A "Consummate Artist" and "Consummate Rascal:" De Profundis, Imaginative Resistance, and the Queer Erotics of Prison Writing
Haverford College. Department of English
Place of Publication
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"I sit between Gilles de Retz and the Marquis de Sade," Oscar Wilde writes to his lover Lord Alfred Douglas, known affectionately as "Bosie," from the solitude of his prison cell (54). The letter – given the title De Profundis – was the last full work of the Irish aesthete and playwright who fell from stardominto obscurity after his sentencing for "gross indecency," a crime of homosexuality, in May of 1895 (Tóibín xxiii). Throughout the letter, Wilde continues todraw on the muses of other prison writers: he praises the "perfect lives" of "Verlaine and of Prince Kropotkin," and compares his mother kindly to "Madame Roland" (130, 140). In its self-announced lineage, De Profundis offers a basis to evaluate the aesthetics of prison writing. Firstly, the letter must be read in terms of mimesis, or how the prison materially shapes the text. Gramsci's theory of the subaltern clarifies how time and language in prison impress upon Wilde's writing, creating a fluidity of prose and a strategic turn to essentialism. Subsequently, the letter can be read in terms of anti-mimesis, or how the text creatively shapes the prison in acts of expropriative refashioning. Wilde resists the religious indoctrination of the prison by encoding a homoerotic portrayal of Christ. In doing so, Wilde reasserts his imaginative preeminence by employing the body of Christ as a symbol for the fluidity of sexuality and for an ethics of bodily care amongst the imprisoned men. In De Profundis, Wilde not only challenges the narrative of defamationon trial but also produces an artistic work that employs the pressures of confinement as features of its self-expressed agency.