In the wake of my recent post of Alain de Botton's mediations on the humanitarian lessons of Christian art, I came on Oscar Wilde's De Profundis, his long letter from Reading Gaol, written in 1897 while imprisoned for public indecency. The full letter is a remarkable document, extravagant and deeply stirring in that unique manner perfected by the Victorians. It is impossible to speak of Christianity without immediately rousing powerful emotions, for and against, few of which I share. My interest in the subject is more or less the same as German philosopher Karl Jaspers', who placed "Jesus the man" besides Plato, Buddha, and Confucius as the four great minds who have most influenced contemporary thought. I am led to Jesus's teaching through the words of Martin Luther King, from whom I first gained the concept of "love in action" in his book Strength to Love. De Botton's claim that "images are important partly because they generate compassion," is here expressed by Wilde with force and eloquence.
"I see a far more intimate and immediate connexion between the true life of Christ and the true life of the artist; and I take a keen pleasure in the reflexion that long before sorrow had made my days her own and bound me to her wheel I had written in The Soul of Man that he who would lead a Christ-like life must be entirely absolutely himself, and had taken as my types not merely the shepherd on the hillside and the prisoner in his cell, but also the painter to whom the world is a pageant and the poet for whom the world is a song. I remember once saying to André Gide, as we sat together in some Paris café, that while metaphysics had but little real interest for me, and morality absolutely none, there was nothing that either Plato or Christ had said that could not be transferred immediately into the sphere of Art and find its complete fulfillment.
"Nor is it merely that we can discern in Christ that close union of personality with perfection which forms the real distinction between the classical and romantic movement in life, but the very basis of his nature was the same as that of the nature of the artist—an intense and flamelike imagination. He realized in the entire sphere of human relations that imaginative sympathy which in the sphere of Art is the sole secret of creation. He understood the leprosy of the leper, the darkness of the blind, the fierce misery of those who live for pleasure, the strange poverty of the rich."
Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn, The Healing of the Blind Man of Jerico, 1659, Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam
Paul Strand, Blind Woman, New York, 1916 ©Estate of Paul Strand