Monday, April 26, 2010

The Picture of Dorian Gray

“What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? And what can a man give in exchange for his soul?” ~Mark 8.14-15

People are as different as flowers – we may all start out naked and screaming, but we have been created differently. In other words, you will never plant a rosebush and end up preening violets. But not only are we innately different, we are planted in different locations; brought up under differing conditions; we bloom at different times; emit different “aromas;” and exhibit an infinitely different array of colors.

For this reason, our values differ. What inspires awe and wonder in you may cause me to throw up my hands in bewilderment or disdain.

But where we are the same, where we are basically different manifestations of the same type, is in our intrinsic desire to worship… to glory in something, to prize one thing above another, to say, thisthis more than that is worth living for, fighting for, dying for. In short, we all bend our knee to something…

When a man's inclinations are directed toward God the Christian calls this just adoration; when they are directed toward other people or things - or even ideologies - we call it idolatry.


Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray is a book about what happens when a man - Dorian Gray - surrenders to idolatry.

Initially, Dorian's brand of idolatry presents itself in the form of vanity. His pristine appearance attracts the attention of a painter named Basil who declares Dorian his "ideal," and insists upon painting his portrait. Once complete, the painting is dubbed a masterpiece. But over Dorian it has a particular power: the moment he looks upon it his sense of his own beauty is aroused; and with it, the horrible realization that he will someday grow old and ugly.

And so in a moment’s madness, Dorian makes a mad wish: he offers to exchange his soul for the likeness of the portrait.

Ten, twenty years pass by. Outwardly Dorian remains as handsome and unspoiled as he was on that budding day in June when the portrait was first completed; but hidden in an upstairs room beneath a sheath of velvet, his portrait lives to record the image of his soul. With every act of betrayal, every stroke of malice, every assertion of self-will, the painting devolves until it becomes a grotesque image of corruption and decay.

In the meantime, Dorian's life has taken on the qualities of a work of art. Life is a play of which he is the author; and people are mere characters, “written out” or extinguished, if they fail to act out the part he has assigned to them. Human behavior is not evaluated in terms of "right" and "wrong;" but in terms of what is beautiful or ugly, dramatic or undramatic, interesting or tiresome. "That is all." In this sense, people are not “real” to Dorian but instead they are dolls in a dress-up parlor, valuable only to the degree that they succeed in satisfying his lusts or appealing to his sense of 'drama.'

This is precisely what happens when we give our souls in worship to that which is not God: we will ultimately sacrifice everything – not just our physical and spiritual well-being, but people, even those dearest to us – for that thing, whatever it may be.

The story reaches its climax when Dorian leads Basil upstairs and, in a moment of passionate exchange, flings off the curtain to reveal a look at the picture, now utterly unrecognizable to the painter who painted it.

“Christ!" Basil cries, "What a thing I must have worshiped! It has the eyes of a devil.”

And so we will all exclaim when once we are given an unmediated look at those areas in our lives where we have been guilty of idolatry.

“Each of us has Heaven and Hell in him, Basil,” Dorian says. And so his character proves.

Above all, The Picture of Dorian Gray magnificently illustrates the point that man is, principally, a spiritual being; that his actions have spiritual consequences; and that what he chooses to worship will ultimately enslave him, resulting in either his downfall or his redemption.

As Dorian himself admits, "The soul is a terrible reality. It can be bought, and sold, and bartered away. It can be poisoned, or made perfect. There is a soul in each of us. I know it.”

Everyone should read this book.

4 comments:

Lindsay said...

Oh Heather!! There are so many people in my life that I wish could read this and believe it (myself included)!! I will add this one to my "someday I will have my life back and be able to read" list! :)

lindsaybrooke said...

I was just thinking this morning that I wish I had a particularly good book to read. We went to the library, but ended up with books for bentley... looks like I will have to venture back tomorrow and pick up this little gem. I believe I saw the old old movie a long time ago... probably in high school. I am looking forward to reading it with the eyes I have now. Thanks for the stellar recommendation. When it comes to you and books, I have no doubt it will be rich.

e said...

everyone should read the version bound in such a ornate cover as well... hmm, the beautiful cover and my attraction to it.... ironic?

And speaking of irony, I hope too that we can have a conversation soon about the possible irony of the book's existence. I mean, that it clearly stirred a message to you (and to many), part of which condemns art--as much as Dorian becomes art (for its own sake?)--and yet the book is also a stunning piece of art itself, perhaps as seductive as Basil's masterpiece.

and enter stage left, your response: (wink)

HM Baker said...

Enter, stage left, a frazzled-looking brunette shuffling a stack of papers. The spotlight descends and she begins her brief soliloquy:

Yes! This book is full of ironies. In fact, irony, is perhaps the best single term to describe it.
The characters may espouse a belief in “art for art’s sake” and yet the book itself serves up a pointed and powerful message. The work of art, like the book, contains a toxic message – but it is also, ironically, instructive (and thereby curative).

The book is a polemic; and yet one senses that Wilde wrote it out of compulsion, “for its own sake.”

Most of all, for me, this book testifies to the irony that a man, Oscar Wilde, can deftly articulate truth without ever really applying it to his life. Wilde was not lacking in self-awareness. George Bernard Shaw said he was the best talker of his day, perhaps even of any day. When he arrived in America for the first time and was greeted by customs officials he blithely proclaimed: “I have nothing to declare but my genius!” He was full of such witticisms. But although he knew he was brilliant, his knowledge was not enough to save him.

Instead, Wilde was haunted by a sense of doom and fatality all his life – as “The Picture of Dorian Gray” demonstrates. Yet he consistently chose to give himself to that which he knew would ultimately lead to his destruction.

The same is true of Dorian. As Lord Henry says, “...to influence a person is to give him one’s own soul…” Dorian does indeed allow himself to be influenced by those whose souls are flimsy and corrupt; and so he becomes flimsy and corrupt.

As the story concludes, one cannot help but become aware that – although Dorian has committed countless sins against countless individuals - he has above all irrevocably hurt himself. For if anyone in this story suffers, Dorian suffers. There is something of the tragedy of Esau about him, a baleful and fearsome warning to beware of the deceitfulness of sin!

Indeed, in the character of Dorian Gray we find a man who is coaxed further and further into ever-deepening pits of sin until he becomes so entangled that he cannot break free. He gives himself so totally to a pattern of living that, even though he experiences moments of lucidity, in which his heart abounds with a desire to change, he cannot do so: part of him has turned to stone and he will not, or cannot, seek forgiveness.

For all of these reasons I am overcome with compassion for this man – Dorian the character, but more importantly Wilde, the person – who could not disentangle himself from his love (lust) for the beautiful.

But for the grace of God go I...