Friday, July 5, 2013

Oscar Wilde at the Wedding

This blog was written because of a wedding. It was a beautiful outdoor wedding of two good friends. The happy couple are both readers and on each table they placed several classic works of literature for their guests. I thought this was a truly unique and wonderful keepsake as each book was inscribed.

I chose The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) by Oscar Wilde which I had not read since high school. The Picture of Dorian Gray and its author were met with criticism and disdain at the time of its release as being immoral.The story is about a beautiful young man who is obsessed with retaining his youth and beauty.
I was amazed how Oscar Wilde foresaw the future of our youth-oriented culture and its obsession with beauty.

"How sad it is! I shall grow old, and horrible, and dreadful. But this picture will remain always young. It will never be older than this particular day of June... If it were only the other way! If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old! For that-for that-I would give everything! Yes, there is nothing in the whole world I would not give! I would give my soul for that!"

"I know, now, that when one loses one's good looks, whatever they may be, one loses everything.”

 "Life has everything in store for you, Dorian. There is nothing that you, with your extraordinary good looks, will not be able to do."

Pleasure-seeking and new experiences are also recurring  themes in Dorian Gray

His sudden mad love for Sibyl Vane was a psychological phenomenon of no small interest. There was no doubt that curiosity had much to do with it, curiosity and the desire for new experiences...

There is the desire to be free of anything that is the least way uncomfortable ... like feelings. Dorian proposes marriage to Sibyl Vane, then spurns her. Sibyl commits suicide and Dorian instantly distances himself from the tragedy.

“How fearful,” his friend Basil says in a moment of consoling.
“No,” said Dorian Gray, “there is nothing fearful about it. It is one of the great romantic tragedies of the age.”

Later, when another of his friends sends Dorian an article in the newspaper regarding the dead girl, Dorian rips up the paper.

How ugly it all was! And how horribly real ugliness made things! He felt a little annoyed with Lord Henry for having sent him the report.

Dorian Gray is the forerunner of today’s society of self: self-absorbed, self-centred, selfish.
Dorian contemplates the new Hedonism.

... yet it was never to accept any theory of system that would involve the sacrifice of any mode of passionate experience.

Being independently wealthy Dorian has time to study perfumes and set himself to discover their true relationships. He studied music and collected the strangest instruments that could be found. He collected jewels and researched their histories. Embroideries, tapestries, ecclesiastical vestments. Dorian would lock himself up in his room horribly fascinated reading about historical figures of those whom vice and blood and weariness had made monstrous or mad.

In Dorian’s world sin was fascinating, and gave to the intellect a quickened sense of joy. And if the sin was too terrible, it was not confessed, but one only need self-medicate driven out of the mind, to be drugged with poppies, to be strangled lest it might strangle one itself. There were sins too horrible and ugly to look at.

There are few characters in The Picture of Dorian Gray, but perhaps the most interesting and charming is Lord Henry who, like the Devil, sets Dorian on his path of narcissism and murder.   

Lord Henry is an aesthetic with a cynical wit (somewhat like Wilde himself). Lord Henry’s most charming quality is his use of epigrams that use paradox to criticize conventional morales and society.     

"There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about."

"The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it."

"I always like to know everything about my new friends, and nothing about my old ones."

"To get back my youth I would do anything in the world, except take exercise, get up early, or be respectable."

"Men marry because they are tired; women, because they are curious: both are disappointed."

I can see why Oscar Wilde’s first novel was met with ridicule. Most of the main characters lack soul, for they have sold it for selfish reasons.

“I represent to you all the sins you never had the courage to commit.”

The characters lack humanity, for they deny the things that are human.

“I don't want to be at the mercy of my emotions. I want to use them, to enjoy them, and to dominate them.”

You get an uneasy feeling reading The Picture of Dorian Gray. You should. It is your moral compass telling you something is not quite right. There is something wrong with this picture (get it?).

We only need look at what today’s media is trying to sell society to see Wilde could clearly see the shape of things to come; youth, beauty and self. Was he trying to warn us, I wonder, or was he just trying to say:

“You must have a cigarette. A cigarette is the perfect type of a perfect pleasure.”