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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

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