A Poisonous Book

Oscar Wilde said that Dorian Gray was “poisoned by a book,” a claim I’m ready to believe, seeing as I was poisoned by The Picture of Dorian Gray. In Dorian’s case, it goes like this. While posing for his infamous portrait, he meets a man called Lord Henry Wotton, who offers Dorian a doctrine. “I believe that if one man were to live out his life fully and completely, were to give form to every feeling, expression to every thought, reality to every dream — I believe that the world would gain such a fresh impulse of joy that we would forget all the maladies of medievalism, and return to the Hellenic ideal.” This speech has a big effect on Dorian. Lord Henry “was amazed at the sudden impression that his words had produced, and, remembering a book that he had read when he was sixteen, a book which had revealed to him much that he had not known before, he wondered whether Dorian Gray was passing through a similar experience.”

Just in case Dorian isn’t, Lord Henry follows up by sending him the influential book. “It was the strangest book that [Dorian] had ever read. It seemed to him that in exquisite raiment, and to the delicate sound of flutes, the sins of the world were passing in dumb show before him . . . It was a novel without a plot, and with only one character, being, indeed, simply a psychological study of a certain young Parisian, who spent his life trying to realize in the nineteenth century all the passions and modes of thought that belonged to every century except his own.”

From here on Dorian is addicted:

 

For years, Dorian Gray could not free himself from the influence of this book. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he never sought to free himself from it. He procured from Paris no less than nine large-paper copies of the first edition, and had them bound in different colors, so that they might suit his various moods and the changing fancies of a nature over which he seemed, at times, to have almost entirely lost control. The hero, the wonderful young Parisian, in whom the romantic and the scientific temperaments were so strangely blended, became to him a kind of prefiguring type of himself. And, indeed, the whole book seemed to him to contain the story of his own life, written before he had lived it.

 

The Picture of Dorian Gray, it turns out, isn’t about a picture at all. It’s about a book. It’s about the transmission of that book into the mind of the protagonist, and the destruction that ensues. The Picture of Dorian Gray is about the spiritual risks of reading.

 

Originally commissioned by Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, in Philadelphia, and appearing in 1890 before being expanded and published as a book a year later, Wilde’s first and only novel remains a favorite of high school English teachers. The idea is to hook the kids on the spooky premise of an oil portrait assuming the sins of its subject and, then, while you’ve got their attention, to wedge in a little information about the Aesthetic movement, dandyism, and Wilde’s trial and imprisonment. Another appeal is the irreverence. Though the novel’s opening pages are a model of mandarin prose (“Lord Henry Wotton could just catch the gleam of the honey-sweet and honeycoloured blossoms of a laburnum, whose tremulous branches seemed hardly able to bear the burden of a beauty so flame-like as theirs”), it isn’t long before the jokes begin. “Intellect is in itself a mode of exaggeration, and destroys the harmony of any face. The moment one sits down to think, one becomes all nose, or all forehead, or something horrid. Look at the successful men in any of the learned professions. How perfectly hideous they are! Except, of course, in the Church. But then in the Church they don’t think.” This is Page 3. More sacrilege follows. Wilde makes fun of marital fidelity, of reason, of the Garden of Eden, even of suffering. If a teenager is one part poetry and three parts sarcasm, then the mix here is about right. There’s the lush stuff, if you’re into that. But the wit is rebellious, a verbal switchblade.

The Picture of Dorian Gray is a strange hybrid. It survives, in the way of Dracula or Frankenstein, through the enduring appeal of gothic horror. The high-concept plot has inspired not only a feature film but an episode of the old Rod Serling show Night Gallery. It has even inspired another novel (Will Self’s Dorian). By reversing the laws of nature and having Dorian’s portrait age while Dorian himself remains forever young, Wilde found a brilliantly simple, mythic way to dramatize the life of the soul. Greek mythology thrived on mixed blessings. Cassandra told the future but was never believed. Tithonus possessed eternal age without eternal youth. Dorian Gray stands in their beleaguered company. He makes a pact with the devil, not officially, like Faust, but offhandedly, in the casual manner of a London gentleman. The fulfillment of his wish allows him to outsource the nasty business of physical corruption and spiritual maintenance. But exploitation persists overseas and brings a final accounting. There are certain places realistic novels can’t venture. Heaven and hell are two of them. For that we need myth, or its ghoulish stepchild, gothic. The gothic works by making the unseen visible. Our deepest fears and unholy desires find material form in its supernatural landscape. We know we are doomed to age. Because Dorian isn’t, we’re fascinated by the details of his exemption, and gratified when they turn out to be disastrous.

 

And yet The Picture of Dorian Gray isn’t just a gothic novel. Amid the gloom, a drawing-room comedy is always threatening to break out. Lord Henry is the real engine of the book. Whenever he enters a scene, the novel takes off (in the direction of Wilde’s much greater work in the theater). Lord Henry doesn’t have most of the good lines; he has all of them. In contrast, Dorian can seem fey, and certainly inconsistent. Capable of spending a half-hour in choosing an orchid for his buttonhole, he can also plunge a knife into a friend’s neck in a moment of fury. Dorian’s powers of discrimination often seem trivial, his evildoings incredible necessities of the plot. The reader longs for Lord Henry to show up. At dinner parties and summerhouses, he performs his constantly entertaining, mischievous routine: “Young men want to be faithful, and are not; old men want to be faithless, and cannot.”

Gothic horror story, drawing-room comedy, The Picture of Dorian Gray is still something else. It’s a philosophy treatise. In Chapter 11, Wilde gives us his own version of a novel without a plot, and with only one character. He summarizes the electives that compose Dorian’s sentimental education, from his flirtation with the Catholic Church (“He loved to kneel down on the cold marble pavement, and watch the priest, in his stiff flowered vestment”) to his frequenting of “the little illfamed tavern near the Docks.” Dorian dabbles in perfumes, Darwinism, neckties, opium, jewels, embroidery and music. Lest we forget why all this is happening, Wilde reminds us of the impetus: “[O]ne had ancestors in literature, as well as in one’s own race . . . [Dorian] felt that he had known them all, those strange terrible figures that had . . . made sin so marvellous, and evil so full of subtlety . . . The hero of the wonderful novel that had so influenced his life had himself known this curious fancy.”

This chapter stands apart from the rest of the book. It contains Wilde’s most impressive, sustained and affecting writing. I’d wager that it was added later, when Wilde expanded his original story into a full-length novel. (Indeed, the heterogeneity of the book as a whole testifies to different periods of composition.) There is something intoxicating about this chapter, something pagan, seductive and timeless. If you read it at an impressionable age, it might just convince you of the primacy of “experience.” You might stop thrilling to the horror story, stop laughing at the quips, and begin to imagine what it might be like to “give form to every feeling.”

 

When poisoning someone, secrecy is a must. This is how it happens to Dorian Gray, while ingesting his book. “The heavy odour of incense seemed to cling about its pages and to trouble the brain.” To an extent, Dorian doesn’t understand what he is reading. “The mere cadence of the sentences, the subtle monotony of their music, so full as it was of complex refrains and movements elaborately repeated, produced in the mind of the lad, as he passed from chapter to chapter, a form of reverie, a malady of dreaming, that made him unconscious of the falling day and creeping shadows.” A “malady of dreaming” nicely describes my own condition the first time I read The Picture of Dorian Gray. At that age (15), I was tremendously moved by the sound of language as opposed to its meaning. I could be hypnotized by it. And in this trance I absorbed things I was only halfway conscious of. With its witty repartee and veiled, polymorphous sexuality, Wilde’s novel transferred to me the idea that urbanity had chiefly to do with an amused detachment from accepted morality. Behind the veneer of social rectitude was where passionate life began, dangerous perhaps, even duplicitous; but at any rate not secondhand, and requiring a free intelligence.

 

The culture of the times when I first read the book was important too. The smell of incense rising from the pages of Dorian Gray had particular strength in the ’70s. It went with the general aroma of the decade — all that Jovan Musk, all that cannabis, all that saffron incense burned at the local branch of the Transcendental Meditation Society. The ’60s had thrown into question the verities of American life, and, by the ’70s, all kinds of exotic, non-Western or even “decadent” attractions were rushing in to take their place. The cosmic consciousness advertised by meditation catered to the same need as the mind-expanding, higher hallucinogens. You came of age in those years less through tests of physical strength than through feats of mental elasticity, those little head trips taken by staring at an Escher print for, say, a solid hour, with time out for bong hits. Add to this psychedelic regimen an awareness, even way out in Michigan, of the increasing shakiness of traditional gender roles, and you arrive at the decade’s central metamorphic, androgynous character. Everything was in flux and in question. Hair salons were all going unisex. In this climate, which was possibly not so different from that of London in the 1890s during the heyday of dandyism, The Picture of Dorian Gray had a subversive, hip, glam-rock quality. It established a direct line from Bosie to Bowie. And it sent me off on my own quest for “experience.” It made me dream of being an “artist.” It compelled me, by the college years, to smoke clove cigarettes and wear morning trousers to class. It took me to India on my own investigation of religion. Maybe it wasn’t only this book that did it, but it certainly helped. Forgive this autobiographical digression. But as Wilde himself said: “The highest, as the lowest, form of criticism is a mode of autobiography.”

 

This time, though, almost 30 years later, my reaction to the book was predictably less ecstatic. Exposed so long ago to Lord Henry’s poisonous philosophy, I find myself now, like Mithridates, considerably immune. It’s the gothic bits that affect me most now, predictably also, because I’m old enough to worry about the condition of my portrait. Dorian’s quest for experience, in contrast, seems a little over the top. The machinery of the plot occasionally groans and clanks, and for a supposed prose stylist, Wilde commits his share of lapses. Scents are always “heavy.” No one can sit down in the book. They have to “fling” themselves down. To render emotion Wilde resorts to the trusty adverb. Dorian bites his lips “nervously.” His hands twitch “nervously.” He bites his lips all the time, in fact, and his hands have an incurable twitch. Meanwhile, his breath is always “quickening” or “catching.” And don’t even get me started on his blushes. Much of Wilde’s prose is lovely, his wit always refreshing. Where he particularly fails is not in the visible writing but in the invisible. What makes a Tolstoy character — the unexpected lurch of emotion, the selfishness of the “good” characters and the tenderness of the “bad” — such three-dimensionality doesn’t deepen around Wilde’s people. He writes brilliant dialogue and stage descriptions, but he doesn’t convey the consciousness, look or sound of his characters that well. That’s why Wilde was a better playwright than novelist. He needed actors to bring his characters to life.

He would get them. The rest is theater history. When he wrote The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde was married, with children, but on the verge of moving out of the house to take rooms at the Savoy Hotel. He had been leading a sexual double life, and his outrageously self-respecting public persona — question at Wilde’s trial: “Have you ever adored a young man madly?” Answer: “I have never given adoration to anybody except myself” — was, like most forms of grandiosity, a façade. Wilde was both attracted to “immorality” and worried about its consequences. His right hand didn’t know what his left was doing, and nothing bears this out better than the fact that it was Wilde’s own libel suit against the Marquis of Queensberry (for calling Wilde a “sodomite”) that led to Wilde’s eventual arrest and conviction for homosexual offenses. Maybe Wilde thought he could win the suit. Maybe he brought the suit to please Lord Alfred Douglas. But it speaks to a measure of self-delusion or repression, and this, of course, is the source of the gothic.

Wilde wasn’t conflicted only about his personal life. He was still confused, at this stage, about his art. He didn’t yet know who he was as a writer, and so he came up with this monster of a book. It catered to the poet, the wisecracker, the moralist, the fop and the adventurer in him, all those separate selves jostling together, trying to merge into a mature, and incomparable, artist.

 

The Picture of Dorian Gray remains a poisonous book, for the old as well as the young, if for different reasons. This warning serves also as a recommendation.

Jeffrey Eugenides is the author of The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex.

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