Oscar Wilde in Naples

Many words can be used to describe Oscar Wilde’s genius and personality, but wise is not one of them, to be sure. Having spent two years in jail after having been charged for “gross indecency”, the echoes of the scandal were not over yet, so he decided that Paris would have been a better place to try and start over again. In those months in Paris he could work on his famous “Ballad of Reading Jail”, but the signs of hard labour on his body and the awareness of the terrible humiliation his family had suffered were not enough to make him ignore the reasons of his heart. Against his better judgement, if he had any, Wilde yielded to his desire to see again Lord Alfred Douglas, Bosie, the man who had brought him to a tremendous downfall, so the two decided to spent the winter in Naples as Bosie ‘s relations were already there. Of course, his friends and family were furious for his going back the man who had ruined not only his but the life of those who had been close to him.

Towards the end of September 1897 the two lovers arrived in Naples and settled at Villa del Giudice on the charming Posillipo hill. Even though he used the name of Sebastian Melmoth, his coming to Naples become soon the tittle-tattle of the moment and only a couple of weeks after their arrival Matilde Serao wrote an article about the presence in town of such a famous, irreverent artist on the most popular newspaper: Il Mattino. “The secret of Pulcinella” we would call it  here in Italy and this expression particularly fits, as Pulcinella is a character who belongs to the Neapolitan Comedy of Art. By the way, how Wilde meant to keep the secret, having started soon to attend the Neapolitan literary circles, I cannot make it out, but as I told you before, wisdom has never touched him. Of course, being in reduced circumstances he was trying to have his works translated, but the tittle-tattle could not be stopped when the couple started to be seen in the company of other men, who were not part of any artistic society. A waiter of a hotel said he had seen Wilde with five soldiers and that he had spent the entire night with them.

So very soon rumors became scandals. It was only October when the couple decided to visit Capri and lodged at Hotel Quisisana. When the Swedish doctor and writer Alex Munthe met them the following day, they looked particularly depressed as they were waiting for a boat to go back to Naples. “They denied us even bread” said Wilde laconically and Bosie explained that some Uk customers had recognized them at the hotel and as they could not tolerate their presence there and the two lovers were politely sent away by the property owner. They had tried to find shelter in another hotel but they had received the same treatment. Axel Munthe invited them to dinner and offered them to be his guests at Villa Lysis, for some days. Afterwards, Wilde went back to Naples the 18th of October 1897, while Bosie decided to remain few more days at Munthe’s “Villa San Michele”.

The fact that Wilde and Bosie were a continuous source of scandal, brought both Douglas’s and Wilde’s families first to ask, then to intimate and eventually to force the two to separate. Which was their weakest point? Money. Wilde was deprived of the small income guaranteed to him by his separated wife, while  Bosie’s funds were cut by his mother. Even an emissary of the Embassy of England in Rome came to Naples expressly to see Douglas and make him understand that he would have to separate from Wilde immediately and such a conduct was considered like misbehaving towards the embassy itself.

 

It might be regarded a little harsh, but the cut of the funds worked well, and shortly after, at the end of November 1897, Douglas returned home after having written a warm letter of apology to his mother, who, by the way, had paid the (many) bills left pending by the couple. Wilde even received some money from her, which he used to take a trip to Taormina. Ah, the pangs of love!

 

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I would prefer not to

ba2The paths of rebellion are just few. You may choose to fight the system, aiming at destroying it or you may create antithetical models, thus proving the mediocrity of the normal standards of behaviour, just like European aesthetes did in the nineteenth century with the purpose of undermining the pillars of bourgeois values such as materialism, respectability and the pursuit of wealth. Some of them, labeled as dandies, considered themselves the depositary of taste and embodied unattainable models of elegance and savoir-vivre, some others, who were called Bohemians, chose to live marginalized. They were, as William Makepeace Thackeray said, “ artists or littérateur who, consciously or unconsciously, secedes from conventionality in life and in art” rejecting permanent residence and surviving on little material wealth.

ba3They were seen like gypsies, in fact, they were called Bohemians as it was common belief that gypsies came from Bohemia. In Paris  many of them lived at Montmartre, not far from the “Moulin Rouge”, while in London they could be seen at Chelsea or Soho. They lived solely for art and literature’s sake and their dissolute lives were often characterized by alcohol and drug abuse, as well as open sexual freedom.  The Bohemians, in fact, felt the need to express and assert themselves, being at such a social and economic disadvantage.They aimed at defying the system, flaunting their marginality. The point is that whatever rebellious way you choose, the system cannot be ignored, as, whether we like it or not, we are active part of it.

ba4Hence, could inactivity be a way to beat a system? If we are small but functional mechanisms of a whole, whether marginalized or not, wouldn’t be just our inertia a way to make the system crack at least? This option is explored in Melville‘s short story: “Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street“. Melville chooses Wall Street as setting, the bustling center of business and finance, to place his inactive anti-hero to mark more his anomaly. One day a strange, mysterious, pale figure of a man appears at
a lawyer’s door. He is there for the job ad. Very little is known about his past: he
has worked for a dead letter office for years and has a letter of recommendations with very
positive remarks in his pocket. He is hired. The job is a kind of boring and his
profile seems to be fit for that dull activity: just copying documents. His name is
Bartelby. He begins well: he copies lengthy documents, works overtime with great
efficiency. He is the perfect wheel in the lawyer’s system. He had chosen well.

ba8But one day something unpredictable happens. At a banal lawyer’s request Bartelby’s reply is shocking: “I would prefer not to”. Booooom! “I would prefer……” What does it
mean? Prefer? Once you are an integrated part of a system, can you still keep your freedom of choice? Does this option really exist, without making collapse the very same system ? It existed in Bartelby’s mind. From that day on, Bartelby starts to slip away the assignments he is given, till one day he decides it is time to stop: he will do nothing more, but he will not quit he place. He will stay there.

ba7However, each part of a system has to be functional, otherwise it doesn’t work, thus the boss tries at first to reintegrate him. It is a failure. Then he does whatever is in his power to get rid of him. Nothing. In the end he will be so exasperated to move his business to another office. Bartelby will remain there, till the new owner brutally manages to remove him. He will end up in jail where he dies. It may seem a nonsensical story of a failure, but it is not. It is a story of a powerful rebellion of a modern hero that, thanks to his great denial, breaks the system forcing it somehow to change, humanizing it. The lawyer, in fact, will be so overwhelmed by guilt that in the end he will go and look for him to give him his support; but Bartelby will prefer not be helped, thus despising his philanthropic hypocrisy. Only in the end, defeated, he will understand the greatness of Bartelby’s behaviour saying :”Ah Bartelby! Ah humanity