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25th February 2015

“De Profundis” by Oscar Wilde – review

Why Oscar Wilde’s letter is the perfect reason why the 49000 men convicted of the ‘gross indecency’ law should be pardoned

Stephen Fry is currently spearheading the campaign to get the Queen to pardon those who were persecuted of the ‘gross indecency’ law that plagued the minds and the justice system of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland for decades.

49000 men were wrongly imprisoned, made to suffer for no reason, and forced to live with undeserved shame and guilt that led some to end their lives prematurely. They were given hormone-changing drugs and were sterilised. All this simply because of their sexuality.

This petition needs to be heard. Its demands must be answered. No person should be subjected to this by their country on account of their sexuality.

Oscar Wilde is a literary hero of Stephen Fry. Hearing Fry talk about him in a recent show where he was promoting his new book, you realise what an inspiration Wilde is to him: His literary works enticed a young Fry, but it was his persecution of the ‘gross indecency’ law that helped Fry cope with his own homosexual feelings.

Wilde’s incarceration was just like any other, an innocent man thrown into jail, restricted of freedom and liberties all because he was gay. They took Wilde’s pen, and they took his books, but ultimately, they took his life. The harsh conditions of prison, where the slogan was “Hard labour, hard fare, hard bed,” led to the deterioration of health for Wilde and he would die shortly after completing his sentence.

However, in prison Wilde was granted access to several books, and was allowed to write. Of the books he chose, many had spiritual meaning. Dante’s Divine Comedy spoke to Wilde the most, as well as the Bible in three different languages. In between reading, and the hard labour, Wilde penned a letter to Lord Alfred Douglas, the man who he had once been intimate with.

The letter would later be published in full and uncensored, under the name De Profundis, and is autobiographical, detailing Wilde’s reflections on his life and what led him to being incarcerated, as well as the spiritual development that he underwent during his time in prison. The letter opens with a desperately sad statement:

“…Suffering is one very long moment. We cannot divide it by seasons. We can only record its moods, and chronicle their return. With us time itself does not progress. It revolves. It seems to circle round one centre of pain.”

The first half of the letter is dedicated to Wilde’s reflections on his time spent with Douglas where he reveals their tumultuous relationship, and how he traded a life of quiet intellect for his pursuit of “uncompleted passions, of appetite without distinction, desire without limit, and formless greed.” The letter reads like Wilde has a lot of angry regrets, that he blames Douglas for his descent into dedicating his life to carnal lusts which would lead to his imprisonment, but eventually he forgives Douglas.

The second half of the letter has more of an introspected focus that incorporates a religious awakening of Wilde, as well as a realisation of what life could be about:

“I have said of myself that I was one who stood in symbolic relations to the art and culture of my age. There is not a single wretched man in this wretched place along with me who does not stand in symbolic relation to the very secret of life. For the secret of life is suffering.”

This last remark just shows what prison can do to a human being. Once a man who loved life, who wrote fantastic plays, degraded to despairing about his own time on earth, and all caused by being accused of ‘gross indecency’ by inhabiting a particular sexuality.

Considered in the context of Fry’s petition, Wilde’s letter is beautiful and effective in achieving an aim that probably was only tacitly targeted by the author himself: Of detailing what it is like to suffer in jail for a breaking an unjust law.

A key aspect of the petition is that we pardon every man, not just those who achieved spectacular things for their country like Turing, or who were outstanding in their fields, like Wilde, but because to suffer for something that is blatantly not a crime is perhaps the worst thing a judicial system can inflict, and to pardon these men is the only way of even slightly making up for an awful wrong.

Yes, Wilde’s letter is unique, and perhaps he was the only man who was sentenced under the ‘gross indecency’ act who could write such a powerful message, but the message is universal of everyone who was imprisoned for the same reason, and serves as what I believe to be the most powerful reason why this petition must go through.

Please follow this link if you would like to sign the petition:

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