THE TRIALS OF OSCAR WILDE
Carson's First Jab
In his introduction to the jury, Wilde had unnecessarily perjured himself, and Carson was not going to let that fact slip by the jury.
"You stated that your age was 39," Carson said, looking at the floor, his brow furrowed as if deep in thought. Then he stared directly at Wilde. "I think you are over 40. You were born on 16th October, 1854?"
Wilde tried to dismiss the lie with a wave of his hand. "I have no wish to pose as being young. I am 39 or 40. You have my certificate and that settles the matter."
But Carson was not going to let him off that easy. His age, and the age of Lord Albert was an important matter in this case. "But being born in 1854 makes you more than 40?"
Wilde conceded the point, "Ah! Very well."
After asking Wilde how he met Lord Alfred, Carson turned to literary matters. Specifically, Carson wanted Wilde to address a scandalous story in The Chameleon, "The Priest and the Acolyte," which appeared in the same issue as some of Wilde's work and Lord Alfred's poem "Two Loves." Wilde had made it clear in the forward to Dorian Gray that he considered no literary work moral or immoral and Carson sought to test his philosophy:
CARSON: You have no doubt whatever that that was an improper story?
WILDE: From the literary point of view it was highly improper. It is impossible for a man of literature to judge it otherwise; by literature, meaning treatment, selection of subject, and the like. I thought the treatment rotten and the subject rotten.
CARSON: May I take it that you think "The Priest and the Acolyte" was not immoral?
WILDE: It was worse; it was badly written.
For the next few minutes the combatants sparred over the meaning of words and philosophical arguments. Wilde was quick with a retort and Carson was just as quick to move on to something else Wilde had written. Then Carson turned to Dorian Gray.
"I take it, that no matter how immoral a book may be, if it is well written, it is, in your opinion, a good book?" the defense attorney asked.
"Yes, if it were well written so as to produce a sense of beauty, which is the highest sense of which a human being can be capable," Wilde replied. "If it were badly written, it would produce a sense of disgust."
CARSON: A perverted novel might be a good book?
WILDE: I don't know what you mean by a "perverted" novel.
CARSON: Then I will suggest Dorian Gray as open to the interpretation of being such a novel?
WILDE: That could only be to brutes and illiterates. The views of Philistines on art are incalculably stupid.
Carson began drawing Wilde in for the kill. He had the witness saying that only "brutes and illiterates" would consider Dorian Gray to be a perverted novel. The question now became, just how many people could interpret Dorian Gray as documenting the homosexual love of an artist for his model?
CARSON: The majority of persons would come under your definition of Philistines and illiterates?
WILDE: I have found wonderful exceptions.
CARSON: Do you think that the majority of people live up to the position you are giving us?
WILDE: I am afraid they are not cultivated enough.
CARSON: Not cultivated enough to draw the distinction between a good book and a bad book?
WILDE: Certainly not.
Carson had landed a powerful punch. If a Philistine would interpret Dorian Gray as promoting homosexuality, and a majority of Wilde's audience were Philistines, then the general perception of the book was that it approved of homosexuality, regardless of Wilde's intent.
Following this through to its logical conclusion, a juror would consider that if a book was supportive of that lifestyle, the author must also be.
The barrister began reading from Dorian Gray a scene in which the painter Basil Hallward describes his feelings for Dorian.
"Well, from the moment I met you, your personality had the most extraordinary influence over me. I quite admit that I adored you madly, extravagantly, absurdly. I was jealous of every one to whom you spoke. I wanted to have you all to myself. I was only happy when I was with you. When I was away from you, you were still present in my art."
CARSON: Do you mean to say that that passage describes the natural feeling of one man towards another?
WILDE: It would be the influence produced by a beautiful personality.
Moving away from Wilde's literary works, Carson tried to get Wilde to read his letters to Bosie, but Wilde refused. Carson read them himself.
"...I cannot see you, so Greek and gracious, distorted with passion. I cannot listen to your curved lips saying hideous things to me. I would sooner-than have you bitter, unjust, hating.... I must see you soon. You are the divine thing I want, the thing of grace and beauty; but I don't know how to do it," looking up from the letter, Carson asked a final question of a very pale and nervous witness.
"Is it the kind of letter a man writes to another?"
"It was a tender expression of my great admiration for Lord Alfred Douglas," Wilde replied quietly.