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Full Online Book HomeNonfictionsBooks And Persons: Being Comments On A Past Epoch 1908-1911 - Suppressions In "De Profundis"
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Books And Persons: Being Comments On A Past Epoch 1908-1911 - Suppressions In 'De Profundis' Post by :imported_n/a Category :Nonfictions Author :Arnold Bennett Date :May 2012 Read :1731

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Books And Persons: Being Comments On A Past Epoch 1908-1911 - Suppressions In "De Profundis"

(_21 July '10_)

Some time ago I pointed out (what was to me a new discovery) that certain passages in the German translation of Oscar Wilde's "De Profundis" did not exist in the original English version as printed; and I suggested that Mr. Robert Ross, Oscar Wilde's faithful literary executor, should explain. He has been good enough to do so. He informs me that the passages in question were restored in the edition of "De Profundis" (the thirteenth) in Wilde's Complete Works, issued by Messrs. Methuen to a limited public, and that they have been retained in the fourteenth (separate) edition, of which Mr. Ross sends me a copy. I possessed only the first edition. I do not want to part with it, but the fourteenth is a great deal more interesting than the first. It contains a dedicatory letter by Mr. Ross to Dr. Max Meyerfeld ("But for you I do not think the book would ever have been published"), and some highly interesting letters written in Reading Gaol by Wilde to Mr. Ross (which had previously been published in Germany). In the course of this dedicatory letter, Mr. Ross says: "In sending copy to Messrs. Methuen (to whom alone I submitted it) I anticipated refusal, as though the work were my own. A very distinguished man of letters who acted as their reader advised, however, its acceptance, and urged, in view of the uncertainty of its reception, the excision of certain passages, to which I readily assented."

* * * * *

This explains clearly enough the motive for suppressing the passages. But even after making allowance for the natural timidity and apprehensiveness of the publishers' reader, I cannot quite understand why those particular passages were cut out. Here is one of them: "I had genius, a distinguished name, high social position, brilliancy, intellectual daring; I made art a philosophy and philosophy an art. I altered the minds of men and the colours of things; there was nothing I said or did that did not make people wonder. I took the drama, the most objective form known to art, and made it as personal a mode of expression as the lyric or sonnet; at the same time I widened its range and enriched its characteristics. Drama, novel, poem in prose, poem in rhyme, subtle or fantastic dialogue, whatever I touched I made beautiful in a new mode of beauty. To truth itself I gave what is false no less than what is true as its rightful province, and showed that the false and the true are merely forms of intellectual existence. I treated art as the supreme reality and life as a mere mode of fiction. I awoke the imagination of my century so that it created myth and legend around me. I summed up all systems in a phrase, and all existence in an epigram. Along with these things I had things that were different. But I let myself be lured into long spells of senseless and sensual ease." It is difficult to see anything in the factitious but delightful brilliance of this very characteristic swagger that could have endangered the book's reception.

* * * * *

Mr. Ross's letter to me concludes thus: "'De Profundis,' however, even in its present form, is only a fragment. The whole work could not be published in the lifetime of the present generation." This makes, within a month, the third toothsome dish as to which I have had the exasperating news that it is being reserved for that spoiled child, posterity. I may say, however, that I do not regard "De Profundis" as one of Wilde's best books. I was disappointed with it. It is too frequently insincere, and the occasion was not one for pose. And it has another fault. I happened to meet M. Henry Davray several times while he was translating the book into French. M. Davray's knowledge of English is profound, and I was accordingly somewhat disconcerted when one day, pointing to a sentence in the original, he asked, "What does that mean?" I thought, "Is Davray at last 'stumped'?" I examined the sentence with care, and then answered, "It doesn't mean anything." "I thought so," said M. Davray. We looked at each other. M. Davray was an old friend of Wilde's, and was one of the dozen men who attended his desolating funeral. And I was an enthusiastic admirer of Wilde's style at its best. We said no more. But a day or two later a similar incident happened, and yet another.

* * * * *

Wilde's letters to Mr. Ross from prison are extremely good. They begin sombrely, but after a time the wit lightens, and towards the end it is playing continually. The first gleam of it is this: "I am going to take up the study of German. Indeed prison seems to be the proper place for such a study." On the subject of the natural life, he says a thing which is exquisitely wise: "Stevenson's letters are most disappointing also. I see that romantic surroundings are the worst surroundings for a romantic writer. In Gower Street Stevenson would have written a new 'Trois Mousquetaires,' in Samoa he writes letters to the _Times about Germans. I see also the traces of a terrible strain to lead a natural life. To chop wood with any advantage to oneself or profit to others, one should not be able to describe the process. In point of fact the natural life is the unconscious life. Stevenson merely extended the sphere of the artificial by taking to digging. The whole dreary book has given me a lesson. If I spend my future life reading Baudelaire in a cafe I shall be leading a more natural life than if I take to hedger's work or plant cacao in mud-swamps."

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