"Your rank and wealth, Harry; my brains, such as they are – my art, whatever it may be worth; Dorian Gray's good looks – we shall all suffer for what the gods have given us, suffer terribly."
To be confronted by Oscar Wilde as a somewhat religious sensibility is hardly surprising given the cultural climate of the mid nineteenth century Oxford movement with many young men converting to Roman Catholicism. Both Wilde and his character Dorian Gray were fascinated by the Roman rite; but only in the manner, one can't help feeling, that both Wilde and his hero are devoted to masks and poses. Also a cult of 'beauty' and aestheticism fostered by Ruskin and Pater loomed large as a seminal influence on Wilde throughout his Oxford years.
And yet it is a pity that no one thought, least of all Wilde himself, to defend the book as being a religious novel at the time of its publication, and more importantly at the time of his trials and subsequent conviction five years later. Perhaps this was but one more element of missed opportunity – the stitch in time – within the weave of Wilde's tragic fate, for The Picture Of Dorian Gray seems to be as much a picture of its author as anything he ever wrote. In this novel, the duality of public façade and private endeavour, is an important hallmark of the book in particular as much as it was of Wilde's life and work in general. From The Selfish Giant and the essay Pen, Pencil and Poison to the Importance of Being Earnest, one person is quite capable of being two. And Wilde himself, son of the famous eye surgeon, Sir William Wilde, and of the poet and Irish nationalist campaigner, Lady Wilde ('Speranza'), was notoriously witty, elegant and rich, moving from his boyhood in the highest circles. Yet he lived a more dangerous and sordid life, hidden for sometime from the public eye.
Hidden from the public eye in his attic for twenty years, Dorian's picture becomes for its subject the compellingly deconstructive record of his evil behaviour. Dorian and his picture have swapped roles. The man becomes the painted image, static and beautifully sterile, while the picture tells the story of a degenerating spiritual record of the sensual adventurer. But when life becomes art and vice versa, vice or tragedy are no more than spectator sports. And in just this way, Sybil Vane's death for Dorian amounts to little more than "a wonderful ending to a wonderful play".
In this 'play' of life's forces, self-worship is all. Society, community, friendship and love become mere pageants of fortune. A tourist of the sensational and the exotic, we might see Dorian Gray as a kind of founding father of today's leisure industry. Leisure, pleasure and sensation constitute all that is the case for Dorian and his ilk. On the night he murders his erstwhile friend, Basil Hallward, Dorian says: "nothing is serious nowadays", adding, "or at least nothing should be". The attraction of sin is shown to be powerfully addictive. Dorian discovers "dens of horror where the memory of old sins could be destroyed by the madness of sins that were new". Returning home in the dead of night with a lamp and a mirror, he creeps up to the laboratory of his spirit to observe with a detached obsession the decay of his innermost, his soul. The reflection in the mirror remains beautifully young while the image on the canvas becomes through time a bloated and ugly Satyr in hell.
The process is nothing less than a pilgrimage for goodness and truth in reverse, beginning with Dorian's worship of his own good looks. He will be an explorer, but an explorer of sin, eventually leading to his own ruin.
Inevitably, there is a devil or evil angel at work here in the form of the languid and leisurely cynic, Lord Henry Wotton, ten years Dorian's senior. The constant corrupter throughout who "tears life to pieces" with his epigrams and his "poisonous theories", Wotton warns Dorian of what he sees as the horrors of aging. And thus in Basil Hallwood's delightful garden, the poisonous seeds of vanity are planted. For Dorian's worship of art and beauty, as we see from his initial adoration of the actress Sybil Vane, (the good angel) amounts to little more than the narcissistic gaze of his own glorious image to him. Dorian proves himself as being incapable of love beyond superficial obsession. But Sybil by contrast can no longer act on finding the truth of her actual love for Dorian. Pure of heart, she dies suicidally, broken by the rejection of one whose life is nothing but an empty pose.
From now on, most of those attracted to Dorian – Allan Campbell, Adrian Singleton, Lord Henry's sister, Gwendolyn – are brought quickly to ruin. His rejection of Sybil marks his turning from all love and of goodness to follow thereafter the steeply downward path of evil self-indulgence. Placed at a point halfway through the story, Sybil's death and the consequent cruel twist of the lips of the picture marks the novel's first great dramatic moment. In this way the book is technically well paced in showing Dorian's rapid slide into sin. From here on, time flies the faster the farther he falls. For the reader readily accepts at this stage of Dorian's Faustian quest for meaning that he "had mad hungers that grew more ravenous the more he fed them". His heart hardens with great speed against conscience, 'the divine in us', spurred on by his good friend Henry Wotton.
Words speak louder than actions. The novel itself can be seen as rooted in a single speech act: Dorian's publicly uttered and fatally granted wish. Lord Henry, a 'Lord of language' is always on hand to smooth over a tragedy with the gloss of fine-s0ounding arguments. And by his own admission in later life, Dorian has been 'poisoned by Wotton's gift to him of a book, which becomes a kind of bible in reverse for him:
"There were in it metaphors as monstrous as orchids, and as subtle in colour. The life of the senses was described in terms of mystical philosophy. One hardly knew at times whether one was reading the spiritual ecstasies of some medieval saint or the morbid confessions of a modern sinner."
But our hero’s flirtation with every kind of image and every angle of what we might call 'spin' holds his ravenous eye but briefly. Dorian is, after all, the biggest fan of a moving picture, which is the 'movie' of his life. Yet how many of us, addicted as we are to the pictorial - more especially to TV and the virtually real - have flirted with the great creeds of the world in this way?
The fuming censers, that the grave boys, in their lace and scarlet, tossed into the air like great gilt flowers, had their subtle fascination for him. As he passed out, he used to look with wonder at the black confessionals, and long to sit in the dim shadow of one of them and listen to men and women whispering through the worn grating the true story of their lives.
But he never fell into the error of arresting his intellectual development by any formal acceptance of creed or system, or of mistaking, for a house in which to live, an inn that is but suitable for a sojourn of a night...
Like Faustus, Dorian Gray is a kind of postmodernist hero – a heritage fanatic, trawling with his ideological shopping trolley, just like the rest of us nowadays, through the world's most supermarketable wonders. Perfumes, music, clothes and tapestries, every kind of jewellery and food and wine, mysticism, Darwinism –, all physical and spiritual treasures are his who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. The archetypal hero of our mad era of fads and up-to-the-minute info regarding 'madder music' and 'stronger wine', Dorian tries by every means to bury conscience beneath layers of external decoration. His world view has been reduced to pure aesthetics. Hitler, Nero and any number of history's 'artistically' inclined master dealers in the realisation of their monstrous dreams could so easily have taken a cue from Dorian Gray: "There were moments when he looked on evil simply as a mode through which he could realise his conception of the beautiful." The 'charming' and the 'exquisite' are merely modes of entertainment, bearing the increasingly hollow ring that comes from the avoidance of perhaps the most important of the great questions we should ask ourselves and each other: How then should we live?
During the hours before his murder, Basil Hallward attempts to urge Dorian that he should be glad to live an honourable life in cherishing a good name. Hallward loves Dorian who is all his 'art' to him. But at this point, both Dorian Gray, together with his and Wotton's art-for-art's-sake aestheticism are tried in the court of Hallwood's moral decency and conscience. It is conscience, the divine, that is shown to flourish in Basil, the good man, as it does not in Wotton and Gray. For quite unlike his two friends, Basil's saving grace lies in his ability to view his former aesthetic over-indulgence in his idolatry of art in general and Dorian in particular with a sense of deep moral shame. For in Hallward we witness the aesthetic youth maturing into the ethical man. The point is hammered home for Hallward, brought face to face with his own picture, which turns out to be the living presence, staring from the canvas, of Dorian's 'soul'.
This episode is the most directly Christian in the book. But just as he rejected the love and goodness of Sybil Vane, so Dorian sneers with contempt at Hallward's suggestion that they should kneel and pray together:
"Pray, Dorian, pray," he murmured. "It is never too late, Dorian. Let us kneel down and try if we can not remember a prayer. Isn’t there a verse somewhere: "though your sins be as scarlet, yet I will make them as white as snow."
"Those words mean nothing to me now."
Though Dorian's murder of Basil (another force for good) is an inevitable stage in his downward quest, he does not wholly succeed in murdering conscience, that hint of a divine spark buried deep within. In fact at this point in the novel, conscience is reborn in Dorian Gray with terrible force. For his final trip to Daly's bar, the opium den, is a hellish journey of self-realisation. Wandering through the November rain and fog of London's docklands, he finds he is no longer the scientifically detached spectator of his own life:
"He was prisoned in thought. Memory, like a horrible malady, was eating his soul away. From time to time he seemed to see the eyes of Basil Hallward looking at him."
But with devilish luck, he is saved from death by his youthful appearance. How could such a young gentleman have been the ruin of his sister eighteen years before, reasons Jim Vane. Yet even in the comfort and security of his country mansion, Selby Royal, Dorian is constantly stalked by the hounds of conscience, haunted as he is by Basil and Sybil, a dread of his imminent death and finally Jim Vane in person. (Wilde may well have been familiar with Francis Thompson's poem The Hound Of Heaven, published during the 1880s, where God is a dreadfully relentless hunter.)
But it is Jim who meets his death at the same time as a hare is killed. Dorian feels all too keenly a pang of sympathy with the hare, urging the men not to shoot. For he has become just such a hunted creature.
Yet all such terrors appear to melt away with the winter as we follow the fortunes of Dorian Gray into yet one more summer. Shoots of renewal seem to grow out of the decay and prodigality of his life. He will make amends and reform, he tells Lord Henry, but with a pompous vanity all too apparent, even to Gray himself. For he has 'spared' young Hetty Merton who reminds him so much of Sybil. Surely Lord Henry strikes a bedrock of truth when he tells Dorian that "I should think the novelty of the emotion must have given you a thrill of real pleasure". Henry Wotton at his saddest and most tragically seductive refuses to believe his friend's confession of Basil's murder. But even the worldly wise Wotton is ultimately fooled by Dorian's 'Beauty' and 'Perfection'. Gray, as it were, fools even the devil.
And yet Dorian supposes that his misspent time can be redeemed through good action. Surely such reparation will show itself in his picture, he vainly reasons. But evidently this is all far too little and too late:
"A cry of pain and indignation broke from him. He could see no change, save that in the eyes there was a look of cunning, and in the mouth the curved wrinkles of the hypocrite. The thing was still loathsome – more loathsome, if possible, than before."
Once again, as ever, it is Wotton who hits the nail on the head; only this time it is in regard to a crucially Christian element in the story:
"'By the way, Dorian', he said, after a pause, 'what does it profit a man if he gain the whole world and loses his own soul?'
'I was going through the park last Sunday, and close by the Marble Arch there stood a crowd of shabby-looking people listening to some vulgar street-preacher. As I passed by I heard the man yelling out that question to his audience. It struck me as being rather dramatic. London is very rich in curious effects of that kind. A wet Sunday, an uncouth Christian in a mackintosh thought of telling the prophet that art had a soul, but that man had not. I am afraid, however, he would not have understood me.'"
Dorian counters Wotton's suave ribaldry with the view that the soul is a 'terrible reality'. That he has gained the whole world only to lose his own soul is Dorian Gray's tragedy, as it is the tragedy of any who live wholly for the pleasures and riches of this world alone, so the book warns.
This is not to say that The Picture of Dorian Gray is a straightforward moral tract. Wilde's one and only attempt at a novel, the book is first and foremost 0a fairy tale. Our suspension of disbelief centres on the supernatural on which the story primarily depends. The impressive blend, moreover, of tragedy with romance, comedy, myth and fable ensure that it was a book built to last and to be puzzled over. And the puzzling questions this brilliantly wrought little novel asks remain, of course – questions concerning art, religion, morality and society that have plagued authority from Plato to Stalin and from the Vatican hierarchy to the Ayatollahs. Is great art dangerous – can books do harm? What is art for? What is the nature of sin and evil? And so on. For there is so much here that looks both forward and backward simultaneously. The fleeting meditations on sin and the psychology of dread and also on the multiformity of the self are worthy of Augustine, Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard. And, barely beneath the dazzling surface charm and solid wealth of Mayfair and Berkeley Square, the book is a sounding board of a vast territory of a psychic and suburban underworld stretching from Gogol and Dostoevsky through Dickens and Conan Doyle to Stevenson.
And what we might call the tourist approach to leisure, pleasure, and sin and the worship of youth and wealth takes us right to the heart of our own time. Perhaps we inhabit, more especially in Europe and America, though more and more globally nowadays, with our devotion to 'all that glitters', along with the cult of youthfulness and the consequently narcissistic fear and hatred of aging, a Dorian age.
In view of all this, it is a shame to have to say that nothing dates this seemingly ageless little book as much as its preface. Why was it written at all? As a kind of a skittish smoke screen of a disclaimer? The book itself triumphantly jettisons these somewhat effete aphorisms – which were added retrospectively as an ‘exquisite’ piece of Wildean irony? For all his undoubted talent, Wilde was no less a master of disappointment than he was of charm and wit. For Oscar Wilde did not so much flirt with disaster as court it amorously.
One of the most ardent admirers of The Picture of Dorian Gray when it was first published during 1890, who claimed to have read the book fourteen times over, was none other than a very beautiful and worthless young man who doubtless saw himself reflected in its pages, Lord Alfred Douglas. From their first meeting, Douglas and Wilde seem to have played the parts of Lord Henry and Dorian in reverse, the younger man by almost twenty years leading the older, together with his unsuspecting family, into ruin.
Living under the name of Sebastian Melmoth – 'Melmoth the wanderer' – Wilde died in November 1900 after three desperate years of living abroad following his release from Reading Jail. In De Profundis and The Ballad Of Reading Jail, the last two works he would complete, we easily discern the Christianity that had, one way or another, preoccupied Wilde throughout his life and work. Tragically disgraced and divested of privilege as he clearly was while writing these final texts, his concern with Christianity came more vividly to the fore. Yet somehow he managed to remain spirited, generous of heart and witty till the end. Drinking champagne a few days before his death, he was able to observe: "I am dying beyond my means!"
Douglas by contrast, a thoroughly monstrous hypocrite and bragging, litigious anti-Semite, who somehow converted to Roman Catholicism and a heterosexual life style, lived on until the middle of the 1940s. In appearance, like Dorian Gray's picture, he withered loathsomely, making of his life a regressive pilgrimage, despite his great wealth, high social standing and apparent religious conformity.
Dying a painful death of complex medical problems, which involved pneumonia, an ear infection and meningitis, in a run-down hotel in Paris, Wilde received the last rites, with great sincerity of heart, perhaps, of the Church of Rome. He had been hovering on the edge of indecision over becoming a Catholic since his Oxford days. In life, Wilde was evidently more noble of spirit than some of the characters he created and the company that he kept. Poverty, illness and loneliness constituted a short postscript to his life after prison. But when all the dramas, the poses and the masks, the fame and wealth and the glory of glittering first nights had fallen away, had he, unlike Dorian Gray, truly repented – truly progressed spiritually in his journey through suffering? We can only hope so.
©: David Reid, 17 February 2002.
Some other articles by David Reid:
Beyond the glitter: a look at some current Irish writers
A word about George Steiner
Published in The Green Dragon No 10, Spring 2002.
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