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Dorian Gray, Ethics, Aestheticism

A bit late, this, but some reflections after my final seminars of 2016 on Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray. In many ways, it's the ideal week 11 'end-of-term' text: textured enough to provoke discussion but also engaging and accessible.

One point we discussed, especially in the second seminar, was a tension that I feel is hard to resolve conclusively: how do we read the novel's vividly moral framework (soul, sin, curse, downfall) against the aestheticist principles (codified in the novel's preface) that suspend ethics or treat ethics merely as a formal/stylistic problem? Whilst of course we don't have to accept the preface as binding, if there is conceivably 'no such thing as a moral or an immoral book', then why does the novel's central trope - the portrait - encode so rigorously a register of immorality? Is this simply a dazzlingly reflexive twist: an a-moral book about a Faustian arc, endlessly switching art and life, using morality and immorality - as another aphorism suggests - merely as materials.

One interpretation I have always leaned towards is broadly that expressed here, in a blog from six years ago. When I was (appropriately enough) at Oxford, the lecturers suggested that Wilde's aphorisms be read as deliberately exaggerated rhetorical negations and inversions of common-place truths: provocative reversals designed to unsettle and critique, rather than positive presentations of a new philosophy. If society declared X, then Wilde would find the grain of truth in not-X: whatever that was. The interpretation of Dorian Gray would continue on from that: Lord Henry embodies the aphoristic technique. He is the sceptical provocateur, committed only to reversing or undercutting any received dogma. The problem is that Dorian's decadence, by contrast, is too serious: attempting to live the code of the aphorisms as a new set of fixed truths rather than seeing it is an open-ended strategy of rhetorical subversion. As such, the novel's moral arc occurs, symbolically speaking, because Dorian has created merely a mirror-image of the social dogmas Lord Henry deconstructs: he has not escaped into mobile, sceptical, self-ironising playfulness but built his own tragic narrative of decadent decline, which is as fixed and paralysing as Victorian morality itself.

In the seminar, I think we were moving towards a rather different kind of reading. This would be to suggest that - perhaps in the manner of Baudelaire or Nietzsche - the decadent embrace of sensation must be full, unreserved and, if necessary, self-destructive. There must be darkness and evil as well as sweetness and beauty. This kind of reading would demand a very different notion of decadent resistance to the social norm than that given above: instead of unserious and mobile scepticism, there would have to be the serious pursuit of all pleasures, all experiences, even (or perhaps especially) those that society deems grotesque or immoral. The cost of decadence might be infinite, but that cost would be born for the purity of the individualistic life. In this sense, the novel's darker threads could be positioned as a rebuke to the idealism of his teacher Walter Pater who, not unpredictably, condemned the novel's suspension of ethics as anti-aestheticist in an 1891 review: 'to lose the moral sense therefore...is to lose, or lower, organisation, to become less complex, to pass from a higher to a lower degree of development.'

After the seminar, I did have a further - third? - thought, which displaces the ethical question away from ethics, as the preface's comments about style, form and the moral imply. The history of art and literature is full of pain, of inordinate evil, of the grotesque and the wicked. As Wilde puts it in an essay on modernity and art that would be especially useful for this reading - The Decay of Lying - 'monstrous and marvellous sins, monstrous and marvellous virtues...Art itself is really a form of exaggeration...nothing more than an intensified mode of over-emphasis.' No-one, one could argue, really conceives of Faust or Macbeth outside of the laws of their own artworks, and that is Wilde's point. His coup here is to throw precisely such a 'monstrous and marvellous' dramatic field of over-emphasis across the dulled world of late nineteenth-century London: and, indeed, across the morally questionable class of young dandies, all the while demanding of his readers that moral belief and relation to the actual world be willingly suspended. That's the provocation: to demand that his readers treat a modern novel not through the degraded norms of realism, but in the same way they might treat a Renaissance drama. In short, the novel becomes a Faust or a Macbeth for its time, with its characters existing as 'abstract, decorative and mythological' (DL).

There is perhaps one final possibility, which is simply to gather all the readings above - and more - together and say: this is exactly the effect that Wilde intended. After all, this is a deeply reflexive novel: an artwork with a preface about artworks, about an artwork, and with key episodes based around portraiture, theatre, music and collected items.

The problem is an old one - a Keatsian one, a Platonic one - the relation between beauty and goodness. In trying to define the novel's 'answer' to this problem, then we are tracking a secret, and this novel is, of course, very much about secrets: their hiding, their uncovering, the intrigue of knowing they are there but not what they are. Isn't this one further thing that the novel does with the question of ethics and pleasure? There is a certain kind of pleasure in uncovering the 'moral' of a text (there is a similar dynamic in Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner) and perhaps this is what Wilde holds before us and withdraws from us? In its unresolvability, The Picture of Dorian Gray would be a glittering, seductive artefact - now all surface, now all depth - which lures us into trying to answer a question that can never be answered, any more than we can identify the great sins and transgressions of Dorian's life. And hence we are bound into the novel's own dynamic: drawn into its pleasures rather than master of them. Here too, Wilde has got there before us: 'It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.'

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