I’ve often written and spoken about what I call “radical vulnerability.” I originally came across the term in an essay by theorist Gavatri Spivak. I’m not sure what she meant by it, but to me it means making myself as vulnerable in my work as an artist is in their work. It means not taking pot shots at sitting ducks or the weak; not just ratifying the inevitable; it means trying to deliver up as much as my real opinion about something as possible—even when I am thinking things I don’t want to think. It means trying to be conscious of the multiple sub-strata of the experience and knowledge of others. It means being alert to things that jar me so much that they alter my reality.
Recently my internal compass was reset while reading Richard Ellmann’s extraordinary biography Oscar Wilde.Until this book I thought that no one had ever had more psychic pain inflicted on them than the characters in Proust who suffer endless internal agonies and obsessions. No one has ever made jealousy so palpably viscous and terrifying. Reading Ellmann’s horrifying account of the psychic and physical brutalities inflicted by England on Oscar Wilde make what Proust did look almost tame. Great Britain subjected Wilde to multiple trials for “indecent acts,” public humiliation and abuse, and a petrifying two years of being incarcerated at hard labor in three different prisons each more hideous and barbaric than the last.
While in jail, Wilde, perhaps the most loquacious person who ever lived, was not permitted to speak a word. Ever. For two years. Perpetually starved and underfed, when he was fed it left him simultaneously malnourished and suffering from non-stop dysentery and diarrhea. English prisons did not have plumbing as officials feared inmates might “speak” through tapping on pipes. Each prisoner was given only a tin cup and forced to sleep in his own feces. Wilde’s bed was a narrow, upwardly inclined wooden plank set an inch or so from the cold stone floor. He had no mattress or blanket and so suffered the further torment of permanent insomnia. Pen, pencil, ink, and paper were not permitted. His prison number was C.3.3. Each week prisoners were allowed only 15 minutes outside their solitary confinement. During these 15 minutes they were forced to walk in circles within an enclosed brick courtyard. Once, another prisoner spoke to Wilde, saying, “your sort” shouldn’t have to suffer this kind of punishment. It was the first pity Wilde experienced in more than a year. He began to weep, said, “God bless you,” and was punished for doing so. He was released from prison a broken old man, having served every single day of his sentence. He died two years later at the age of 46.
The “radical vulnerability” of reading this made me realize that any society that breaks a person in prison is itself broken. I have never looked upon jail sentences or prison life, let alone the American prison system, the same way. Ellmann imparted an infinitesimal bit of Wilde’s human vulnerability. He opened me. I am cut to the quick with more than just pity, pain, and rage. I experience this as more than merely philosophical, abstract, and ideological. I am shaken to the core and changed by it.