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Dorian Gray and the Scepticism of Scepticism

A short post on The Picture of Dorian Gray. If I could compose it in pointed aphorisms, I would, but it will just be a few thoughts on a novel that I think is fascinating.

Dorian learns his aestheticism from Lord Henry. It is notable, at points, that he begins to mimic his speech patterns - those elegant, provocative paradoxes. Yet he is not Lord Henry, and that is what interests me here.

Lord Henry's discourse is mobile, subversive, transgressive and witty. Fixed points of reference, canards of nineteenth-century culture, received morals and social standards are all dizzyingly reversed. Yet, although there is a strain of idealism in Lord Henry (particularly in terms of his Hellenism), it is as if his discourse seeks no dwelling place. It does not strive, I would argue, to ever assert a positive code. In fact, he is insouciantly distanced from his own discourse: he often claims to have forgotten what he has previously stated, as if it is merely an experimental and impromptu performance, and there is always a mysterious, perhaps nostalgic, pathos that Wilde allows to cut across the transgressive words.

On the other hand, Dorian seems to take the code of decadence (to use a shorthand that my colleague Alex Murray will no doubt consider too reductive, rightly so) seriously. It is as if he wants to overturn the standards and morals of his age to find the secret of the New Hedonism which Lord Henry subversively proscribes for the nineteenth century. Yet, the problem with an imperative for transgression, subversion and scepticism is that it is constantly in motion. It cannot provide a fixed code, for its internal scepticism would surely overturn it; just as the craving for sensation and pleasure that provides the aesthetic core of decadence seems determined to always remain unsatisfied (for, of course, a pleasure is always exhausted with repetition).

Thus, where Dorian appears to want to find a kind of authenticity under all the hypocrisy of the Victorian era, a Hellenic secret ethic waiting to be instantiated, perhaps Lord Henry realises that there is no secret. Lord Henry's decadence is deeper, because he does not even idealise his own transgressions and he is sceptical about his own scepticism:

The soul is a terrible reality...It can be poisoned, or made perfect. There is a soul in each of us, I know it
Do you feel quite sure of that, Dorian?
Quite sure
Ah! then it must be an illusion...What have you or I to do with the superstitions of our age. No: we have given up our belief in the soul. Play me something. Play me a nocturne.

Dorian's downfall, one might argue, is simply because his decadence does not run deep enough: it is not mobile or critical enough of itself, and it becomes a new superstition. Perhaps, without the comic spirit - the spirit of Diogenes or Erasmus or Swift - that Lord Henry possesses, Dorian is by definition predetermined to pass towards the tragic.

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