A tradition Wendy and I have followed when we are on the road, particularly at Christmastime, is reading short stories to each other. It all began a few years ago with me reading to her the final paragraphs of Oscar Wilde‘s De Profundis, even though it is actually not at all a short story.
De Profundis (From the Depths)
In 1897 Oscar Wilde was completing the final months of a two-year imprisonment for homosexual acts. He composed a 50,000 word letter to his dissolute lover, an epistle which may never have been delivered. It was partially published in 1905 but not completely and correctly published until 1962. Max Nelson in The Paris Review describes the piece as, “…petulant, vindictive, bathetic, indulgent, excessive, florid, massively arrogant, self-pitying, repetitive, showy, sentimental, and shrill, particularly in its first half…It’s also one of the glories of English prose.”
The title refers to the penitential Psalm 130, which begins with, “From the depths, I have cried out to you, O Lord” or “De profundis clamavi ad te, Domine” in the traditional Latin translation. The final part of the letter is the most touching, in which Wilde longs for nature after spending two years in harsh conditions, including months of hard labor. A fall he suffered in the jail chapel, caused by illness and hunger, had ruptured his ear drum, an injury that would contribute to his death three years after his release, at age 46.
I have a strange longing for the great simple primeval things, such as the sea, to me no less of a mother than the Earth. It seems to me that we all look at Nature too much, and live with her too little. I discern great sanity in the Greek attitude. They never chattered about sunsets, or discussed whether the shadows on the grass were really mauve or not. But they saw that the sea was for the swimmer, and the sand for the feet of the runner. They loved the trees for the shadow that they cast, and the forest for its silence at noon. The vineyard-dresser wreathed his hair with ivy that he might keep off the rays of the sun as he stooped over the young shoots, and for the artist and the athlete, the two types that Greece gave us, they plaited with garlands the leaves of the bitter laurel and of the wild parsley, which else had been of no service to men.
We call ours a utilitarian age, and we do not know the uses of any single thing. We have forgotten that water can cleanse, and fire purify, and that the Earth is mother to us all. As a consequence our art is of the moon and plays with shadows, while Greek art is of the sun and deals directly with things. I feel sure that in elemental forces there is purification, and I want to go back to them and live in their presence.
I strongly identify with Oscar’s longing to escape into Nature. I wear too many hats at work, and my varied responsibilities tax and sometimes overwhelm me. Day hiking is my escape, allowing me to shift my focus from the endless to-do list at work to the serenity and beauty of the natural world. Oscar’s suffering far exceeds my own, however, and the final paragraph of De Profundis shatters me:
All trials are trials for one’s life, just as all sentences are sentences of death; and three times have I been tried. The first time I left the box to be arrested, the second time to be led back to the house of detention, the third time to pass into a prison for two years. Society, as we have constituted it, will have no place for me, has none to offer; but Nature, whose sweet rains fall on unjust and just alike, will have clefts in the rocks where I may hide, and secret valleys in whose silence I may weep undisturbed. She will hang the night with stars so that I may walk abroad in the darkness without stumbling, and send the wind over my footprints so that none may track me to my hurt: she will cleanse me in great waters, and with bitter herbs make me whole.
Sharing that profound prose triggered a series of shared stories between Wendy and me, with Wendy eventually responding by reading to me “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” by Flannery O’Connor, which will be the subject of the next installment of this series of posts on our Told Tales.