Monday, July 24, 2006

De Profundis ("out of the depths")

Following on from the copyright infringement** linked to the previous post, I toddled over to Project Gutenberg to find the source of its quote from Oscar Wilde: De Profundis. Not surprisingly, the quote is more interesting in its proper context:

The more mechanical people to whom life is a shrewd speculation depending on a careful calculation of ways and means, always know where they are going, and go there. They start with the ideal desire of being the parish beadle, and in whatever sphere they are placed they succeed in being the parish beadle and no more. A man whose desire is to be something separate from himself, to be a member of Parliament, or a successful grocer, or a prominent solicitor, or a judge, or something equally tedious, invariably succeeds in being what he wants to be. That is his punishment. Those who want a mask have to wear it.

But with the dynamic forces of life, and those in whom those dynamic forces become incarnate, it is different. People whose desire is solely for self-realisation never know where they are going. They can't know. In one sense of the word it is of course necessary, as the Greek oracle said, to know oneself: that is the first achievement of knowledge. But to recognise that the soul of a man is unknowable, is the ultimate achievement of wisdom. The final mystery is oneself. When one has weighed the sun in the balance, and measured the steps of the moon, and mapped out the seven heavens star by star, there still remains oneself. Who can calculate the orbit of his own soul?

(online reader)

De Profundis was named and published after Wilde's death, but he wrote it as a letter during his time in gaol (Wikipedia). It's a beautiful meditation on the impact of isolation and sorrow, and in one lovely passage he illustrates the resounding power of a small kindness in times of trouble:
(To avoid confusion, please read "-" as the absence of somebody's name, and I've changed what I think was a typo in the first line: from "in" to "is".)

Where there is sorrow there is holy ground. Some day people will realise what that means. They will know nothing of life till they do, - and natures like his can realise it. When I was brought down from my prison to the Court of Bankruptcy, between two policemen, - waited in the long dreary corridor that, before the whole crowd, whom an action so sweet and simple hushed into silence, he might gravely raise his hat to me, as, handcuffed and with bowed head, I passed him by. Men have gone to heaven for smaller things than that. It was in this spirit, and with this mode of love, that the saints knelt down to wash the feet of the poor, or stooped to kiss the leper on the cheek. I have never said one single word to him about what he did. I do not know to the present moment whether he is aware that I was even conscious of his action. It is not a thing for which one can render formal thanks in formal words. I store it in the treasure-house of my heart. I keep it there as a secret debt that I am glad to think I can never possibly repay. It is embalmed and kept sweet by the myrrh and cassia of many tears. When wisdom has been profitless to me, philosophy barren, and the proverbs and phrases of those who have sought to give me consolation as dust and ashes in my mouth, the memory of that little, lovely, silent act of love has unsealed for me all the wells of pity: made the desert blossom like a rose, and brought me out of the bitterness of lonely exile into harmony with the wounded, broken, and great heart of the world.
(online reader)

** Waving at you, M.