Monday, 31 October 2016

Oscar Wilde speaks from beyond the grave

Hallowe'en is as good a day as any on which to resurrect my blog, which has been in a state of suspended animation since the result of the Brexit referendum was announced in June. My reasons for this hiatus are many - not least the need to complete my next book (which I have now done) and a general malaise (which is still in progress). Here, then, to get the ball rolling once again is an account of a posthumous literary encounter:


At 11:45 p.m. on July 6th 1923, the Irish medium Hester Travers Smith (1868-1949) conducted the tenth of eighteen seances in which she interrogated the ghost of Oscar Wilde. She mediated his thoughts through automatic writing and a ouija board and later published the results in a very strange little  book called Oscar Wilde from Purgatory (1924). His eternal slumber interrupted, Wilde is initially invited to pass critical judgement on such contemporary writers as Thomas Hardy and John Galsworthy. Eventually the talk turns to a book the medium claimed never to have read, but with which Wilde seems surprisingly familiar. 

What is your opinion of "Ulysses," by James Joyce?

Yes, I have smeared my fingers with that vast work. It has given me one exquisite moment of amusement. I gathered that if I hoped to retain my reputation as an intelligent shade, open to new ideas, I must peruse this volume. It is a singular matter that a countryman of mine should have produced this great bulk of filth. You may smile at me for uttering thus when you reflect that in the eyes of the world I am a tainted creature. But, at least, I had a sense of the values of things on the terrestrial globe. Here in "Ulysses" I find a monster who cannot contain the monstrosities of his own brain. The creatures he gives birth to leap from him in shapeless masses of hideousness, as dragons might, which in their foulsome birth contaminate their parent.... This book appeals to all my senses. It gratifies the soil which is in everyone of us. It gives me the impression of having been written in a severe fit of nausea. Surely there is a nausea fever. The physicians may not have diagnosed it. But here we have the heated vomit continued through the countless pages of this work. The author thought no doubt that he had given the world a series of ideas. Ideas which had sprung from out his body, not his mind!

Wilde, clearly a shadow of his former self, continues in the vein at some length and the reader might glumly ysuppose that his torment in the afterlife is to be stripped of wit but condemned to loquacity. Hester Travers Smith doesn't let Joyce's masterwork off the hook, returning to the subject in her conclusion, where she cannot resist a final dig:

I feel it is quite natural that Wilde should be revolted by a work like "Ulysses." It is entirely out of harmony with his time and ideas. He might easily fail to see what the admirers of Joyce call the "vastness of the book." It is completely ugly; that is enough. His horror of probing into the "inside" of a human being would naturally be aroused by a book which, I believe, practically deals with nothing else.

No personal animus there, no axe to grind. Joyce pounced gleefully on Smith's book and incorporated a version of the supernatural dialogue in Finnegans Wake:

        Tell the woyld I have lived true thousand hells. Pity, please, lady, for poor O.W. in this profundust snobbing I have caught. Nine dirty years mine age, hairs hoar, mummeries failend, snowdrift to my elpow, deff as Adder. I askt you, dear lady, to judge on my tree by our fruits. I gave you of the tree.