Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Dorian Gray--Part 2

I think I will start with a joke. "And now I must bid goodbye to your excellent aunt. I am due at the Athenaeum. It is the hour when we sleep there." "All of you, Mr Erskine?" "Forty of us, in forty armchairs. We are practising for an English Academy of Letters." It would be vaguely amusing if anyone in real life were to ever actually talk like this on a regular basis, though I probably would not want to live with the person.

You will remember that Dorian Gray "falls in love" with the actress Sibyl Vane, or rather her portrayals of classic characters ("Lips that Shakespeare taught to speak have whispered their secrets in my ear. I have had the arms of Rosalind around me, and kissed Juliet on the mouth."), only to reject her coldly when her love for him betrays her into behaving as her actual self with him, at which she goes on to commit suicide. It is of course overwrought by the conventional standards of literature, but it is pulled off well enough for the purpose it serves here: Wilde/Gray is socially and artistically ruthless according to his personal code. Live up to the standard, or expect ridicule and scorn, and forget about any idea of collegiality you may have had. This also renders him impervious to ordinary love, which, especially in our competitive age, is increasingly seen as a trait giving his possessor extraordinary social, and probably academic, advantages. Thus while the book contained much of interest in the style and technique, and was a good deal of fun to read through, it never gripped me. The scene in Chapter 7 where he walks in the dead of night all through the sleeping organism of the city of London after ceasing to love Sibyl Vane was quite eerily reminiscent of some similar jaunts I had there in the 1990s (usually after some hours fruitlessly passed in trying to find an exciting nightclub after the pubs shut down at 11), even down to ending up in Covent Garden. Walking around London at 3 or 4 in the morning is unlike doing so anywhere else, because, first, compared to every other city of comparable size I have ever been to, for the most part no one else is out on the streets at all, and second, because every few blocks you are coming upon a world famous, in some cases legendary street or building or square or bridge, and at that moment it is as if you alone possess it of all the world, which I find a very odd sensation to have.

The idea of the "world-spirit" is of especial significance in this book, by which I mean to say, that it is always significant to a certain degree even when people aren't aware of its influence, but Wilde is always aware of its influence, and I think it is clear he does not think of it as being at all positive in his generation. He is no nostalgist though, unless it is for a certain kind of style or attitude or aesthetic sensibility; he does not believe people in the grip of past manifestations of the world-spirit were any nobler or more moral than men have ever been, and are today. The use of this often-hazy concept to characterize what it is that makes Gray Gray--his fascination with the psychological novel about the Parisian "who spent his life trying to realise in the nineteenth century all the passions and modes of thought that belonged to every century except his own, and to sum up, as it were, in himself the various moods through which the world-spirit had ever passed..." is very deftly and admirably done from a writing standpoint. The world-spirit as it pertains to men is both ultimately trivial and of the utmost importance in the forming of men's characters and souls at the same time, which about captures Oscar Wilde's worldview at the peak of his career.
Ch. 11. On concerts featuring the music of exotic lands such as Tunisia, Peru, Chile, and Mexico, which were all the rage in London at the time: "The fantastic character of these instruments fascinated him, and he felt a curious delight in the thought that Art, like Nature, has her monsters, things of bestial shape and with hideous voices." We may not regard, or at least wish to regard, the productions of the Aztecs and other non-Western cultures in this simplistic and insensitive light in our time, but the idea of art having its own monsters surely is not controversial. Indeed in my own novel I referred to Art as a "demoness" as if it were the outstanding feature of her nature, quite unconscious of this passage, though I doubtless picked up the idea from some Romantic poet or early Modernist or other.

On men who give bad dinners: "Even the cardinal virtues cannot atone for half-cold entrees, as Lord Henry remarked once, in a discussion of the subject; and there is possibly a good deal to be said for his view." He then of course goes on to compare the canons of good society, the necessity of form, etc, with art, which with Wilde, though he famously asserted that all of it is quite useless, is always equivalent to life itself.

Chapter 12 opens on the eve of Gray's 38th birthday, which on the day I read the passage made him exactly 12 days younger than I was. Spooky! No, not really of course, but I thought it was an interesting coincidence.

Someone's Bedside Reading. I can't make out the book in the middle now.


As this point in the book Gray has ruined the reputations of a slew of well-born men by his debauched lifestyle. Obviously contemporary readers had to know what was inferred by all this, beyond cavorting with dancing girls and streetwalkers. Those crafty, subtle Victorians, not letting on all they knew about the seedy side of life, quite the opposite of us, who mostly know very little about it but chatter on incessantly as if we understood it all! Hallward: "What about Lord Kent's only son, and his career? I met his father yesterday in St James's Street. He seemed broken with shame and sorrow."...Dorian: "If Kent's silly son takes his wife from the streets what is that to me?"

The scene ends darkly however as Gray murders Hallward, who is the genuine artist in the book, and the painter of the picture which gives the book its title. I thought the passage where he opens the window of his loft and scans the absolutely calm and silent surrounding streets (those eerie late night London streets again) was very well done and apropos, that the effect is probably exactly what one who was highly conscious and unaccustomed to murdering would feel like after committing one in the dead of night, with there being no likelihood of detection or suspicion falling upon one for several hours to come. Very disturbing to contemplate.

My oldest son's name is Oscar, and naturally a lot of people thought I had named him after Oscar Wilde. This was not specifically true. I was paranoid with the oldest child of burdening him with a name that just screamed "boring suburban mediocrity" which, as I have a very common and unaristocratic last name and a completely generic and anomic first name for my generation I had always felt to be the case with myself; indeed, a girl even once told me that I was not only boring and mediocre in myself, but that these qualities announced themselves in my name. "Oscar", evoking as it did a world before television and the suburbs and the consolidated high school that has culturally impoverished so many of us, a world of witty dinner conversation and singing around the piano and ginny, smoke-filled jazz joints, at least said to the world, the next generation is coming to the battle ready to fire a few shots before succumbing to complete social and intellectual evisceration. I calmed down a little after this though and gave the next two kids slightly more conventional, though still old-fashioned names.

There should only be one more post on this book.

1 comment:

Virtual Memories said...

My parents, torn between Jachim (masonically complementary to my brother Boaz) and Hiram (the mythical king of the masons), somehow settled on Gil. I wonder if I'd have gone the career path of Hyman Roth if they'd chosen Hiram.