S. N. Behrman
The New Yorker
 August 3, 1946: 63-65

July 24

The Editors, The New Yorker,


I am extremely impressionable, and when someone with the authority of Mr. Edmund Wilson tells me in a firm tone to sit down and do a thing, I find myself sitting down and doing it. In a recent issue of The New Yorker, Mr. Wilson laid an injunction upon me and I instantly obeyed. "Read," he commanded at the end of an article on Oscar Wilde, "'The Picture of Dorian Gray' or even the best of his fairy tales, 'The Birthday of the Infanta,' with the Spirochaeta pallida in mind." I sat down and did it. As well as I can, I shall try to give a clinical account of the resulting experiment. It will not be easy, but I shall try.

In my customary armchair, with my pipe, an ashtray, and the Spirochaeta pallida conveniently beside me, I took up "The Birthday of the Infanta." I had read it before, but, with Mr. Wilson's assistance, this moving fairy tale took on an entirely new coloration. It was good, at first, to renew my acquaintance with Wilde's story. I remembered of it really no more than the wonderful last line, when the Dwarf who had amused the Infanta lies dead. The highly bred little Princess, I remembered, asks the Chamberlain why the Dwarf will never dance again. "Because his heart is broken," answers the Chamberlain. The Infanta's rose-leaf lips curl. "For the future, let those who come to play with we have no heart!" she cries, and runs out of the garden, out of the sight of the small, distorted body. That is the end I had remembered, and as I sat down to obey Mr. Wilson, I reflected that if the Dwarf, besides being so preternaturally ugly, was also afflicted with Spirochaeta pallida, it was possible that the Infanta, who lived centuries before Ehrlich, meant something more by her remark than appeared on the surface. But this prejudgment was unfair to my experiment. It was unscientific. I dropped the reflection and began to read clinically, just the four of us together—the Dwarf, the Infanta, the S.p., and I.

I yielded once again to Wilde's magic as he describes the birthday costume of the lovely child and the "sad, melancholy King" watching her from a window of the palace. The King is sad because he remembers his young Queen, who came out of France, bore him the Infanta, and died six months later, "before she had seen the almonds blossom twice in the orchard, or plucked the second year's fruit from the old gnarled fig-tree that stood in the centre of the now grass-grown courtyard." It is a charming passage, but I began to feel uneasy. "What did she die of?" I asked myself, the Spirochaeta pallida in mind. I read on tenaciously. It could not be that Mr. Wilson meant to waste the S.p. on a dead Queen; that would make its significance marginal. No, he must have meant it for someone more important to the story, and it could only be the Dwarf, who is its tragic hero. I read on, searching each phrase with the intentness of a bacteriologist. The miniature bullfight that is put on for the entertainment of the Infanta, the singing of the gypsies, the bear that stands on his head, the wizened apes who play amusing tricks—I regarded them all as potential carriers. I really did my best; I didn't let go of the Spirochaeta for an instant. Finally, the Dwarf appears. I had always thought him just an ugly dwarf, full of imagination and vitality and romantic aspiration, and I had thought the Infanta extremely snobbish. Wilde makes him physically very unappetizing, just as Rostand gives Cyrano a too emphatic nose. (Horrid thought: Did Cyrano have . . . ? But I put this out of mind. I did not think Mr. Wilson would want me to digress. I stuck to the Dwarf.) Now I imagined the Dwarf doing everything he did, only with the addition of the S.p. I thought, for example: Well, if the Dwarf had not been a dwarf—had he been a Princeton athlete or intellectual, say—that would have been nice for the Dwarf but it would have made it awfully difficult for Wilde to keep the Infanta from falling in love with him and marrying him, unless, of course, he had shown that the Infanta was bored by his physical prowess or irritated by his omniscience. But that would have been another story, and Wilde seems to have shown an inclination to write this one. And I am sure that he had the last line in mind when he began. I withdraw that. I cannot be sure, because I am not Mr. Wilson, but I think it is possible. I could see, however, that the experiment I had started on so hopefully was going to be difficult. I challenge those who think it's a pushover to sit down and read a fairy tale with the Spirochaeta pallida in mind to try it.

I read on with a sense of growing defeat. There is the scene in which all the flowers are angry at the Dwarf for being so ugly. But when I read that "even the red Geraniums, who did not usually give themselves airs, and were known to have a great many poor relations themselves, curled up in disgust when they saw him, and when the Violets meekly remarked that though he was certainly extremely plain, still he could not help it, they retorted with a good deal of justice that that was his chief defect, and that there was no reason why one should admire a person because he was incurable," I stopped short. This was it, of course. The Geraniums have the Spirochaeta pallida in mind. The birds, who like the Dwarf because he dances and is gay, are extremely superficial. So are the lizards, who "took an immense fancy to him." It is the Geraniums who come through with the diagnosis.

Of one thing I am certain: the Dwarf does not have the Spirochaeta pallida in mind, because he loves the Infanta and cherishes the delusion that she might love him in return. Until the awful moment when he beholds his ugliness in a mirror—when, for the first time, he gets some notion of how he looks to other people, including the Infanta—he is full of hope. Maybe, thought, the main symbol is here. This is when he discovers what is really wrong with him; he finds himself suddenly in the same dilemma as the one in which Oswald finds himself in "Ghosts." At this point, I found myself getting very irritated with Wilde. If the Dwarf kills himself because he has Spirochaeta pallida, why does Wilde drag the story on to the final scene, in which the little Princess is petulant because he won't get up and be jolly? Why does Wilde distort his ending to make it seem that his concern is not so much with the Dwarf as to score a point against the Little Princess? Why does he imply, as the Infanta runs gaily out of the garden at the end, that she will play with anyone in the future who will amuse her and make no demands upon her beyond that, Spirochaeta pallida or no Spirochaeta pallida? Angrily, I threw "The Birthday of the Infanta" away. My experiment was a success.

So far so good. I can take my orders (and I mean to) from Mr. Wilson in the future, but how can I rectify the mistakes I made in the past, when I was still on my own? There is the case of W. Somerset Maugham. In Cambridge in I916, in the Harvard Co-op, I picked up a second-hand copy of a novel because I was attracted by its title, "Of Human Bondage." I read it and thought it was remarkable. Recently, I read it again and still thought it was remarkable. Ever since that day in Cambridge, more than thirty years ago, I have been reading Somerset Maugham with unquenched delight. But now Mr. Wilson, in another article in The New Yorker, tells me that Maugham is not a writer at all. His books are not "written." What, then, have I been doing all these years? What have I been reading? It is really an anomalous situation. If, all these years, Mr. Maugham has not been a writer, then I have not been a reader. What have I been? Who am I? There are two comedies by Mr. Maugham, "Our Betters" and "The Circle," which most playwrights and drama critics I know consider among the hest comedies of this century. I have seen many revivals of them and they have always delighted me. But if they were not written, how did the actors memorize them? Mr. Maugham's first novel, "Liza of Lambeth," was published when he was twenty-three years old. The authoritative critic of the time—of the time, that is, before Mr. Wilson—was Sir Edmund Gosse. Since he did not know that Mr. Maugham could not write—indeed, had not written—he praised the book. A great many critics, not including Mr. Wilson, and hundreds of so-called readers, including myself, have since made the same laughable mistake. I can't speak for the others, but as for me, I want to square myself with Mr. Wilson. What steps should I take now? I await instructions.


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