Monday, February 3, 2014

The Picture of Dorian Gray (2 of 143)

One-Sentence Summary: Hot narcissists cheat fate, but get crazy in the bargain until crazy gets them.
 Subtitle: Or, your friend is a jerk and now you are, too.

From the Preface:
"All art is at once surface and symbol.Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.Those who read the symbol do so at their peril.It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors."
(Guys, I am in TONS of peril.)

I must have owned the most accurate and unflinching aesthetic copy of this book ever produced. I haven't the slightest idea of where I picked up this monstrously unattractive mass market paperback, but it demonstrated a commitment to Gray's portrait that I found a little disturbing when waking up to it beside my pillow. My copy was filled with the scrawl of someone preparing feverishly for a paper. With some books, particularly ones where every page is seething with so much brain fodder, it is of great value to have the notes of another reader to set against your own thoughts. 

I think most of us are familiar with the story of Dorian Gray, or think we are, but upon reading it through I find that it is perhaps one of the classics we have been most liberal with in variations of. He's not a demi-god, he's not in the least bit nice, and his immortality is up for debate. As I read, I realized I was familiar with many passages, which led me to wonder if I'd actually read it before, long before I was ready for all it had to offer. This happens to me sometimes- I've read the book, or pieces of it on lazy days, or abridged versions, or textbook extracts. It made me think back. I've danced with Dorian Gray, before. I had a friend growing up, a very attractive guy with a social life that I found mysterious and a bit enthralling. My own brief forays into that world yielded little but disillusionment and even one or two hard lessons.  I remember speaking to him about this book, which he loved, and once going so far as to call him "a Dorian Gray". Having read the whole piece now, I feel like a real jerk for saying that without realizing the full implications. Then again, perhaps there were more similarities than my small window into his life would have ever shown me. 

I recount that story because I think that is one of the great cruxes of The Picture of Dorian Gray. Beauty is a goodness independent of all other things and it is neither comparable to or to be confused with any sort of inherent morality. It is easy to forgive a beautiful thing its sins, for a time- we even explain them away as the burden of their particular genius. But, as many wise people would, and will, tell you, "Ugly is ugly." If your hardness was written across your face, how would you fare? Beauty may make you friends, but how many will it keep? It blew me away how Wilde could create a character that I despised so fully and yet still felt some sympathy towards. I was fooled- knew I was being fooled- and was still fooled. Damn it, Oscar.

Oscar Wilde was a genius. His prose, like his protagonist, is of unparalleled beauty and, like his protagonist, provides the perfect vehicle for all that is toxic that follows. From a technical perspective, he was as able (flower symbols, I'm looking at you). Wilde's wisdom comes across as hard-won, acquired from much stumbling and a keen ability to understand why. All of human life was the butterfly pinned to the display case, for this guy. The second you find yourself agreeing with Henry Wotton or even Dorian Gray, you are then forced to examine yourself. This book prompted introspection at every turn of the page and I'll say, within me, the debate raged on. I will return to this text and find more and more every time, will recommend it freely, because more than one hundred years later, Oscar Wilde is still placing heat on relevant themes of human weakness, narcissism, unchecked adulation, and the natures of beauty and morality. They have never been more apparent or fascinating as they are in modern culture. Imagine what he could have written in the age of facebook. No matter how much time passes, The Picture of Dorian Gray will always be humankind's own shameful portrait. As the screws twist and turn in the book, so they twist and turn in you.

I recommend this for: everyone, huge narcissists, Kim Kardashian
I do not recommend this for: people in denial, people who can't take a metaphor

No comments:

Post a Comment