LITERARY ARTIFACTS: Girls Gone Oscar Wilde
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Each month in the Literary Artifacts space, writer Kristopher Jansma writes about his encounters with rare books, writerly memorabilia, and other treasures in New York City and around the world, hoping to discover how the internet age is changing the face of literature as we know it.
Spring! When a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of g-string bikinis, Pauly D branded bronzer, and doing lime Jello shots on booze cruises. From Cabo to Cancun, those who look good in swimsuits are celebrating that magical time of year when they can abandon their textbooks and fly south for sun and surf.
Which is why I decided to head in the opposite direction to spend Spring Break in Paris, where wearing sensible layers in March is recommended and “pasty” is a hue in high-demand. For those who look forward to vacations as “time to read something really fun” and who prefer downing snails at Brasserie Lipp to tequila shots at Señor Frog’s, it is tough to beat the City of Lights. True, the girls are a bit less likely to randomly remove their tops, but who needs that when you’ve got the Venus di Milo? Yes, the Moulin Rouge has become an overpriced tourist trap and the pink inn where Van Gogh once bedded prostitutes now serves bad soup. But things can still get a little raucous when you’re running the same wine-soaked streets that Hemingway and Fitzgerald stumbled down not so very long ago.
In that good-time, party-hardy spirit, I met up with an old college buddy (who has become an ex-pat of late), and we spent an overcast afternoon living it up at the Père Lachaise Cemetery in the 20th arrondissement, where many of Paris’s most famous cut-ups now rest eternally.
Named for Father La Chaise, the priest whose job it was to listen to the sins of Versailles’s original bad-boy, Louis XIV, the cemetery is the famous resting place of raucous-salon hostess Gertrude Stein (and her lover Alice B. Toklas), club-kid Edith Piaf, rascal playwright Moliere, and the dancer Colette, whose same-gender kiss on stage at the Moulin Rouge caused an actual riot, decades before Britney Spears and Madonna were born. (And although I can’t think of a good way to make Marcel Proust sound edgy, he’s there too).
Fans of The Doors have made Père Lachaise one of the most popular tourist attractions in Paris. When we arrived at Jim Morrison’s grave site there was a raucous crowd, laughing, drinking indiscreetly from liquor bottles, and blasting “Light My Fire” on their cell phones. A little bit of Spring Break right there in Paris. Once the grave supported a bust of the singer, but it was later stolen; now his visitors leave empty liquor bottles beneath his rather plain headstone, which is covered in graffiti like “This is the end, my only friend, the end.”
According to my guidebook, the French originally declined to allow Morrison to be buried in Père Lachaise after his 1971 overdose, but changed their tune when they heard that he had once published some books of poetry. Poets over rock stars… I knew it was my kind of town. And in that spirit, my friend and I continued out towards the eastern wall of the cemetery, to find the only grave more celebrated than Morrison’s: that of literature’s own self-proclaimed Bad Boy, Oscar Wilde.
Irreverent, intelligent, and incomparable, Wilde seduced a stodgier society with charm, humor, and grace while at the same time living a life that defied all its conventions. The Irish novelist and playwright may not seem edgy at first glance. He is probably best known today as the author of the play The Importance of Being Earnest and the novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, both more than likely to be found on a high school stage and sophomore summer reading lists. But it was his place in the canon that so delighted me in my own high school English classes.
Wilde, who lived openly as a homosexual during the height of his fame in Victorian England, seemed to embody a certain kind of confident contrariness that I admired deeply as a teenager. Wilde managed to live differently, and be loved for being so. I tried to take his advice to heart when he wrote that, “To love oneself is the beginning of a life-long romance.” But he could get away with saying snappy things like that. Every sentence seemed to be some perfectly constructed quip or quote. Sorely, I longed to catch some teacher with a comeback like “consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.” Wilde gave me hope that one could be both cool and smart. Not only was he a giant of letters, but it seemed as if he might also have led the debauchery during the Spring Breaks of his own day.
My guide book claimed the tomb of Oscar Wilde was to be even more highly decorated than Morrison’s: In the ’90s, the tradition had arisen to put on bright lipstick and kiss his tombstone, and now thousands of kiss-marks cover the ten-foot high sculpture of a “modernist angel” that perches atop the grave. In the spirit of going wild, I was fully determined to let out my inner rebel. Even if it meant putting on a little fuchsia lipstick myself. But when I arrived, I found the monument wiped clean and encased by a Plexiglas wall.
Another tourist informed me that in December, the French authorities had approached Wilde’s grandson to get permission to erect the barrier. The kisses themselves were not actually damaging anything, but the repeated cleaning of the monument was weakening the stone, and would eventually have led to the whole thing collapsing. They’d tried handing out fines for €9,000 to people kissing the stone, but even this had not deterred his fans. Finally, at some point someone had actually broken the phallus off the angel on top, and absconded with it. This certainly seemed an outrage, but did they have to go wall off his whole grave? Why not at least leave the kisses on there?
Now isolated from the other graves, Wilde’s tombstone reminded me more than ever that, for all his triumphs in life, his final years had been miserable. He’d tried to sue the Marquess of Queensberry for publically calling him a “sodomite”, and the Marquess responded by proving in public court that his statement was not libelous but accurate, a humiliating experience which saw Wilde’s personal life and literary works lain bare for references to homosexuality and immorality. The same Victorians who had once tacitly embraced Wilde (and his work) for flaunting convention, now hypocritically condemned both. I can only hope that as they did so, Wilde got the chance to point to the preface to Dorian Gray. “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.”
After losing the lawsuit, Wilde was promptly arrested for gross indecency. When prosecutors asked him to explain “the love that dare not speak its name”, Wilde responded by citing Plato, Shakespeare, and Michelangelo, and saying that “It is in this century misunderstood. […] It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it. […] the world does not understand. The world mocks at it, and sometimes puts one in the pillory for it.” Even knowing that this response would do nothing to help him, Wilde could not resist the urge to speak the truth. For, as he’d once written, “to speak the truth is a painful thing. To be forced to tell lies is much worse.” Wilde served two years in prison doing hard labor, an experience he never recovered from. He died of meningitis at the dingy Hôtel d’Alsace in Paris, where he spoke his famous last words, “Either this wallpaper goes, or I do.”
As I came closer to Wilde’s grave, I could see that undeterred tourists had begun kissing the Plexiglas itself. Scribbled on the glass were little messages from Wilde fans around the globe, in English, French, Spanish, and Italian… things like “Thanks for being there ❤ Jane” and “We love you forever! Love Veronica & Bianca from New Jersey”. Some cited sage wisdom from the man himself, “It is only the shallow who do not judge by appearance” and “Romance Lives By Repetition”. There were a few somewhat goofy entries along the lines of “Thanks for helping me see the importance of being earnest!” or “R.I.P. You are a Genius!” but who am I to judge how others pay their respects? (Short of phallus vandalism, which seems a tad selfish, really). Someone had folded up a handwritten note and tossed it over the top of the divider. And a few brave souls had even scaled the neighboring tombstone so they could lean across to the unprotected parts of the angel and leave a kiss or two, despite the barrier.
I suppose that as long as we continue to find inspiration and assurance in the lives of the great men and women of history, we will try and find a way of expressing our gratitude, whether with a kiss or an empty bottle of Jack. We will continue to go great distances to assure ourselves that their words still matter after a hundred years, or two, or three. Perhaps the words left on the glass will just be washed away, but those who come know full-well that their efforts are not useless. Words can be scrubbed out, but the ideas they represent cannot — not by repressive societies, not by scandals, not by death itself. We know that as Wilde himself said, “The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely. All art is quite useless.”
Grabbing my own pen, I summoned the nerve to be a little reckless. Perhaps I would not spend my Spring Break doing body shots or keg stands, but if Oscar had taught me anything, it was that you need not fear making a simple statement, particularly if it’s true.
While my friend played look-out, I got out my pen and left one of my favorite quotes on one of the metal pillars supporting the glass.
“Keep love in your heart. A life without it is like a sunless garden when the flowers are dead. The consciousness of loving and being loved brings a warmth and a richness to life that nothing else can bring. Who, being loved, is poor?”
SPRING BREAK!!! Woooohoooo!
— Kristopher Jansma is a writer and teacher living in Manhattan. His debut novel, The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards will be published by Viking Press in 2013. He has studied The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University and has an MFA in Fiction from Columbia University. He is a full-time Lecturer at Manhattanville College and also teaches at SUNY Purchase. Recently, his short story “A Summer Wedding” won 2nd prize in The Blue Mesa Review’s 2011 Fiction Contest, judged by writer Lori Ostlund. His essays and fiction can also be found on The Millions, ASweetLife.org, The 322 Review, Opium Magazine, The Columbia Spectator, and The (Somewhat) Complete Works of Kristopher Jansma. You can also find him on Facebook.