De Profundis: Patti Smith Reads Oscar Wilde’s Stirring Letter on Suffering and Transcendence, Penned in Prison
By Maria Popova
“Oh, to be reborn within the pages of a book,” Patti Smith wrote as she contemplated time and transformation. “Everything pours forth,” she observed in reflecting on her favorite books. “Photographs their history. Books their words. Walls their sounds.”
When Oscar Wilde (October 16, 1854–November 30, 1900) was incarcerated for being homosexual, he set out to be reborn within the walls of the infamous Reading Prison and recorded that quest for rebirth on the hundred pages of a stunning 50,000-word letter to Sir Alfred “Bosie” Douglas — the love of Wilde’s life and the subject of his exquisite love letters. Titled De Profundis, it chronicled Wilde’s effort to transmute his suffering into a spiritual journey toward self-transcendence. The letter was originally published in 1905, five years after Wilde’s untimely death from cerebral meningitis likely triggered by an old prison injury, and was later reissued in De Profundis and Other Prison Writings (public library | free ebook).
In 2016, the notorious prison opened its doors to the public for the first time and Artangel invited artists and writers to respond to Wilde’s stirring letter. Among them was Smith, who read from the original text and ended with a stunning vocal performance of her fittingly themed song “Wing.”
Suffering is one very long moment. We cannot divide it by seasons.
Reason does not help me. It tells me that the laws under which I am convicted are wrong and unjust laws, and the system under which I have suffered a wrong and unjust system. But, somehow, I have got to make both of these things just and right to me. And exactly as in Art one is only concerned with what a particular thing is at a particular moment to oneself, so it is also in the ethical evolution of one’s character. I have got to make everything that has happened to me good for me. The plank bed, the loathsome food, the hard ropes shredded into oakum till one’s finger-tips grow dull with pain, the menial offices with which each day begins and finishes, the harsh orders that routine seems to necessitate, the dreadful dress that makes sorrow grotesque to look at, the silence, the solitude, the shame — each and all of these things I have to transform into a spiritual experience. There is not a single degradation of the body which I must not try and make into a spiritualising of the soul.
I want to get to the point when I shall be able to say quite simply, and without affectation that the two great turning-points in my life were when my father sent me to Oxford, and when society sent me to prison. I will not say that prison is the best thing that could have happened to me: for that phrase would savour of too great bitterness towards myself. I would sooner say, or hear it said of me, that I was so typical a child of my age, that in my perversity, and for that perversity’s sake, I turned the good things of my life to evil, and the evil things of my life to good.
What is said, however, by myself or by others, matters little. The important thing, the thing that lies before me, the thing that I have to do, if the brief remainder of my days is not to be maimed, marred, and incomplete, is to absorb into my nature all that has been done to me, to make it part of me, to accept it without complaint, fear, or reluctance. The supreme vice is shallowness. Whatever is realised is right.
Society, as we have constituted it, will have no place for me, has none to offer; but Nature, whose sweet rains fall on unjust and just alike, will have clefts in the rocks where I may hide, and secret valleys in whose silence I may weep undisturbed. She will hang the night with stars so that I may walk abroad in the darkness without stumbling, and send the wind over my footprints so that none may track me to my hurt: she will cleanse me in great waters, and with bitter herbs make me whole.
De Profundis is a poignant read in its entirety. Complement it with Wilde’s gorgeous love letters to Bosie, then revisit Smith on the two kinds of masterpieces, her recollection of the childhood epiphany in which she knew she was an artist, and her tribute to Virginia Woolf.
Published November 7, 2016