a bonobo humanity?

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

Posts Tagged ‘fin de siècle

The picture of Dorian Gray – random notes 1, the preface

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not Dorian Gray

The Picture of Dorian Gray – that’s to say the 1945 movie featuring George Sanders as the supine rather than sublime aristocrat Lord Henry Wotton – was one of the more memorable and enduring experiences of my childhood. Or I should say, one moment in the film was – I don’t remember much else about it. No prizes for guessing that moment, when, in what I assume was the final scene, the evergreen Dorian comes face to face with the hideously transformed portrait of his life of ‘sin’. And I’m sure the revelation was accompanied by a deafening score of drums, cymbals and shrieking banshees, for a nice Irish touch. The image of the hideous portrait is still seared on my mind.

So much so that, fifty-odd years on, I’d half-convinced myself that I’d actually read the book. I’m fairly well-read, if I say so myself, and I have read and seen productions of a couple of Wilde’s mildly amusing plays, so I find it hardly surprising that I remember, quite vividly, books that I haven’t read, just as I have no memory whatever of books that I have. 

Anyway, now that I’ve read about half of Wilde’s only completed novel, I’m absolutely sure I’ve never read it before. I’m also absolutely sure that I’ll never read it again – though I will finish it, for my sins. 

So here’s my first quick condemnation of the work. I know that Wilde was imprisoned, with hard labour, for his homosexual activities, and that this punishment completely broke him. It was, of course, a horrific injustice to someone who did nobody any harm. However, had Wilde been punished in the same way for writing The picture of Dorian Gray, I might’ve felt some sense of justice… Too soon, perhaps? 

So, the opening scene of the novel is florid and luxurious. It features Lord Henry Wotton, an entitled parasite-about-town, whom we later learn is a young man, though he talks in a been-there-done-that tone throughout the book, with a penchant for ‘artless’ apothegms such as ‘I can believe anything, provided that it is quite incredible’, ‘Conscience and cowardice are really the same things – conscience is the trade-name of the firm. That is all’, and ‘Beauty, real beauty, ends where an intellectual expression begins. Intellect is in itself a mode of exaggeration, and destroys the harmony of any face’. None of these supposed pearls of wisdom stand up to more than a moment’s scrutiny, though they do occasionally merit a chuckle or two. They are directed at Basil Hallward, an artist, who is putting the final touches on the portrait of a young man, Dorian Gray, whose good looks have for some reason (I wonder…) had a profound effect on Basil. 

This opening chapter presents some of the main themes – the wonderment of youthful male beauty, the apparent tediousness and shallowness of all women, and general contempt for the working class. 

Often there’s an attempt to ‘shock the bourgeoisie’ – ‘The one charm of marriage is that it makes a life of deception absolutely necessary for both parties’.

But I’ll begin at the beginning, a very good place…

First sentence in preface. ‘The artist is the creator of beautiful things’. A narrow definition, smugly presented. Not sure what an artist is, or whether art can be precisely defined, but to be handed a cut and dried definition immediately gets my back up. I refuse to swallow it. 

‘To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim’. More of the same. Art doesn’t have an aim, but artists do, though they may not find that aim easy to define. They may think of it more as an impulse to express, to represent or create something of importance to themselves, hoping or believing it may be of some value to others. 

‘The critic is he who can translate into another manner or a new material his impression of beautiful things’. Presumably Wilde is referring here to an art critic, who of course uses language, while the artist uses a variety of media. Generally I don’t dispute this definition. The word ‘impression’ is essential, but I still find in the definition an attempt to constrain, and to lecture. 

‘Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming’. These sorts of remarks are Wilde at his worst. They are at best meaningless. What is a beautiful thing? An opalescent sky, perhaps, or a baby’s laugh. If someone finds ‘an ugly meaning’ in such things I wouldn’t find this ‘corrupt’ or ‘charmless’. I might find it strange, or sad perhaps. Or that they have a different taste, or mindset. 

‘This is a fault’, Wilde goes on. ‘Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated’. Is that all there is to being ‘cultivated’? It’s not a term I tend to use, but to be a ‘good’ person you need to consider fairness, kindness, sympathy, understanding. Some people, and other animals, and plants, and so forth, are not  easily describable as beautiful, but they may have value, either inherent or utilitarian. So, our ‘cultivation’ needs to extend beyond the beautiful. 

‘They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only beauty’. It seems that Wilde is enamoured of those who go around contemplating beautiful things. While everyone else has to work for a living. 

‘There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written.’ I’ve never read Mein Kampf or the Malleus Maleficarum, their reputation persuades me that it wouldn’t be a pleasant experience, as I’m quite squeamish by nature. I’m pretty sure, though that what would turn me off would be ignorance, bigotry and ridiculous argumentation. So in this respect, maybe I’m in agreement with Wilde – I’d find the works to be badly written above all. The thing is, though I don’t much think in terms of morality or immorality, if I were asked my opinion of the morality or immorality of those books – if pressed to give a response, I would say, yes, I think they are immoral, because I do think it immoral to treat a whole gender or ethnicity as suspect or inferior. So, ultimately, I think Wilde is wrong.

But worse than all the questionable content is the preachy, ‘I know what’s what, so shut the fuck up and pay attention’ tone. Of course it’s meant to be shocking, but it strikes me more as the empty posturing of the parasitic class. 

‘The 19th century dislike of realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass. The 19th century dislike of romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass.’ The first sentence may be true enough, as Caliban is described by Prospero as filth, savage and hag-seed (reliably? – think of how many of the first European arrivals described our Australian natives), and the second sentence may also has its element of truth, but it’s all really a fancy way of saying that some don’t like to see themselves portrayed ‘warts and all’, and others do like to see themselves so portrayed, and are angered by romanticised fakery. Perhaps more importantly, this is the first of a number of Shakespeare references. The more Shakespeare’s language has become, due to the passing of time, obscure and mysterious to the masses, the more it is prized and referenced by the parasitic class. 

‘The moral life of a 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’. What ‘the perfect use of an imperfect medium’ is, is anyone’s guess. I’ve always assumed that all is imperfect, that perfection is an ideal, not a real, and when Lou Reed sang of a Perfect Day, he really meant a very very pleasant one. And that’s a perfect use of the term. As for desiring to prove anything, I’m not sure that even scientists are trying for that. They’re generally trying to find out, to work out what causes what, why things act the way they do, how things came to be the way they are, and what will happen next. As for ‘ethical sympathies’, whatever in the world this may mean, Wilde first writes that no artist has them, then castigates those who do. So his meaning seems hardly worth bothering about. As for the final sentence above, artists are people, people can be morbid, or have morbid feelings, when creating art, or washing dishes, ergo…

‘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’. 

So what is Wilde on about here? But I should perhaps get over Wilde’s pontificating, because isn’t it just mock pontification? Who knows. Good to know that vice, virtue and presumably everything in between, and the rest, are fair game for artists. Who would’ve thunk it? And interpreting art is perilous – so true. It might even lead to fisticuffs. Anyway – opinions (if that) dressed as truths for fun and profit. 



Written by stewart henderson

May 17, 2023 at 5:05 pm