Patti Smith Reads Oscar Wilde’s 1897 Love Letter De Profundis: See the Full Three-Hour Performance

In her land­mark study The Body in Pain, Elaine Scar­ry describes “the anni­hi­lat­ing pow­er of pain,” which is “vis­i­ble in the sim­ple fact of expe­ri­ence observed by Karl Marx, ‘There is only one anti­dote to men­tal suf­fer­ing, and that is phys­i­cal pain.’” Marx’s com­ment defines a class dis­tinc­tion between types of pain: that of the over­taxed body of the work­er and the mind of the bour­geois sub­ject with the lib­er­ty for mor­bid self-reflec­tion. His pro­nounce­ment, Scar­ry writes, is “only slight­ly dis­tort­ed in Oscar Wilde’s ‘God spare me phys­i­cal pain and I’ll take care of the moral pain myself,’” a some­what glib admis­sion of the rel­a­tive priv­i­lege of men­tal suf­fer­ing in com­par­i­son to tor­ture.

This dis­tinc­tion becomes even more pro­nounced in lat­er reflec­tions, such as ultra-con­ser­v­a­tive Ger­man writer and WWI war hero Ernst Jünger’s Niet­zschean 1934 essay “On Pain,” which asks, “what role does pain play in the new race we have called the work­er that is now mak­ing its appear­ance on the his­tor­i­cal stage?” Phys­i­cal pain, writes Jünger is one of “sev­er­al great and unal­ter­able dimen­sions that show a man’s stature… the most dif­fi­cult in a series of tri­als one is accus­tomed to call life…. Tell me your rela­tion to pain, and I will tell you who you are!”

This idea of the sharp­en­ing effect of phys­i­cal pain as an “anti­dote” or hero­ic tri­al dis­tinct from men­tal suf­fer­ing per­sists long into the 20th cen­tu­ry when Freudi­an trau­ma stud­ies, the diag­no­sis of PTSD in vet­er­ans, and the work of psy­chi­a­trists like Bessel Van Der Kolk begins to col­lapse the cat­e­gories and unite the suf­fer­ing of mind and body. The expe­ri­ences of sol­diers, pris­on­ers, vic­tims of abuse and assault, Holo­caust sur­vivors, enslaved peo­ple, etc. are then seen in a dif­fer­ent light, as com­posed of emo­tion­al anguish as real as their phys­i­cal suf­fer­ing, which man­i­fests somat­i­cal­ly and in extreme cas­es even, per­haps, alters DNA.

Long before the par­a­dig­mat­ic shift in the recog­ni­tion of trau­ma, Wilde, who had made light of “moral pain” in his apho­rism, explored suf­fer­ing in great depth in his De Pro­fundis. Osten­si­bly an open let­ter to his lover Lord Alfred Dou­glass, Wilde penned the piece while impris­oned in Read­ing Jail from 1895–97 for “gross inde­cen­cy.” While there, he endured both phys­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal tor­ment. As Ireland’s Raidió Teil­ifís Éire­ann writes:

Wilde was kept in total iso­la­tion, first in Pen­tonville and Wandsworth pris­ons. For the first month of his sen­tence, he was teth­ered to a tread­mill six hours a day, with five min­utes’ rest after every 20 min­utes.  At Read­ing Jail, to which he was moved in Novem­ber 1895, he slept on a plank bed with no mat­tress and he was allowed only one hour’s exer­cise a day. He would walk in sin­gle file in the yard with oth­er pris­on­ers but was for­bid­den con­tact with them. Wilde slept lit­tle, was hun­gry all of the time, and suf­fered from dysen­tery dur­ing his incar­cer­a­tion.

Dur­ing his two-year incar­cer­a­tion, his moth­er died. “I, once a lord of lan­guage,” he wrote, “have no words in which to express my anguish and shame.” Nonethe­less, he found the words, a pro­fu­sion of them, writes Max Nel­son at The Paris Review, “petu­lant, vin­dic­tive, bathet­ic, indul­gent, exces­sive, florid, mas­sive­ly arro­gant, self-pity­ing, repet­i­tive, showy, sen­ti­men­tal, and shrill,” search­ing, as he put it, to express “that mode of exis­tence in which soul and body are one and indi­vis­i­ble: in which the out­ward is expres­sive of the inward: in which Form reveals.”

They were first pub­lished in 1905 in an edit­ed ver­sion, and it is that ver­sion you can hear read—prefaced by a sung lament—above in a dolor­ous monot­o­ne by Pat­ti Smith, who con­veys with voice and body the tenor of Wilde’s prose. The let­ter, writes Wilde’s biog­ra­ph­er Richard Ell­mann, is “one of the great­est and the longest” love let­ters “ever writ­ten.” (See a scan of the orig­i­nal man­u­script at the British Library site.)

The read­ing took place in the for­mer chapel of Read­ing Jail in 2016, opened to the pub­lic for the first time “for an exhi­bi­tion of art, writ­ing and per­for­mance,” notes Artan­gel, spon­sor of the event. We’ve pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured a short excerpt of Smith’s read­ing. Above, you can see her full 3‑hour per­for­mance, com­plete with her own inter­jec­tions and inter­ac­tions with the audi­ence. De Pro­fundis begins with one of the most elo­quent descrip­tions of deep depres­sion in mod­ern lit­er­a­ture, an expe­ri­ence of paral­y­sis that traps its suf­fer­er in a men­tal prison of stuck­ness in time:

. . . Suf­fer­ing is one very long moment. We can­not divide it by sea­sons. We can only record its moods, and chron­i­cle their return. With us time itself does not progress. It revolves. It seems to cir­cle round one cen­tre of pain. The paralysing immo­bil­i­ty of a life every cir­cum­stance of which is reg­u­lat­ed after an unchange­able pat­tern, so that we eat and drink and lie down and pray, or kneel at least for prayer, accord­ing to the inflex­i­ble laws of an iron for­mu­la: this immo­bile qual­i­ty, that makes each dread­ful day in the very minut­est detail like its broth­er, seems to com­mu­ni­cate itself to those exter­nal forces the very essence of whose exis­tence is cease­less change. Of seed-time or har­vest, of the reapers bend­ing over the corn, or the grape gath­er­ers thread­ing through the vines, of the grass in the orchard made white with bro­ken blos­soms or strewn with fall­en fruit: of these we know noth­ing and can know noth­ing.

For us there is only one sea­son, the sea­son of sor­row. 

Read a lat­er 1913 edi­tion of Wilde’s let­ter here. The com­plete, unedit­ed text was first pub­lished in 1962.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Pat­ti Smith’s List of Favorite Books: From Rim­baud to Susan Son­tag

Watch Pat­ti Smith Read from Vir­ginia Woolf, and Hear the Only Sur­viv­ing Record­ing of Woolf’s Voice

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

900 Free Audio Books: Down­load Great Books for Free

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

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