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

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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