“Pen, Pencil, and Poison” was a startling and satisfying read–or perhaps I should reverse the order of my description and specify my sensations in the order that I experienced them. When I first finished reading the essay, I found it to be most enjoyable, and sat silently, gently re-tracing the fascinating portrait of the man that it had unraveled under my nose; then, with a jolt, I came to the sudden realization that this essay was not in fact a short story or any sort of fictitious piece–it was, in fact, a piece of bona fide historical biography, a memoir written about someone who had genuinely lived and laughed and hated, who had painted real pictures of real women and published real articles in real journals, and dripped real strychnine crystals over the real living tongues of his flesh-and-blood kin! After this shocking revelation, of course I had the urge to go back and read it through again; but somehow, as soon as I flipped back to the first page and began afresh, I had to stop myself. I felt too much like a voyeur, panting at a keyhole, sneering at each and every movement that my prey made–innocent of the knowledge that his every twitch and tic was being lapped up by a hidden peeping-tom, becoming drunk with the power of seeing but not being seen, of making judgments without having to be judged himself.
I am not entirely sure how to account for my deluded belief that Thomas Griffiths Wainewright was a fictional character invented by Wilde. Perhaps it was simply that he bears such a strong resemblance to other characters that occur in Wilde’s written fiction, or to characters that appear in novels that have been known to exert influence upon Wilde: it seemed to me that Wainewright owed a great deal of his debonair charm to Lord Henry, his sensitivity to beauty to from Basil, his eclectic taste to des Esseintes, and his personal elegance (“the beautiful rings, his antique cameo breast-pin, and his pale lemon-coloured kid gloves”) seemed lifted directly from the personage of Dorian Gray. And there is the fascinating amorality of this devout aesthete, the fact that he poisoned (not metaphorically, but in physical actuality) his family and friends, that hearkens back to themes that can be found in Picture of Dorian Gray and Against Nature, for both Dorian and des Esseintes poison (metaphorically) their friends with dangerous opinions and habits which land them in squalor.
Maybe it was also that by now, I realize that Wilde has a tendency to consciously distance his own views from those expressed by his fictional characters. By making Lord Henry spew nonsensical paradoxes and by putting extravagant statements into Vivian’s mouth, the reader comes to assume that Wilde cannot possibly be committed to these crazy views, and many of his characters are merely mouthpieces for a specific, subjective worldview that does not necessarily seek universalizability. In “Pen, Pencil, and Poison”, there are excerpts from the criticism of Wainewright, which Wilde commentaries and evaluates. In fact, much of Wainewright’s written work has the same whimsical register as Wilde’s writing: it is only somewhat more prone to grandiloquence. So, forgive me for my error, but I thought that Wilde himself had penned these so-called “excerpts” and delivered his a kind of meta-criticism upon them in order to portray and experiment with a variety of viewpoints. Not entirely implausible, no?
In any case, there is no use in retroactively justifying my original mistake. The question, however remains: why could I not bring myself to read the essay once again? Where did that hesitation come from?
I can only offer a tentative answer, but after some navel-gazing it seems to me that I just wanted to like him too much. I simply didn’t want to marvelous personality, this fascinating multi-faceted being, to vanish from my fingertips, snatched away into calumny by the label “multiple murderer”. If I read the memoir over again, knowing that what he did had real impact upon the world and the people around him, I would be forced to pass judgment on Wainewright and come to some moral or intellectual conclusion about what his life amounted to. It would not be enough to merely marvel at the fantastic narrative arc of his life, I would have to formulate some concrete ideas about the man, his deeds, and his legacy. And I simply could not bring myself to do so because I was already so taken with the way in which Wilde had captured him: as a fictional creation, I could still unabashedly appreciate him. But, real person as he was, I am compelled to judge him for his heinous crimes, or to balance his positive versus negative influence upon to world, to ponder the question of whether artistic output redeems a man of his misdoings.
And these questions suddenly overwhelmed me, when all I wanted to do was the admire the whole person (crimes, art, and all). But I could only do so when he wasn’t real. As art, he was forgiveable–for art is a sort of great redeemer, that allows us to bypass moral considerations and pass on straight to aesthetic evaluation. And indeed, Wainewright is beautiful as a work of art; but as a man, few would bestow such high praise on him.
But this raises another question. If art indeed operates as a separate criterion for making value judgments about something, then should it be allowed to gain the upper hand all the time? When should it be subservient to other (moral and intellectual) concerns? Is it not exceedingly dangerous to allow the aesthetic impulse to run away unchecked if it is at the cost of the lives around you? As we ponder these questions, remember that they apply to both Wainewright himself (who was such an artist but also undoubtedly a murderer) and to ourselves, as we engage with works of art and allow them to move us, to influence us.