Thursday, May 22, 2014

Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890)

I remember well finding the premise of this book absolutely terrifying when one or the other of my parents described it to me when I was small.  I was certainly not disposed to read it, although even if I had tried such a thing back in the day, I would quite definitely have gotten bored and quit before the picture itself becomes a thing.  Probably before Dorian himself even appears, actually.  Now, however, I'm less likely to be bored and/or scared by books (except RA Salvatore books--there, it's kinda the opposite), and I had two additional reasons to check it off the list: a friend recommended it, and there was a brief excerpt from it in a lesson I recently taught which made me think, huh.  That looks kinda cool.  SO THERE YOU GO.

Surely, in this day'an'age, the first thought of anyone who starts reading The Picture of Dorian Gray is going to be: whoa--this book is, for want of a better word, extremely gay.  Beautiful young men lounging around and lusting after each other in the most barely-sublimated way you can imagine.  I could've pulled any number of passages, but here's one that struck me, from the perspective of one of Dorian's "friends:"

And how charming he had been at dinner the night before, as with startled eyes and lips parted in frightened pleasure he had sat opposite to him at the club, the red candleshades staining to a richer rose the wakening wonder of his face. Talking to him was like playing upon an exquisite violin. He answered to every touch and thrill of the bow….

Yup.  No real reason to harp on this, I suppose, especially because later on in the book notions of sexuality become rather beside the point, but there it is.  One wonders how much of the book's mood was determined by Wilde's own status.  We can't necessarily push things too far in that regard; after all, J-K Huysmans, whose À Rebours is a huge influence on Dorian, and of which book Wilde himself does a very passable pastiche at one point in his own novel, was, as far as I know, heterosexual.  But there's just something about the book, in which scenes of languid, catty epigrams alternate with ones of guilt, remorse, murder, and opium dens…it's just such an odd mixture, and it feels to me like Wilde's own sense of alienation could well have been a key component.  However, I am not going to engage in any dimestore queer theory here; I'm sure it's already been done, and far better than I could.

But man, that mood.  It's really quite difficult to get a grip on.  I had trouble appreciating the book at first, because large chunks of it seemed to serve no purpose other than as aphorism-delivery vehicles, and sure, Wilde is plenty witty, but it's just strange: the book is obviously meant at least in part to show off WIlde's own wit--yet said wit's primary purveyor, Lord Henry Wotton, is monstrous, and his wit is entirely a part of that--of his philosophy that nothing really matters; that there's nothing wrong with any amount of pain or suffering or death inflicted on others (that, in fact, it's desirable) as long as it can be viewed as aesthetically pleasing.  I am getting mixed signals--although, then again, it may be that, by trying to untangle them, I'm doing exactly the wrong thing.  In spite of being concerned with a man's corruption, it seems to be more about spectacle than any kind of moralism.  This is probably also why it would be bootless to ding it for a lack of psychological realism.  It's a spectacle, not meant to be untangled.  George Lukács would've hated it, but man, fuck that guy.

(Joking.  I love you Georg.  But you can be a bit much.)

Me?  Well, I liked it, although I think I might not've if it had gone on for much longer.  The more sordid elements are compellingly decadent, and even though they seem like they should clash with the scenes of people being witty, they actually go together quite well; the final product is a poisonous, impressionistic haze.


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