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Dorian Gray – random notes 2

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Great art? Pig’s arse, my dear Basil

Continuing with the preface:

It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors. Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the art is new, complex and vital. When critics disagree, the artist is in accord with himself. 

Listening to this on audiobook (in an upper-class American accent for Christsake! – but more of that anon) makes me think of some ancient upper-crust fin-de-siècle roué bombastically holding forth in front of a bunch of sniggering teenagers in some mock-Etonian art class. First what he’s pompously saying is that an art viewer reveals herself in her opinion of the work. Bien entendu! As to what diversity of opinion shows, it seems to me it shows that people are diverse, art or no art. And the sentence that follows is equally meaningless. But perhaps one shouldn’t scrutinise things that don’t stand up to scrutiny. 

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. 

So ends the preface. This month marks the 30th anniversary of the launch of a very useful thing, more useful even than the printing press, and arguably as useful as the invention of writing. Tim Berners-Lee and his accomplices sent out their World Wide Web to entangle the globe and transform human communications like nothing before it. Can we forgive Berners-Lee? I should note that Berners-Lee has serious misgivings about the social media world the internet has given rise to, and is looking to solutions, which of course is a good thing, though I’m not too optimistic, crooked timber and all. As to the supposed uselessness of art, that’s an old issue. It may be of no practical use, but advancing beyond the purely practical is what distinguishes us, our ancestors and our Neanderthal relatives etc from the rest of the mammalian world. Or maybe not. Many other animals do seemingly useless things which appear to contribute to their wellbeing. Wilde bypasses the complexity, as usual. 

Chapter 1

The aesthetics of the parasitic upper-class: roses, lilac, pink-flowering thorn, Persian saddle-bags, honey sweet and honey coloured laburnum, tussore silk curtains and birds – Japanese effect, elaborations on the effects of Japanese art, straggling woodbine.

The ‘dim roar of London’ is mentioned. Late 19th century London was the centre of investment capital. Investments in the midlands factories of the industrial revolution (dark satanic mills) and the north, but above all from the colonies, with their slave and semi-slave labour. See James Hawes’ The shortest history of England for analysis of the north-south (rich-poor) divide, which goes back to pre-Roman days. 

Lord Henry described as ‘languid’, of course. Indolence does that to you. The ‘opium-tainted cigarettes’ wouldn’t help.

In-talk comparing ‘the Grosvenor’ with ‘the Academy’

witticisms (Lord Henry) Oxford (Basil Hallward)

‘… only one thing in the world worse than being talked about…’ seemed very amusing and true to me, when young. Wanted to be talked about, and probably still do. 

‘if old men are capable of any emotion…’ (Wilde wrote this in his mid thirties)

Obsession with male beauty – his descriptions of men in the way heterosexual men dwell on physical descriptions of women. Mixed with Greek classicism – Adonis. ‘ivory and rose leaves’, etc.

Narcissus – ‘Beauty, real beauty, ends where an intellectual expression begins. Intellect is in itself a mode of exaggeration, and destroys the harmony of any face’. Thinking makes you look ugly (Henry), and all learned men are hideous. No such thing, then, as A Beautiful Mind…

In the Church, they don’t think. Same at 80 as at 18. Keeps them attractive. (Yes, mostly true!)

Dorian must be a ‘brainless, beautiful creature’ (Henry).

Fatality about people of distinction (Basil) – better not to be different. Ugly and stupid have the best of it. (Basil – but this is puerile)

I’ll limit myself mostly to this first chapter, as there are so many other things to focus on. Many first chapters can be used to summarise the whole, as major themes tend to be outlined. 

Plenty of cynicism, especially from Lord Henry, whom we’re told in passing is a young man, so his world-weariness is an affectation. Whether Wilde portrays him as a figure of fun or his own mouthpiece is hard to say. Perhaps both. 

All of the beauty mentioned, apart from that of Japanese art, and certain flowers, is male beauty. Women get a mention, for their ugliness and poor taste and false view of themselves (their ridiculousness). Intellectual talk disguises while revealing the fact that Wilde’s men are attracted to youthful beauty – in both women and men. An unspoken truth. Women, not so much – but then Wilde clearly has no interest in the thoughts of women, his world is entirely male. 

Al this makes me long for Simone de Beauvoir, whom I’m intently reading. Her mind and writing make me fall in love with her. So utterly the opposite of Wilde. In The second sex, she treats of five male writers and their treatment of women, from Henri de Montherlant (the most misogynist) to Stendhal (feminist avant la lettre – and a huge favourite of mine). I wish now she had chosen Wilde as one of those writers, I would’ve loved her analysis, I’m sure of it. And it may well have been sympathetic, given his quite extreme homosexuality, if that makes sense. She was always tolerant of, and even drawn to, extremes. 

But thinking of Wilde’s attraction for pretty young men, it’s not unreasonable to see the novel as his masturbatory fantasy. He has clearly a horror of ageing, which he disguises as mockery. 

Basil’s rapturous speech about Dorian is essentially a confession of love/lust, wrapped of course in twaddle about the Ancient Greek sense of form, and ye olde ‘muse’ concept, the beautiful being whose very proximity makes you see with brightened eyes (tho’ there might be something in that). A ‘romance of art’. 

Basil and Harry seem to represent two opposed positions, the Idealist and the Cynic, neither of which seem tenable or convincing. There’s a closedness, a perfunctory element in both.   

‘It is only the intellectually lost who ever argue’ (Henry). There goes philosophy. 

“It is a sad thing to think of, but there is no doubt that genius lasts longer than beauty. That accounts for the fact that we all take such pains to over-educate ourselves. In the wild struggle for existence we want to have something that endures, and so we fill our minds with rubbish and facts in the silly hope of keeping our place. The thoroughly well-informed man, that is the modern ideal. And the mind of the thoroughly well-informed mind is a dreadful thing, It is like a bric-a-brac shop, all monsters and dust, with everything priced above its proper value.” Oh dear, no more op-shops and second-hand bookshops for me then.

Henry mocks and despises class talk about the ‘value of thrift’ (from the rich) and the ‘dignity of labour’ (from the idle). Being both rich and idle he values his lack of hypocrisy. He has to value something, after all. 

Additional notes

On Sybil Vane, an important figure. Very likely given this name because ‘Vanity, thy name is woman’ (a regular misquote from Hamlet). Sybil, the first name, can of course contain many allusions, but it was also a popular name at the time. Vane is young, beautiful and poor, but also a very talented actress, playing complex Shakespearean heroines – Juliet, Desdemona, Cordelia, Portia, Rosalind, Beatrice and Imogen (from Cymbeline), and apparently doing a brilliant job – thus highly intelligent. On meeting the magnetically attractive Dorian Gray, who declares his love for her, she falls for him so hard that she instantly loses her actorly skills and performs so badly that she’s more or less booed from the stage (frailty, thy name is woman?) Some have analysed Sybil as a sort of corollary to Basil, the artist who, having painted Dorian’s portrait, and been intimately touched by the man himself, has nothing left to give, but I’m not entirely convinced. Sybil, the person rather than the artist, is presented as a shining light in an impoverished world – and Wilde really despises that world, as if poverty indicates stupidity. The description in Chapter 4 of the theatre in which Sybil performs, and of the people performing, is truly stomach-churning in its mockery. Since I’m limiting myself to chapter 1 I’m spared from analysing it. But here’s a revealing quote from Lord Henry on being told by Dorian of this ‘genius’ actress: 

“My dear boy, no woman is a genius. Women are a decorative sex. They never have anything to say, but they say it charmingly. Women represent the triumph of matter over mind, just as men represent the triumph of mind over morals….. I am analysing women at present, so I ought to know. The subject is not so abstruse as I thought it was. I find that, ultimately, there are only two kinds of women, the plain and the coloured. The plain women are very useful. If you want to gain a reputation for respectability, you have merely to take them down to supper. The other women are very charming. They commit one mistake, however. They paint in order to try and look young. Our grandmothers painted in order to try and talk brilliantly. Rouge and esprit used to go together. That is all over now. As long as a woman can look ten years younger than her own daughter, she is perfectly satisfied. ”

This is presumably meant to be amusing. The Picture of Dorian Gray was published in 1891. Two years later women were first given the vote, in New Zealand. Ten years after that, and three years after Wilde’s premature death, the suffragette movement, braving much outrage, contempt and abusive treatment, was launched in Britain.

But returning to Dorian, he went out one night and found himself heading ‘eastward’, to the poorer part of the city. I won’t provide Wilde’s contemptuous and contemptible account, but here’s a description of the area at the time:

In the last decade of the nineteenth century London’s population expanded to four million, which spurred a high demand for cheap housing in areas that became known as slums. These were very similar to the rookeries of the previous century. The East End of London was one of these areas. They became notorious for overcrowding, unsanitary and squalid living conditions.


James Hawes, The shortest history of England, 2020

The Grosvenor Gallery- Final Project


Click to access 16_East_End_of_London,_guided_reading.pdf

Written by stewart henderson

May 29, 2023 at 9:12 pm

reading matters 3

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Will he go? Trump and the looming election meltdown, by Lawrence Douglas, Professor of law, jurisprudence and social thought, Amherst College

Content hints

  • failure of impeachment, high crimes and misdemenours, rigged voting, media scum, sleepy Joe, election hoax, treason, fraud, shades of 2016, tweetstorms, dictator worship, Putin, Erdoğan, Orbán, the USA’s quaint constitution, pathological lying, Presidential authority to ban media, Trump as weak authoritarian, foreign interference, catastrophic scenarios 1,2,3, the unforeseeable, the electoral college and faithless electors, uniquely awful system, hacked elections, profoundly antidemocratic outcomes, gerrymandering, swing states, 12th amendment, enemies of the people, problems of peaceful succession, civil war, hang on, bumpy ride.

Written by stewart henderson

June 28, 2020 at 3:01 pm

reading matters 1

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The universe within by Neil Turok (theoretical physicist extraordinaire)

Content hints

– Massey Lectures, magic that works, the ancient Greeks, David Hume and the Scottish Enlightenment, James Clerk Maxwell, quantum mechanics, entanglement, expanding and contracting universes, the square root of minus one, mathematical science in Africa, Paul Dirac, beauty and knowledge, the vitality of uncertainty, Mary Shelley, quantum computing, digital and analogue, Richard Feynman, science and humanity, humility, education, love, collaboration, creativity and thrill-seeking.

Written by stewart henderson

June 9, 2020 at 2:45 pm

night flight to Dubai

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imageIf you’ve come here looking for Bondesque hijinks click off now. The plane was a Boeing 777, with I think 10 passengers abreast, 3x4x3 with 2 aisles. I take this from Dr Google as much as from unreliable memory, there are apparently many ways of fitting out a 777. Our seating was on the left side facing forward, my TC had the aisle seat, I took the centre, and the window seat was taken up by a late-comer, who thus dashed our hopes of moving up one and gazing into the outer dark. This gangly young Englishman’s trials in clambering over and around us to get to his seat were a promise of discomfort to come.

It was a 14-hour flight to Dubai, starting at around 2200 but due to time zones and date-lines etc we’d be arriving at 0530 the next morning. As mentioned, I’ve had plenty of advice about pills or treatments for whatever might ail me on the flight but in truth I prefer remaining unmedicated as far as possible, and in my sixtieth year I’m pretty well drug-free, if you except life’s absolutely necessary pleasures, caffeine and alcohol, and I’m ever alarmed by and resistant to the collections of meds many of my peers feel forced to take against Alzheimer’s, anaemia, angina, anxiety, apnoeia, arthritis and let’s not get started on the rest of the alphabet. So all I took was some nasal spray and chewing gum as a defence against ‘plane brain’, aka aerosinusitis, and this worked a treat.

I didn’t sleep a wink in those 14 hours, though my reliable but argumentative TC insisted I had some winks, possibly as many as 40. Of course I was wide awake as I could possibly be for the take-off, but I mustn’t exaggerate my terror, it was nothing compared to the Mad Mouse. What made sleep impossible was the discomfort, the novelty and the anticipation, a mèlange of unbeatable distractions. My window-side neighbour was asleep within minutes of take-off, which didn’t stop him jabbing and kicking me when he shifted positions. There was a dearth of space between me and the seats in front and I felt timid about leaning my seat back too far. As time went by I became obsessed with my legs, which didn’t have room to straighten. I tried pushing my arse right back in the seat, I raised it up awkwardly, but just couldn’t get my angles right. My TC on seeing me squirm suggested I take some exercise in the aisle, as per the advice of all experts, but I perversely refused such an easy solution, and didn’t leave my seat until just before touch-down. Which turned out to be one of the highlights of the flight – possibly the longest pee in my peeing career.

Of course it’s hard to look back over so many years of peeing and pick out some, or any, of the great ones, and in any case peeing is such a subjective thing. For example, we’ve all experienced the agony of desperately needing a pee but being nowhere near a publicly sanctioned pee-place. In such circs your distressed state will disable you from conducting pee-stream studies of any kind; the last thing on your mind will be your PB in this activity. I’d go so far as to say that the physical release, the sense of near-weightless joy caused by these outpourings has been probably my most spiritual/religious experience. A true feeling of Salvation, as far from mere bean- or pee-counting as can be had.

Anyway what was intriguing about this mighty slash after 13 hours or so of being plied – necessarily, given the arid aircraft atmosphere – with coffee, fruit juice, and more pure unadulterated water (my least fave drink) than I usually consume in a month, was that, until my legs finally communicated to me that they really had to be stretched, I felt no great urge to relieve myself. Even after several minutes of quite exhilarating straightening and muscle-rubbing in the aisle, my loo visit seemed more after-thoughtful than necessary, so I was in a kind of neutral, clear-headed state when I observed my pee go on and on, leading me to thoughts of PBs and such. If it wasn’t my longest ever, was it in my top 10 (or top 5 if it was in the top half of the 10)? How could I tell? Clearly there is one pee I’ve had in my life that is my longest. Is this in any sense important? Well, maybe. Interesting, certainly. Though on reflection it isn’t so much the longest but the largest by volume that’s important* (or merely interesting) for presumably sometimes the pee runs more feebly than at others; the valve, so to speak, being plus ou moins open – constricted or dilated due to the vagaries of the weather, state of health, age perhaps or even just state of mind. Maybe one day scientists will hatch a device to be implanted in the midriff to measure the highs and lows of pee-flow. Maybe they already have, it wouldn’t suprise me, the utility of such is clear. But it would also allow some champion to claim the Biggest Pee, another entry to add to the Guiness Book of Perhaps Not so Pointless Records. And as I sat back in my now more comfy seat readying myself for Dubai, I thought of another perhaps not so pointless PB that I might just have broken, in that at some point during this flight I may have reached a higher distance above sea-level than ever before. Now how could that be monitored in our monitor-loving age? But then again, sea levels rise and fall, so….

Dubai lights. We watched the perfect landing on the screen before us. The airport was pale in the breaking dawn and glittering with artificial light. There were planes everywhere. Already it was 28 degrees outside.


*Just as the Nile is the longest river but the Amazon is by far the largest by volume. The Amazon wins.


– The food was plentiful, varied and delicious IMHO, and the service was excellent, under sometimes difficult conditions.

– You need to see things from a baby’s perspective. As they’ve not yet developed sophisticated means of either conveying or receiving info, their instinct is to make as much noise as possible to make absolutely sure that others know they’re suffering horrendous agonies or experiencing the most frabjous joy. So nature has furnished them with the most impressive noise-making equipment for this purpose. It’s highly adaptive, another fine example of evolution at work. Ear plugs next time, though simple perspective taking can be sufficient.

– Not having a tech-savvy 13-y-o as my TC it took most of the flight to work out the functioning of the on-board entertainment (the first 2 hours just to get the headphones plugged in and operational). The movies were mostly boorish but I found one, Carol, based on a Patricia Highsmith novel I actually read some 20 years ago, a book/film about longing, desire and hope, regardless of sexual preference really, very much the sort of thing I’m drawn to. Reminds me of my fave Jane Austen novel, Persuasion. Highly recommended – I got teary. Fine performances by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. Also recalls to my mind my fave line from the KJ Bible, perhaps my fave line in all litt: ‘Hope deferred makes the heart sick’.

Couldn’t settle to anything else much, though I did find a silly thriller very much starring Olga Kurylenko, the Most Beautiful Woman Who Has Ever Lived according to my ever-changing judgment (OK is always more than OK, I like to say), but not even her loveliness and her formidable ball-breaking superhero role could force me to see the shamefully silly shenanigans to the end. Better to watch L’Annulaire again, and again.

– Aerosinusitis. I did feel a painful buid-up after take-off but then came a sudden but sort of slow uncorking and brightening of sound, rather pleasurable, and I had no further problems on the outbound flights.


Une presence francaise at Dubai airport

Une presence francaise at Dubai airport



Written by stewart henderson

May 2, 2016 at 12:13 pm

books and e-books

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don't bother, at least not with the ebook version

don’t bother, at least not with the ebook version

Change is the only certainty, and the world of books (made of paper), booksellers and publishers is having this little apothegm rubbed painfully in its face at present, it seems to me, and, as a person who loves books but has always been poor as a church-mouse, I feel rather caught in the middle of all this transition, and pulled more or less equally in the directions of tradition and transformation.

After all, the choice between e-books and the traditional version is a little more fraught than that between CDs (please note – no fucking apostrophe) and MP3 downloads. Books don’t just go back to the days of Gutenberg and Caxton, or the movable type that was used in Korea from at least the thirteenth century. The library of Alexandria, founded well over 2000 years ago by the Ptolemaic dynasty (Ptolemy Soter, the ‘illegitimate’ son of Philip of Macedon, half-brother and general of Alexander the Great,  and subsequent ruler of Egypt, was probably its originator) is said to have contained some 500,000 papyrus scrolls, all now lost to history. That’s one advantage of e-books; they render book-burnings obsolete.

So writing on paper, or its antecedents, has a long and proud history, and is now being threatened for the first time in millennia by new technology. So I’ve been feeling this weight of history when ducking into the odd bookshop lately. I’ve been a bookshop-haunter for forty years, and it’s pretty obvious that they’re going through tough times now. As with CDs, makeshift shops full of cheap editions are cropping up here and there, then just as suddenly disappearing when the number of buyers drops off. I was in one the other day, and held in my hand a prettily-packaged volume of Ovid, called The Art of Love, selling for a mere $7. It was apparently an amalgamation of two collections, Amores and Ars Amatoria, and a ridiculous bargain, but even that tiny amount gave me pause. I’d always wanted to explore Ovid’s works on love, because of their influence on Shakespeare, but I’ve been so caught up with reading sciencey stuff lately, almost to the point of addiction, and then it occurred to me that, with my new Kindle, I could probably download all of Ovid’s works for free…

I ended up buying three cheap books, one of them sciencey. The lab rat chronicles: a neuroscientist reveals life lessons from the planet’s most successful mammals comes with a recommendation from Patricia Churchland, no less, and I suspect that such books aren’t available through Kindle, at least not at anything less than $10, the price I paid. Ok I’ve just checked, and it is available, at exactly the same price. The 2 other books I bought were God is not one: the eight rival religions that run the world and why their differences matter, by Stephen Prothero ($10), and How to win a cosmic war: confronting radical religion, by Reza Aslan ($8). Interestingly, the Prothero book isn’t available on Amazon, but the Aslan one is, for $10. So there are still bargains to be had offline. However Amazon is always reducing its prices, as books move from ‘must read-nows’ to ‘has-beens’. That’s happening in the bookstores too, of course, but not at the same rate. Then again, though you’re unlikely to get hold of the complete works of Plato (Benjamin Jowett translation, presumably with his excellent introductions) in a second-hand bookshop for a dollar – the going Amazon price – there are book exchanges (there’s one in the caf around the corner from me) where you can pick up one of an admittedly limited selection of books for free, with the idea that you exchange it for something of your own, honour bound.

So I weigh the pros and cons and ponder the senses of guilt and obligation. The kindle is light and convenient, and easy to read in bed. My eyesight is poor, so I appreciate a backlit screen as opposed to the foxed and mouldering pages of a second-hand text, though I wonder if the light is damaging my eyes even more. On the other hand its caveat emptor with some of these e-books. One of the first ones I bought (okay it was free so I’m not really allowed to complain) was A very brief history of the first crusade, by one Mark Black. Brief it was, more of a pamphlet than a book. I have a copy of Christopher Tyerman’s monumental history of the crusades on my shelves, but I gave up on it a few years back after about 200 pages = too many Count Theobalds and Sir Roberts, too many family connections and names and names and names, I felt as confused as any medieval plebeian might have felt when caught up in the thick of it, but without the concentration of the mind an imminent death would’ve usefully brought on. So I thought this brief history might offer a clearer view, but I was more than disappointed. I suspect everything in it was lifted from Tyerman’s book, so it told me nothing new. What was worse, though, was that the grammar was often hilariously bad. I have a feeling it wasn’t actually edited by a human being. Possibly the text was used as an experimental test case for robotic proofreading. A black mark for Mark Black, whose name, I note, crops up for many of these ‘brief histories’, mostly unrelated to each other. Anyway, an odd experience.

So I’m not entirely convinced of the new reading technology, though the possibilities are obvious, and it’s clearly a mode still in its infancy. Hopefully the two ways of packaging good reading material will live side by side for a while to come, and I look forward to accessing both, long into the future.

Written by stewart henderson

May 24, 2013 at 8:27 pm