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A brick of Oscar Wilde aged Irish cheddar sitting on my kitchen table has led to this meditation on a word from God: “Better is the end of a thing than its beginning” (Ecclesiastes 7:8). The label has a picture of the dandified playwright and this quote: “The only way to get rid of a temptation … is to yield to it.”
In what sense is the end of a thing better than its beginning? Certainly not in every sense. In the matter of chocolate cakes, the beginning is better; I have to cajole to get rid of the last stale slice, while restraining the hungry hordes from pouncing on the dessert just out of the oven.
But the Preacher is talking about paths, is he not? Here is a man, Oscar Wilde, who has tried it all. He has devoted his life to the dubious experiment of testing one thing after another “to search out … all that is done under heaven” (1:13). Withholding no pleasure, project, or pursuit from himself, he finds—and reports back to us—that that which is exciting at the start ends up in vanity. Or as a Texas inmate once wrote me about his past forays into sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll: “Nothing stays long enough.”
Back to the cheese. What I have noticed with famous dead men is that adoring fans like to quote their sayings from the prime of life, when they seemed to be doing well. Few are interested in knowing their latter end, to learn what the fallen arc of their days might tell. It is rather like a video of a person jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge, which we always stop at the 3-second mark, exclaiming how much fun it must be to fly.
But nothing can be judged good until it’s ended. It is the destination of a road that tells us if the road was smartly chosen. John the Baptist was a locust-eating loner all his life while Herod lived in palaces. But who would rather be the Herod? Therefore, choosing commandment-breaking is not only sinful but proves too clever by half. Or as Napoleon’s chief of police reportedly said about the execution of Louis Antoine, the Duke of Enghien, “It was worse than a crime; it was a blunder.”
The Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias puts it this way:
“The more I read Oscar Wilde, the more I was convinced that every time you dabble in that which is desacralized, it reshapes your conscience and reshapes your hungers. The more he got into things that he ought never to have been in, the more he desired them, and in his own words, the more he loathed them at the end. So you do not enter into a life of profanity with impunity. It shapes your hungers and traps you. I think there’s a physiological and psychological and spiritual effect to it all.”
‘You do not enter into a life of profanity with impunity. It shapes your hungers and traps you.’
—Ravi Zacharias on the life of Oscar Wilde
So much for “the only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.” Even the fortune cookie thrown in your bag with your General Tso’s Chicken order has better advice than that. Jesus says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). That means you kill the temptation, not coddle it. Can this be done? Jesus commands it, so it can be done.
Wilde was imprisoned for sodomy and gross indecency and then spent his last three years in poverty before dying in a dingy Paris hotel at age 46. One biographer says his last words were something like “Either the wallpaper goes or I go.” Zacharias says his last words were to his lover: “Did you ever love any of those boys?” To which the lover admitted he had not, and Wilde admitted that he had not either. Whatever.
A young woman I know, much infatuated with great literary figures, is going off to read them in a college in the fall. I hope that alongside studies of De Profundis and The Picture of Dorian Gray the school will also have a course on deathbed fears and tremblings to provide a fuller picture.