Patti Smith Reads from Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis, the Love Letter He Wrote From Prison (1897)

Just last month, the U.K. announced the so-called “Tur­ing Law,” a pol­i­cy U.K.’s jus­tice min­is­ter Sam Gyimah describes as par­don­ing “peo­ple con­vict­ed of his­tor­i­cal sex­u­al offens­es who would be inno­cent of any crime today.” The law is named for Alan Tur­ing, the bril­liant gay com­put­er sci­en­tist whose work on A.I. gave the arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence test its name.

Tur­ing was also instru­men­tal in break­ing the Nazi Enig­ma code, and the Min­istry of Justice’s press release iden­ti­fies Tur­ing only as an “Enig­ma code­break­er,” sug­gest­ing that his patri­ot­ic duty may have made him some­thing of an offi­cial mar­tyr; Tur­ing was one thou­sands of men unjust­ly con­vict­ed over many decades. But “does par­don­ing those men unlucky enough to get caught,” asks Jonathan Coop­er, “actu­al­ly address the trau­ma to which the British state sub­ject­ed LGBT peo­ple?”

I couldn’t pos­si­bly say. But the “unlucky ones” who were arrest­ed, con­vict­ed, and impris­oned for crimes of “gross inde­cen­cy” have left often poignant records of their mis­treat­ment, and of the psy­cho­log­i­cal toll it took on them. Tur­ing wrote a very pained let­ter to a friend, Nor­man Rut­ledge, after his con­vic­tion (hear Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch read it here).

Around six­ty years ear­li­er, an even more well-known con­vict, one of the first to be con­vict­ed of “gross inde­cen­cy” laws, Oscar Wilde, left an even more pro­found expres­sion of his emo­tion­al tur­moil. Called De Pro­fundis (from the depths) and addressed to his lover Lord Alfred Dou­glas, the hun­dred-page doc­u­ment, with its lengthy digres­sions and rumi­na­tions, can­not sole­ly be read as a let­ter, although it con­tains a wealth of ten­der and angry expres­sions for Dou­glas.

De Pro­fundis, writes Colm Tóibín, “can­not be read for its accu­rate account of their rela­tion­ship, nor tak­en at its word.” This is in part because Wilde had no oth­er choice but to write a let­ter, or write noth­ing at all. The suc­ces­sion of pris­ons in which he was held between 1895 and 1897 allowed no writ­ing of plays, nov­els, or essays.

Over the last four months of Wilde’s incar­cer­a­tion, he and the gov­er­nor of Read­ing prison came up with a scheme. Since “reg­u­la­tions did not spec­i­fy how long a let­ter should be,” Wilde would be giv­en pen and ink each day and be allowed com­pose cor­re­spon­dence as long as he liked. The let­ter would then be his per­son­al prop­er­ty when he left. Despite its lit­er­ary den­si­ty, the let­ter remains, writes Tóibín, “one of the great­est love let­ters ever writ­ten.”

Read­ing prison has just been opened to the pub­lic for the first time this year. Since July, artists, writ­ers, and per­form­ers have gath­ered with audi­ences inside the prison to cel­e­brate and com­mune with the spir­it of Wilde. Among the events have been read­ings of De Pro­fundis by Tóibín, who read the let­ter in its entire­ly last month, as did Pat­ti Smith.

At the top of the post, you can see an excerpt of Smith’s read­ing. “The edit­ed ver­sion of De Pro­fundis” from which she reads “was the first one to be pub­lished in 1905, in a lim­it­ed edi­tion of 200, five years after Wilde’s death.” In-between clips of her read­ing, there are inter­views with a Read­ing prison care­tak­er and oth­ers, and voice-over nar­ra­tion telling us Wilde’s trag­ic sto­ry of impris­on­ment, as well as the gen­er­al out­lines of those who left no record of their per­se­cu­tion.

Once released, Wilde went right back to writ­ing lit­er­a­ture, begin­ning with the long, vio­lent poem, “The Bal­lad of Read­ing Gaol.” The video up top comes from The Guardian.

via Vin­tage Anchor

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear Oscar Wilde Recite a Sec­tion of The Bal­lad of Read­ing Gaol (1897)

Oscar Wilde Offers Prac­ti­cal Advice on the Writ­ing Life in a New­ly-Dis­cov­ered Let­ter from 1890

Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch Reads a Let­ter Alan Tur­ing Wrote in “Dis­tress” Before His Con­vic­tion For “Gross Inde­cen­cy”

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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