‘SOMETHING FINER, RICHER THAN THE HELLENIC IDEAL, IT MAY BE’: READING THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY AGAINST THE BACKDROP OF PLATO’S SYMPOSIUM

By Arkaprabha Chakraborty

Abstract
The Picture of Dorian Gray is perhaps the most important work to come out of fin-de-siecle Britain and, much like its author, it caused multiple scandals in myriad ways. In terms of structure, representation and incessant – insistent even – references, however, the text politely but firmly requests comparative analysis to Classical Greek philosophy, holding it up as an ideal several times. Wilde looks particularly and repeatedly to Plato in the text of Dorian Gray. It becomes clear then that with much of Wilde’s discourse being on love, hedonism and sensual indulgence, the text to be examined measure for measure against Dorian Gray would be Plato’s dialectic on love in its several forms, Symposium. This paper not only wishes to examine where Wilde and Plato concur and diverge in terms of homosexual love, heterosexual lovelessness and the idea of intimacy, but it also seeks to crucially establish a similarity between Hellenic dishonour and Christian shame, and will go so far as to argue that Dorian Gray is Wilde’s (possibly successful) attempt to re-create, or perhaps imitate, Plato’s Symposium in accordance with his idea of Victorian London.


 

The Picture of Dorian Gray is perhaps the most important work to come out of fin-de-siecle Britain and, much like its author, it caused multiple scandals in myriad ways. In terms of structure, representation and insistent references, however, the text politely but firmly requests comparative analysis to Classical Greek philosophy, holding it up as an ideal several times. Wilde looks particularly and repeatedly to Plato in the text of Dorian Gray. It becomes clear then that with much of Wilde’s discourse being on love, hedonism and sensual indulgence, the text to be examined measure for measure against Dorian Gray would be Plato’s dialectic on love in its several forms, Symposium. This paper not only wishes to examine where Wilde and Plato concur and diverge in terms of homosexual love, heterosexual lovelessness and the idea of intimacy, it also seeks to crucially establish a similarity between Hellenic dishonour and Christian shame, and will go so far as to argue that Dorian Gray is Wilde’s (possibly successful) attempt to re-create, or perhaps imitate, Plato’s Symposium in accordance with his idea of Victorian London.

Given his background in Classical studies and his propensity to imitate certain formal traits of surviving Hellenic texts, perhaps best exemplified in his essay ‘The Decay of Lying’ and again in ‘The Critic as Artist’, it is impossible to discount Wilde’s acquaintance with Plato. Indeed, he has set up the aforementioned essays as a perfect imitation of the kind of Socratic dialogue Plato had made famous, with a wise master and a naïve student in conversation. But that is only in form. In content, he sets up a curious strategy of acquiescence with Plato and mentions him by name in both ‘The Decay of Lying’ as well as in Dorian Gray. Both times, he speaks only about the interrelated ideas of poets as liars (‘Lying and poetry are arts – arts, as Plato saw, not unconnected with each other’[1]) and the Allegory of the Cave (‘the mere shapes and patterns of things becoming, as it were, refined … as though they were themselves patterns of some other and more perfect form whose shadow they made real … Was it not Plato, that artist in thought, who had first analysed it?’[2]). However, there is little direct archival evidence definitively showing Wilde’s reading of Symposium. Yet one can put forward the thought that it does a disservice to the Classics curricula at Trinity College, Dublin (where Wilde won the Berkeley Gold Medal, the highest award in Greek Studies), and also Magdalen College, Oxford (where he won a demyship to study Classical Moderations and Literae Humaniores, ending with a double first-class honours in them) as well as his own voracious interest in the Classics to believe that he had not read Symposium in the course of his studies.

            The idea that Dorian Gray may be read as a philosophical dialectic is not very difficult to embrace from structure of the text itself. Large tracts in the novel are dedicated to discourse on varying ideas on love, society and the pursuit of pleasure, mostly by Lord Henry Wotton, unevenly and often weakly countered by the morally upright Basil Hallward and the morally fearful Dorian Gray before he changes completely and propagates rather than subjugates Lord Henry’s ideas. Indeed, much of the ‘plot’ is unapologetically straightforward, often serving as an excuse for either discourse or witticisms, much like the text of Symposium, which one does well to not forget is in the form of a dramatic dialogue with certain definite instances of action. Dialogue and discourse are often indistinguishable and there are very few instances of the plot being taken forward in either Dorian Gray or Symposium. Indeed, most chapters of the novel involve very little motion, very little displacement but great amounts of speech. Greater, in fact, than any notable Victorian novel or common sense, for that matter, would suggest as normal conversational standard.

            If we do then accept Dorian Gray as a discursive text where we are granted access to Wilde’s philosophy of love instead of solely considering it a novel, we find it easier to weigh philosophy against philosophy. Often Wilde subtly encourages us to do this within the text itself, reminding us of a potential comparability through both Basil and Lord Henry, littering their words with references to Classical texts or, at the very least, the Idea of Classical Greece in the Victorian imagination. As to Wilde’s ideas themselves, they are multifaceted and often hidden in reference. His discourse on homosexual love is suppressed by modern standards but capable of outraging society into an almost Ciceronian lament about the times and the morals. Take, for example, this review in The Scots Observer, dated July 3, 1890, as found in Oscar Wilde: The Critical Heritage:

it is false art – for its interest is medico-legal; it is false to human nature – for its hero is a devil; it is false to morality – for it is not made sufficiently clear that the writer does not prefer a course of unnatural iniquity to a life of cleanliness, health and sanity.[3]

Ironically enough, if Symposium be taken as the discursive standard, several of Wilde’s ideas would be perfectly comfortable in ancient Greece. Let us then structurally consider the several aspects of the Socratic dialogue in Symposium as brought to light by its various characters one after the other, and compare it with relevant sections of Dorian Gray, whose discourse is much more embedded and less ordered.

What we then see is that Wilde making a consistent mockery of Phaedrus’ claims who believes that:

‘A lover who is detected in doing any dishonourable act, or submitting through cowardice when any dishonour is done to him by another, will be more pained at being detected by his beloved than at being seen by his father, or by his companions, or by anyone else’[4]

through Dorian’s complete disregard for his ‘lovers,’ here loosely defined as those people who see Dorian as his beloved. This would include Basil Hallward, Alan Campbell and Sibyl Vane. He then powerfully perverts Phaedrus’ next statement where he claims that ‘Love will make men dare to die for their beloved – love alone; and women as well as men.’[5] All three of them end up losing their life through their interactions with their ‘beloved’ Dorian in greater or lesser capacities: Basil through Dorian’s anger, Alan through his indifference and Sibyl through his vanity. Basil here is the only one who dies ‘unwillingly,’ murdered by Dorian. On the other hand, Alan and Sibyl commit suicide, implying a sense of ‘willingness’ to die for their beloved, though their motivator was despair. Thus, while Wilde might agree with Phaedrus’ conclusion that Love was the ‘eldest’ and the ‘mightiest’ of the gods, he reserves some scepticism towards believing him to be the ‘noblest’; or for that matter ‘the chiefest author and giver of virtue in life, and of happiness after death.’[6]

Wilde further debates Phaedrus’ claim that

‘open loves are held to be more honourable than secret ones, and that the love of the noblest and highest, even if their persons are less beautiful than others, is especially honourable’[7]

from the very beginning when Basil Hallward confides in Lord Henry that

“When I like people immensely, I never tell their names to any one. It is like surrendering a part of them. I have grown to love secrecy. It seems to be the one thing that can make modern life mysterious or marvellous to us.”[8]

Perhaps more than a clash of ideologies, these contrasting statements can and should be seen in their social contexts. The proclamation that an ‘open’ (as opposed to ‘secret’) love is the admirable, possibly even the ideal state of a relationship for Phaedrus and Basil’s declaration of almost the exact opposite requires to be read in terms of communicative possibility more than ability.

In the Greek polis where writing had barely taken root, although there is evidence of letter-writing in The Iliad (when Proteus sends Bellerophon to Lycia with ‘a fatal message, a folded tablet on which he had written signs with a deadly meaning’[9]), there was little possibility of keeping record. The systems of communication that we can only infer were of (relatively) primitive uniformity. Taking instances from epics and histories and plays (as we have no historical tracts that can be corroborated in the modern sense of the term), we can roughly establish the presence of signal fires from the Iliad:

all day long the men fight a desperate battle from their town walls, but at sunset beacon-fires blaze up one after the other, and the light shoots up into the sky for neighbours to see and come to the rescue in their ships[10]

and Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, where Clytemnestra describes how it was understood that Troy had been captured:

Ida first launched his blazing beam; thence to this place/ Beacon lit beacon in relays of flame. From Ida/ To Hermes’ crag on Lemnos; from that island, third/ To receive the towering torch was Athos, rock of Zeus; … Thence on this Atreid palace the triumphant fire/ Flashed, lineal descendant of the flame of Ida.[11]

or by messenger, as in the famous story of Pheippides or Philippides as described by Herodotus and later, Lucian. It was a simple visual messaging, as attested in Book II of Xenophon’s Hellenica:

Lysander’s orders to the vessels so sent in pursuit were, that as soon as they saw the enemy’s crew fairly disembarked and dispersed along the shores of the Chersonesus … they were to begin their return voyage, and when in mid-channel to hoist a shield. The orders were punctually carried out, and Lysander at once signalled to his whole squadron to put across with all speed[12].

Considering the primitive slowness of the ancient Greek systems of gaining knowledge through information, we can interpret the desire for openness as an offshoot of the desire for knowledge, as they can only understand what has been seen. Their suspicion of the hidden in any field would then appear to be a natural one.

On the other hand, by 1890, we see several modes of immediate communication emerging – notably the telegraph (which we can be certain was well established by 1890) exemplified by its mention in the novel itself,  when Lord Henry finds out about Dorian’s engagement to Sibyl Vane via ‘a telegram lying on the hall table’[13]; the telephone, considering that by 1890, telephony had gone so far in Britain as to have rudimentary public telephone kiosks and long distance calling between London and Liverpool, seven telephone companies covering the various regions of England, a Central Telephone Exchange in Oxford Street, London, and enough subscribers by 1876 for the Telephone Company of London (begun by Alexander Graham Bell himself) to bring out the first telephone directory on January 15 of the same year.[14] It was also only two decades away from the television (although Wilde wasn’t to know that). The written text was just beginning to go into mass market production, thanks to the drastic fall in production costs brought about by steam-powered machinery and chemical advances that created cheap paper pulp. The postal reforms for cheaper mailing rates spearheaded by Rowland Hill, combined with increased literacy, caused an explosion in letter-writing and sending and this was assisted by emerging modes of transport (the railways, steam powered vessels). According to the British Postal Museum and Archive, ‘The number of chargeable letters in 1839 had been only about 76 million. By 1850 this had increased to almost 350 million and continued to grow dramatically.’[15] Newspapers were increasing in circulation, and the number of literary magazines/periodicals was expanding, to say nothing of specialized journals. It would not be an exaggeration to say that in 1890, it was becoming quite easy for people to get published, with no worries about simple recording. The entry titled ‘Magazines for Women’ in the British Library’s Aspects of the Victorian Book section states that

[…] the Waterloo Directory of English Periodicals and Newspapers, 1800-1900 estimates a total output for the period of 125000 titles.[16]

This is this context which we must contrast in the binaries of Basil and Phaedrus. The Victorian era, we might argue, was suffering from a surfeit of information, in contrast to ancient Greek society where simple recording was a matter of great investment, of time if not money. Recalling this, it is perhaps easy to sympathise with Basil – considering the even more obscene informational excess the 21st century suffers from – when he feels a greater thrill in secrecy rather than in revelation. Nevertheless, we must cast a neutral eye to contextualize Phaedrus’ argument as well.

Pausanias’ discourse Wilde is more comfortable in agreeing with. It is apparent that Wilde agrees with the idea that there are two kinds of love – implicitly through his narrative and the aesthetic discourse for the love of Aphrodite Ourania, the heavenly Aphrodite of homosexual love between two men (and not between a man and a child), which Pausanias believes to be solely intellectual, and explicitly for the love of Aphrodite Pandemos, the common Aphrodite of heterosexual (or just sexual) love, devalued by Lord Henry’s disparaging comments on women when he calls them ‘a decorative sex’[17] or sees them as obstacles in the achievement of some unknown ideal, saying, ‘Women, as some witty Frenchman once put it, inspire us with the desire to do masterpieces and always prevent us from carrying them out.’[18] What does remain common in this disparagement is the valorizing of homosexuality which can even go to the point of sexism. But given the context of enforced public repression on homosexuality in Victorian society, one can understand, if not forgive, a statement probably made in (tangible and yet not very apparent) frustration.

Pausanias then launches into a statement about, and sometimes against, the common laws regarding homosexuality in several States, not leaving out the Athenian polis. He speaks of the complicated double standard of homosexual pursuit in the eyes of the Athenian state and of society, which allows – even encourages – such pursuit as long as it is openly avowed and not driven by material or sexual interests. He also fears for the bad influence a lover might have on a younger beloved, a view vindicated through Lord Henry’s influence on Dorian Gray whom one might have called ‘good’ or, if not good, then at least ‘innocent’ at the beginning of the novel. He clearly shows preference towards commitment and faithfulness in the lover, which Lord Henry is much more dismissive of. Henry casually tosses the idea that ‘the faithful know only the trivial side of love: it is the faithless who know love’s tragedies,’[19] and further,

What a fuss people make about fidelity … even in love it is purely a question for physiology … young men want to be faithful, and are not; old men want to be faithless and cannot.[20]

Thus Wilde argues, with a satirical inversion, for an epistemic standpoint towards love and not, like Phaedrus and Pausanias, for a dissection of its effects.

However, in terms of the complexity of homosexual pursuit, the Victorian era had its own crosses to bear when it forced homosexuality into hiding. We must then ask where the differential factor between the two forms of love lies. Perhaps it is best ascribed to Christian shame. We cannot for certain say if there was an idea of shame as the intricately linked (and possibly unfortunate) corollary of intimacy in ancient Greece. However, there seems to be an ideological equivalent in honour, or rather, in this case, dishonour. And here I will pause in my direct comparison of discourses on love to compare the ideas of shame and dishonour in the respective texts. My subsequent argument posits that both ‘shame’ and ‘dishonour’ should contextually be taken to mean the same thing (namely, the opposite for the word honour) across differences in time and space – 19th century England and Ancient Greece in this case. I will then proceed to try and substantiate these observations with textual examples.

To assist this exploration, I will, in brief, discuss Michael Lewis’ book Shame: The Exposed Self and Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws. Discussing shame, Lewis posits that the socialization of certain general human goals is what leads to setting an ‘attributional’ standard for shame – a flawed, subjective Other-based evaluation like the grading system, for example. He states,

Now it is not just the other who rewards or punishes the child. By incorporating the other’s standards, the child becomes capable of rewarding or punishing herself.[21]

But let us juxtapose this idea of private evaluation as ‘shame’ against Montesquieu’s idea of how ‘virtue’ (which is ideal end that shame should bring in Christian society) is instilled through ‘honour’ in a Monarchy. In The Spirit of the Laws, he states:

Honour, that is, the prejudice of every persona and every rank supplieth the place of virtue … Hence, in well-regulated monarchies, they are almost all good subjects, and very few good men.[22]

and then again ‘It is the nature of honour to aspire to preferments and distinguishing titles’[23]. While this was almost an inevitability in the pre-Revolution Europe of Montesquieu, by the end of the 19th century and indeed, by the time the monarchical power structure was irreparably compromised, the honour system seems to have distilled itself. While there were still external honours handed out by still-significant monarchs, a new social sense of honour seems to have emerged, where individuals aspired to ‘outrank’ each other in certain societal criteria which evaluated aspects of their education and magnanimity in the public sphere. The reward was being acclaimed as an honourable man; the punishment – the standard of shame, as Lewis might have proposed in this context – was to remain publicly dishonourable. An interesting point to note in this instance is Lewis’ statement that ‘All systems, from the simplest to the most complicated, regulate themselves. Regulation requires that a system be aware of itself, at least at some level. Thus, awareness in a property inherent in life … However, not all human beings possess what we adults refer to as “consciousness of ourselves”.’[24] What Lewis implies is that while awareness is an inherent factor, the consciousness of being aware is a developmental trait, exposed as a being grows older. Recontextualizing this argument on a more structural (as opposed to individual) basis and applying it to a more era-centric chronology (as opposed to basing it on an individual’s age), we could perhaps posit that the idea of ‘shame’ in Ancient Greece was a very problematic one. This is almost wholly down to the fact that ‘shame’ as we understand it in a society post the advent of Christianity had not yet been extricated from the idea of ‘dishonour,’ a far more prevalent ideal in an honour-based society. This becomes most pertinent when we consider that while the Greeks ostensibly had a personification of shame, Aidos, in the works of Hesiod, Pindar, Aesop and Pausanias, most translators have preferred to contextualize her function as ‘modesty’, or ‘reverence,’ or ‘honour’.[25] The last translation in particular seems a decisive point in the understanding of shame in Ancient Greece as fear of dishonour is what most often seems to have guided and protected principles of honour instead of any desire for the gaining of honour, in the same way that the modern notion of shame, or more precisely, the fear of being (a)shamed is what protects more current notions of honour. What we are left with, then is the notion of dishonour as one which does not completely resist equation with shame. Yet we must contextualize ‘dishonour’ in Ancient Greece and modern ‘shame’ in the way we understand them today as being public and private notions of essentially similar structures. Having concluded this exposition, let us then continue with the two texts at hand.

In Dorian Gray, the idea of shame is recurrent and often mentioned as love’s antipode. Consider, for example, Dorian telling Lord Henry (referring to Sibyl Vane) that ‘I cannot understand how any one can wish to shame the thing he loves.’[26] Beyond the eventual irony in Dorian’s naïve statement, we come to a point when his portrait has begun to show changes as the terms of his Faustian tragedy take shape. When Dorian first notices this, this is how he reacts: ‘He got up and locked both doors. At least he would be alone when he looked upon the mask of his shame.’[27] Let us pause here and consider our previous statement on shame which stipulates that it somehow intrinsically necessitates the need to be alone, or to face it in private if it has to be gazed upon. There is a necessary intimacy with a single subject and the corpus which constitutes their shame or with two subjects and each individual’s corpus or with several subjects and their individual corpora if a person, or two persons, or several persons will engage in a shameful act. Every time, every corpus will be a different engagement with a subjective shame and two people may not experience the same shame and indeed, several may not find a certain act shameful at all. Further, the idea of intimacy with the act of shame itself need not apply to only a sexualized scenario. This portrait of Dorian Gray then becomes interesting as a private detachment of Dorian’s shame, almost insisting as a corollary that he needs to feel none himself. He had already been convinced by Lord Henry that the beautiful are always forgiven their transgressions and that only the young are beautiful. We see that the crux of this statement is the idea that because the beautiful were forgiven everything, shame served no purpose for them. Yet Dorian could only completely abandon his moral fears when he realized the full import of his mutating painting, culminating in this realization:

Eternal youth, infinite passion, pleasures subtle and secret, wild joys and wilder sins—he was to have all these things. The portrait was to bear the burden of his shame: that was all.[28]

In this context, then, ‘Chapter X’ of the novel becomes a symbolic hiding away of this shame, which had until then been apparent, if not accessible. Dorian decides that if there must be any intimate interaction with his now-detached sense of shame, it would have to be with him, privately and without it engaging anyone else at any point until he decided otherwise. And we do know that he recognizes this painting as that detachment. The idea of shame is referred to thrice in Dorian’s thoughts in a short span of time. Variously, he realizes that ‘What the worm was to the corpse, his sins would be to the painted image on the canvas … They would defile it and make it shameful.’ implying that he understood his sinfulness would not impinge upon his being, and that ‘There was no reason that the future should be so full of shame. Some love might come across his life, and purify him,’ re-establishing the love/shame binary. This culminates in the thought, ‘No one would ever look upon the horrible thing. No eye but his would ever see his shame.’[29]

An interesting idea of this implied binary between love and shame comes from Basil when he speaks to Dorian about his notoriety,

They say that you corrupt every one with whom you become intimate, and that it is quite sufficient for you to enter a house for shame of some kind to follow after.[30]

 This is an extraordinary statement in context, because while the world finds people establishing intimacy and shame as binaries, where one cannot be the other, this statement suggests that in his literal ‘shamelessness,’ Dorian has taken the position of the conduit between the two. The idea seems almost physical in nature because Dorian finds his shame detached from his self; where there should be a binary, there exists intimacy and a vacuum. Shame then rushes in to fill the void when his intimacy is activated.

But while such an idea is interesting in itself, it does not lead anywhere in this particular comparison and it is necessary to establish now the other half of the discourse – the binaries of honour and dishonour. It is Phaedrus, whose ideals clash with Wilde’s so thoroughly, who first brings up the issue of honour and dishonour in terms of love, saying

the guide of men who would nobly live at principle … [not] any other motive is able to implant so well as love. Of what am I speaking? Of the sense of honour and dishonour, without which neither states nor individuals ever do any good or great work.[31]

Of these two, we will be led to understand that love and honour are superimposed in his discourse with dishonour forming the obvious binary. He then implies that if all citizens comprised lovers and their loves, that government would be self-sufficient and virtuous as no one would want to be dishonoured in front of their lovers.

The next discourse on love and (dis)honour comes from Pausanias who speaks about the shifting nature of these concepts of honour in different societies. Despite the eulogical nature of his discourse, it is perhaps he who comes closest to warning us about love’s treacheries – even before Socrates speaks – and if ‘treacheries’ is too strong a word, love’s generally duplicitous nature. We have mentioned before how Pausanias’s discourse makes known the complexity of homosexual pursuit, but it becomes worth its while to study the language of it where he says that,

[…] great is the encouragement which all the world gives to the lover; neither is he supposed to be doing anything dishonourable; but if he succeeds he is praised, and if he fail he is blamed. And in the pursuit of his love the custom of mankind allows him to do many strange things, which philosophy would bitterly censure if they were done from any motive of interest.[32]

Pausanias wonders further about how homosexual love is seen as honourable, but when forbidden by parents, gets such lovers castigated. His problematic conclusion is that the principles of love are ‘honourable to him who follows them honourably, dishonourable to him who follows them dishonourably.’[33] Through his discourse, where he talks about selfish and unselfish service as well as the various modes and motivations of love, enumerating several possible cases, we come closest to a Dorian-like exposition of ‘linking’ together honour (love) and dishonour (shame).

Concluding this sub-argument, it becomes plainly visible that for all practical purposes the ancient Greek conception of dishonour is not more than a much more public (necessarily public, keeping in mind what has been posited about the difference in the communicative aspect of the two societies) aspect of Victorian shame. This becomes even more apparent when we consider individual meanings of dishonour with shame which we can, by now, consider linked. If we look at honour, or in this case dishonour, we may define it as a negative qualifier which results from the self’s actions weighed against the public’s standards, while Lewis in Shame, defines the word as being the negative qualifier achieved by ‘the self’s actions when weighed against the self’s standards.’[34] The difference, once again, becomes a question of publicity versus privacy.

Returning to the textual comparison, we find that it is Eryximachus who speaks next and he speaks of Love as governing all binaries of good and bad in health and in nature, extending to its breaking point Pausanias’ idea of two forms of love. In contrast, Lord Henry sees love and its surrounding effects as largely illusory. At one point he predicts that Dorian, who has now begun showing the tendencies of an Aesthete, would always ‘be in love with love’.[35] This statement is enigmatic whichever way we choose to look at it, but it becomes especially significant in the context of studying intimacy and its assumed corollary, love. Wilde once again asks ‘What is love?’ as opposed to ‘What does love do?’ without leaving us with any proper explanation, except perhaps an idea that love is more selfish than selfless by the turn of the century, if it had not always been so.

Wilde also manages to mirror the idea of meaninglessly beautiful rhetoric (here meaningless implying devoid of critical content) as delivered by Agathon in his earnest encomium or by most of Aristophanes’ satirical diversion, in his descriptions of fantasy which serve as a screen (a surprising censor) for the exposition of – if I may call it such – a love that dare not speak its name, as evinced by Lord Henry’s exposition in Lady Agatha’s home. It runs thus,

He played with the idea and grew wilful; tossed it into the air and transformed it; let it escape and recaptured it; made it iridescent with fancy and winged it with paradox. The praise of folly, as he went on, soared into a philosophy, and philosophy herself became young, and catching the mad music of pleasure, wearing, one might fancy, her wine-stained robe and wreath of ivy, danced like a Bacchante over the hills of life, and mocked the slow Silenus for being sober. Facts fled before her like frightened forest things. Her white feet trod the huge press at which wise Omar sits, till the seething grape-juice rose round her bare limbs in waves of purple bubbles, or crawled in red foam over the vat’s black, dripping, sloping sides. It was an extraordinary improvisation.[36]

Indeed it was, on Wilde’s part as much as Lord Henry’s, no doubt; the Decadent’s equivalent of censoring a word out.

But the two ideas Wilde seems most in tune with are, in fact, a part of Agathon’s discourse and thus of the central Socratic narrative which repeatedly insists not to deal with love in absolutes and tries to be rational in his praise instead of attempting ‘to attribute to love every species of greatness and glory, whether really belonging to him or not, without regard to truth or falsehood.’[37] The idealization of Love turns it into an idea no longer inspiring admiration but rather, fear. It is Socrates at the end of Symposium and Lord Henry throughout Dorian Gray who then seek to take on such a monster and not slay it so much as shear it down to a form upon which one can cast a cold, critical eye. It is the monstrosity of perfection that Dorian’s portrait so aptly captures among its several aspects. I would like to observe here that it was the fact that Dorian had loved and been intimate with so many which ended most of their lives, just as it also attempts to destroy Victorian notions of repressive Love, in the hope of releasing society into a new century with a critical perspective instead of blind adulation toward love.

Wilde mostly agrees with Agathon when he posits that love is best found in the heart of the youth and cannot settle where there is ‘no bud to bloom.’[38] This sentiment is mirrored by Lord Henry when he suggests right at the beginning to a very malleable Dorian that ‘youth is the one thing worth having’[39]seeing (as he believes) that Dorian has beauty in his youth – an idea which Dorian repeats even before their first meeting is over. Lord Henry further says that ‘Beauty is a form of Genius – is higher, indeed, than Genius, as it needs no explanation,’[40] conforming to a very Platonic theory of Form. But there is little else intersecting in Agathon’s alternatively obfuscating or straightforward rhetoric.

Following Symposium, with Socrates’ examination of Agathon, we find that Love as defined by everyone until Socrates was, indeed Love of Beauty, which we could argue as being the central motif of the events of Dorian Gray as a whole. The kind of love that Wilde suggests is a far darker form than the one Socrates reveals. It was made known to him by Diotima (the only woman’s voice in this discourse), which was ‘a great daimon, and like all spirits he is intermediate between the divine and the mortal.’ and is ‘the mediator who spans the chasm which divides them [gods and man], and therefore in him all is bound together.’ She calls Love the son of Plenty and Poverty, and hence is ‘always poor, and anything but tender and fair … and he is rough and squalid.’ from his mother’s side, while ‘always plotting against the fair and good … bold, enterprising, strong, a mighty hunter, always weaving some intrigue or other, keen in his pursuit of wisdom, fertile in resources.’ and is ‘a mean between ignorance and knowledge.’[41] Socrates ends by declaring that love consists in being aware of the desire of a ‘good’ that is not yet possessed. Lord Henry plays with the idea of ‘good’ in his own hedonistic world view, but essentially agrees with this answer to what is love, as evinced by the statement, ‘A man can be happy with any woman, as long as he does not love her.’[42] Because if he does, he must then be conscious of a good that he does not yet possess reflected by the woman. This for Lord Henry is the least tolerable thing he can think of about Love.

But for Dorian it is quite a different matter. If love does, as Diotima claims, span the chasm between gods and men, then it is love as a narcissistic love of the self, which spans the chasm between body and soul, awareness and ignorance, reality and his painting. It is because he loves himself that this divide comes about in the first place. Basil Hallward’s masterpiece becomes the receptacle for Dorian Gray’s Faustian pact through which he could observe the degeneration of his soul up till the very end, as until then, Dorian Gray had never lost the love for himself which fuelled his desire for eternal youth.

Oscar Wilde, like Socrates in Symposium, is not moral in The Picture of Dorian Gray, but far from it. Indeed, the ‘immoral’ ideas of artifice and debauchery are upheld rhetorically and Dorian’s death serves as a warning to not let passions overwhelm us, nor avoid them altogether; just as Love is disrobed till the revelation of the stark reality of desire is presented through the tale of Socrates and Diotima. Wilde is acutely aware of his actions, quietly reminding us that ‘There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.’[43]

 

 

 

 

 

NOTES

[1]          Oscar Wilde, ‘The Decay of Lying’, Plays, Prose Writings and Poems, ed. Anthony Fothergill (Gurgaon: Hachette India, 2010)

[2]          Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (New Delhi: Penguin Group, 1994), p. 46

[3]          Oscar Wilde: The Critical Heritage, ed. Karl E. Beckson (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, 1970), p. 75

[4]          Plato, Symposium, The Internet Classics Archive (www.classics.mit.edu/Plato/symposium.html, accessed October 27, 2014)

[5]          Plato, Symposium, (www.classics.mit.edu/Plato/symposium.html, accessed October 27, 2014)

[6]          Ibid.

[7]          Ibid.

[8]          Wilde, Dorian Gray, p. 10

[9]          Homer, The Iliad, trans. E.V. Rieu (London: Penguin Group, 2003) bk. 6, p. 104, l. 169-170

[10]        Ibid., bk. 18 p. 325 l. 209-214

[11]        Aeschylus, ‘Agamemnon’, The Oresteian Trilogy, trans. Philip Vellacott (London: Penguin Group, 1973), pp. 52-53; 52, 53 ln. 282-311

[12]        Xenophon, Book II, Hellenica, trans. H.G. Dakyns (Project Gutenberg, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1174/1174-h/1174-h.htm, accessed December 29, 2014)

[13]        Wilde, Dorian Gray, p. 71

[14]        UK TELEPHONE HISTORY, THE TELEPHONE FILE (http://www.britishtelephones.com/histuk.htm, accessed 29 December, 2014)

[15]        ‘Outcomes of the Reform,’ Rowland Hill’s Postal Reforms, The British Postal Museum and Archive, (http://www.postalheritage.org.uk/explore/history/rowlandhill/, accessed 29 December, 2014)

[16]        ‘Magazines for Women’, Aspects of the Victorian Book (British Library Collection, http://www.bl.uk/collections/early/victorian/pu_magaz.html, accessed 29 December, 2014)

[17]        Wilde, Dorian Gray, p. 58

[18]        Ibid., p. 96

[19]        Ibid., p. 20.

[20]        Ibid., p. 38.

[21]        Michael Lewis, Shame: The Exposed Self  (New York: Free Press, 1992), p. 92.

[22]        Montesquieu, Baron de (Charles de Secondat), ‘In what Manner Virtue is supplied in a Monarchical Government’, The Spirit of the Laws, trans. Unknown, (London: for P. Dodesley, R. Owen and other booksellers, 1794), vol. I, bk. III, Ch. VI, p. 25.

[23]        Montesquieu, Baron de (Charles de Secondat), ‘Of the Principle of a Monarchy’, The Spirit of the Laws,vol. I, bk. III Ch. VII, p. 26.

[24]        Lewis, Shame, p. 9.

[25]        ‘Aedos’, Theoi Greek Mythology (http://www.theoi.com/Daimon/Aidos.html, accessed December 29, 2014)

[26]        Wilde, Dorian Gray, p. 91

[27]        Ibid., p. 111.

[28]  Ibid., pp. 122-123; 122, 123.

[29]        Ibid., pp. 138-145; 138,142, 145.

[30]        Ibid., p. 174.

[31]        Plato, Symposium, (www.classics.mit.edu/Plato/symposium.html, accessed October 27, 2014)

[32]        Ibid.

[33]        Ibid.

[34]        Lewis, Shame, p. 10

[35]        Wilde, Dorian Gray, p. 50.

[36]        Ibid., pp. 51-52; 51, 52.

[37]        Plato, Symposium, (www.classics.mit.edu/Plato/symposium.html, accessed October 27, 2014)

[38]  Ibid.

[39]        Wilde, Dorian Gray, p. 29.

[40]        Ibid., p. 29

[41]        Plato, Symposium, (www.classics.mit.edu/Plato/symposium.html, accessed October 27, 2014)

[42]        Wilde, Dorian Gray, p. 206.

[43]        Wilde, ‘The Preface’, Dorian Gray, p. 5.


Arkaprabha Chakraborty is a postgraduate student pursuing his Master’s degree in English Literature from Jadavpur University after receiving his Bachelor’s degree from the same institution. While he is partial to Victorian literary and culture studies, Literature and Psychoanalysis, and Fantasy Literature, he is also deeply interested in European Modernism, American literary and culture studies, Impressionism and beyond, the study of culture through objects, Manga studies, Sports literature and the narrative of sports as event, and the works of R.K. Narayan, among others.

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