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Voices Online Edition
Vol. XXVIII, No. 2
Pentecost 2013

Nietzsche, Wilde, and Redemption

by Donald De Marco

Why did God have to die? For the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, as he explains in Thus Spake Zarathustra, it was because God was the kind of being that saw right through man and “beheld man’s depths and dregs, all his hidden ignominy … he crept into my dirtiest corners.  This most prying, over-intrusive, over pitiful one had to die.”

Man might be able to tolerate his own shamefulness, but he cannot endure having it exposed to anyone else. It is better to create the illusion that you are better than you know yourself to be rather than have anyone see you for the miserable creature that you know you are. Being seen in your truth is truly unforgiveable. And that is why God had to die.  

Having killed God, however, Nietzsche also killed the only one who could offer him forgiveness. Desperately, he claimed that he could save himself through “his own grace.” But what happened proved otherwise. After a psychotic breakdown when he was but 44, his productive years came to an abrupt end.

Nietzsche, the author of The Will to Power and the staunch proponent of the “Super-man,” died twelve years later, in the year 1900.  The debate continues as to what chiefly contributed to his mental collapse. Was it syphilis or some other malady?  Or was it his own nihilistic philosophy that he tried desperately and unsuccessfully to live?  At any rate, Nietzsche was a tortured soul — as is evident from his writing, desperately trying to reconcile the contradictions in his own thinking.

Consider the following passage from The Gay Science, Section 125 (tr. Walter Kaufmann):

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. Yet his shadow still looms. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?

Another man of letters, as cynical and as hypercritical of society as was Nietzsche, also died in 1900: Oscar Wilde.

Was this merely a coincidence, or a sign of the times? Wilde was not sent to a mental institution, but spent two years in prison shortly before dying of syphilis in a hospital bed at the age of 46.

Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray has a decidedly Nietzschean quality.  Dorian Gray’s ill-fated wish materializes, that his appearance remains untouched by the passage of time, while his portrait bears the signs of his inevitable and sordid decline. Along with the signs of aging, the portrait bears the marks of Dorian’s sinful life, and becomes an increasingly loathsome and unendurable spectacle. It becomes “the mark of his shame” that “would reveal to him his soul.” Dorian would keep the portrait from “prying eyes,” but he was haunted by its steady transmogrification.  The picture of Dorian Gray, beautiful and enchanting in its original form, slowly and steadily became hideous: “For every sin that he committed,” the author writes, “a stain would fleck and wreck its fairness.” “His own soul was looking out at him from the canvas and calling him to judgement.”

It was as if the painting knew all of the ugliness of Dorian’s soul and was mocking him. Dorian could no longer endure the realization that someone or something beheld the corrupt condition of his inner being. He must attack the painting and kill it. But in killing the painting, he kills himself. When his body is found, all of the ugliness of the painting had been transferred back to him. It was only after an examination of the rings on his fingers that the identity of Dorian Gray, now “withered, wrinkled, and loathsome,” could be confirmed.

The critical difference between Nietzsche and Wilde, from an existential point of view, is that Nietzsche’s art and life were one and the same, whereas Oscar Wilde’s life escaped the confines of his writing, especially from the tragedy he described in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Nietzsche, to his great misfortune, became a parody of his nihilistic “God is dead” philosophy.  For Wilde, that turned out to be one temptation that he was able to resist.

At various moments during his life, Wilde found Catholicism attractive.  There is good biographical reason to believe that what he said about Dorian Gray echoed his own feelings: “It was rumored of him [Dorian Gray] that he was about to join the Roman Catholic communion; and certainly the Roman ritual had a great attraction for him” (Richard Ellmann, Oscar Wilde, London, 1987, p. 548).

Three weeks before his death, Wilde confessed to a reporter for the Daily Chronicle that “much of my moral obliquity is due to the fact that my father would not allow me to become a Catholic.  The artistic side of the Church and the fragrance of its teaching would have cured my degeneracies. I intend to be received before long.”

Oscar Wilde was received into the Catholic Church on his deathbed.  As a young man, in 1878, he had approached Father Sebastian Bowden at the Brompton Oratory in London to discuss his possible conversion to the Church.  In a letter to Wilde, Father Bowden may have been prophetic when he wrote, “As a Catholic you would find yourself a new man in the order of nature and grace.” The work of the Holy Spirit is effective, though not always instantaneous (Ellman, p. 90).

It is interesting to note that Wilde named Dorian Gray after his good friend and accomplished writer, John Gray. The latter became a Catholic, and in the first year of the new century, one year after Wilde’s death and in the year of Queen Victoria’s passing, he was ordained a priest.

Oscar Wilde once stated that “The Catholic Church is for saints and sinners alone. For respectable people the Anglican Church will do.” This remark is a perfect example of Wilde’s epigrammatic wit. It also illustrates his lack of concern for mere respectability and his willingness, if not his intention, to offend.

The Catholic Church is for sinners.  One could leave it at that. The real question is posed inversely: are sinners for the Catholic Church?

Even Nietzsche, obsessed as he was with power, was tempted to embrace Christianity and his own Lutheran roots.  In his last work, the autobiographical Ecce Homo, he records an ominous dream in which he finds himself journeying through a gloomy wood at night on his way to a Lutheran town when “a piercing shriek from a neighboring lunatic asylum” terrified him.  The dream suggests that the young Nietzsche was at a crossroads in his life, one road pointing to Lutheran Christianity, the religion of his family, the other in the opposite direction.  This dream was not an isolated occurrence, but consistent with other dreams and visions that Nietzsche expressed in this writings.

Every sinner is at a crossroads.  One path requires the humility to accept one’s sinfulness and welcome God’s forgiveness and Redemption.  The other is one of pride that seeks autonomy and leads, at least figuratively, to the death of God.

Friedrich Nietzsche and Oscar Wilde provide an intriguing comparison of two individuals who took similar paths as writers but, in the end, far different paths as creatures of a loving and forgiving God.


Donald DeMarco is a Senior Fellow of Human Life International. He is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Water-loo, Ontario, and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut. Some of his recent writings may be found at Human Life International’s Truth & Charity Forum.

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