Sunday, February 08, 2009

Dorian Gray--Part 3

In Chapter 14 there is a little rapture about Venice, with a nod to Oxford thrown in at the end of it, that I take to be an homage to Ruskin. Really, Wilde, for such a supposed iconoclast and fastidious upholder of artistic standards, seems to have held an unusually large number of his contemporaries, and their work, in high esteem. Gray, the morning after murdering Hallward, is turning over the pages of a volume of Gautier's poems--Wilde gushes about the beauty, exquisiteness, etc, of these too--when he comes to one about Venice. "Devant une facade rose/Sur le marbre d'un escalier." "The whole of Venice (he thought) was in those two lines." Of course it isn't--not for an aesthetic ingenu anyway--though perhaps the goal of education and experience is to be able to comprehend a great deal of meaning in such clear and concise terms. But the point of the book I think is either that it is not, or that Gray/Wilde has not absorbed the totality of the intellectual environment is which he moves to make such distinctions in a meaningful way. "...Venice, like Oxford, had kept the background for romance, and, to the true romantic, background was everything, or almost everything." Literature would not exist without sentences like this--I do believe that, too--but again the foreground must be somehow commensurate with the background, for the background to have any meaning. The novel Dorian Gray itself, for all its abundant charms and the cleverness of its conceit, is lacking the high purpose and understanding that a work of art must possess to be a world masterpiece; it is not good that way, and its author I believe is aware of this at a pretty conscious level; it is one of those books of which it will always be said 'it is one of the finest things of its kind'.

Oh yes, regarding the trip to Venice: "Basil had been with him part of the time, and had gone wild over Tintoret." If the world gains nothing else from this blog, I hope that somebody might be reminded that if he should ever go to Venice, he needs to see the Tintorettos. This has become in the space of a year a pleasure I was not aware of having missed to the 11th or 12th greatest regret of my life; and that rank may rise yet if I keep being reminded of it.

Chapter 15: "It was a small party, got up rather in a hurry by Lady Narborough, who was a very clever woman, with what Lord Henry used to describe as the remains of really remarkable ugliness."

Same party: "...Lady Alice Chapman, his hostess's daughter, a dowdy dull girl, with one of those characteristic British faces, that, once seen, are never remembered..." Something tells me I probably would have thought this girl was hot in some indefinable way and been agitated all through dinner. Something of the sort happened to me once. I was seated across the table at some dinner from a girl with a singularly homely face--it was as if during the formation of her features they had not set at the proper time, though whether too early or too late I could not make out--and who was quite boring to boot, eating salad and vegetables only, along with water, and talking of nothing the whole time but how she got up at five every morning and went on a four-mile run (to her credit, she did appear to be of well-above average fitness); alas, I found myself distracted for much of the meal, wondering if she did not have any interest in me as a lover, etc. (Chapter 17) This one is kind of famous, but it is good: "The man who could call a spade a spade should be compelled to use one. It is the only thing he is fit for."

Chapter 18: "Success was given to the strong, failure thrust upon the weak. That is all." This is essentially the theme of this whole blog, so in theory it should shut itself down now, having long established what side of the muscular equation it lies on, but as we all know the weak only cease to talk under direct compulsion or intimidation; then you won't hear a peep from them, they do as they are ordered, but given enough leeway to pretend to substance, they will indulge in it every chance they get. This of course is the great curse of the internet.

Some of the Background for Romance, Oxford.

"It would not look well to go on." Lord Henry regretfully calling off the day's hunt after one member of the party has accidentally shot and killed a beater. Lord Henry is one of those amoral and contemptuous characters who is at the same time clever and highly amusing, his social skills a template for anyone who aspires to be cool, knowing, and in demand, and never is. He is at the same time undeniably wicked, but this does not seem to bother anyone of importance and influence, perhaps the occasional eccentric genius or virtuous millionaire can look coldly upon him with some sting, but for the normal person it is hard to know how to take him. As your disapproval of his behavior is meaningless, and as his social qualities are so desirable to you, you of course must train yourself not to covet them, which is supposed to be one of the aims of a proper humanistic education, anyway; which is why the widespread denunciation of the liberal arts as outdated and useless that is afoot in the republic is a disturbing trend for its moral and psychological health.

Chapter 19: "It is an odd thing, but everyone who disappears is said to be seen at San Francisco. It must be a delightful city, and possess all the attractions of the next world." I don't know where this came from, but I find the coincidence (I wanted to say karma, but the dictionary indicates that that implies a transmigration of souls, which I don't think applies here) interesting, since I was just mentioning San Francisco, a place to which I have never been and rarely think about, in another recent post (about the Caine Mutiny).

Here is how it would have looked in Oscar Wilde's day. One is tempted to say he'd be more at home there now, but the Victorians may have had more of a appetite for the rough and tumble of life than we give them credit for. Compared to similarly privileged and sexually-inclined characters in later books like Brideshead Revisited, the fops in Dorian Gray are like Greek warriors in the manly energy of their artistic and social pursuits. (Note that we have a hint of 'heavy industry' in the picture).

"...I always contradict the aged. I do it on principle. If you ask them their opinion on something that happened yesterday, they solemnly give you the opinions current in 1820, when people wore high stocks, believed in everything, and knew absolutely nothing." Absurd, but it still amuses in many instances.

I confessed at the end that I didn't know how to take this book morally. Our age, with the exception of a few extreme, mainly sexual, vices, has strayed so far from presenting any very comprehensive moral code by which the individual might be expected to govern himself that Gray by comparison, though his code is more of an anti-code against moral (but fastidious in its observation of social) propriety, comes across as a man of principle. People's political affiliations, and the dogmas attached to these, I suppose provide the equivalent of moral codes, but a political movement cannot properly appeal to any idea of universal absolute right without making a mockery of itself. It is pretty clear that Dorian Gray is seen as having transgressed against essentially immutable and universal laws, and that that is why he, morally, and his picture, become grotesque. Yet am I not long gone down the same path myself, by any reasonable estimate, if not with the same excess and abandon? Or was Gray's immersion in vice far worse because he was given such an exquisite intelligence and beauty, genuine talents? You see I have no idea how to move about in such a room.

Chapter 20: "There was purification in punishment. Not 'Forgive us our sins', but 'Smite us for our iniquities' should be the prayer of a man to a most just God." I think many highly intelligent people must instinctively feel this. It requires real religious genius to be both intellectually able and honestly come to embrace the prospect that you, or your soul, will be entering into some variety of no-strings-attached eternal bliss in which you will know constant ecstasy being anything imaginable on earth.

From the Pre-Blog Archives: I was curious to go back and see what I had written when I read The Importance of Being Earnest a few years back. It was not one of my better analyses. From July 11, 2004:

"(Wilde) is perhaps the most optimistic and reassuring of all authors really, one never suspects there is anything to be troubled about in the world, that good humor and amusement suffice. It begs the question (sorry--pretentiousness alarm going wild) of his 'importance' which seems to be that of the shining light or comet. I had not realized how much his method relies on irony. That, and an especial delight for the (painlessly) outrageous declaration and his unique personality. Almost more a great literary character than author."

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