a bonobo humanity?

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

Posts Tagged ‘Thomas Hardy

The last of Wilde, I hope: De Profundis, etc, and why I rarely read fiction these days…

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Henry James

Oscar Wilde

So I’m writing this on the day that a book group I’m a part of will be discussing The picture of Dorian Gray,  which I’ve written about quite disdainfully in a couple of previous posts. Interestingly, I’ve been sorting my very messed-up library in recent days, putting stuff into categories, and fiction into alphabetical order. During this process I made the shocking discovery that I had a ‘Penguin Classics’ copy of the novel all along, leading me to wonder whether I’d read the book years ago or not. I think not. More interestingly, I discovered a copy of De Profundis, Wilde’s ‘letter’ to Lord Alfred Douglas, written from prison and clearly intended for a wider audience. The most touching thing for me about the book was the name of the original purchaser, ‘Ethel Gwmes, or Gwymer, 1913’.  Not that I wasn’t affected by Wilde’s plight – the fall from grace, the plank bed, the hard labour (for a time), the injustice, the humiliation – but it soon became clear in the reading that Wilde was still Wilde. As one would expect. (NB – I’ve just read, in a brief chronology of his life, that he was received into the Roman Catholic church the day before his death, so the concept of sin, which comes up so often in Dorian Gray, was one he really took seriously, maybe. If only he’d known what we now know about that August institution, he could’ve taken Holy Orders long before, diddled as many young lads as he liked, and ended life as a fat, self-satisfied Cardinal).

In De Profundis he makes a number of self-flattering observations and comparisons:

I was a man who stood in symbolic relations to the art and culture of my age. I had realised this for myself at the very dawn of my manhood, and had forced my age to realise it afterwards. Few men hold such a position in their own lifetime, and have it so acknowledged. It is usually discerned, if discerned at all, by the historian, or the critic, long after both the man and his age have passed away. With me it was different. I felt it myself, and made others feel it. Byron was a symbolic figure, but his relations were to the passion of his age and its weariness of passion. Mine were to something more noble, more permanent, of more vital issue, of larger scope.

Oh dear. Never trust people’s views of themselves – we’re evolved to have an overly positive view of ourselves, after all, for our survival and thriving. Nevertheless, reading of others’ high opinions of themselves can be a fun pastime. And so let’s on:

I amused myself with being a flaneur, a dandy, a man of fashion. I surrounded myself with the smaller natures and the meaner minds. I became the spendthrift of my own genius, and to waste an eternal youth gave me a curious joy. Tired of being on the heights, I deliberately went to the depths in the search for new sensation…

Interesting lines, of course, in considering Dorian Gray as an autobiography, of sorts. I certainly find it hard to see it as a moral work. The word ‘sin’ is often used – a perfunctory term that has no place in the courts or in works of moral philosophy. And for much of the novel – up to the murder of Basil – his evil-doings are a matter of ‘strange conjecture’, delineated more in ‘the hideous lines that seared the wrinkling forehead or crawled around the heavy sensual mouth’ of the portrait, rather than in any account of actual crimes or debaucheries. This is what makes it ‘gothic’ of course – more creepy and horror-show than in any way thought-provoking from an ethical perspective.

Now, having attended the book club’s discussion of the novel – all very lively and civilised – I want to return to a chapter discussed with some interest (chapter 18), in which James Vane, Dorian’s nemesis, is accidentally shot dead during a hunting party, while skulking in the bushes, apparently awaiting an opportunity to shoot the anti-hero. Lord Henry, one of the party, reveals himself in all his colours in this scene. Dorian, who’s recently been spooked by the sight of Vane peering into the window of some mansion that he (Dorian) is visiting, is deeply troubled by this shooting, which at this time was thought to be of one of the aristocrats’ servants, acting as a ‘beater’ to frighten the quarry into view:

Dorian looked at Lord Henry, and said, with a heavy sigh, ‘It is a bad omen, Harry, a very bad omen.’

‘What is?’ asked Lord Henry. ‘Oh! this accident, I suppose. My dear fellow, it can’t be helped. It was the man’s own fault. Why did he get in front of the guns? Besides, it is nothing to us. It is rather awkward for Geoffrey, of course. It does not do to pepper beaters. It makes one think that one is a wild shot…

These remarks occur after the man has been pronounced dead, and presents Lord Henry as something worse than a droll, loquacious layabout. The question our readers were discussing vis-a-vis this passage, I think, was whether Wilde was censuring Lord Henry in any serious way, or just gently mocking the upper classes as he does in his plays. I would tend to think the latter is true, (or more true) as he never breathes any life into his ‘lower-class’ characters, except when they’re instrumental to the plot, as is the case with the Vane siblings. But then, considering the class he wholly identified with, maybe it’s just as well that he didn’t try to.

But returning to De Profundis, Wilde’s predilection for trying to say something impressive (whether witty or wise) in a sentence works well enough in the plays and in the remarks of Lord Henry and his entourage, but when he writes them in his own voice, they come across more like Daniel Dennett’s ‘deepities’, unworthy of too much scrutiny. But I don’t necessarily consider Wilde’s comparison of himself with Christ (whom I prefer to call Jesus) as an act of vanity, since Jesus is delineated in the ‘gospels’, in my view, as a more or less kindly ‘everyman’, from a period when depth and complexity of character is hardly explored.

And then there’s the matter of class. When I were a lad I worked in factories and read about working people in the 19th century, especially through the novels of Thomas Hardy – stonemasons, farmers and milkmaids – and their emotional highs and lows. I read Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss and Middlemarch and lived a kind of extra life through the characters in those novels. But I can feel no emotional connection to the characters in The Picture of Dorian Gray, and I don’t think it’s just because I’m now an old codger. My teenage obsession with Hardy caused me to buy a biography of the author, in which I read of Henry James’ disdainful opinion of him. My reaction was typical – I thought ‘what an arsehole’, and then I went out and bought one of James’ most acclaimed novels, The portrait of a lady. What I got from it, some 50 years ago now, was an intro to the same world as Wilde – the parasitic upper class – a lot of intellectual verbiage, and a vague sense of outsiderdom and resentment (James, as it turned out, was also homosexual, FWIW). Nowadays I don’t read fiction at all, except for these book club choices. I’m not quite sure why that is, I just seem to get more of a buzz from learning about Neanderthals, nuclear fusion and stuff that stretches my brain such as AI and other new technologies. Perhaps because, in doing so, I can leave class and relative poverty behind, and feel myself a part of the great wave of transcending humanity…

Written by stewart henderson

July 12, 2023 at 11:07 am