Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Thoughts on Books: The Picture of Dorian Gray

I recently finished a timeless classic by Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray. Although I had been familiar with the premise, it was the first time I had a chance to read through the whole story. It was a quick read, not many pages, but a profound commentary on some ideologies that ran rampant during Wilde's time. I found that his commentary has a newly-born application in today's world, where Web v2.0 has exalted the individual and we find our society spiraling deeper and deeper into the throes of exhibitionism and compelled narcissism.

Yes, I know there are a thousand responses to the looming judgement that this next generation is self-centered, but frankly I can't see how this generation wouldn't be self-centered. I remember my first time surfing the web, sitting in my parents' master bedroom. I still recall the charming dial-up noises, raspy and nostalgic. If anyone had told me that one day I would have several different web pages devoted to documenting my life...

And yet here we are.

Because of this new social culture, Wilde's back and forth about a hedonistic form of aestheticism and a more tempered practice of society's advancement through beauty is even more important than ever before.
In the novel, Dorian Gray, the acclaimed most perfect specimen of a young man in the world, is split between the philosophies of his artist-friend, Basil Hallward, and Lord Henry Wotton. Hallward paints his portrait while he is still in the prime of his years, unblemished from society or corruption of sin or age. He practically worships Dorian and, through his creation of art, represents an appreciation of beauty through the advancement of culture. On the other hand, Lord Henry Wotton sees Dorian as the perfect vessel to test the limits of hedonism, the pursuit of pleasure without restraint of moral compass or conscience.

Dorian spends the book learning about both sides beauty's ugly coin, but Wilde seemingly disagrees with hedonism, as the demise of his protagonist serves as a good ole', "moral of the story is!" moment. A scholar studying the text summed it up well:
"Aestheticism does well to condemn the renunciation of desires, but it is an excessive obedience to these desires that is subversively dangerous. Therefore, in the practice of Wilde’s aestheticism, forethought and constraint are necessities, yet too often lacking, and without them, one is doomed to suffer the same fate as Dorian Gray." - Patrick Duggan

Wilde had a deal of personal clout with which to approach this novel's motif. The idea of unrestrained pleasure mixing with the traditional values of society was not foreign to him, even at a young age. His father had three children out of wedlock and had them raised with his relatives, apart from his own wife and children, apart from his own, respectable life. This division of family must have had a profound impact on Wilde's life. It's reflected in Dorian's divided lifestyle as well, one with Hallward, respectable and upright, and one with Lord Henry, lascivious and mischievous.

Also, similarly to Dorian Gray, Wilde dabbled in all sorts of different methodologies and ideologies, and yet remained aloof to them all. It seemed he was solely interested in becoming acquainted with a great number of different cultural experiences. Wilde once received a book from a friend, Walter Pater's, called Studies,  that would go on to have a deep influence in his personal philosophy, just like Dorian received a book from Hallward that eventually led to his complete corruption. This fascination of contradicting ideas and beliefs led to some uncomfortable clashes internally for Wilde and Dorian alike.

Wilde was a man with passions, which he checked himself. He was a firm believer in Christianity, almost going as far as to join the clergy. And yet at the same time, he worshipped art. He spent his entire life trying to reconcile his beliefs and his emotions, interests and desires.

Wilde once said, "I find it harder and harder every day to live up to my blue china." I think his quotation sums up The Picture of Dorian Gray perfectly.

Now for my own "the moral of the blog post is!" moments.

I think all of us have some type of Faustian bargain, or deal with the devil, we've made in our lives. It's a simple as abandoning what we feel to be right in pursuit of what we feel we want. We can't live in a divided house though. At what point do we hide our portrait in the attic, in our shame, and continue on, hiding the effects of our poor choices?

It gets harder and harder to live up to the blue china we display on the shelves. How long can we keep the gig up before the china shatters and we're left trying to sweep up its shattered pieces?

Hopefully we can learn our lessons faster than Dorian Gray.