because of the tragic way his life had ended, I expected a somber sort of a monument, black stone perhaps like Proust’s, or white marble like Chopin’s or even some sort of variation–or perhaps parody?–of Balzac. But Oscar Wilde’s gravestone is, to my limited, two-hour stroll, like no other. Not only for the kisses implanted on the actual stone, but also the etched writing (which make his grave a brother to Jim Morrison’s), but more so the actual design, with the image of flight arching over the actual grave, as though the grave were and were not a solid piece of stone, as though it too may take flight any minute.
In high school, we studied Oscar Wilde for his plays and his derision of British social stratification. At the same time, my dear and departed uncle Garo introduced me The Ballad of Reading Goal, which I still read from time to time when the world is too much, when sadness or uncertainty hangs over everything. Then, in college, we read The Picture of Dorian Grey and De Profundis. Then, several decades later, Oscar Wilde came back again, this time as an icon of an emerging gay sensibility, and there I found a subversive, renegade Wilde, a radically different writer than the one we had studied in high school.
Oscar Wilde, like all of us, was several personalities, all inhabiting the same interior space. That he gave voice to a multiplicity of voices–and disguises and masks–and he did it with such style is his great gift: To kill what one loves is to reduce it, label it, define it, which not only simplifies Wilde but also us, his visitors and readers and listeners and viewers and friends.
And what better ode to this beautiful day, to this great writer than a few lines from The Ballad of Reading Goal? That Wilde, who was the enfant terrible of a repressed British society, who took the mask of arrogance to the sublimest of levels and turned it into an original style, wrote a ballad that does not have even a hint of cynicism is his great, generous act of solidarity with the wretched of the earth, with a man condemned to death for the murder of one he loved.
Some kill their love when they are young,
And some when they are old;
Some strangle with the hands of Lust,
Some with the hands of Gold:
The kindest use a knife, because
The dead so soon grow cold.
Some love too little, some too long,
Some sell, and others buy;
Some do the deed with many tears,
And some without a sigh:
For each man kills the thing he loves,
Yet each man does not die.