On Dorian Gray, Pre-Raphaelitism & The Treason of All Clerks
Known for his biting wit, flamboyant dress and glittering conversation, 19th century Irish author Oscar Wilde was one of the best-known personalities of his time. A lavish and expensive character, he tackled his personal life in a cavalier manner and his many homosexual affairs brought about his two-year imprisonment in 1895. An aestheticist and a worshipper of beauty, Wilde wrote in his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray,
Beauty is a form of Genius–is higher, indeed, than Genius, as it needs no explanation. It is one of the great facts of the world, like sunlight, or springtime, or the reflection in the dark waters of that silver shell we call the moon. It cannot be questioned. It has divine right of sovereignty. It makes princes of those who have it.
These words he puts into the mouth of his character, Lord Henry, a luxurious, sensual, amoral, and dangerous dandy, who reminds the reader sharply and distinctly of Wilde himself. Indeed, Wilde is often identified with dozens of the quips and one-liners uttered by the cynical Lord Henry, who babbles incessant, destructive foolishness in a markedly eloquent manner.
But as Dorian Gray drags on, it becomes apparent that Lord Henry is the novel’s antagonist and the villain who is ultimately responsible for the tale’s tragic ending. Even Wilde, who created him in his own image, hates him. In fact, the end of Dorian Gray is a firm and frightful condemnation of everything its author stood for in the real world. It is as though this book is Wilde’s message to us from the other side of his own experiences. Like he is standing over there crying, “don’t come this way!” Crying, “it’s not what you think it is!” The author of Dorian Gray was full of wisdom.
Why, then, the absurd folly that followed him all his days? Why, when we know the truth, do we not go free? This is not a question that I mean to answer, but a question that is in itself an answer to the myth that knowledge is an answer of any kind at all.
“The great end of life,” wrote Thomas Huxley, “is not knowledge but action.”
Poor old Oscar Wilde was vivid, devastated proof of the way that knowing, divorced of doing, is deceitful, is death. There are other examples, of course. And sadly, they throng in great numbers around the canvas and the colors, the paints and the pens, the poetry and the publishing-houses. Because art is a medium of theory, and one may hold a theory forever without doing anything about it.
In April I had an opportunity to visit the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, and was fortunate enough to be there at the same time as a touring Pre-Raphaelite exhibition. A long-time Pre-Raphaelite enthusiast, I was looking forward to this exhibit eagerly, but even I was not prepared for the full splendor of the vibrant colors, fascinating imagery and deep symbolism portrayed.
All of the artists represented had crafted brilliant and meaningful representations of redeeming love in a number of varied settings. Their works were weighty with truth, sparkling with beauty, truly magnificent. And yet I knew well that none of them had lived up to the ideals they so devotedly espoused.
At the bookstore, I purchased Laurence Des Cars’ informative, illustrated volume about the Pre-Raphaelites, and over the next two days of the trip read it in other, less-interesting museums. All of my preconceptions about the artists’ tumultuous personal lives were proven correct, as were all of my suspicions that their art (for the most part) represented the glory they refused to incorporate into their own lives.
There is, of course, something disappointing about this realization. But, what is more important, there is in it a grave warning for the world of “creatives” and writers and thinkers and every form of artist and everyone who deals regularly with theories and with thoughts. As Ann Voskamp says so memorably, “The words must always become flesh. Else they aren’t words but lies.”
The journals that have housed my thinking and my ponderings for many long years are wide with words. I have kept them in very good repair, have lovingly glued loose bindings and washed stains from their leathern covers and looked after them. Why? Because my soul is so easily unsettled, so quickly ruffled. Writing has been a way for me to anchor my anxious and wandering mind. “Nothing has really happened until it has been described in words,” said Virginia Woolf. I have lived according to this motto and have hundreds of pages of tiny calligraphic script to show for it. The books are beautiful to look upon, and my heart laughs when I read through them. And yet, like anything built upon an untruth, this habit of obsessive chronicling hasn’t been accompanied by satisfaction.
Because it isn’t true that things haven’t occurred unless we tell of them. (Indeed, the telling of a thing very often makes it other than it was when it happened.) On the contrary, the only time a thing does not occur is when we don’t do it.
Our 26th president knew this. “I have a perfect horror of words that are not backed up by deeds,” wrote Teddy Roosevelt. Theoretically, we all share his disgust with hypocrisy. And yet, is our horror deep enough yet? Is our horror so deep yet that we understand that the wretched innocence of ignorance is to be preferred over the deathly disobedience of the learned?
C.S. Lewis wrote, in a letter to Arthur Greeves,
It is a shock to realize that the mere thinking it may be nothing, and that only the tiny bit which we really practice is likely to be ours in any sense of which death cannot make hay.
What is everything going to look like on the other side of the rain-curtain? Will our art be enough to outweigh our days in the solemn scales of justice? Hardly.
W.H. Auden knew this well, and At The Graves of Henry James bemoans it hauntingly.
All will be judged. Master of nuance and scruple,
Pray for me and for all writers, living or dead;
Because there are many whose works
Are in better taste than their lives, because there is no end
To the vanity of our calling, make intercession
For the treason of all clerks.
What, then? What shall we do about this? Since it becomes increasingly evident that it is the doing which counts, after all.
Perhaps it is not as important as we thought it was that we publish ten books or express our inner struggles in pages of private prose or compose a symphony as stupendous as the Fifth, or paint a masterpiece that will endure for a thousand years.
Not to say that there is no importance accompanying these things, but only that there may not be. Because after a thousand years, what then? Because what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and lose his soul?
The misused, deceived Dorian Gray gets the last word. He says it to his betrayer, Lord Henry, in defiance, in anguish. In his careless, offhand way, the story’s villain has told the tortured protagonist of an encounter he had with a street-preacher. Lord Henry says,
“I thought of telling the prophet that art had a soul, but that man had not. I am afraid, however, he would not have understood me.”
“Don’t, Harry,” says the younger man, the scales dropping from his artificial, gorgeous eyes, his evil eyes, “The soul is a terrible reality. It can be bought and sold and bartered away. It can be poisoned or made perfect.”