There’s an interesting Student Pulse article by Nicolas L. Noble*, Tragedy in the Ideas of Friedrich Nietzsche and Oscar Wilde, which is an example of how Wilde is now being taken seriously—beyond Continental Europe—as an intellectual. Unfortunately, the same article perpetuates the myth that Wilde died from syphilis. Wilde actually died from meningitis as a result of a middle ear infection that began in prison and went untreated for too long, but the truth isn’t sufficiently Romantic or damning for everyone.
Robert Sherard, Wilde’s friend and first biographer, couldn’t accept Wilde’s homosexuality, and developed a personal theory that Wilde’s sexual dalliances with men were a manifestation of mental illness brought on by syphilis, a disease Sherard hypothesized Wilde had inherited from his philandering father and caught from a prostitute during his Oxford University days. Unable to deal with his friend’s sexuality, Sherard wrote “Of the aberration which brought this fine life to shipwreck so pitiful, I have nothing to say. I leave it to the physiologists to classify it, and to the psychologists to wrangle with the makers of laws over the degree of responsibility which it involves.” (Oscar Wilde:The Story of an Unhappy Friendship, 1902).
Sherard later disowned the notion of Wilde being syphilitic, writing in 1938 that “were I writing [Wilde’s] life anew, I could with an easy conscience toward my public omit all reference to a disease which is still looked upon by the hypocritical and the ignorant as proof of depraved character” (Sherard, Ultima Verba, unpublished, quoted by Merlin Holland in Biography and the Art of Lying, The Cambridge Companion to Oscar Wilde). Sherard’s attempt to explain away his friend’s sexuality, however, created a virus that has spread from biographer to biographer. No doubt the rumour will linger, as it did in this New York Times story from 1988, and as late as 1996 in Melissa Knox’s Oscar Wilde: A Long and Lovely Suicide.
The myth of Wilde having syphilis is convenient for some. For latter-day puritans, Wilde’s imaginary illness is proof of the divine punishment meted out to sinners. For those who believe the Romantic myth of the mad artistic genius, Wilde’s imagined death by syphilis fits a narrative, and places him in the bad-boy pantheon of other alleged syphilis sufferers such as Cesare Borgia, Verlaine, Baudelaire, Toulouse-Lautrec and John Wilmot, the second Earl of Rochester. It would be, Romantically speaking, the perfect death for the man who had read Huysmans’ À Rebours on his honeymoon.
For those who read The Picture of Dorian Gray as autobiography rather than fiction, the ‘fatal’ influence of Dorian’s friendships with young men can be interpreted as a Victorian euphemism for the spread of syphilis (an understandable if arguable interpretation of the novel’s subtext), but this medical affliction is then passed on from character to creator. Now that’s a novel mode of transmission.
*NOBLE, N. L. 2015. Tragedy in the Ideas of Friedrich Nietzsche and Oscar Wilde. Student Pulse[Online], 7. Available: http://www.studentpulse.com/a?id=1059