Once upon a time there was a little collection of fairy tales called The House of Pomegranates by Oscar Wilde. I opened this book up and found a whole different book than the one I had expected! Is that a good or a bad thing? Well, I suppose both.
My familiarity with Mr. Wilde is pretty much based on his decadent excoriation of decadence and beauty-for-beauty’s-sake The Picture of Dorian Gray and his brilliant and perfect and of course sublimely witty The Importance of Being Earnest. I figured I would be getting more of the same, or at least a little of one and a lot of the other or some such combination. Nope.
The third story “The Fisherman and His Soul” is fascinating. Starting off as a vaguely familiar tale of a lovelorn young fisherman who gives up his soul to be with the mermaid who has stolen his heart, it quickly moves in stranger directions. There is a witch who falls in love with him, who brings him to a moonlit satanic ritual to meet her diabolical master, who declares her love and then shows him how to cut his soul free. Then we learn about his cast-out soul’s journeys. Such journeys! The soul learns about Knowledge and Wealth and Lust. And, most surprisingly, the soul has terrible powers and with those powers does terrible things. A phrase uttered by the soul as he recounts his acts to the fisherman, “And I did a strange thing, but what I did matters not…”, is repeated three times and it is unnerving, chilling. Why does the soul do the terrible things it does? Apparently because when the fisherman cleaved his soul from his body, his soul got none of his heart. A heartless soul! Strange. His soul is soulless. For some reason I have always identified the soul as equaling the heart, part of a kind of trinity: Body, Mind, Soul (Heart). Wilde does not see it that way. The soul returns to the fisherman repeatedly, telling him of his adventures, always trying to reunite with him in the same body. And finally the soul does tempt the fisherman away from his undersea home, despite the peace and satisfaction that the fisherman has achieved with his mermaid love. The soul leads the fisherman astray; he compels him to do terrible and cruel and inexplicable things. There is an unhappy ending. And then there is a kind of happy ending, poetic and transcendent and, yes, strange.
What does it all mean? Hard to say. Of the four stories, this one reminded me the most of Dorian Gray, in its emphasis on decadence and on the idea of breaking up the psyche into different parts. Elsewhere the spirit or soul is usually seen as a kind of agent of transcendence; yet here it is the fisherman who has achieved true transcendence - without his soul. Perhaps the soul is the form of the fisherman’s unconscious. The fisherman reaches his own transcendence by achieving his strongest desire, by falling in love: a love that is connected to his heart and one that is a palpably <i>physical</i> love. The mermaid is described in language that defines her as a beautiful and very material being: a body of ivory, a tail of silver and pearl, each separate hair a thread of gold. What is Wilde saying? That we can find our own riches in the physicality of love? That we don’t need those terrible adventures that force us to confront the true nature of Knowledge, Wealth, and Lust, that these are all Outside Forces that are in the end truly meaningless? That the fisherman's soul journeys towards a kind of living death and, later, in his attempt to use "good" and "evil" to influence the fisherman - that he is constructing a false binary of good vs. evil, an ultimately meaningless duality? That pure transcendence can be found in the romantic and sexual desires of eros, within the heart that acts as the fulcrum of the, er, "pleasure principle"? Love = the Id, and that's not so bad, not bad at all? Or at least love equals whatever the id was considered to be, prior to Freud? Sorry to bring up Freud, I know he’s unpopular & discredited & all that, but the fisherman's actions do seem to exist as the opposite of Freud's “reality principle” - in his disinterest in deferring gratification of his desires, in his rejection of the circumstantial and material reality that his village priest invokes to stop his quest to lose his own soul. Is the heart the true agent of transcendence, one that is linked to regeneration? The ending points me in that direction... flowers blooming on unconsecrated ground, over the body of the dead fisherman; a narrow-minded priest suddenly finding himself lost in his own passionate moment of transcendence and connection to the beauty around him.
The first and fourth stories, “The Young King” and “The Star-Child” are quite charming in their own way. Certainly the prose is beautiful, jewel-like. One is the story of a young king who learns that to love the beauty of material goods is to support the enslavement and oppression of the people who create those goods; in the end he achieves a glorious and godly transcendence in a church. The other is the story of a child who is beautiful, vain, and cruel; that child is transformed into an ugly creature and is then tormented until he achieves his own glorious and godly transcendence. Charm and jewel-like prose, yes, but I actively disliked both of these stories. I don’t have a problem with religious themes in my fiction; I’m a God-lover myself, so bring it on. But my God! The messages in these two stories were so trite, so mawkish… frankly, I became rather nauseated at the ever-increasing relentlessness and obviousness of Wilde’s goals in telling these tales. All that charm became charmless. Even worse, the themes of these particular tales almost act as a renunciation of some of the ideas present in the far more complex and satisfying story of the fisherman.
The second story “Birthday of the Infanta” is a troubling and very intriguing little tale. Lovely and grim in equal parts. A Spanish princess, a king mourning the death (murder?) of his wife, sinister courtiers who may have sinister designs on the royal child… disturbing things bubbling away under the surface. And then all of that is discarded as we learn the story of a dwarf brought to entertain the princess on her birthday. His purity, his love, his connection to nature are all detailed movingly. As is his lack of understanding in how he is viewed by those around him - as an ugly joke. In the end, after seeing his reflection in a mirrored wall and so learning his true place in the world of man, in the world of the princess… he dies of a broken heart in front of his own image. The meaning of the story seems timeless. Unlike my experience with the two stories above, I was not remotely annoyed - perhaps because the story is so bracing in its clear-eyed sadness at the cruelty of the world.
A striking, resonant, and somewhat heartless ending... after our little princess comes across the body of the good dwarf, she fails to understand that her toy has broken permanently and is annoyed when told that the death was due to a broken heart:
And the Infanta frowned, and her dainty rose-leaf lips curled in pretty disdain. “For the future let those who come to play with me have no hearts,” she cried, and she ran out into the garden.
I found a lot of my own vague ideas given concrete form in Heather Marcovitch's excellent essay: 'The Fisherman and His Soul' and the Unconscious