when i first see Oscar Wilde’s gravestone, from a distance, it seems to be covered in blood. The letters of his name are not the ordinary, graveyard gray, but a deep red; and, walking along the tree-shaded path of the Pére Lachaise cemetery in Paris, France, I feel that this apparent bloodiness is somehow a breech in etiquette: We erect monuments that seem eternal so that we can forget this time-bound thing called man, the way he bleeds and ages and dies.
I remember a sentence from Wilde’s “De Profundis”: “Where there is sorrow, there is holy ground.” And I continue walking toward the grave, my backpack tugging at my shoulders, my stomach stuffed with espresso-soaked crépes, feeling like a drunk in a cathedral.
On closer inspection, I realize that what I saw as blood is, in reality, lipstick. The gravestone—which is large and topped with an Egyptian-looking carving—is covered with lipstick kisses, wreathed in flowers, stamped with innumerable Je-t’aimes and I-love-you’s; there are palimpsests of love letters, stories about how Wilde’s writing saved people; and above the Egyptian statue’s calves, there is an arrow-punctured heart filled with the names of lovers.
The gravestone is joyous, I think, but I can’t completely forget the blood. And Oscar is still dead. I feel, suddenly, a bit holy.
We come to literature, I believe, for moments like this. All painful stories—which is to say all true stories—are predicated, to some extent, on the idea that what appears terrible could in fact be terribly beautiful, or, at the very least, meaningful. We come to freshen up old wounds, to peel a scab from an elbow and hold it, for a moment, over one eye, and to look at the world through the pain. We come to appreciate the blood and the lipstick, the monument and the buried bones.
But there is also the flipside: we come to literature to see how the lovely is ruined, the joy turned to pain. Homer provides a perfect example in The Iliad. Hector, we read, has just died at the hands of Achilles. The Greeks, awe-struck, crowd “closer, all of them gazing wonder-struck / At the build and marvelous, lithe beauty of Hector.” Even dead, even seen by the eyes of enemies, Hector is still beautiful. But the sting comes out in the next line: “And not a man came forward who did not stab his body….” The Greeks see Hector’s beauty, acknowledge it, and proceed to destroy it. The lipstick kisses grow more vivid; they begin to drip, to run together; and, suddenly, we realize: the gravestone is covered with blood.
I stand before Wilde’s grave. I have neither lipstick nor open wound with which to stamp the stone. I take a picture. I tighten the straps on my backpack, and I watch the other visitors, all that life, wandering among the graves.