Sir William Wilde visits the Vienna Lunatic Asylum

Oscar Wilde’s father, the surgeon Sir William Wilde, visits the lunatic asylum in Vienna and is dismayed by what he sees. The following excerpt is from a book he published in 1843, Austria: its literary, scientific, and medical institutions: with notes upon the present state of science, and a guide to the hospitals and sanatory establishments of Vienna. As regards the Narrenturm (above), I need to check this but it seems clear to me that its “Panopticon” structure (completed by Isidore Canevale in 1784) actually predates the Panopticon concept for prison design famously conceived by Jeremy Bentham in 1786. Might Bentham have been inspired by the Vienna design? Unrelated trivium: the building is jocularly known by the Viennese as the Gugelhupf, on account of its resemblance to the cake of that name.

The Lunatic Asylum — Bie Irrenanstalt. This great division of the establishment is situated to the north of the Krankenhaus, between it and the Military Hospital, from each of which it can be entered. It consists of two compartments — the madhouse, where the violent and incurable are confined; a prison, which I rejoice to say, is now scarcely known in the rest of Europe; and the Lazareth which is more of the nature of the ordinary lunatic asylums of this country : the entire is capable of receiving as many as three hundred and seventy patients. The former Irrenthurm, or Narrenthurm, is a huge circular tower, standing apart from the rest of the buildings, constructed in the form of a cylinder, five stories high, with a yard in the centre, and containing one hundred and thirty-nine wards and cells, with beds for two hundred and fifty lunatics. The floor and ceilings are stone-arched, and round the inner wall runs a corridor, from which the cells radiate outwards in each story ; the whole is heated on the same principle as the General Hospital.

This tower was built in 1784, at a period when the object was to secure the greatest number of insane within the least possible space, and when lunatic asylums were the very worst description of gaols, erected and con- ducted without regard to health, cleanliness, or the hope of amending the condition of their unhappy inmates ; and, I regret to say, that as far as my inspection of it was permitted — on two several occasions — as such it re- mains to this day, a wretched, filthy prison, close and ill-ventilated, its smell overpowering, and the sight of its unfortunate occupants, frantic, chained, and many of them naked — disgusting to the visitor. With the greatest care and under the kindest treatment, insanity is ever humiliating, even to those accustomed to its horrors ; but here it was, and I fear still is, sickening to behold.

On the first morning that I visited it, a crowd of country folk, many of whom were women, waited for admittance at the massive outer grating. The bars and bolts having been withdrawn, they were conducted through the corridors along with me, as a mere matter of curiosity, or as one would go to see a collection of wild beasts ; and wild they certainly were — the few who had by long-continued custom become thus familiar with, or indifferent to, the public gaze, had their pe- culiar energies soon lashed to frenzy, by the inhuman taunt of some hardened keeper, who was more than once called up by our conductor to excite the impotent rage of some particular individual, perhaps by allusion to the very cause of his or her insanity : all this was for the gratification of the rustic visitors. Further details are, I feel, superfluous; but since I visited Grand Cairo, I have not witnessed such a scene.

Some years ago, Austria, impressed with the wretched condition of the Vienna lunatic asylum, sent a young physician to travel and collect information on the subject of the care of the insane in other countries. Dr. Juhus, of philanthropic celebrity, has informed me that the report of this gentleman was a very good one, and ably drawn up; yet, still, this blot upon humanity is permitted to exist as an “Imperial Royal Institution.” This state of things in a city calling itself civilized, and under the very nose of monarchy, surprised me the more, for, that one of the best managed institutions of the kind I have ever seen is that at Prague, under the direction of the intelligent and philanthropic Dr. Riedel. This admirable asylum contains three hundred and thirty beds, and is most humanely and scientifically conducted ; it is well worth the inspection of all who visit that ancient and magnificent capital. The system pursued there of engaging the attention, and employing the minds of all the patients, by moderate labour, household occupations, and amusements, is worthy of imitation. The reading, music, and billiard-rooms, though filled with lunatics, were as quiet and well-conducted as many of those used by the so called sane portion of the population. During my visit, the band played some excellent music ; and dancing, and even balls have been lately introduced with a happy effect. From fifty to sixty patients are discharged cured annually.

Next is the Lazareth, a very old building, that was formerly used as a plague hospital. It is separated from the tower by a yard and the botanic garden of the Josephinum Academy. It consists of two separate compartments, with five male and six female wards, besides twelve separate rooms for patients of a higher class — the whole number of beds being one hundred and twenty. This division of the asylum I found clean and orderly, though, as a house of recovery, the treatment still adopted there is but little conducive. The milder cases, and those still considered within the pale of hope and art, are received into this division, which has a garden attached to it for the use of patients. Pupils are not admitted to the wards of the asylum ;-f nor does the subject of insanity form a portion of practical medical instruction in Austria ; a circumstance to be regretted in a country where so many are afflicted with that awful visitation, and the great majority of whose institutions for the insane are under such bad management.

The number of incurable lunatics having within the last few years increased so much, that they could not be provided for in the Irrenthurm the extensive asylum at Ybbs has been erected. This is beautifully situated on the Danube, about two days’ journey from Vienna, to- wards Upper Austria, and it has accommodation for from three hundred and thirty to three hundred and sixty patients. To this, the surplus of the quiet, but incurable insane, are sent yearly from the Irrenthurm. It is, I understand, tolerably well conducted, and its delightful and healthy situation must, no doubt, contribute much to the comfort, if not the health of its residents ; that it has the latter power, we learn from the fact, that upwards of five per cent, permanently recover, of those who had been for years before confined in the tower and were pronounced incurable.  

Lady Wilde’s (Oscar Wilde’s mother’s) Irish Legends: Don’t tread on fairy grass…

From Lady Wilde’s fascinating book, Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland (Dublin: Ticknor, 1887).

There is a herb, or fairy grass, called the Faud Shaughran or the “stray sod,” and whoever treads the path it grows on is compelled by an irresistible impulse to travel on without stopping, all through the night, delirious and restless, over bog and mountain, through hedges and ditches, till wearied and bruised and cut, his garments torn, his hands bleeding, he finds himself in the morning twenty or thirty miles, perhaps, from his own home. And those who fall under this strange influence have all the time the sensation of flying and are utterly unable to pause or turn back or change their career. There is, however, another herb that can neutralize the effects of the Faud Shaughran, but only the initiated can utilize its mystic properties.

Sir William Wilde (Oscar Wilde’s father) visits the madhouse in Cairo

Sir William Wilde in 1873.

Sir William Wilde, who was knighted for services to medicine, was one of the greatest ophthalmic and otolaryngological surgeons of the nineteenth century. He founded and ran the first dedicated eye hospital in Ireland, St Mark’s Hospital, which he funded himself. St Mark’s amalgamated with the National Eye Hospital to form the Royal Victoria Eye and Ear Hospital in 1897. The following excerpt is from Wilde’s Narrative of a voyage to Madeira, Teneriffe and along the shores of the Mediterranean, including a visit to Algiers, Egypt, Palestine, Tyre, Rhodes, Telmessus, Cyprus, and Greece. With observations on the present state and prospects of Egypt and Palestine, and on the climate, natural history and antiquities of the countries visited. Sir William Wilde. Dublin, 1844.

To-day we went to inspect two of the most revolting and disgusting sights at Cairo—the slave-market, and the madhouse. On reaching the door of the latter, which was originally a mosque, we were stopt by our conductor, to purchase a few cakes of coarse bread, quantities of which are tdways kept in the adjoining porch for supplying the visitors, who thus become a principal though precarious means of supporting its wretched inmates. We were led through a narrow passage, where all was still and silent as the tomb; a few steps farther, and we were introduced into a large oblong room, when a yell arose of the most unearthly kind my ears were ever assailed by—so startling, that some of our party involuntarily drew back with horror. Our sight—our smell—our hearing—were overwhelmed with a combination of disgusting realities, such as I believe no other place allotted to mankind can exhibit. Around this apartment were arranged a number of dens, about four feet square, closed in front with massive iron gratings. In each of these gloomy, filthy cells, was a human being, perfectly naked, or with the remnant of the tattered rag he may have worn on his entrance years before, fantastically tied about some part of his person; his hair and beard long and matted; his nails grown into talons ; emaciated; covered with vermin, and coated with unutterable filth; an iron collar rivetted about his neck, binding him by a massive chain either to a ring in the wall, or connecting him through a circular aperture with his fellow maniac in the adjoining cell. 

Upon our entrance, each wretched prisoner—like a ravenous animal in a menagerie, when the keeper arrives with food’—roused from his lair or his lethargy, and rushing with savage wildness to the grating, extended a withered hand for the expected morsel. The foam of frenzied agony was on every lip ; the fire of maniac fury was in every eye, and the poor madman’s yell softened into the jabber of satisfaction as each in turn snatched his morsel, and devoured it with a growl I can only liken to a tiger’s. Our pity is raised, and all our tender sympathies awakened, for the poor harmless idiot, or melancholy madman; but we must tremble before the outbreak of the violent and raging maniac. 

Even with the care and attention shown to those unfortunates in our own country, the sight of madness is one of the most humiliating and pitiable we can witness ; hut here, where no pains are taken to improve tlieir condition; no care for their wants, and no medical skill to inquire into the causes of their malady, or the possibility of their cure, it is a truly awful spectacle. I need hardly say, that recovery is rare ; indeed it would be a miracle, as the first glimmerings of returning reason would in all probability be instantly and completely destroyed on the patient finding himself immured in a dungeon, replete with such horrors. 

Few travellers who have visited this establishment but have expressed their opinion upon the state in which it is kept. Of this says Mr. Wilkinson:—“Though conducted in a disgraceful manner by its present directors, and inferior managers, we cannot but highly appreciate the humanity of Sooltan Qulason, almost the only Mooslim king or governor of Egypt, who set on foot a charitable institution for the benefit of the people. By his orders the patients, whatever might be the nature of their complaint, were regularly attended by medical men, and nurses attached to the establishment; and their minds were relieved by the introduction of a band of music, which played at intervals on a platform in the court of the interior. But the neglect and embezzlement of the directors would have reduced the whole building to a ruined condition had it not been for the benevolence of Sayd cl Mahrooque, who undertook the necessary repairs, and detected the misappropriation of its funds.” 

This institution, called Morostan, is one of considerable antiquity at Cairo, where for many years it was the only charitable establishment—it was founded in 1820, by the celebrated El Qureleem e Naser Mohammad II. It is astonishing that there are so few insane among a people so excitable and imaginative as the Mooslims—the only cause I can assign for it is their religion of fatalism—the “Allah Keriem”—God’s will be done—is a disposition that is not very favourable to the workings of insanity. 

The Europeans and medical men of Cairo should inquire into and reform this disgrace upon humanity. 

Wilde about Cigars

An amusing Straiton and Storms cigar advertisement, cashing in on Oscar Wilde’s 1882 lecture tour of America. The tour was organised by the D’Oyly Carte opera company following the successful New York opening of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience, a comic opera satirizing the Aesthetic movement and various other English eccentricities of the period. The cigar company used the Napoleon Sarony “knee-breeches” photo of Wilde for the ad. Wilde and Patience sparked quite a trend in merchandising in the US, particularly in wallpaper and textiles – more on this anon.

Wilde about Christ (14): The Avoidance of Self Pity

A useful meditation on Dante, accidia, suffering, cheerfulness, anger, suicidal tendencies, Walter Pater, and prison life. From De Profundis.

Then, I must learn how to be happy! There was a time when I knew happiness, or thought I did — instinctively. At that time spring reigned in my heart ; it was filled with the joy of living. My life o’erflowed with pleasures, like a cup running over with wine. I now look upon life from a new and different point of view; I often find it difficult to form even a conception of happiness. I remember — it was in my first term at Oxford — reading in Walter Pater’s Renaissance — the book which has so strangely influenced my life — how Dante relegated to the depths of the Inferno those who wilfully surrender their souls to sadness, and going to the college library I looked up the passage in the Divine Comedy where these unfortunates are pictured as dwelling in the marshy regions of helL “sad in the sweet air” and condemned to sigh:  “Tristi fummo / Nell’ aer dolce che dal sol s’allegra.” I knew that the church disapproved of “accidia,” but this notion seemed to me so wholly fantastic; just the kind of sin, I thought, that an innocent priest might devise. Nor did I, then, understand how Dante, who says in another passage, that “suffering unites us again with God,” could be so harsh against those who gave themselves up to melancholy, if there were such. I did not then suspect that some day sadness would be my greatest temptation. 

While I was confined in the prison at Wandsworth, I longed to die; it was my sole desire. When, after two months in the infirmary, I was brought here and my physical condition slowly improved, I stormed with rage. I decided to commit suicide the day I left the prison. This despondency left me, after a while, and I made up my mind to live, but to clothe myself in melancholy, as a king robes himself in purple. I resolved never to smile again, to make every house I entered a house of mourning. My friends were to walk in sadness by my side and move with measured tread; my sor- row was to spoil their joy; I decided to torment them with my own suffering. Now I think differently about all this. It would be ungrateful and uncivil of me to make a wry face whenever my friends visited me, and compel them to make still longer faces, merely to express their sympathy, or ask them to sit down silently, like mourners, and partake of a funeral repast of bitter herbs. 

I must learn to be cheerful and happy. The last two times my friends were allowed to visit me here in prison I took pains to be as joyful as possible and to appear in as pleasant a frame of mind as I could command, in order to show them my appreciation of the trouble they had taken in coming all the way from London to see me. I am fully aware that this is only meagre thanks, but I am sure they prefer this method of demonstrating my gratitude to any other. A week ago last Saturday I was allowed to spend a whole hour in conversation with Robbie; I did my best to make him realise my heartfelt joy at our meeting. The fact that for the first time since sentence was pronounced against me I desire most eagerly to return to the world proves to me that the views and convictions I have formed here are right and just. There is so much before me, so much to be done, that I would look upon itas a terrible calamity should I die before I had had a chance to realise at least a part of my work. I see before me new possibilities of development in art and in life, each of which points to the attainment of the ideal. I long to live, so as to be able to study life and the world which are as good as new to me now. 

Wilde about Christ (12): Dorian Gray

Here is a short and excellent piece by Elizabeth Klein, Assistant Professor of Theology at The Augustine Institute. It was published in their journal, Faith & Culture. Dr Klein refers to an analogy drawn by Athanasius in On the Incarnation: “You know what happens when a portrait that has been painted on a panel becomes obliterated through external stains. The artist does not throw away the panel, but the subject of the portrait has to come and sit for it again, and then the likeness is re-drawn on the same material. Even so was it with the All-holy Son of God. He, the Image of the Father, came and dwelt in our midst, in order that He might renew mankind made after Himself, and seek out His lost sheep, even as He says in the Gospel: ‘I came to seek and to save that which was lost.'”

Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray has a curious but memorable plot. The protagonist, Dorian Gray (who is young, handsome, rich and almost supernaturally charming) befriends two very different people near the opening of the novel: Basil Hallward, a celebrated but “boring” artist and Lord Henry Wotton, an idle and opinionated man who likes to practice on Dorian the art of his own influence. Basil paints a fine portrait of Dorian Gray, but Dorian, taken by Henry’s exalted Hedonistic ideals, utters these words: “I am jealous of the portrait you have painted of me. Why should it keep what I must lose? Every moment that passes takes something from me, and gives something to it. Oh, if only it were the other way! If the picture could change and I could be always what I am now!” The plot twist is that Dorian’s request is granted, and as he falls further and further in love with Henry’s view of the world, he seeks to live his life as a work of art (as he sees it), by doing only what he deems interesting, beautiful and exhilarating, by seeking new experiences at whatever cost – but he never grows older. Rather, it is the painting that bears the imprint of his dissolute and prodigal way of life, becoming old, cruel and wretched. 

In the novel’s final act, Dorian Gray murders Basil Hallward (quite the experience), blaming the artist for everything that had happened to him. Dorian does not regret his murderous deed: “Basil had painted the portrait that had marred his life. He could not forgive him that. It was the portrait that had done everything.” At the very end of the novel, when Dorian finally becomes truly awakened to the horror that is his own soul, he tries to destroy the painting rather than amend his life. This act, however, results not in the destruction of the painting, but in Dorian’s own death: by trying to kill his soul (the painting), he kills also his body. He dies by his own hand and he uses the very same knife with which he had killed Hallward.

There is much to be said about the book’s meditation upon the meaning of beauty, and the capacity of the human being for good and for forgiveness, but I also think there is an allegorical dimension to the idea of a painting that makes the soul visible. In Gen. 1:26 we are told that human beings are made in the image of God, that we make visible in some small degree the invisible. St. Athanasius compares God’s work in us to a painting, and also says that sin is the marring or disfigurement of that painting. The only way, he reasons, for the image of God to be re-made in us after we have distorted it is for the Image Absolute, the exact representation of the Father (cf. Heb. 1:3), Jesus Christ, to come and to display it fully on a human canvas (so to speak).

Understanding this analogy helps to put in perspective Dorian’s seemingly senseless rage against Hallward, the hapless artist. Hallward himself says that the painting is his best work, because he has put so much of himself into it. And so, when Hallward sees Dorian’s altered portrait face-to-face, and how horrid it has become, Dorian also begins to see for himself what he really has done with such a beautiful gift. But Dorian deflects. Just like Adam and Eve in the garden, he strikes out at someone else to blame, and at last blames the artist. Like Dorian, we too can only see our sin in the presence of the creator, and only then can we ask for his pardon (as Hallward suggests that Dorian should do, citing the words of the Lord’s prayer, but this sends Dorian into his rage). We also act like Dorian when we blame God for the evil in our world and the evil in ourselves. We think that by denying God, our artist, our creator, we can destroy the standard of goodness by which we should live. But, as in Dorian’s case, by trying to reject the existence of the soul and the image of God in us, we end up killing ourselves. It is with one and the same knife that we put an end to God and put an end to ourselves, because we are made by God and for him.

Wilde about Christ (11): Sinners

Another excerpt from De Profundis. It struck me while compiling this ‘Wilde about Christ’ project that OW is one of the few writers whose every sentence and paragraph can safely be isolated and relished out of context. The beauty of it is that his life itself is the context.

Christ is most romantic — in the sense of being most real — when He deals with the sinner. The world had always loved and revered the saint as being on the next highest grade towards the perfection of God. Christ, through His divine instinct, seems to have always loved the sinner as representing the next highest type towards the perfection of man. His chief aim was not to better people, just as little as it was His main endeavour to lessen suffering. He did not strive to transform an interesting thief into a tediously respectable man. He would have thought little of a society for  the aid of criminals and similar modern movements. To convert a publican into a Pharisee  would not have appealed to Christ as a heroic  achievement. But He looked upon sin and suffering  as beautiful and sacred in themselves, as steps to-  wards perfection, in a manner which we do not yet  understand.

I know fully well this sounds like dangerous teaching. And it is so. All great ideas are dangerous. Beyond a doubt this was Christ’s belief.  Of course, the sinner must repent. But why?  Simply because he otherwise would not be able  to comprehend, to realise what he had done. The  moment of repentance is the moment of consecration. Still more: it is the means by which man  may change his past. The Greeks held this to be  impossible. In their gnomes and aphorisms they  tell us : “Not even the gods can change the past.”  Christ proved that the commonest sinner is able  to do this ; that, in fact, it was the only thing he  could do. If Christ had been asked, He would,  without doubt, have said — I am absolutely sure  of it — that the prodigal son, after he had squandered his substance with harlots, herded the rich  man’s swine, suffered hunger and sighed for the  husks which they ate, turned all these acts into  beautiful, sacred moments when he fell on his knees  and wept.

Most men find it hard to grasp this thought. Perhaps one must have suffered imprisonment to understand it ; if so, it pays to have been in prison.

Christ’s personality is absolutely unique. There  were Christians before Christ, as the break of day  is heralded by dim, deceptive rays of light, as the  sun shining suddenly and brightly on wintry days  deceives the careful crocus and leads it to spend its gold before its time, as many a foolish bird calls  to his mate to build their nest on bare twigs. For  this we should be grateful. Unfortunately, there have been no Christians since Christ — with one exception: Francis of Assisi. But to him God  had given the soul of a poet, for he had, when he  was quite young, in mystical union, chosen poverty  as his bride ; with the soul of a poet and the body of  a beggar he found, without any difficulty, the road  to perfection. He understood Christ, and so became like Him. We do not need to be told by the  Liber Conformitatum that the life of St. Francis  was the true Imitatio Christi; that his life was  a poem compared with which the book of that name  is mere prose. Indeed, this is, primarily and ultimately, the charm which emanates from Christ:  He completely resembles a perfect work of art. He  really does not teach us anything at all; but by  coming into His presence, by associating with Him,  we become something. And every one is predestined to come into touch with Christ. Once, at  least, in his life each one of us walks with Christ on the road to Emmaus. . . .

Wilde about Christ (5): Discovering the Passion

Oscar Wilde at Oxford

Useful notes on how to get through a viva at Oxford. Anecdote by Miss Joyce Hawkins, in Hesketh Pearson, The Life of Oscar Wilde.

IN his viva voce examination for ‘Divvers’ at Oxford, Oscar Wilde was required to translate from the Greek version of the New Testament, which was one of the set books. The passage chosen was from the story of the Passion. Wilde began to translate, easily and accurately. The examiners were satisfied, and told him that this was enough. Wilde ignored them and continued to translate. After another attempt the examiners at last succeeded in stopping him, and told him that they were satisfied with his translation. ‘Oh, do let me go on,’ said Wilde, ‘I want to see how it ends.’

Wilde about Christ (3): Love, Loss and Redemption

In this excerpt from De Profundis, Wilde recalls Renan’s Life of Christ and how it sustained him when he was denied contact with his sons, Cyril and Vyvyan.

Ernest Renan says, somewhere in his Life of Christ — the charming fifth gospel which one might call the gospel according to St. Thomas — that the greatest achievement of Christ consisted in His retaining after His death the love which He had inspired during His life. If His place be among the poets, He surely leads the procession of those who love. He recognised that Love was the secret spring of life for which the wise men had been searching, and that you can touch the heart of the leper or approach the throne of God if you have love in your heart. But above all, Christ is the most perfect individualist. Humility is only a form of revelation, like all the experiences of an artist. Christ is always in quest of the soul of man. He calls it “God’s kingdom”  — and He finds it in every human being. He compares it to small, simple things : a seed, a handful of leaven, a pearl, for the reason that one can purify and improve one’s soul only by getting rid of all passions foreign to its nature, all acquired culture, all material possessions, whether useful or harmful.

I refused to realise and to receive this truth with all the force of an obstinate will and all the power of a rebellious spirit until I had lost everything I possessed in this world except Cyril. My name, my position, happiness, liberty, fortune: all were gone. One precious possession alone consoled me — my sons. Suddenly they, too, were taken from me by the law of the land. This blow completely stunned me; I did not know which way to turn. I sunk to my knees, bent my head, wept and said : “The body of a child is as the body of the Lord; I am unworthy of either.” And in this moment I felt that I was saved. Then and there I realised that there was nothing left for me but to take my burden upon myself and bear it to the end. Since then — no doubt it sounds strange — since then I have been far happier.