Tuesday, September 12, 2017

The Temple of Oscar Wilde

The other night I attended the opening of McDermott & McGough’s Temple of Oscar Wilde at the Church in the Village. The installation is the realization of an idea the artists first had twenty five years ago and have spent the past few years building. 

The temple is a Catholic-style chapel, its centerpiece a four-foot carved wood sculpture of Wilde at the height of his velvet-clad long-haired fame. At the base of the statue’s plynth is a soapbox pulpit bearing a label for “fairy” brand soap. On the walls of the chapel are paintings of Wilde’s own stations of the cross, each with gilt-painted haloes and details like quatrocento icons. The scenes include Wilde’s arrest, the auction of his belongings, the cutting of his hair, and his time in Reading Gaol, among other things. 

In addition to this the chapel has a guest book, a section of line portraits of LGBT martyrs including Harvey Milk and Alan Turing, a candle-lit collection stand for homeless LGBT youth, and a book of remembrance in which guests can write the names of those who died of aids. Same-sex weddings will also be held in the temple. 

To portray Wilde as a gay icon, saint, and martyr is not uncommon. His arrest, downfall, and ignominy, coming at the end of the 19th century, set the tone for the particular style of homophobia that would dominate the 20th. Despite being a six-foot-plus bruiser of a man, Wilde’s fashion sense, delicacy of taste, refined sensibilities, and sharp wit would come to define the queer male archetype in the public consciousness, recast as vanity, effeminacy, flamboyance, and camp. 

The irony of placing Wilde at the center of a chapel isn’t lost. It was the doctrine of the Church of England, informing the law of the state regarding sexual relations, that lay at the heart of Wilde’s persecution. Wilde himself converted to Catholicism on his death bed, having always been fascinated by and attracted to the church’s iconography, sumptuousness, and sensuality, and seeing in that church’s bloody image of Christ the sufferer something of his own crucifixion. Of course, perhaps no church has burned more gay men than the Roman one while at the same time indulging in the hypocrisy of “hate the sin love the sinner,” a deeply closeted clergy, highly homoerotic imagery like the martyrdom of St. Sebastian, and of course, the unforgivable decades (centuries?) of the rape of children by those tasked with their spiritual health. 

Its perhaps the installation’s emphasis on young people that gives it its most power, as well as its inclusion of lesbian, bisexual, and transgender martyrs - as well as people of color - in its pantheon. In the past Wilde was chiefly a symbol for gay white men, but McDermott & McGough’s version of the deity is a more inclusive one. I hope that young people of all sexualities and backgrounds will gain an appreciation for Wilde’s importance and meaning by visiting the temple. 

That legacy is one not just of gay rights, but of a profound capacity for love and compassion. Wilde was “Christian” in the most generous sense of the word, capable of great understanding and empathy in a way that the chauvinistic and patriarchal christianity of the Victorian empire could only pretend to be. His deep personal knowledge and experience of suffering informed his own personal theology, and he was almost miraculously able to take from his own ordeal a greater sense of love and forgiveness. Its a nearly superhuman feat, one which organized religion stumbles over on a large scale. It is personal and generous, and it demands no superstition or obeisance to authority - its mandate is a deep love for and patience with humanity and reverence for its ability to improve. 

If only there could be more altars to secular heroes and people of great spirit like Wilde - monuments stripped of medievalism and consecrated to the humanistic spirit. We have McDermott & McGough to thank for this one. 

I’ll end with two Wilde-related poems. The first, “Narcissus” by John Betjeman, always has me weeping halfway through, mainly because it so heartbreakingly shows how the short-sightedness, hang-ups, and prejudices of adults are inflicted upon the innocence of childhood. 


Yes, it was Bedford Park the vision came from - 
de Morgan lustre glowing round the hearth,
And that sweet flower which self-love takes its name from
Nodding among the lilies in the garth,
And Arnold Dolmetsch touching the spinet,
And Mother, Chiswick’s earliest suffragette.

I was a delicate boy - my parents’ only - 
And highly strung. My father was in trade. 
And how I loved, when Mother left me lonely,
To watch old Martha spice the marmalade,
Or help with flower arrangements in the lobby
Before I went to find my playmate Bobby.

We’d go for walks, we bosom boyfriends would
(For Bobby’s watching sisters drove us mad),
And when we just did nothing we were good,
But when we touched each other we were bad.
I found this out when Mother said one day
She thought we were unwholesome in our play.

So Bobby and I were parted. Bobby dear,
I didn’t want my tea. I heard your sisters
Playing at hide-and-seek with you quite near
As off the garden gate I picked the blisters.
Oh tell me, Mother, what I mustn’t do - 
Then, Bobby, I can play again with you.

For I know hide-and-seek’s most secret places
More than your sisters do. And you and I
Can scramble into them and leave no traces,
Nothing above us but the twigs and sky,
Nothing below us but the leaf-mould chilly
Where we can warm and hug each other silly.

My Mother wouldn’t tell me why she hated
The things we did, and why they pained her so.
She said a fate far worse than death awaited
People who did the things we didn’t know,
And then she said I was her precious child,
And once there was a man called Oscar Wilde.

‘Open your story book and find a tale
Of ladyes fayre and deeds of derring-do,
Of good Sir Gawaine and the Holy Grail,
Mother will read her boy a page or two
Before she goes, this Women’s Suffrage Week,
To hear that clever Mrs Pankhurst Speak.

Sleep with your hands above your head. That’s right - 
And let no evil thoughts pollute the dark.’
She rose, and lowered the incandescent light.
I heard her footsteps die down Bedford Park.
Mother where are you? Bobby, Bobby, where?
I clung for safety to my teddy bear.

The second poem is A.E. Housman’s “Oh Who is that Young Sinner,” a well-known piece written after Wilde’s arrest but not released until after Housman’s death. Like most of Housman, it has a  countryside sing-song economy that bears a deceptively heavy message. 

Oh Who Is That Young Sinner

Oh who is that young sinner with the handcuffs on his wrists?
And what has he been after that they groan and shake their fists?
And wherefore is he wearing such a conscience-stricken air?
Oh they're taking him to prison for the colour of his hair.

'Tis a shame to human nature, such a head of hair as his;
In the good old time 'twas hanging for the colour that it is;
Though hanging isn't bad enough and flaying would be fair
For the nameless and abominable colour of his hair.

Oh a deal of pains he's taken and a pretty price he's paid
To hide his poll or dye it of a mentionable shade;
But they've pulled the beggar's hat off for the world to see and stare,
And they're haling him to justice for the colour of his hair.

Now 'tis oakum for his fingers and the treadmill for his feet
And the quarry-gang on Portland in the cold and in the heat,
And between his spells of labour in the time he has to spare

He can curse the God that made him for the colour of his hair.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Glenn O'Brien: King Cool

This post, our memorial to Glenn O'Brien, appears on Rose's "Dandy Portraits" blog also.

Try writing about Glenn O’Brien without using the word “cool.” Might as well describe the ocean without mentioning water. Glenn was so unassailably, impeccably, motherfuckingly cool you’d glance at the thermostat when he walked in the room. Glenn’s coolness was cosmopolitan and manifold, like the renaissance-man portfolio of jobs he juggled throughout life. He was all kinds of cool: stylish cool, cultured cool, witty cool, and just plain laid-back breezy cool. If someone were to say “don’t lose your cool,” they could just as well have said “be more like Glenn O’Brien.”

Glenn’s coolness seemed innate – one could no more imagine him getting ruffled or flustered than picture him running to catch a bus. He’d wait for the next one, no sweat. Or hail a cab. Or hitch a ride. Or steal a bicycle. Whatever way, it’d be cool.

Speaking of Glenn & transport, one of the coolest things I can recall involves Glenn and a Metrocard. Glenn wrote the introduction to my and Rose’s first book “I am Dandy.” The artist Peter McGough had put us in touch with him. Glenn was skeptical of the project at first, but he liked Rose’s photos and – much to my delight – my writing, so he agreed. He also put us in touch with Bergdorf Goodman, who ended up hosting our launch party. Glenn only showed up at the very start and only for a few minutes. There are only a couple of photos of him there, one of him gamely standing next to your truly, the beaming young author. In his left hand are both a champagne glass and a Metrocard.

Neil Rasmus/BFAnyc.com
It’s just the kind of too-perfect detail that handily affirms Glenn’s reputation as a man at home in the high and the low. Was he really just on his way out and thought it prudent to whip out his train fare before taking the elevator downstairs and walking two whole blocks to the station? Or had he just arrived and absent-mindedly neglected to put it away? Had he forgotten his wallet?
Or was it a deliberate move? I wouldn’t put it past Glenn. Perhaps a code – a subliminal signal – to the other partygoers that he couldn’t stay long: just the sort of social trigger Glenn would have noticed when nobody else had. Or could it be a clever accessory to confirm his outsider-insider aura, casually holding a proletarian artifact while surrounded by unabashed luxury, a reverse of Evelyn Waugh walking a mile to mail a letter from a fancier post code.

Glenn was in some ways like a character from one of those earlier Waugh satires. I don’t know if Tom Wolfe had much contact with Glenn, but I imagine he might have been jealous to see realized in flesh the sort of city society character he sometimes struggled to invent. Better still, the phrase “too cool for school,” didn’t apply to Glenn because he was such a valiant opponent of ignorance, anti-intellectualism, and pretense.

To a young writer with broad cosmopolitan tastes and interests, Glenn was an inspiration and refutation of the vogue for specialization. Interviewing him was daunting – as with masturbation you always got the sense the chap could have just done it better himself. Still, he smiled and thanked you when it was over. And that smile! Glenn could always deliver a devastatingly handsome look to camera with his beaming double-barreled blues sitting above his notorious cheekbones, but when he smiled the eternal teenager shone forth. Here was Tom Sawyer and Mark Twain in whole.

For a young man, Glenn’s patented aphorism-laden brand of laid-back masculinity was a breath of fresh air: unapologetic yet unburdened with musk and machismo. Glenn was a cool dude in Chuck Taylors or bespoke brogues, a t-shirt or a tuxedo, a beard or bare-faced. In the same way he was always implausibly plausible as both elder sage and puckish rapscallion. He even made a couple of passing remarks that suggested he didn’t think I was such a bad dresser, either, which is a bit like the Pope saying “Hey, nice miter.”

Whenever I saw Glenn at an event and said hello there was always a moment or two when I was struck by the fear that he didn’t recognize me. I’d feel nervous, prepared for the embarrassment accompanied by his unreadable poker-faced gaze. Then he’d always do something like turn to the person next to him – the sort of person who thinks being cool does mean not remembering young writers’ names – and say “This is Natty. He wrote a great book about dandies.”

If there were a heaven, St. Peter wouldn’t even need to check the guest list. Every bouncer knows Glenn’s invited to the party. And in the unfortunate event of Glenn’s sins tipping the scales in the other direction, hell would surely soon freeze over from all that cool.

Photographs were taken by Rose Callahan at Glenn's home in New York City on June 25, 2013