Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Victorian 1%

For its February 2012 read, my book club in Spokane, Washington, chose The Picture of Dorian Gray by Irish writer Oscar Wilde (1854-1900). The famous novel was the notorious artist's only book-form work of fiction. It has directly inspired at least two movies in the last 70 years (the first in 1945 with a very young Angela Lansbury), and its publication contributed damningly to his condemnation and subsequent imprisonment in the British legal system, ostensibly for homosexuality, resulting in his early death at just 46 years old.

The book club reads at least one "classic" a year, and what I love most about this exercise is recognizing common elements of humanity that express themselves throughout the ages. It's what makes Plato's work still comprehensible to us, or War and Peace, and other dramatic works from myriad cultures completely unfamiliar to our experience but accessible through literature. Oscar Wilde's widely acclaimed and criticized work is no exception.

Wilde lays out all his themes in the first pages, a carefully crafted Preface: the contradictory nature of intellectual endeavor, the search for the definition of art, appreciation of beauty, exploration of vice and virtue, the cult of celebrity (rampant in the late Victorian age, as now), ethics, class, power, wealth, wealth and power, charm and power, responsibility, influence, ideas (books in particular). And the importance of ... a soul. His setting is Victorian England, Europe, and beyond.

Early in the novel, Dorian Gray cries out to whomever will hear and his two closest friends, Lord Henry and the painter Basil, "If it were I who was always to be young, and the picture that was to grow old! For that - for that - I would give everything! Yes, there is nothing in the whole world I would not give for that! I would give my soul for that!" (p.26)

Seven pages from the end of the novel (p.186 of 193), Wilde brings it all around. There isn't a lot of talk about the soul in the pages in between. There's a lot of talk about "spectators" (who are soul-less in their way) and mirrors. Perfection. Reflection. The dangers of a bored, powerful upper class. Society. Friendship. Theater. The Victorian ancestral inheritance of decadence and debauchery from all of Western civilization and beyond. But really, that's just the interesting stuff that happens in between, with or without a soul. The arc of the story is propelled by Dorian Gray's impetuous bargain, and seven pages from the end of his story, Lord Henry brings us - and Dorian - back to the point. Claiming somewhat dubiously to simply be repeating a chance street preacher, Lord Henry asks Dorian out of the blue, "'What does it profit a man to gain the whole world, but lose' - how does the quotation run? 'his own soul?'" Lord Henry acknowledges, "I asked you because I thought you might be able to give me an answer."

What a classic theme. Of course, you'll have to read the book to get Wilde's full picture. Safe to say, the conditions of life, the environment inhabited by, shall we say, the 1%, is a place that in Oscar Wilde's day bored, tempted, educated, and ignored its inhabitants just enough to make such an experiment as Dorian Gray's possible, with widely devastating spiritual consequences to all who came into contact with his soul-less existence.

RIP Dorian Gray. May we learn from your choices, and hope to learn from our own.