Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A Fantasy of Clemency: Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband

This is the program essay that I wrote for the 2009 Shaw Festival production of An Ideal Husband by Oscar Wilde. The run of the show is over now, so there seems no reason not to publish it here.

LADY STUTFIELD. Do tell me your conception of the Ideal Husband. I think it would be so very, very helpful.
MRS. ALLONBY. The Ideal Husband? There couldn’t be such a thing. The institution is wrong.
LADY STUTFIELD. The Ideal Man, then, in his relations to us.
LADY CAROLINE. He would probably be extremely realistic.
--- Oscar Wilde, A Woman of No Importance (1893), Act II

On an evening in early May, 1864, the newly knighted Sir William Wilde, father to then nine-year-old Oscar and the most renowned eye-and-ear surgeon in Ireland, was giving a public lecture at the Metropolitan Hall in Dublin. As his audience arrived, they encountered a young woman named Mary Travers, who was distributing a pamphlet she had written under the name “Speranza,” in which she intimated that she had been raped under chloroform two years earlier by a Dr. Quilty and the incident connived at by Mrs. Quilty. Naturally, this caused a buzz: the Quiltys were barely disguised portraits of Sir William and his wife, Lady Jane Wilde, and “Speranza” was the pen-name under which Jane Wilde had become a celebrated writer.

It was apparently the stolen pen-name rather more than the suggestion of her husband’s outrageous misbehaviour that goaded Lady Wilde into action. Months earlier, she had disdainfully returned a letter in which Travers claimed to have been compromised by Sir William. “I really took no interest in the matter,” Lady Wilde later explained. “I looked upon the whole thing as a fabrication.” In fact, she knew all too well of her husband’s proclivities; Sir William already acknowledged three illegitimate children. As for Mary Travers, she had been long familiar to the Wildes as a patient of Sir William’s and a frequent guest in their home since 1854, when she was eighteen.

In that patriarchal day, Lady Wilde clearly saw what her course of action must be: she wrote to Mary’s father, informing him of “the disreputable conduct of your daughter at Bray where she consorts with all the low newspaper boys in the place, employing them to disseminate offensive placards in which my name is given, and also tracts in which she makes it appear that she has had an intrigue with Sir William Wilde.” She added that Mary’s “object in insulting me is in the hope of extorting money.” This was a mistake. Mary Travers found the letter and decided to sue Lady Wilde for libel.

The trial was a great sensation, covering dozens of full pages in The Nation, the major Irish newspaper of the day. Under cross-questioning, Mary Travers’s suggestion of being chloroformed evaporated, and when she admitted that her return visits to the office had included further sexual episodes, it appeared that the allegations of the doctor’s criminality were settling into something more like sustained impropriety. There was much anticipation that the disgraced man might take the stand to complete this defense, such as it was. But, because it was not he, but his wife, who was on trial, he never did.

That decision proved disastrous for Sir William, whose silence was taken as a tacit admission of guilt. Whereas the jury fined Lady Wilde a mere farthing in damages, Sir William’s reputation was ruined. Rapist he might not be, but the doctor was clearly a scoundrel and a target for derision. He removed himself first from public life and then from Dublin altogether, retreating to County Mayo, where he became an unwashed, ill-tempered, shrunken old man.

At the time of his mother’s libel trial, Oscar Wilde was ten years old, and although he had been sent off to school before the trial began, he could not have remained untouched by the scandal that was consuming his family name. One imagines at least that the affair must have helped to shape Oscar Wilde’s response to his own similar scandal and trials thirty years later. In that time, Wilde had come to know other public men whose careers were ruined by scandals. In 1885, a friend of Wilde’s, Sir Charles Dilke, one-time under-secretary for foreign affairs, found his career abruptly ended when he was named co-respondent in a divorce case. Then, in 1889, Wilde was given a more disastrous example: Charles Parnell, the great Irish statesman, a symbol for many of the hope for Irish unity, was discovered to have had an affair with a married woman, Kitty O’Shea. Parnell married O’Shea once she was divorced, but his career was shattered by the incident, and with it, some said, Ireland’s future.

When An Ideal Husband opened in 1895, it was by no means unique in its story of a public figure who is threatened with ruin by the exposure of a scandalous misdeed. Indeed, there was a vogue for such plays. However, Wilde’s play was original in two respects. Most noted was the startling wit upon which the play vaulted to popular success. The other point of originality was perhaps less obvious: that the disclosure of Sir Robert Chiltern’s past indiscretion, in contrast to other plays of this kind, does not automatically result in the end of his public life. Rather, Wilde revolts against the requirement of perfection in public men, and he has the character clearly based upon himself, Lord Goring, attempt to persuade Chiltern’s wife, Gertrude, to reach a merciful moral verdict about her less than ideal husband. Thus, forgiveness from a paragon of feminine moral purity is sought for a political and legal offence ⎯ selling insider information ⎯ as if it were a moral failing of mainly personal relevance.

So, was Wilde attempting in some sense to secure belated exoneration for Parnell, for Dilke and his father? Perhaps. But it is equally likely that he was already considering his own possible fate in the light of his father’s. That is to say, Wilde, now a famous man, dreaded the exposure of his own secret life, and hoped that his wife, Constance, and by extension, society, would prove forgiving should it come to that. Wilde had married Constance in 1884; by 1886, she had given birth to two sons. However, in 1886 Wilde also met Robbie Ross, the Canadian journalist who was to become Wilde’s first male lover and his closest friend. Wilde recognized his true sexuality, and his life changed utterly. With the end of repression began the most productive and brilliant period of his career. But he assumed the burden of a sexuality that was literally criminal according to the laws of the time, a dark secret that was at last dragged out into the light when the Marquess of Queensberry, the father of Wilde’s lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, left a card for Wilde at his club on which he had written: “For Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite” [sic]. Despite his family’s dismal experience, Wilde sued the Marquess for libel, starting off the chain of events that would lead to Wilde’s two years of hard labour for “gross indecency.”

The phrase “hard labour” hardly begins to convey the mercilessly harsh and humiliating conditions of the sentence: two years of solitary confinement, feeding on gruel, sleeping on a plank bed, being flogged for the most trivial infractions, all to punish the “crime” of having sex with men rather than women. “The system,” Wilde confessed, “seems almost to have for its aim the wrecking and destruction of the mental faculties. The production of insanity is, if not its object, certainly its result.” His few loyal friends feared, rightly, that the experience would break him. Bernard Shaw wrote a petition pleading for Wilde’s early release, planning to have it signed by people of high social standing. Not a single willing signatory could be found. Eventually, Shaw gave it up, explaining mournfully to Wilde’s brother that, given his own reputation as a degenerate crank, his solitary signature “would reduce the petition to absurdity and do Oscar more harm than good.” It seemed that the prevailing attitude at this point was best represented by the man who, as Wilde stood shackled in his convict uniform at Clapham Junction, waiting for transfer to Reading Gaol, declared “By God, that's Oscar Wilde,” and then spat in his face.

So yes, Wilde probably felt that clemency should be extended to public figures who had committed indiscretions, and perhaps An Ideal Husband should be seen as a fantasy along those lines. The reality, leading to his exile in France and his miserable decline and death at age 46, is so much more sordid.

Today, in the Cimetière du Père-Lachaise in Paris, the most visited site is surely the grave of Oscar Wilde. Molière, Sarah Bernhardt, Balzac and Jim Morrison all have their admirers, but hardly a moment in any season passes between opening and closing that there is not a clutch of visitors at Wilde’s grave. And while the grey stone of the art deco sphinx that serves as Wilde’s tombstone has been heavily defaced, it is not with any scrawling of taunts, but rather with lipstick kisses. It seems that Wilde has found his clemency after all.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Crushing Free Speech in Canada

Inderpaul Chandhoke appears to be either too reckless or too incompetent to be trusted with administering Canadian law. Consider how arrogantly contemptuous the recent ruling of this Justice of the Peace seems to be toward the spirit of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Alex Hundert, who was one of those protesting during the G20 Summit in Toronto, and who has indeed been called a “ringleader,” has now been ordered that he may no longer speak to the media.

It's not that I think that Alex Hundert is right in his beliefs; I actually don't know enough about his opinions to make that judgement one way or the other. But THAT is the point. And even columnist Mark Steyn, whom I usually consider to be a scornful, right-wing jackass, understands clearly why Chandhoke’s ruling about Hundert is completely wrong-headed. Here's what Steyn writes:

“Mr Hundert is an idiotic anarchist, and I couldn't be less interested in hearing his political views, but that's the point of free speech, isn't it? I can't hoot and jeer at Mr Hundert's opinions if the government pre-emptively bans them - and thus in that sense the state is shriveling my freedom as well as his. An open-ended speech ban is not a bail condition pending trial so much as the Red Queen's 'sentence first, verdict afterwards'. But, as in Europe and Australia, the minor commissars of the Canadian state grow ever more comfortable in regulating "opinion and expression". The genius jurist who imposed the speech ban deserves to be better known: Step forward, Mr Inderpaul Chandhoke.”

To give the more often bombastically hardass Steyn his due, here he embraces one of the cardinal principles of liberal enlightenment politics. As Evelyn Hall famously summarized the idea in her biography of Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Inderpaul Chandhoke, on the other hand, seems to believe that it is his officially bestowed privilege to stifle any expression of dissent of which he disapproves. It may be juvenile to observe that if you take the “hand” out of his surname it reveals what his "hand" seems to be trying to do, but the observation is inescapable. This is not justice. This is not the Canadian way. This is one judge whom Canadians cannot afford to keep in place.

Monday, September 6, 2010

The Right Thing to Call Rob Ford

Try googling Toronto Mayoral candidate Rob Ford* and one of the first things that comes up is a short clip entitled “Councillor Rob Ford in action.” Taken from a 2005 documentary film called “Hogtown: The Politics of Policing," directed by Min Sook Lee, the film shows a nonplussed Rob Ford standing off to one side at first while another councillor, Case Ootes, attempts to correct the misinformation that Ford has manipulatively spread to reporters. When Rob Ford himself joins the press scrum, he is shrill and defensive and flustered, but the real excitement comes when, after he attempts to shout down Globe and Mail reporter John Barber who is asking for a clarification about his inconsistent remarks, a member of Rob Ford’s entourage accuses Barber of calling Rob Ford a “fat fuck.” There follows a name-calling chase by Rob Ford of Barber, the like of which I haven’t seen since the schoolyard at recess when I was in grade five. It offers, I suppose, a glimpse of the fine, dignified mayoral style that we can expect from Rob Ford in office. Here’s the video:

Now, if Barber did call Rob Ford a “fat fuck,” it is not audible in the video. But let's assume, for the sake of argument, that he did; the question, then, is why Rob Ford is so insistently demanding that Barber explain the label.

I think we can assume right off the bat that there can be no objection to the “fat” part of the label, which, while a tad bluntly expressed, is not exactly a surprising assessment. Indeed, when I have been even a little more overweight than I am now, I have readily used the adjective of myself, and I have many friends who would not hesitate to self-apply the label, who are not nearly as overweight as Rob Ford is. After all, facts are facts, and as Orson Welles so memorably and honestly put it, “gluttony is not a secret vice.” So we can assume that Rob Ford knows full well that he is indeed fat and that he accepts that other people know it as well.

So the trouble must be with the word “fuck.”

Now here, I am inclined to agree with Rob Ford’s indignation, and to wonder why Barber chose such a word. After all, “fuck” has to be the very last word or image I would want to associate even fleetingly with someone so vile as Rob Ford is. So we must assume therefore that Ford is indignant because he wishes to be known by another noun. And what might that be? Well, as the record shows, he's worked very hard for some time to earn a number of other labels. for starters, how about:

Rob Ford the unregenerate bigot?

Rob Ford the bald-faced liar?

Rob Ford the selfish, insensitive bastard?

Rob Ford the homophobic jerk?

Rob Ford the casually homicidal and fascist automobile owner?

Rob Ford the drunken lout?

Rob Ford the would-be wife-beater?

Rob Ford the law-obstructing criminal?

But come to think of it, there’s the point in Barber's favour: the list is such a long one. There are so many legitimate labels to choose from where Rob Ford is concerned, that one can hardly blame an overwhelmed and bullied columnist for opting to go with the time-honoured journalistic vice of the alliterative phrase.

At any rate, I remain puzzled by one thing: who, just exactly, is intending to vote for this pathetic, shrill and stupid little brute?

*(As I understand it, the more times a name, such as Rob Ford, is mentioned on a webpage, the higher it will appear in the search results when “Rob Ford” is entered.)

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Richard Dawkins and "The God Delusion"

A friend of mine recently posted this video on his Facebook page, and I commented on it there. But because what I said returns to a thought I've had recurringly, I decided I would also record the thought here.

I am nagged by the feeling that Richard Dawkins, in his argument in favour of atheism, just makes things far too easy on himself. As Northrop Frye (in my view, a much more impressive thinker than Dawkins) once said (I paraphrase): "The problem with the question 'Do you believe in God' is that what people really mean is 'Do you believe in what I mean by the word God'." And Dawkins takes a very literalistic and naive and therefore very stupid idea of God ---an old guy in the clouds struggles with a snake in a garden and intervenes omnipotently but, 'for reasons unknown,' capriciously in human affairs--- and then shows just how stupid it is. Well...duh. Yes, that sort of thinking is superstition, and those people who stand by it are probably stupid. But what Dawkins wants, really, is to say just how stupid ALL believers are (you notice how he won't let go of that). Any idea more nuanced than the one he has just crushed is, in his view, "nebulous," and therefore he is still by far the cleverest man about.

But consider this: would it not be rather stupidly literalistic to say, for example, that Hamlet did not exist? A sophisticated thinker would be able to offer a dozen different ways in which Hamlet certainly exists, along with a few in which he didn't, and we'd get on with the discussion. If someone said we were being nebulous, we would say they were full of shit. Well, whatever else may be said of God, he is at least that, a character in a book---in fact, many books and many works of art; so it must be at least as stupid to say flatly that "God does not exist" as it would be to say that "Hamlet does not exist." Or, to look at it another way, there are adolescents who think they are very clever when they declare that "objectivity" or "truth" or "justice" or "love" or "mercy" or "honour" don't exist; and they don't, if you have no capacity for abstraction, and that's why intelligent adults seldom say such things. And again, one might say at least as much for the concept "God." Therefore, it is not really a discussion of existence, but of attributes; and this is where we can learn something from the sophisticated thinking of Northrop Frye, or Martin Buber or Charles Taylor or other modern, quite brilliant, believers.

In short, I just don't think that there can be any intelligent discussion of anything, religion included, without a little humility in play, and Dawkins, with his smug, one-dimensional, seven stage model of belief, comes precariously close to showing none.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Prisons and Higher Education

Earlier this month, it was revealed that the Conservative Party of Canada intends to increase spending on our prisons ⎯ by way of creating more spaces, which is to say, imprisoning a higher proportion of our population ⎯ by 43%. This decision comes at a time at which they are insisting that our primary responsibility must be to cut back on government expenses and rein in the huge deficit: the budget is shrinking. So, when considered as a proportion of the latest overall budget, the increase in prison spending is even higher.

Naturally, if the circumstances were such that we desperately needed an increase of prison space to answer a corresponding increase in crime, this would be a very sensible and responsible manner of doing the nation’s business. But the true circumstances are far from this state of affairs. In fact, according to Statistics Canada Reports made available by the John Howard Society, the rates of crime in our country are lower now than they have been in decades.

Now, why is this the case? Well, there are many reasons, of course: improved methods of prevention, improved methods of detection, and ⎯ this is the one that the Conservatives and their supporters are reluctant to hear ⎯ less recidivism due to more enlightened concepts about the sentencing and supervision of felons.

The point about this last aspect of our judicial system is that is was set up in response to the recognition of a recurring phenomenon: patterns of recidivism demonstrated that our prisons were turning out people who were more committed to criminality than when they had gone in. It's actually a remarkably obvious point: spending extended amounts of time in company of people who have become career criminals ⎯ which most of the longest serving felons are ⎯ is more likely to inculcate a more sophisticated approach to criminality than to develop a determination to avoid crime.

In short, prisons tend to function as institutes of higher education in criminal techiques. Longer sentences are not harsher deterrents so much as they are like higher degrees: study longer and learn more.

By contrast, parole programs aimed more at the integration of convicts back into mainstream life based on their legitimately marketable skills are more likely to encourage a non-criminal existence. That’s also a pretty simple idea with which it would be difficult to argue directly.

However, as Stephen Harper has demonstrated, you can argue with it INdirectly, if you concentrate on anecdotes instead of statistics, and if you appeal to the fear of middle class property owners while ridiculing any opposing views as “soft on crime.”

Why would a person do such an irresponsible thing? Well, it probably doesn't seem irresponsible to them, because despite any evidence to the contrary, they feel deeply in their hearts that treating criminals more harshly MUST decrease crime, and they are so convinced that they are right about this that they have become incapable of considering any other point of view. Imagine that you have in your head an ideological conviction which plays a sort of brass-band marching tune that repeats endlessly, “Tough on Crime! Tough on Crime! Tough on Crime!” Well, then, you’d be deafened to reason, wouldn’t you? Demagoguery would be the inevitable consequence.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

St Patrick's Day

Conversation overheard in the line-up at Tim Horton's between two international grad students, a Muslim woman from North Africa dressed in hijab, who was clearly a very recent arrival to Canada, and a Eastern European Jewish man wearing a yarmulke, who evidently had been here a little longer. Both are baffled, but determinedly polite.

She: "Can you please explain what is this day, this Saint Patrick's Day?"
He: "He is Irish saint. Very important saint for Irish church."
She: "So it is a Christian holy day?"
He: "Ummmm....This is not so easy to say..."