April 26, 2004

Oscar Wilde & The Hedonistic Obsession

While there was never any doubt that I'd be doing an entry on Oscar Wilde, I was briefly at a loss as to whether I ought to do The Importance of Being Earnest, (which we actually read), or The Picture of Dorian Gray, (which we merely watched). I finally settled on the latter because I think it has a lot more to do with who Wilde was as a person than Earnest does. However, I am at a slight disadvantage. I have never (yet) read The Picture of Dorian Gray. I'm getting there, but there are a lot of freaking books in the world.

Anyway, I don't feel quite right about diving directly into the movie without a few words from Wilde himself. The first item in my lovely Appendix (extended entry) is the Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray. It's short, cracking good stuff, and you'll get a good idea of his philosophy from it.

To sum it up with the short short version, this is: "Art for art's sake." That's the key here. And now, on to the novel . . . err . . . movie.

In brief, (and I do mean brief . . . I hope), Dorian Gray is a gentleman living in London in the late 19th century. He is the very picture of unspoiled youth and innocence . . . So much so that his friend Basil Hallward, (an artist), is painting his portrait, and already more than half-believing that it will be his masterpiece. As Dorian poses for the portrait as it is completed, he makes the acquaintance of another of the artist's friends, Lord Henry Wotton. Lord Henry, from what little Iíve read, is the classic Wilde character: indolent, casual, and given to constant, penetrating, and quietly hilarious observations on the world around him. I think I can more or less sum this guy up with two of his quotes:

"If I could get back my youth, I'd do anything in the world except get up early, take exercise or be respectable."

"There's only one way to get rid of temptation, and that's to yield to it."

He lounges in the studio and languidly touts his life philosophy of living for pleasure and only for pleasure. Basil completes the picture and it is indeed a masterpiece . . . the sight of himself preserved forever at the peak of perfection, and the power of Lord Henry's words move Dorian to wish that he could remain forever as he is, and that the portrait should age instead. *camera zooms in significantly on an Egyptian deity, a cat goddess, which sits imperiously on a nearby table, stoically observing the proceedings*

Of course, the wish is granted, and Dorian discovers this as he gets to know Lord Henry better and begins to live out the life philosophy that Lord Henry is always talking about (more on that in a moment). His excesses lead him deeper and deeper into the worst kind of vice and sin imaginable (for the most part this is only vaguely hinted at in the movie through dim shots of the locales he frequents and the persistent, general rumors that float around). Eventually his past comes back to haunt him. The painting is stored away where no one can see it, of course, and it is aged and disfigured past all recognition. One man in particular nearly succeeds in killing him to avenge a female relative that Dorian has . . . wronged.

The key scene, reminiscent of Dr. Faustus, comes when Basil discovers the truth and begs Dorian to repent and pray for forgiveness. Dorian doesn't think this is possible, and he ends up killing Basil. Finally, at the end, Dorian decides that he must destroy the painting, but in stabbing it, he kills himself. The painting suddenly looks as it did originally, and the hideous appearance is transferred to the Dorian's dead body.

You should know by now that I absolutely detest summarizing . . . that may or may not be why I'm so bad at it, but the point is that I hate it. However, I can't exactly upload the movie, or assume that everyone has seen it, or paste in a script, or . . . andthing like that, so I do what I can. That's the gist. Now, what does the movie mean? What's the point?

Personally, I think it is best examined as a parallel to the life of Wilde himself. With this in mind, I include two more things in the Appendix below. One is an excerpt from De Profundis, which will require a bit of explanation, I suppose. In 1895, not long after the first performance of The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to two years hard labor. See, he was having this affair with Lord Alfred Douglas, a "handsome young poet" who happened to be the son of the marquis of Queensbury. So Wilde went up the river, Douglas did not.

In prison he was allowed one sheet of paper at a time to write letters on, and De Profundis is the letter he wrote to his . . . ummm . . . to Douglas. I think it is fairly easy to see how his life more or less parallels Dorian's from what he says of it here. In any case, it is an interesting read.

So, if you took the time to read it (and it takes a little time, I confess), you can see, at least, what he thinks happened to his life. He (quite modestly) claims to have been the king of his world, more or less, if not the world (symbolically speaking), and talks of "eternal youth" and so forth . . . And then look where he goes. He starts living entirely for pleasure . . . but not the usual kind of pleasure necessarily. He plunges into the depths, perversity is mentioned, as is desire.

He has totally pulled a Dorian, as it were. And society doesn't notice, apparently, because he is still hailed far and wide . . . he's still got it all. Earneast is a huge success when it comes out, but as soon as everything hit the fan it dropped out of production for several years.

After Wilde was released from prison he, of course, left England (there's no way he could have stayed) and lived out the very short remainder of his life (three years . . . prison completely ruined his health) mooching off of friends in France under an assumed name.

"E Tenebris," the other item I have included, was written 14 years before all this, and it is . . . a little strange. I wonder what he was thinking when he wrote it and what happened to that thought process once it was written. He's grasping at something here, but did he miss? It almost sounds like Cowper's The Castaway . . . but for the ending.

(Side note: I hurt for that guy. I really do. I get depressed whenever I think about him.)

Basically, here's the big question . . . I read (or watch . . . whatever, shut up) Dorian Gray and Earnest which are, obviously, madly different, and I read De Profundis and it seems like Wilde got it . . . and then he didn't. And I read about his life and what he did with it, and I just have one question. What was this guy's deal?! He was a freakin' genius and he chucked it for . . . *gags*

Did he ever really get it, in the end? A verse I keep thinking up in connection with all this (I think it may have cropped up somewhere in all the compulsive reading I've been doing on the subject): "For what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?" You almost think he has in De Profundis but there's this strange lack . . . he talks as if he will be his own salvation, as if he knows he was off, but he's got it figured out now, and all he's got to do is kill the old self and take in all the experience that he has attained from the bad times, becoming something new.

Somehow, it sounds suspiciously like Dorian's scheme to stab his portrait . . . Perhaps the cause of Wilde's death, coming so close on the heels of his release from prison, was more poetic than the rational mind might at first be led to believe . . .

Nah.

Appendix

Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray

The artist is the creator of beautiful things. To reveal art and conceal the artist is art's aim.

The critic is he who can translate into another manner or a new material his impression of beautiful things.

The highest, as the lowest, form of criticism is a mode of autobiography.
Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault.

Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope.

They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only Beauty.

There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.

The nineteenth century dislike of Realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass.

The nineteenth century dislike of Romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass.

The moral life of man forms part of the subject-matter of the artist, but the morality of art consists in the perfect use of an imperfect medium. No artist desires to prove anything. Even things that are true can be proved.

No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style.

No artist is ever morbid. The artist can express everything.

Thought and language are to the artist instruments of an art.

Vice and virtue are to the artist materials for an art.

From the point of view of form, the type of all the arts is the art of the musician. From the point of view of feeling, the actor's craft is the type.

All art is at once surface and symbol.

Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.

Those who read the symbol do so at their peril.

It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.

Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital.

When critics disagree, the artist is in accord with himself. We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.

All art is quite useless.

From De Profundis

I must say to myself that neither you nor your father, multiplied a thousand times over, could possibly have ruined a man like me, that I ruined myself, and that nobody great or small can be ruined except by his own hand. I am quite ready to do so. I am trying to do so, though you may not think it at the present moment. If I have brought this pitiless indictment against you, think what an indictment I bring without pity against myself. Terrible as what you did to me was, what I did to myself was far more terrible still.

I was a man who stood in symbolic relations to the art and culture of my age. I had realized this for myself at the very dawn of my manhood, and had forced my age to realize it afterwards. Few men hold such a position in their own lifetime, and have it so acknowledged. It is usually discerned, if discerned at all, by the historian, or the critic, long after both the man and his age have passed away. With me it was different. I felt it myself, and made others feel it. Byron was a symbolic figure, but his relations were to the passion of his age and its weariness of passion. Mine were to something more noble, more permanent, of more vital issue, of larger scope.

The gods had given me almost everything. I had genius, a distinguished name, high social position, brilliancy, intellectual daring. I made art a philosophy, and philosophy an art. I altered the minds of men and the colors of things. There was nothing I said or did that did not make people wonder. I took the drama, the most objective form known to art, and made it as personal a mode of expression as the lyric or the sonnet, at the same time that I widened its range and enriched its characterization. Drama, novel, poem in rhyme, poem in prose, subtle or fantastic dialogue, whatever I touched I made beautiful in a new mode of beauty. To truth itself I gave what is false no less than what is true as its rightful province, and showed that the false and the true are merely forms of intellectual existence. I treated Art as the supreme reality, and life as a mere mode of fiction. I awoke the imagination of my century so that it created myth and legend around me. I summed up all systems in a phrase, and all existence in an epigram.

Along with these things, I had things that were different. I let myself be lured into long spells of senseless and sensual ease. I amused myself with being a flaneur, a dandy, a man of fashion. I surrounded myself with the smaller natures and the meaner minds. I became the spendthrift of my own genius, and to waste an eternal youth gave me a curious joy. Tired of being on the heights I deliberately went to the depths in the search for new sensations. What the paradox was to me in the sphere of thought, perversity became to me in the sphere of passion. Desire, at the end, was a malady, or a madness, or both. I grew careless of the lives of others. I took pleasure where it pleased me, and passed on. I forgot that every little action of the common day makes or unmakes character, and that therefore what one has done in the secret chamber one has some day to cry aloud on the housetop. I ceased to be Lord over myself. I was no longer the Captain of my Soul, and did not know it. I allowed you to dominate me, and your father to frighten me. I ended in horrible disgrace. There is only one thing for me now, absolute Humility. Just as there is only one thing for you, absolute Humility also. You had better come down into the dust and learn it beside me.

I have lain in prison for nearly two years. Out of my nature has come wild despair; an abandonment to grief that was piteous even to look at; terrible and impotent rage; bitterness and scorn; anguish that wept aloud; misery that could find no voice; sorrow that was dumb. I have passed through every possible mood of suffering. Better than Wordsworth himself I know what Wordsworth meant when he said -

'Suffering is permanent, obscure, and dark
And has the nature of infinity.'

But while there were times when I rejoiced in the idea that my sufferings were to be endless, I could not bear them to be without meaning. Now I find hidden somewhere away in my nature something that tells me that nothing in the whole world is meaningless, and suffering least of all. That something hidden away in my nature, like a treasure in a field, is Humility.

It is the last thing left in me, and the best: the ultimate discovery at which I have arrived, the starting-point for a fresh development. It has come to me right out of myself, so I know that it has come at the proper time. It could not have come before, nor later. Had any one told me of it, I would have rejected it. Had it been brought to me, I would have refused it. As I found it, I want to keep it. I must do so. It is the one thing that has in it the elements of life, of a new life, Vita Nuova for me. Of all things it is the strangest. One cannot acquire it, except by surrendering everything that one has. It is only when one has lost all things that one knows that one possesses it.

I want to get to the point when I shall be able to say quite simply, and without affectation that the two great turning-points in my life were when my father sent me to Oxford, and when society sent me to prison. I will not say that prison is the best thing that could have happened to me: for that phrase would savour of too great bitterness towards myself. I would sooner say, or hear it said of me, that I was so typical a child of my age, that in my perversity, and for that perversity's sake, I turned the good things of my life to evil, and the evil things of my life to good.

What is said, however, by myself or by others, matters little. The important thing, the thing that lies before me, the thing that I have to do, if the brief remainder of my days is not to be maimed, marred, and incomplete, is to absorb into my nature all that has been done to me, to make it part of me, to accept it without complaint, fear, or reluctance. The supreme vice is shallowness. Whatever is realized is right.

"E Tenebris"

Come down, O Christ, and help me! reach Thy hand,

For I am drowning in a stormier sea

Than Simon on Thy lake of Galilee:

The wine of life is spilt upon the sand,

My heart is as some famine-murdered land

Whence all good things have perished utterly,

And well I know my soul in Hell must lie

If I this night before God's throne should stand.

'He sleeps perchance, or rideth to the chase,

Like Baal, when his prophets howled that name

From morn to noon on Carmel's smitten height.'

Nay, peace, I shall behold, before the night,

The feet of brass, the robe more white than flame,

The wounded hands, the weary human face.

Posted by Jared at April 26, 2004 06:28 AM | TrackBack