My recent reading has been all worshippers of the individual from the 19th century – Kierkegaard and Nietzsche most recently – but not until I read Oscar Wilde’s A Picture of Dorian Gray did I quite see Wilde’s connection to these philosopher’s of “free spirit”.
A Picture of Dorian Gray can be found on Wikipedia after the SOPA blackout ends if you are looking for the plot summary – but in brief it is the tale of a young gentleman who pledges his soul in order that he may stay forever young. Instead of having to experience the ravages of age and experience, a portrait of Dorian begins to take on the ill effects of the corrupt life he has begun leading. Free from the constraints of normal men, Dorian pursues a path of hedonism that includes allusions to sex (with both men and women), drug use, the corruption of others and finally, murder.
More fairy tale than horror novel, one wanders through Wilde’s themes of art and artifice, the nature of reality, individualism, hedonism, immortality, the value of youth and the duplicity of modern life. A simple tale on the one hand, but with each of its main characters (Dorian Gray, Basil Hallward the painter and Lord Henry – Gray’s friend and mentor) putting forward various perspectives on what a life truly lived should look like, and specifically, what the life of the artist should look like. As Wilde himself commented about his work – these questions were autobiographical in nature: “Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry what the world thinks me: Dorian what I would like to be–in other ages, perhaps.”
It is Dorian who represents a certain debate about the meaning of life, or exceptional existence – following in Lord Henry’s assertion that “…. if one were to live out his life fully and completely, were to give form to every feeling, expression to every thought, reality to every dream — I believe that the world would gain such a fresh impulse of joy that we would forget all the maladies of mediaevalism, and return to the Hellenic ideal — to something finer, richer, than the Hellenic ideal it may be.” Because Dorian is extremely well off, and with his additional charm of never physically wearing the effects of his lifestyle – he is free to live the life of the elect. That is the life of one who pursues aesthetics without committing to them, one who pursues experience without having to pay for it in any way.
Where Basil Hallward is an artist (the painter who commits Dorian’s likeness to canvas) living a somewhat reclusive life, touched with deep feelings of love and depression (that is, struggling with himself) – the aesthete is not burdened with the actual weight of creation and instead builds himself by identifying with the creations of others. Early in the novel Basil demonstrates this dichotomy in saying “An artist should create beautiful things, but should put nothing of his own life into them.” Whereas Dorian puts a great deal of stock, of his own life in fact, into a creation that belongs to someone else. Much later in the novel (as Dorian has become increasingly evil) we see how much stock he puts in this creation and his visceral connection to it – “On his return he would sit in front of the picture, sometimes loathing it and himself, but filled, at other times, with that pride of individualism that is half the fascination of sin, and smiling, with secret pleasure, at the misshapen shadow that had to bear the burden that should have been his own.”
Through the progression of the novel we can see several dualities that Wilde sets up – like this one of artist/aesthete: body/soul, individual/society, sense/intellect, beauty/ugliness are all touchstone points in the novel. Dorian for all his appreciation of the duplicity of his own life, seeks a very one-sided existence rooted in body/individual/sense/beauty from the beginning. Though many examples of this can be found, one particularly striking one (which is reminiscent of Nietzsche and later Camus as well) is found in:
“To be good is to be in harmony with one’s self… Discord is to be forced to be in harmony with others. One’s own life — that is the important thing… Individualism has really the higher aim. Modern morality consists in accepting the standard of one’s age.”
Though towards the close of the novel, Wilde makes a strong argument that neither Dorian, nor anyone else can live on one side of the glass and that each side of these dichotomous pairings requires a response from the other. In a powerful paragraph we see the torment of Dorian, a creature whose soul is as ugly as the painting he has stashed away – we see that his pursuit of the senses, of the aesthetic – has only lead him to the other side of the circle where he is now stuck in his own diminished state:
It is said that passion makes one think in a circle. Certainly with hideous iteration the bitten lips of Dorian Gray shaped and reshaped those subtle words that dealt with soul and sense, till he had found in them the full expression, as it were, of his mood, and justified, by intellectual approval, passions that without such justification would still have dominated his temper. From cell to cell of his brain crept the one thought; and the wild desire to live, most terrible of all man’s appetites, quickened into force each trembling nerve and fibre. Ugliness that had once been hateful to him because it made things real, became dear to him now for that very reason. Ugliness was the one reality. The coarse brawl, the loathsome den, the crude violence of disordered life, the very vileness of thief and outcast, were more vivid, in their intense actuality of impression than all the gracious shapes of Art, the dreamy shadows of Song. They were what he needed for forgetfulness.
Interestingly, Wilde places the blame for this state of Dorian’s entirely on the portrait – or perhaps aestheticism generally – for who but a young man raised in a particular aspect would sell his soul in order that he might live a physical ideal forever? (I ask this question knowing full well that we are living in a heightened age of narcissism and that there are millions of shallow people like Dorian who would gladly have chosen to do this).
In his article “How Oscar Wilde painted over “Dorian Gray”” in the New Yorker from last summer, Alex Ross argues
It was the portrait that had done everything.” Art is not innocent, Wilde implies. Violence can be done in its name. Indeed, the twentieth century brought forth many Dorian Grays: fiendishly pure spirits so wrapped up in aesthetics that they become heedless of humanity. Wilde’s anatomy of the confusion between art and life remains pertinent with each new uproar over lurid films, songs, or video games.
Reflecting on it this way it seems we live permanently in the time of Dorian Gray, in a culture that posits an ability to live on a single side of the dichotomy without consequence – in a society of rights without responsibilities. As Dorian experiences, and as Francis Fukuyama argues in Our Posthuman Future – once we are divorced from the consequences of our physical selves – the final links between cause and effect are removed. This removal unhooks right from wrong, disables empathy, and Fukuyama would argue – sets the stage for a radically different human nature (and not a nice one either).
It’s interesting that Wilde’s book caused such outrage when it was first published, as promoting moral decay. In my reading, Wilde is not promoting radical individualism, in that we see the truly separated being of Gray die in a state of conflict and turmoil. Rather I see him as posing the questions of his time, and writing the answers on the corpse of our literary anti-hero Dorian.