So today I was reading a literary analysis of the works of Oscar Wilde. (Christopher S. Nassar called Into the Demon Universe: A Literary Exploration of Oscar Wilde.) Wait… Don’t hang up yet. Yes, I know that is a very dry opening.
I began to think about forbidden sexual practices and unrepentant sensuality, the pleasures of sin. Better?
Scholars and non-scholars have long debated the meaning of the end of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Spark Notes for example, puts it this way: “The end of the novel suggests a number of possible interpretations of Dorian’s death. It may be his punishment for living the life of a hedonist, and for prizing beauty too highly, in which case the novel would be a criticism of the philosophy of aestheticism. But it is just as possible that Dorian is suffering for having violated the creeds of aestheticism.”
I am inclined to believe Oscar Wilde when he said he was not trying to impart any moral lesson at all, he was just trying to write the best literature he could. The premise he began with determined to a large extent what endings were possible. Imagine the story of a young man who wished his portrait would grow old and take on his sins instead of him. He found that his wish had magically come true… and he lived happily ever after. This is not much of a story. I believe what Wilde wanted readers to think upon finishing the book was “Wow, that was a great story.” (And perhaps “Wow, Oscar Wilde is very clever.”)
Nassar wrote about The Picture of Dorian Gray and its relationship to the decadent movement. the decadent “looking within and discovering not only purity but evil and corruption, yields to the corrupt impulse and tries to find joy and beauty in evil. Finally, the vision of evil becomes unbearable, the decadent has burned all his bridges, and he finds himself trapped in a dark underworld from which he cannot escape.”
When I tried to think about more modern stories where a person is attracted to evil and finds himself trapped in a world from which he cannot escape, the characters were driven by financial rather than sexual temptation.
The most obvious example is Breaking Bad. The main character, Walter White, is drawn into a world of crime in order to secure his family’s financial future. As the series goes on, he is drawn more and more into “a dark underworld” and becomes increasingly vile and unsympathetic.
The drama of Dorian is fueled by a particular anxiety about what can happen when sensual pleasure is entirely divorced from any emotional human connection. Victorians, on the one hand, felt constrained by the roles society forced them to play and they enjoyed the fantasy of throwing off all of those moral codes and giving in to their basest desires. On the other hand, they were afraid of what would happen if their sensual pleasures were not constrained. What if sexuality was not coupled with a sense of responsibility for one another?
It strikes me that the ideas that made Oscar Wilde seem so dangerous have become quite mainstream. He advocated the idea that artists needed to explore all of their impulses in order to create art and serve humanity. In the 21st Century the notion that a person must be in touch with her sexual nature in order to be creative and healthy is commonplace. It is hard to imagine a book like Eat, Pray, Love in which the protagonist did not find amazing sex as part of her journey of self-discovery. Our anxiety, if our blaring magazine headlines and advertisements are anything to go by, is more that we are somehow missing out on the life-transforming bliss sexuality is supposed to be bringing us.
If Breaking Bad is anything to go by, however, we do have anxiety about what happens when money is decoupled from a sense of responsibility to one another. We love the fantasy of having all of our financial worries eliminated quickly. We loved watching Gordon Gekko in Wall Street, charismatic, powerful with that cool mobile phone with the antenna. In Wall Street, Charlie Sheen’s slightly less memorable leading character is, like Dorian, trapped in a dark underworld. It is not dark in the way Breaking Bad’s world is dark, but it is depicted as a world of questionable moral values which threatens to suck the young man in– a world of large Manhattan apartments, expensive cars, and gold-digger model-esque girlfriends–pleasures that are hard to escape.
Sheen’s character keeps his moral center, although he goes to jail. The real Dorain character, though, is Gekko who has sold his soul. “Greed is good,” he says. “Greed works.” Like Dorian, Gordon Gekko has no conscience about pursuing his own pleasure. As an audience we find him both attractive and repellant because he represents the freedom that comes with complete self interest, the dream of not having to make all of the compromises we mere mortals make each day in order to get along. Yet he also represents the danger of complete self-gratification.
It is a mistake, I believe, to ask whether Dorian Gray is an argument for or against the philosophy of aestheticism. It is neither and both. Too much social constraint and too little social constraint each have their dangers. The question is not “is pursuing self-interest good or bad,” it is “to what extent should a person pursue self-interest, in what balance and what context?”
I wrote a much more detailed version of this a few days ago and Word Press ate it. The pithy version is probably an improvement.