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Where the Wilde things are

The desecration of Oscar Wilde's grave by his "fans" is criminally vulgar

I wonder what Monsieur Vigneron, a commissaire général de la Société des Artistes Français no less, makes of it all, assuming that the comings and goings have rendered his shade unquiet. After all, in 1903, when he was buried at the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, at the reasonable, if not advanced, age of 57, the notorious sodomite was yet to pitch up. M Vigneron's tasteful tomb - a petrified catafalque, replete with rigid canvases and stony brushes - stood proud among the crumbling graves. Doubtless the Second Republic arts bureaucrat had some hopes of a few respectful mourners coming to lay fast-fading violets atop his remains, but a scant eight years later, down dropped this monstrous chunk of schizoid-modernism, designed by Jacob Epstein, which is half engine block, half pharaonic sphinx. Then things began to get weirder.

I'm assuming M Vigneron is pretty put out by the state of Oscar Wilde's tomb, while, in the afterlife, Oscar himself is presumably hopping mad. On the sepia Parisian afternoon I pitched up at Père Lachaise, things were fairly quiet. There was just one middle-aged Scots­woman, adipose in black Lycra, who, as I came along the path, was being encouraged by an epicene pal with a camera to kiss the Epstein monument a second time, adding the lipsticky impress of her mouth to the scores of others stippling the stone. When she was done with her photo opportunity, I asked her why.

“Oh," she replied, "I think he was tremendous, a true artistic rebel - and it's good luck,
isn't it?"

“Really? I didn't know that," I said. Then, cruelly, enquired: "Which of Wilde's works are you a fan of, in particular?"

She was only mildly discomfited. "Well, I'm not a great reader as such, but it's the whole image thing I love - I mean, he knew how to live life the way he wanted to."

Dead famous

I forbore from pointing out that furtively fucking "Dilly boys", doing hard labour in Reading Gaol, then, your health broken and your family destroyed, spending the last years of your life in tortuous Continental exile hardly constituted a mentally healthy autonomy.
However, I couldn't prevent myself from observing:

“Y'know, Wilde was a tremendous aesthete, who believed fervently in beautifully pristine decoration. I don't imagine he would've been that thrilled . . ."

But, unlike Oscar, ever, I'd lost my audience - the Scotswoman had wandered away, leaving me muttering to myself, ". . . to see 'Oscillate Wildely', 'Wouldn't it be gay to be Dorian Gray just for a day', let alone 'Sodomy 4 eva' [both sic and sick], scrawled across his final resting place." And I might have added: "Together with your lipstick benediction and that of hosts of other idiots who revere Wilde for all the wrong reasons, and bring to his grave an attitude he would've found at once risible, contemptible and pathetic."

I am not, by any means, a doctrinaire Wildean. I think the big man was guilty of an overweening pride, and, arguably, by bringing to public attention a social development that was happening inexorably, set back the cause of homosexual liberation in Britain by half a century.

Yet I was shocked at how strongly the desecration of his grave by these "fans" angered me. It is, of course, not as bad as the vandalism of earlier eras. Soon after Epstein's sphinx came home to roost, its penis was smashed off (the no doubt apocryphal story is that for years it served the cemetery's supervisor as a paperweight), yet I hardly think the recent substitution of a graffito of male genitals makes good the John-Bobbittish deficiency.

I understand why it is that Wilde's grave is decked out like the roadside scene of a fatal car crash, with stooks of parched flowers, flickering tea lights and the aforementioned lipstick traces - after all, if the writer knew how to cultivate anything, it was his own celebrity, and I suppose it could be argued that those who court notoriety while alive cannot complain about such unwanted attentions in death.

Wilde was, in many ways, the prototypical form of the modern celebrity, notorious for his views, his lifestyle and his wardrobe. However, there is one crucial distinction: he wasn't famous merely for being famous. He was a brilliant dramatist and essayist, and a fair poet.

This other kingdom

If lamebrains visiting Père Lachaise want to receive the creative blessing of a "free spirit" from beyond the grave, why don't they head along Chemin Lesseps to the sixth division, where poor, barbiturate-fuddled Jim Morrison has broken on through to the other side? As it happens, I think Morrison was a perfectly noble example of the drug-crazed rock star, but that's the point: he was a drug-crazed rock star, and loony crystal-dangling fans are definitely subjects of that mad realm, rather than Wilde's republic of letters.

And alien tears will fill for him
Pity's long-broken urn,
For his mourners will be outcast men,
And outcasts always mourn.

So reads the verse from "The Ballad of Reading Gaol" chosen as an epitaph by Wilde's most faithful lover, Robbie Ross, and inscribed on the tomb under which both men's ashes now lie. It's difficult to see how Wildeans of the "not a great reader" persuasion could avoid taking this as an incitement to get out their Magic Markers, so universal is the contemporary mania for sacralising the most unsuitable objects.

Still, I do so wish they wouldn't.

Madness of Crowds is published fortnightly.

Next week: Will Self's Real Meals

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 09 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Castro