Friday, January 09, 2009

The Picture of Dorian Gray--Part 1

I had never read this before. At the time--I started it January 10, 2008, so you see I am hopelessly behind in my journal-keeping and will probably never come current--it had been a while since I had read a regular old novel, especially one that goes down as easy as this one more or less does. One feels while reading it about literature the way one feels about life on a visit to New York or London or some such place after a long confinement in the hinterlands of civilization: that one has somehow rejoined the mainstream of it for a short time, even if he does not have as perfect mastery over the experience as he would like. For a great many people have actually read Dorian Gray, and everyone has heard about it and alludes to its central plot device freely, from Rush Limbaugh to Brent Musberger to my mother-in-law.

As such I anticipate I can afford to write about it more sparingly than has become my habit. Quotes from the book are already nearly ubiquitous, so the famous ones--and there are at least fifty of those--I will refrain from repeating here. Wilde's attitude and various pronouncements on art tend to set the critical faculty at its ease; The reader at least does not sense that there is a coded Straussian message embedded deeper in the text than he can ever hope to penetrate wherein the real story and real meaning of the book are contained; he anticipates a reward that is out in the open, visible right on the surface. Ultimately of course, I had to find fault with this--really earnest bourgeois like me tend to grow uncomfortable at the idea that genuine literature could ever be something we experience as fun, or natural, or easy. No, it can't. As I wrote last year:

'There are a few worthwhile observations here. O.W. does (I believe there should be a "not" inserted here) get sidetracked by or sucked into "profundities". He paints his scenes according to the attitude he lays out and they work as objets to be admired. Though he largely perceived no problems beyond beauty worthy of addressing, this attitude in fact became his subject.'

Picture 1--I think if nothing else I am getting a little better in selecting pictures for these posts. I have been spending more time on it, searching through multiple pages of possibilities and trying to wait until something grabs me as a true winner before I pounce.
The scent of flowers coming through open windows as we go through our mail and take our tea, even in town, seemed to be a stronger and more noticeable presence in novels back in those days before World War I than they generally have been since. People still write about it, but receiving and describing the sensation requires much more concentration and detachment from other mental activity that it did in this earlier period. For my part I almost never am conscious of smelling flowers or trees, other than cut grass, even when I am at the house in Vermont, which is set in the midst of vegetation, mainly trees, at least as copious as would have been found there in 1890. My suspicion is that we are somehow less attuned to this and therefore it usually fails to make the impression on us it should. On the other hand this may be a peculiar characteristic of the landscape of England, for it is in their writers where its presence is most strongly noted.

The style of the writing struck me as containing many echoes of Henry James of all people, mostly with regard to the manner of the psychological quivering and probing. This was odd of course because these two authors are generally thought of as opposites both in personality and writing: Wilde outrageous and witty but ultimately jejeune, James deadly serious, the most boring and impenetrable writer conceivable to many, the profound Master of the workings and motivations of the human mind through pure language to others (personally I think there is a great deal to be learned about the mechanical aspects of fiction writing in studying his work; beyond that I cannot assert anything with real confidence or conviction about his merits. I do not dislike it, but I don't love it either, and my sensibility is not fine enough to understand what fires and repulses his characters, and why). On the other hand both had similar obsessions with aesthetics, art, social class, even if these manifested themselves in different ways.

I don't know if it is recorded anywhere that little Henry and William James at the ages of 5 and 6 were in the regular habit of screaming at each other, fistfighting, and talking about the other's bodily functions, though I doubt any of this ever happened in the presence of their father at least, who knew how to keep the level of discourse on a very high plane at all times. I have tried to introduce the subject of the James family (as well as other renowned intellectual families) on occasion at my own dinner table, as if they were our well-behaved and studious contemporaries, neighbors even, and competitors for future honors and the affections of teachers in the hope of impressing upon my sons that much of the human species by their age has already turned its attention to more advanced subjects than those favored by them, but my intentions are misunderstood, and the topic usually shouted down on all sides at once.

Picture 2--I was not familiar of this picture of our author before. I think it's a good one. He really looks like himself in it.
The homoerotic imagery in the book is quite overt to anyone living in this depraved age. One would think it would have caused a scandal in 1890, but Wilde appears to have avoided much widespread suggestion of that sort of thing until he was more or less caught in flagrante delicto with Lord Douglas, the Marquis of Queensbury's boy, several years after the publication of this book. Either the Victorians were more sophisticated in these matters than they are usually given credit for, or they were obtuse regarding them probably beyond our ability to conceive.

The degree of vanity which the main characters own to openly is also fairly shocking and outrageous, especially for the time, and especially as I don't think there is supposed to be anything tongue-in-cheek about it. These guys are flat-out divas.

Not surprisingly perhaps, the book reads very much like a play, even the descriptions of the scenery and settings are more like stage directions for the character to ask against the background of than the delineating of a world in which it is the character's fate to exist, which is the more common attitude of novels.

Picture 3--There are many film and TV versions of the book, none of which I have seen, and of which the advertisments for and stills from the modern ones, at least, look extremely annoying to me, but this is probably due in great part to my sense of personal estrangement from the whole current age. This beautiful gelatinous looking title from, I believe, the 1945 Hollywood version, was just too good to pass up. There are whole web sites (of course) devoted exclusively to title shots from movies. I don't dislike the idea in itself, and the pictures are fun to look at, however, I haven't found one that is accompanied by any particularly interesting writing or insight as to why the poster chose this format to be the theme of his website.
p. 47--Regarding a scandal: "The thing was hushed up, but, egad, Kelso ate his chop alone at the club for sometime afterwards." Chop references are like Helen Keller jokes to me. No matter how I try to resist, they kill me every time.

At the time I read the book, I made a note that I was learning from Oscar Wilde what was uncool in conversation, as if I were anticipating some kind of big social breakthrough after I had finished the whole thing. Whatever those lessons were, I have apparently forgotten all of them now.

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