A picture of Dorian Gray and our culture

  • October 11, 2011

Nearly a century ago, Oscar Wilde wrote a famous novel entitled A Picture of Dorian Gray. It begins this way:

Basil Hallward, a painter, has just finished a portrait of a young man of extraordinary good looks, Dorian Gray. Just as he finishes the painting, a brilliant, though highly cynical young Lord, Henry Wotton, wanders into the room, marvels at the painting and compliments Dorian on his good looks. Dorian, quite humble at this stage of his life, tells Lord Henry that his good looks mean little to him. But Lord Henry challenges Dorian to make his good looks mean something, both because they are real and because they are transient.

Here are his words to the young Dorian Gray: “You have a wonderfully beautiful face, Mr. Gray. Don’t frown. You have. And 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 spring-time or the reflection in dark waters of that silver shell we call the moon. It cannot be questioned. It has its divine right of sovereignty. It makes princes of those who have it. You smile? Ah! When you have lost it you won’t smile... People say sometimes that beauty is only superficial. That may be so. But at least it is not so superficial as thought is. To me, beauty is the wonder of wonders. It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible... Yes, Mr. Gray, the gods have been good to you. But what the gods give they quickly take away. You have only a few years in which to live really, perfectly and fully. When your youth goes, your beauty will go with it, and then you will suddenly discover that there are no triumphs left for you or have to content yourself with those mean triumphs that the memory or your past will make more bitter than defeats. Every month as it wanes brings you nearer to something dreadful. Time is jealous of you, and wars against your lilies and your roses. You will become sallow and hollow-cheeked and dull-eyed. You will suffer horribly... Ah! Realize your youth while you have it. Don’t squander the gold of your days, listening to the tedious, trying to improve the hopeless failure or giving away your life to the ignorant, the common and the vulgar. These are the sickly aims, the false ideals of our age. Live! Live the wonderful life that is in you! Let nothing be lost upon you. Be always searching for new sensations. Be afraid of nothing... A new Hedonism? That is what our century wants. You might be its visible symbol. With your personality there is nothing you could not do. The world belongs to you for a season...”

A new Hedonism — that is what our century wants. Oscar Wilde prophesized this nearly a century ago and, it would seem, that is precisely to where we have evolved in the Western world. Bodily appearance, looking good, having a trim, athletic body, being sexually attractive, remaining young and being admired for your body is, for the majority of our culture, a huge, obsessive preoccupation. Most people in our culture, perhaps not in theory but certainly in our practical life-choices, would agree with Lord Henry when he says: The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible. Good looks tend to trump everything.

Not that this is all bad.  Shallow is the spirituality that discredits the body. We are not angelic, dis-embodied spirits, but creatures of body and soul, and both are important for our spiritual health. God did not make us to walk this Earth indifferent to our bodily appearance, sexually numb and careless about our physical health. Indeed, indifference to our health and bodily appearance is one of the signs of clinical depression. Being young, healthy and sexually attractive is meant to be enjoyed, one of the pleasures that God intended for us. There is no virtue in looking and feeling shabby.

Thus, it’s good, spiritually, to be physically healthy. It’s good, spiritually, to work at keeping our bodies attractive. It’s good, spiritually, to healthily feel our sexuality. But these are a means, not an end. Youth, health and sexual attractiveness do not, as Lord Henry and much of our contemporary society suggest, have a divine right of sovereignty. They are not ends in themselves, but only part of our journey towards maturity, altruism and happiness. They are not the aim of that journey.  

And when we do make them the aim of our journey, we will, soon enough, taste the bitter bile warned of in Lord Henry’s counsel to Dorian Gray: You will suddenly discover that there are no triumphs left for you or have to content yourself with those mean triumphs that the memory or your past will make more bitter than defeats.