The Multi-Faceted Lord Alfred Douglas

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There are only 24 hours to go on my staff pick Kickstarter project to fund research into the life of Lord Alfred Douglas. One of my backers says she thinks it will rally at the last minute. Is she right?

Thank you to those who have supported this quixotic project, and those of you who still might, I wanted to give you a small idea of why I find Lord Alfred Douglas so fascinating.

In 1980, Gary H. Paterson of King’s College at the University of Ontario published an annotated bibliography of writings about Lord Alfred Douglas. The 32 page article summarized writings about the poet to that date with brief quotations and descriptions their subject. The following is a list of the adjectives used to describe him. In a few words it paints a clear picture of a complex and contradictory character and the wildly different impressions he made on people:

amusing, aristocratic, attractive, blue-eyed, brilliant, brutal, cantankerous, changeable, charming, childish, complex, conceited, courageous, cultured, defiant, desperate, desastreux, devoted, diabolical, egotistical, exigeant, exquisite, fair (in coloring), false, fanatical, fiery, gifted, generous, good-hearted, gracious, handsome, headstrong, human, idle, imitative, impatient, impossible, independent, indiscreet, infatuated, inferior, insistent, imperious, likeable, jealous, loyal, mercurial, mindless, misguided, obsessed, outspoken, overwhelmed, over-zealous, pallid, plain, pretty, proud, rancorous, reckless, selfish, self-righteous, spoilt, talented, touching, treacherous, uncompromising, unreasonable, unsophisticated, unstable, venemous-tongued, vengeful, violent,  well-read, willful, witty

How Lord Alfred Douglas is Not Entirely Dissimilar from Potato Salad

A few days ago, I posted a proposal on Kickstarter for research into the life and work of the poet Lord Alfred Douglas.  (Only 25 hours to go! Can we make it happen?) To my tremendous surprise, even though I told one or two friends about it, my idea has so far failed to go viral. I was baffled by this. I mean, who doesn’t love strict formalism and the Petrarchan sonnet, am I right?

I did a bit of exploring on the Kickstarter site to see what types of pitches receive the most funding and I think I know what my problem is.  My project does not have enough potato in it.

In case you do not know what I am talking about, I am referring to one of the site’s most wildly successful campaigns. An Ohio guy promises he will make potato salad:

Potato SaladHe does not promise it will be good potato salad. It is just potato salad. He has thousands of backers and a total today of $54, 504.

This is not surprising at all. People like potato salad.

I would like a bit of that spud windfall myself. While my project (primary research to create a sample chapter that will form the basis of a full length biography) pales in ambition and scope to “Basically I’m just making potato salad. I haven’t decided what kind yet,” it does have certain potato salad aspects that may not be obvious on the surface.  So here is a top ten list of how Lord Alfred Douglas is like potato salad.

1. To make potato salad you need to pick potatoes. Potatoes are Irish, Oscar Wilde was Irish and Lord Alfred Douglas picked him.

Here’s how Irish Oscar Wilde was: his parents met protesting the Irish potato famine.

2. Potatoes grow underground and need to be dug up. Biographical information also needs to be unearthed through trips to dusty archives.

Hidden away in an archive at the New York Public library are the letters between Lord Alfred Douglas and his wife the poet Olive Custance. Custance was part of Douglas’s life for four decades. I will be looking for previously unpublished clues as to her influence on his life and work.

3. Potato salad is traditional and made by following a recipe. Lord Alfred Douglas preferred the strict structure of the sonnet as his poetic recipe.

To see the moment holds a madrigal,
To find some cloistered place, some hermitage
For free devices, some deliberate cage
Wherein to keep wild thoughts like birds in thrall;
To eat sweet honey and to taste black gall,
To fight with form, to wrestle and to rage,
Till at the last upon the conquered page
The shadows of created Beauty fall.

The octet of Lord Alfred Douglas’s Sonnet on the Sonnet is a fitting metaphor for the poet’s life. He was a man of unruly passions, an inheritance they say, of the “mad bad” Douglas line. Douglas would spend most of his life in search of a structure, a “deliberate cage” to hold them. He had absolute devotion to any cause he took up. He expected absolute love from his friends. He chose as his preferred art for the rigid form of the Petrachan sonnet. He chose for his religion an un-yielding form of Catholicism. He longed to return to childhood, when rules were clear and all choices were made for him. He even found his greatest peace in prison.

4. A main ingredient in potato salad is mayonnaise. To make mayonnaise, you need to break some eggs. Lord Alfred Douglas did a lot of smashing with his hot temper.

When Douglas was in a good mood he could not sit still. He would fidget and pace, jump up and sit down. When angered, he could not contain the emotion, he would explode and then the storm would pass, but not without leaving hard feelings in its wake. It was an aspect of his personality he would have to wrestle with his entire life.

Douglas was aware of his own turbulent emotions at an early age. The closest he came to explaining how these tempers felt from inside was the 1891 poem “A Summer Storm,” “…but lo! one note/Of harsh discord, one word of bitterness,/And a fierce overwhelming wilderness/Of angry waters chokes my gasping throat.”

5. Potato salad is a mixture of odd ingredients. Lord Alfred Douglas’s personality was also a mix of odd ingredients.

Douglas seemed to be everything and its opposite all at once, and all of it in the extreme. He was a romantic poet, a dreamer, loyal to a fault and also combative, haughty, vile. He was self-centered and generous, a gentleman and a non-conformist, a titled Lord with no money, born with the advantage of social privilege and the disadvantage of a family legacy of mental instability. He could not take criticism, but he loved to dish it out. He cuts the figure of a knight in the wrong time, mounting his horse in full armor to do battle with a cream pie. The famous Monty Python sketch about the man who is alternately rude and polite could very well have been inspired by his lordship. George Bernard Shaw wrote “Alfred is a psychological curiosity. Sometimes he is possessed by his father, sometimes by his mother; often by both simultaneously. Add to this that his age varies from five to fifty without a word of warning.” Another team of biographers called him “a kaleidoscope of a man. …we gaze upon a cinema of a man of many selves; each turn of the cinamatograph reveals a new man, or rather a new shade to a chameleon’s skin.”

6. Admittedly the aristocratic Douglas never cooked for himself. But here is a Victorian potato salad recipe that one of his servants might have whipped up.

From Godey’s Lady’s Book 1861.
Boil as many potatoes as will make a dish for your family; when done peal them carefully and slice while hot into a deep dish;cut in very small pieces young onions or shives (chives) and mix them among the slices, distributing a little pepper and salt; pour over the whole, good vinegar, scalding hot, and send it to the table immediately.  A wholesome and pleasant dish for spring and early summer.

(After his wife’s death, an elderly Douglas fell into an absolute panic when his maid had to go to the hospital and he thought he might starve to death. He wrote to Shaw, “I was left with no servant and an utter impossibility of getting one… Without a servant I couldn’t live and had to go to hotels at ruinous expense… At present I am in a miserable state of health caused by worry and anxiety… and inability to sleep.”)

7. The Douglases were Scottish. Here is a Scottish potato salad recipe.

Ingredients:
10 waxy potatoes, diced
4 ounces (100g) shelled fresh peas (or frozen peas)
4 ounces cooked beetroot (red beets) diced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Two teaspoons chopped onion
One teaspoon chopped fresh parsley
Four tablespoons (60ml) salad dressing or salad cream
Fresh parsley to garnish

Method:
Boil the potatoes in salted water for ten minutes or until tender. Drain and pat dry. Cook the peas separately for about five minutes or until tender and then drain.
While the vegetables are still warm, mix together and stir in the chopped parsley and onion and season with salt and pepper to taste.
Fold in the salad dressing (or salad cream) to moisten, and garnish with sprigs of fresh parsley.

Source: Traditional Scottish Recipes

8. Potato salad is a staple at dinner parties, as was Lord Alfred Douglas.

9. Lord Alfred Douglas had a lot of salad days due to his life-long hobby of betting on losing horses. (He even placed a losing bet on a horse on the day he died.)

10. Potatoes assume the most curious shapes, as did Alfred Douglas’s life.

Enjoy this clip from the 1895 journal The Sketch, which juxtaposes a story about an oddly shaped potato with a notice about a poem based on a letter from Oscar Wilde to Lord Alfred Douglas.

(The poem based on the letter was written in an attempt to thwart blackmailers.)

Join me tomorrow when I will explain what Lord Alfred Douglas has in common with the proposed “I Know Where Your Cat Lives” ap.

[P.S. Thank you to Kickstarter for naming my project a “staff pick” today.]

How Will Non-Fiction Writers Fund Research with Decreasing Publisher Advances? Hype, Victorian Poets and Water Balloons.

“I do not actually find a great deal related to your venture from a hype viewpoint.”-guy who sent a message to me via Kickstarter hyping his hyping services. (I would have found a great deal more related to his hyping talent were he to have written me in more standard English.)

For the past couple of days I have been looking at successful campaigns on Kickstarter to see what they have in common and to see how my project compares “from a hype viewpoint.” The staff member who named my project a staff pick called it “a very cool use of the site.”

So, you see, I am cool.

Before I get to the serious hype, let me explain what I think the staff picker found “cool.” Back when I wrote my first work of historical research, more than a decade ago, I was able to secure a publisher with my resume (much more sparse than it is now) and a well-worded promise that I would find really interesting stuff if they would just unleash me in a few libraries and church archives. Somehow my concept– to write a biography of a building– struck a chord without all that many specifics, and they gave me a small advance which allowed me to pay my bills while going to local history libraries and basically asking people if there was anything interesting there related to my subject.

There are fewer publishers around these days who will take a chance on a non-celebrity author. They want to see even veteran historical writers come to the table with the bulk of the research complete. This means that these kinds of books need to be written by people who are of independent means.

There are a lot of great writers out there who are not men and women of independent means. If the audience values books that require travel and time to research, we will need to find a way for writers and researchers to eat while doing this work. Kickstarter could be a vehicle for that. So that’s the cool part– this idea is part of a larger vision that goes beyond my particular book proposal.

Specifically, I want to do primary research into the poet (and intimate friend of Oscar Wilde) Lord Alfred Douglas to produce a detailed sample chapter that will be the centerpiece of a book proposal I have been working on for two years.

I find it hard to see how anyone could come up with something more sexy than that, but just to improve my chances from a hype standpoint, I have been posting articles here that detail the many similarities between Lord Alfred Douglas and some of the most successful campaigns currently going.  I have already explained how much my project has in common with the “I’m going to make a potato salad guy” and an ap to stalk people’s cats over the internet.

Today, for reasons of propriety, I decided against illuminating any similarities between the poet and the “Gay Men Draw Vaginas” Kickstarter proposal, although I assure you this is a thing.  I thought, instead, to compare and contrast a biography of Lord Alfred Douglas with Bunch O Balloons, a project that is 8081% funded. Yes, that is 8081%.  (Compare this to 6% funded with 5 days to go for my project.)

balloonsBunch O Balloons lets you fill up to 100 water balloons in a minute. I don’t have a great deal of call to do that, but a lot of people seem to because it is funded to the tune of $809,021 as of today.

When it came time for me to do a top ten list of things Lord Alfred Douglas has in common with 100 water balloons being filled simultaneously, I have to admit I was a bit stymied.

The sad truth is, you cannot fill water balloons with Lord Alfred Douglas. But all is not lost.

When I look at the last three popular Kickstarter projects I have featured, I have come to the conclusion that people will instinctively give money to anything that is clever and entertaining. I am in luck, because Lord Alfred Douglas was nothing if not clever and entertaining.

bosie1When Bosie, as he was called, was a boy (when was he not?) he could pull the most outrageous stunts and get away with it by assuming an expression of cherubic innocence. It worked far more often than it had any business doing because he looked like the image to the left and he had such impeccable manners.

He had cards printed up which read “Lord Alfred Douglas presents his compliments to…. and regrets that he will be unable to…. in consequence of……”

When he had more pressing matters than study– poems to write, games to play, famous playwrights to go to dinner parties with and so on– he would fill in the card and leave it for one of the dons at Magdalen College.

“Lord Alfred Douglas presents his compliments to Professor Smith and regrets that he will be unable to show up an essay on the Evolution of the Moral Idea in consequence of not having prepared one.”

Like him or hate him, surely this is as clever and entertaining as a bunch of balloons being filled up with water. Maybe it is not $800,000 clever, but that project is already fully funded, mine is not. So if you have $25 to put towards something with the potential to amuse you, visit my Kickstarter page and help me dig up more entertainment. I hope you will agree that I have now done a bit more for my venture from a hype point of view.

"

I discovered something recently while searching through an old journal. I have told the story many times of how I came to write Angel, how I was inspired by a trip to Mount Rainer and the question of why a man would leave the ministry for a career as a mountain tour guide. “Why did the minister go to the mountain?” was a regular writing prompt for years. I wanted to bring out all those themes of natural beauty, transcendence, and the impermanence of life in the shadow of a sleeping volcano. I knew what the heart of the conflict had to be– a minister had to fall out of step with his congregation. He would have some sort of change in his worldview. I kept going back to what that change might be. Over the years I tried a number of different plots and nothing quite worked until I saw an image of a beautiful man, and meditated on my aesthetic response to his beauty. That is when the idea hit me that my minister might do the same, and this might be the thing that would put him in conflict with his congregation. From that point the story flowed as if it had already been written and I just had to take dictation.

That is how I thought it had happened. But memory is not always a faithful recorder of events. Apparently my subconscious had been at work on the novel for some time when I had that eureka moment. When I looked back in my journal at my earliest ideas for the novel I was then calling “The Minister and the Mountain,” written in 2000 immediately after my return from Seattle, I discovered two things. There was a draft of what is now the final scene in the book. It is quite similar to the final version. There was also my first idea of what the plot of the book should be. My very first idea for the central conflict had been that the minister would fall in love with another man. Why did I abandon that promising plot line and put it so far out of my mind that I forgot I’d ever thought of it? I don’t remember, and the journal doesn’t really say. The most likely explanation is that the idea scared me. It seemed too incendiary and I was not yet brave enough to tackle it. I ran away.

That was only 14 years ago, but it seems a world away.

"

My Novel is Growing Obsolete— And I am Glad

"The growing body of cross-cultural research that the three researchers were compiling suggested that the mind’s capacity to mold itself to cultural and environmental settings was far greater than had been assumed. The most interesting thing about cultures may not be in the observable things they do—the rituals, eating preferences, codes of behavior, and the like—but in the way they mold our most fundamental conscious and unconscious thinking and perception."

"We Aren’t the World" by Ethan Watters

"

Someone really ought to tell the life story of Lord Alfred Douglas as a comedy. The poet is remembered as a player in that grand drama, the downfall of Oscar Wilde. It would be a dark comedy, of course, comedy and tragedy are closely linked. I have been reading some contemporary newspaper accounts of the Lord’s life following Wilde’s imprisonment and it is tremendously entertaining. We find Lord Alfred, an aristocrat just a bit out of his time, living in the dawning of the best age to be an English Lord. He struts into every story, impeccably dressed, sometimes in a top hat. Justices address him as “your lordship” while telling him off for believing himself to be above court rules. He is haughty, entitled, sharp tongued when angered, and perfectly well mannered and charming when he is not. So often, when reading contemporary accounts of him, one cannot help but laugh.

His life was full of the most insane episodes.
[…]
Much later a newspaper printed Douglas’s obituary summing up his life essentially by saying that he had squandered his good name and would be remembered, if at all, for nothing but scandal. The only problem was Douglas wasn’t quite dead yet. Instead of issuing a big, fat apology, the newspaper decided to plead justification. That is, “OK, so you’re not really dead. Our bad. But we stand by our assessment that you’ve lead a lousy life and should be quickly forgotten after you die. Have a nice day.”

"

Comedy and Tragedy by Laura Lee (via jonwildling)

(via jonwildling)

theparisreview:

Geoff Dyer’s ten rules for writing fiction
1 Never worry about the commercial possibilities of a project. That stuff is for agents and editors to fret over—or not. Conversation with my American publisher. Me: “I’m writing a book so boring, of such limited commercial appeal, that if you publish it, it will probably cost you your job.” Publisher: “That’s exactly what makes me want to stay in my job.”
2 Don’t write in public places. In the early 1990s I went to live in Paris. The usual writerly reasons: back then, if you were caught writing in a pub in England, you could get your head kicked in, whereas in Paris,dans les cafés … Since then I’ve developed an aversion to writing in public. I now think it should be done only in private, like any other lavatorial activity.
3 Don’t be one of those writers who sentence themselves to a lifetime of sucking up to Nabokov.
4 If you use a computer, constantly refine and expand your autocorrect settings. The only reason I stay loyal to my piece-of-shit computer is that I have invested so much ingenuity into building one of the great auto-correct files in literary history. Perfectly formed and spelt words emerge from a few brief keystrokes: “Niet” becomes “Nietzsche,” “phoy” becomes “photography” and so on. Genius!
5 Keep a diary. The biggest regret of my writing life is that I have never kept a journal or a diary.
6 Have regrets. They are fuel. On the page they flare into desire.
7 Have more than one idea on the go at any one time. If it’s a choice between writing a book and doing nothing I will always choose the latter. It’s only if I have an idea for two books that I choose one rather than the other. I always have to feel that I’m bunking off from something.
8 Beware of clichés. Not just the clichés that Martin Amis is at war with. There are clichés of response as well as expression. There are clichés of observation and of thought—even of conception. Many novels, even quite a few adequately written ones, are clichés of form which conform to clichés of expectation.
9 Do it every day. Make a habit of putting your observations into words and gradually this will become instinct. This is the most important rule of all and, naturally, I don’t follow it.
10 Never ride a bike with the brakes on. If something is proving too difficult, give up and do something else. Try to live without resort to per­severance. But writing is all about perseverance. You’ve got to stick at it. In my 30s I used to go to the gym even though I hated it. The purpose of going to the gym was to postpone the day when I would stop going. That’s what writing is to me: a way of postponing the day when I won’t do it any more, the day when I will sink into a depression so profound it will be indistinguishable from perfect bliss.
(via)

theparisreview:

Geoff Dyer’s ten rules for writing fiction

1 Never worry about the commercial possibilities of a project. That stuff is for agents and editors to fret over—or not. Conversation with my American publisher. Me: “I’m writing a book so boring, of such limited commercial appeal, that if you publish it, it will probably cost you your job.” Publisher: “That’s exactly what makes me want to stay in my job.”

Don’t write in public places. In the early 1990s I went to live in Paris. The usual writerly reasons: back then, if you were caught writing in a pub in England, you could get your head kicked in, whereas in Paris,dans les cafés … Since then I’ve developed an aversion to writing in public. I now think it should be done only in private, like any other lavatorial activity.

3 Don’t be one of those writers who sentence themselves to a lifetime of sucking up to Nabokov.

4 If you use a computer, constantly refine and expand your autocorrect settings. The only reason I stay loyal to my piece-of-shit computer is that I have invested so much ingenuity into building one of the great auto-correct files in literary history. Perfectly formed and spelt words emerge from a few brief keystrokes: “Niet” becomes “Nietzsche,” “phoy” becomes “photography” and so on. Genius!

5 Keep a diary. The biggest regret of my writing life is that I have never kept a journal or a diary.

6 Have regrets. They are fuel. On the page they flare into desire.

Have more than one idea on the go at any one time. If it’s a choice between writing a book and doing nothing I will always choose the latter. It’s only if I have an idea for two books that I choose one rather than the other. I always have to feel that I’m bunking off from something.

8 Beware of clichés. Not just the clichés that Martin Amis is at war with. There are clichés of response as well as expression. There are clichés of observation and of thought—even of conception. Many novels, even quite a few adequately written ones, are clichés of form which conform to clichés of expectation.

Do it every day. Make a habit of putting your observations into words and gradually this will become instinct. This is the most important rule of all and, naturally, I don’t follow it.

10 Never ride a bike with the brakes on. If something is proving too difficult, give up and do something else. Try to live without resort to per­severance. But writing is all about perseverance. You’ve got to stick at it. In my 30s I used to go to the gym even though I hated it. The purpose of going to the gym was to postpone the day when I would stop going. That’s what writing is to me: a way of postponing the day when I won’t do it any more, the day when I will sink into a depression so profound it will be indistinguishable from perfect bliss.

(via)

I would like you to stop for a moment an imagine a self-esteem workshop for a group of pre-teen boys.  What types of activities do you think might be planned?  What would the boys do?  Really think about this for a moment before I go on.  What comes to mind when you think of boys and self-esteem building?

ImageNow, I want to tell you about a workshop called “Boys Unstoppable!” The workshop is put together by a company in the personal care industry.  The boys arrive with their dads.  They sit down at tables and find paper and magic markers.

The leader, known as a “Self-esteem Ambassador” first asks the boys to think about their dad and his appearance.  The Ambassador asks each boy to write down anything he has heard his dad say about his looks.  Then the boys create a second column, and they write down how those statements made them feel.

One boy, Tommy, starts to fidget in his chair. Why do they have to think so much about their feelings?  It’s a nice day out. Can’t they go out and do something?

The Ambassador smiles like a salesman or a Ken doll.  He introduces the next exercise.  The boys are asked to think about all of the good things about themselves.  Then the Ambassador hands out “confidence cards.”

The cards say “I have a beautiful________”

The Ambassador tells them to fill out as many cards as they want.

Tommy stares at the cards.  “I have a beautiful face?” he thinks.  Not really, he thinks, but he writes it down anyway.

The exercise is kind of hard.  It’s hard to fit what he is good at into that sentence without it sounding weird.

“I have beautiful math skill.”

Tommy thinks about last week when he won the 100 yard dash.  He was proud of that.  “I have beautiful running skill” is awkward. So he writes “I have beautiful feet.”

That’s not right.  He gives up and looks out the window.

“What’s wrong?” asks the Ambassador with a kind of cheery sympathy.

“I can’t think of anything,” Tommy says.

The Ambassador tilts his head. Tommy can tell he is thinking that the boy is a real hard case.  He must have no confidence at all.  It’s worse than he thought.

(Read the full article on my blog by following the link)

thedailyballet:

Maria Alexandrova and Vladislav Lantratov in Don Quixote.
Photo (c) Irina Lepnyova.

thedailyballet:

Maria Alexandrova and Vladislav Lantratov in Don Quixote.

Photo (c) Irina Lepnyova.

Let’s say I do go to a “right-to-carry” church. The reason that I’m not going to tense up if Deacon Billy’s pistol falls out of his pocket while he’s passing the offering plate is because good people like Deacon Billy don’t shoot people; bad people do.

If I carry a gun into church, I am embodying a two-fold doctrine of sin: 1) There is no danger that I would be tempted to sin with my gun (like in the heat of an argument over the church budget or a sermon that sounds un-Biblical). 2) There is enough danger from the wickedness “out there” that I should be armed in case the bad people storm our building and start shooting. This two-fold doctrine of sin could be termed the total depravity of everyone else.