23 December 2013

Queer Trial

This is my fourth column for The Sunday Guardian.

In 1895, Oscar Wilde was put on trial three times – once as prosecutor and twice as defense – and he was sentenced to hard labour for “committing gross indecency with men”. The three trials posed very difficult questions to the Victorians, well-known for their prudishness, about the sorts of love that were acceptable. Wilde was not the sort of person who had ever busied himself with questions of morality. It was only beauty that preoccupied him – beauty and, as a consequence, love.

Wilde’s work furiously champions the unconventional nature of desire. In the title story in The Happy Prince and Other Tales, a statue falls in love with a swallow. It seems as though Wilde is perpetually asking why any sort of love is wrong or should be forbidden. In some of his essays, he seems utterly perplexed at the foolishness of a world order which does not prize love or beauty above all else. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, love between men is celebrated, described as a joyous, seductive thing that is to be appreciated and admired, not reviled or pitied. When the book was published, its import was clear even though this was just a skeleton of the original manuscript. Censorship had interfered to give the world a sterilised, cleaned-up version of what Wilde originally wrote, dispossessed of much of its free-flowing sexual imagery, beggared of many of its provocative lines. Even aside from its homosexual connotations, Wilde created, in Dorian, a character as two-faced about queerness as Victorian England, which cradled a spirited homosexual subculture in its underbelly. Wilde, who by all appearances supported hedonism and decadence, uses Dorian’s very intemperance to chastise aristocratic hypocrisy.

But when Wilde was taken to court by the father of his lover, he was undone as much by his art as by his life. His prosecutors cited Dorian Gray as proof of Wilde’s guilt, much to Wilde’s frustration. Courtroom transcripts show Wilde constantly switching from confident witticisms to nervousness, as though he was entirely confounded by the very idea of being put on trial for being in love. It took two juries to convict him, but the public shaming had already been done.

The greatest damage, though, was to the morale of England’s queer community. Wilde’s position among London’s literary elite had lent compassion and understanding towards homosexuality. By virtue of his well-crafted public personality, love grew to be many-splendoured. Young men had querulously stepped out of the closet, for if Wilde could be open about his sexuality, so could they. But after the trials, they climbed right back in, threatened and fearful, wiped out of public record. They could not admit to their existence as sexual beings and their world would not acknowledge their most intimate relationships. 

Now, over a century after Wilde’s death, he is recognised, celebrated, and martyred as a queer icon across the world. But we in India must hark back to the trial at Old Bailey when we are told that homosexual activity is criminal activity and that in this country, rapists and murderers will walk free, but lovers will be imprisoned. We are told that the progressive ruling of decriminalisation of homosexuality by the Delhi High Court, which gave life and constitutionality to lovers and couples across the country, is invalid and that queer love is still the sort of love that dare not speak its name.

We find now that we still have to go back to Wilde’s eloquent courtroom defense of his feelings: “It is that deep, spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect. It dictates and pervades great works of art like those of Shakespeare and Michelangelo, and those two letters of mine, such as they are. It is in this century misunderstood, so much misunderstood that it may be described as the love that dare not speak its name, and on account of it I am placed where I am now. It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it.”

The thing that strikes me as I read this speech or any other homoerotic lines from Wilde’s canon is this: Wilde was not campaigning for recognition of homosexual love specifically – what he argued for was love in all its forms and glories, between people of all genders. He seemed to be making a very simple statement: that a world with more love and beauty would be a better world. There is really no way to argue with that sentiment. 

1 comment:

Dancing Fingers Singing Keypad said...

Beautifully written. Loved this column. And your last two lines hit bulls-eye.

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