Unmasking Oscar Wilde, and Others

Biographer Joseph Pearce Hopes to Inspire Modern Readers

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NAPLES, Florida, JUNE 17, 2004 (Zenit.org).- Writing about notable Catholics of the 19th and 20th century is Joseph Pearce's attempt to bring their stories to a new generation and evangelize the culture.



The professor of literature at Ave Maria University, editor in chief of Sapientia Press, co-editor of the Saint Austin Review, and biographer -- most recently "The Unmasking of Oscar Wilde" (Ignatius) -- will speak on the art of writing biographies this weekend at the Catholic Writers' Conference at Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, California.

Pearce, a native of England, shared with ZENIT why he keeps delving into the lives of Catholics and how their stories have the ability to edify readers, both Catholic and non-Catholic.

Q: What attracts you to writing biographies of mainly Catholic figures?

Pearce: First of all, many of the people I write about had a profound influence -- under grace -- on my own conversion to Catholicism.

Writing biographies of these giants of Christian literature allows me to get to know them better. After spending months researching their lives, reading unpublished letters or memoirs, seeing unpublished photographs, etc., one feels that one almost knows them as flesh and blood acquaintances. Indeed, I feel that I know some of these writers better than I know several of the actual, living people that I meet!

And, of course, using this wealth of research material in the process of writing the biography allows one to harmonize the information into a living synthesis.

The other motivation for writing biographies of these Catholic figures is the desire to bring them to the attention of a new generation of Catholics and, indeed, to a new generation of non-Catholics who might be inspired by the edifying nature of their lives and their example to seek a better understanding of the Catholic faith. In this sense, I see my work as a biographer as a work of evangelizing the culture.

Q: What aspects of a Catholic's life stand out to you?

Pearce: The paradox at the heart of every human life -- Catholic or otherwise -- is that we are both ordinary and extraordinary at one and the same time.

We have so much in common with each other and yet we are all special, we are all unique. We are all of the genus homo, and yet we are all individuals.

As such, in examining the lives of others -- and especially in examining the lives of highly gifted Christian figures -- we can learn from, and be inspired by, their example and by their trials and tribulations, by their triumphs and their failures.

Malcolm Muggeridge said that life is a Passion play and the important thing is how it ends. Muggeridge himself led a sin-filled life of adultery and self-centeredness, yet he came to embrace Christianity and finally was received into the Catholic Church when he was in his 70s.

Paradoxically, even his sins had brought him closer to Christ, in the sense that the lessons he had learned from the mistakes that he had made led him to the truth.

His life, his Passion play, was messy and disordered but it ended well. It ended as it should. In Muggeridge's life, and in the lives of the people that I have chosen to write about, we have this final acceptance of the truth of Christ's love, the bringing of order out of the chaos of life. All of these lives contain what Tolkien called "the consolation of a happy ending."

Q: How do you toe the line between writing biographies and writing hagiographies?

Pearce: This is a very good question. When I give talks or lectures on the practical aspects of writing biography, I always insist that it is the duty of the biographer to serve objective truth. He is not to do things with his subject by subjecting his subject to his own subjective agenda.

On the contrary, he is to subject himself to his subject, allowing his subject to do things to him. In other words he is not to pursue his own agenda, under any circumstances, but is to pursue objective reality.

Practically speaking, a failure to do this will lead the biographer to err in one of two directions. He will either paint over the warts, sins and mistakes of his subject's life in order to paint him whiter than he deserves -- which is hagiography -- or else he will exaggerate the warts, sins and mistakes in order to paint his subject darker than he deserves.

I call this "hackiography" because this sort of biography is normally written by hacks who seek to hack to pieces the reputation of the subject on the altar of cynicism or sensationalism. Sadly, we live in an age in which there are far more hackiographies than hagiographies.

Nonetheless, and to reiterate, it is the duty of a biographer to write neither. True biography is neither hagiography nor hackiography. Speaking personally, it is always my conscious aim to walk the tightrope between the two errors. I hope that posterity will judge me as a true biographer.

Q: What have you learned from researching and writing about such an interesting mix of subjects -- Chesterton, Belloc, Tolkien, Solzhenitsyn, Wilde?

Pearce: These are all great men, though in very different ways, and, as such, I have learned much from my time studying them and writing about them. It would be no exaggeration to say that I have grown wiser in the shadow of their genius. And, of course, it is my hope that those who read my books will learn as much as I have.

Q: Which of your subjects, upon research and analysis, has surprised you the most?

Pearce: My work is full of surprises -- for the most part delightful ones -- but I would have to say that Oscar Wilde was perhaps the biggest surprise. Like most people, my view of him was jaundiced by his reputation as a homosexual debauchee who preached the sordid gospel of decadence.

I was intrigued by the apparent incongruity of his decadent lifestyle, on the one hand, and, on the other, the overtly Christian morality of much of his work.

I was also intrigued by the nature of his deathbed conversion to Catholicism, which seemed to signal his rejection of decadence and the homosexual lifestyle. My instincts told me that there was much more to Wilde than most people realized. But I was unprepared for the extent to which Wilde's life was continually overshadowed by his lifelong love affair with the Catholic Church.

At times the love affair became warfare as Wilde sought, never entirely successfully, to break away from the Church's influence upon him. As Wilde wrestled throughout his life with the fundamental facts of faith so I, as his biographer, wrestled with Wilde trying to understand the contorted contradictions with which he sought to explain, or explain away, the meaning of life, love and art.

Sharing my life with Wilde throughout the months of research and writing was exciting, exhilarating and exhausting.

Q: With which Catholic figure do you identify, and why?

Pearce: This is another good question, and a difficult one to answer. I could descend to the whimsically obvious and state that the Catholic figure with which I most identify is Christ himself -- but that, I suspect, is not really the answer expected.

Of the Catholic figures about whom I've written, the one to which I am most indebted is indubitably G.K. Chesterton. Under grace, I owe more to Chesterton for my conversion than to anyone else. Reading his work led me ever closer to Christ and his Church, and nobody was more influential than was he.

Nonetheless, I must say that the giant figure of J.R.R. Tolkien has grown in influence to such an extent that his presence now dwarfs all others. His work is so super-abundantly full of magnanimous wisdom and mystical insight that there is always more to learn each time one reads him.

And then there are those people who have become friends during the process of my work of writing about them. In this category I would put Hilaire Belloc and Roy Campbell, both of whom I would dearly love to meet in some celestial pub if such things are allowed in the life hereafter.

Q: What can a modern reader glean from those who tried to live their faith in the 19th and 20th centuries? What role models of the past do you uphold?

Pearce: As Chesterton reminded us, tradition -- and for that matter, truth -- saves us from the degradation of being children of our age. And, as Chesterton also never tired of reminding us, Christ is the everlasting man who created us in his image.

As such, we are also everlasting men. Although we are confined temporally to the time in which we are born, our destiny is eternal. This means that we are in mystical communion with the past and the future.

"Tradition is the proxy of the dead and the enfranchisement of the unborn," Chesterton once said. In short, the lessons we can learn from the past, and from the people who lived in the past, never become out of date. They remain relevant to each and every new generation.

As for role models, there are so many that one scarcely knows where to begin. Christ himself is, of course, the ultimate role model, and then there is his mother, Mary.

Of course, there is a veritable litany of saints, all of whom have inspired, and continue to inspire. Closer to home there are some of the people whom I have made a special point of studying, some of whom were mentioned in my reply to the previous question.

Thankfully, even in this sad and despairing age, there is never a shortage of good Catholic role models who inspire us to aspire toward hope and joy. Deo gratias.