The False Promise of Pleasure

Statue of writer and playright Oscar Wilde in Merrion Square in Dublin, Ireland.

“Meaninglessness does not come from weariness with pain. Meaningless comes from weariness with pleasure….  No one is more fed up with life than one who has exhausted pleasure. Some of the loneliest people in the world are those who have lived indulgent lives and emotionally and physically drive themselves to impotence.”

This is a quotation from Ravi Zacharias in a talk he gave titled, the Problem of Pleasure. If you listen to Ravi Zacharias much, you will note that he returns to this theme often, and he often mentions Oscar Wilde, the famous Irish poet and playwright. Wilde, of course, was a brilliant writer and thinker who was an outspoken atheist and lived a hedonistic lifestyle.

Wilde is described as “the supreme individualist”. His book, The Picture of Dorian Gray, is described as a “novel of vice hidden beneath art” tinged with “self-conscious decadence”. The Importance of Being Earnest, commonly believed to be his best work written at the height of his career, is more subtle and nuanced, but continues the same theme, as do all of the works of Oscar Wilde. (See Wikipedia)

We know much of Wilde’s private life. Many of his secrets were paraded before the world to see in a much publicized court case, ironically, when Oscar Wilde sued the Marquess of Queensberry for libel.

Queensberry’s son, Lord Alfred Douglas, was the person who introduced Wilde to “the Victorian underground of gay prostitution”. Queensberry’s defense to the libel charges was to prove his statements true by hiring private investigators to uncover the “salacious details of Wilde’s private life”. The trial that Wilde brought against Queensberry left him bankrupt and exposed.

Wilde, the “colourful agent provocateur in Victorian society”, spared himself no pleasure. He also wasn’t shy about his lifestyle. He championed licentiousness in his art and in his life.

Like Solomon, though, he retained a sort of wisdom borne of experience. Having been baptized as a child, he often used biblical imagery in his writing, though it’s use would have likely been considered sacrilegious. During a two year prison sentence for homosexual actions, he requested copies of the Bible in multiple, languages, Dante’s Divine Comedy and other works with Christian themes. When he was released from prison, the Catholic Church turned down his request to spend six months at a monastery, and Wilde wept at the news.

As I sit here thinking of these things, I am also thinking of the unfolding story of a friend, a very enthusiastic and committed believer in God. He is a lover of the stage, a former Shakespearean performer. In that sense, he shares something in common with the playwright, Wilde.

My friend is in a hospital ICU as I write, having suffered a series of strokes that could leave him uncommunicative and paralyzed. Even in his desperate physical situation, he and his family have experienced the presence of God sustaining them in faith. They exhibit a transcendent joy and peace in the middle of the difficulties they face.

We are naturally attracted to pleasure and pull back from pain. Sometimes, however, the pleasures we seek cause us pain. We tend to think that pleasure is good and pain is bad, if not in a moral sense, then certainly in an experiential sense. God gives us the ability to experience pleasure and pain. In that sense, God gives us both pleasure and pain.

Neither one is intrinsically good or bad. CS Lewis implies this when he says that God whispers to us in our pleasures, but He shouts to us in our pain. Though pain can be the result of our own reckless indiscretions, it isn’t always so. My friend in the hospital is proof of that.

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