Libreto co-founders PJ and Reg review Wilde’s classic on a man whose time will never come
Dour in Gray – How Boring Kills
By Reg Tolentino
What if you could do anything, without paying the consequence?
Think about it.
Skip work for the day with your boss’ approval. Get paid, and you’re still up for that promotion.
Gain entry to any club, drinks on the house, take anyone home, fuck all night – no morning hangover, STDs, or unwanted pregnancies.
Thrill-seeker? Run off a building, land onto the LRT, backflip off the overpass, right into a gaping crowd of bloggers. Flash them your abs. Instant Instagram celebrity.
Most would say, “Yes please!” and that’s exactly Wilde’s protagonist, Dorian Gray, does. He quickly learns however, that when nothing we do has a consequence, nothing we do is of consequence.
From the start, Gray is portrayed as a man who wants nothing, and is denied nothing. He is leagues distant from blue-collar drones. In contrast to the “sullen murmor of bees shouldering their way through the long unmown grass…” in the “dim roar of London,” Dorian starts at an “upright easel…(the) portrait of a young man of extraordinary beauty.” The painter, Basil Hallward, captures perfection so well that Dorian instantly grows envious at the frozen image of a man he will never again be…so he utters a hopeful wish: that his portrait bear the soulcurse of time, and that he, the living Dorian, become the perfect man of that moment (and later, a man living for the perfect moment).
As with all Faustian pacts, the devil was nearby. Lord Henry Wotton, hedonist extraordinaire/advice guru/life coach, whispers suggestions to the unmarred Dorian, and from there, the young man discovers that denying death’s embrace means forfeiting life’s meaning. God may have started the painting, but Satan certainly finished it, flinging himself from one pleasure to the next, til nothing but boredom ensued. Boredom kills.
I have three takeaways from this book.
1. “What we obtain too cheaply, we esteem too lightly.”
Mr. Gray’s unconventional desires have his neurotransmitters stuck in a feedback loop…without the limiters. Obesity keeps us from eating too much. Drinking too often shrinks bank accounts as well as testicles. Premature aging has us scurrying into the sun (or slathering suncreen), limiting our time on the beach. Whether natural or societal, these undesirables keep us from abusing ourselves. Take that away, and we’re looking for a higher high that never ends.
Taken another way, cost determines value. Dorian was born with wealth, but “the best things in life are free,” simply means that we acquire those things with objects apart from money. In the gym, challenging iron (and gravity) forges stronger bodies. At the studio, grinding away in practice sharpens one’s craft. Facing the terror of rejection at that first “Will you go out with me?” The time invested wooing a beloved, the meals skipped to pay for a ring laid delicately at their feet, and the strength of youth spent to secure your offspring’s future (and a happily together after), Dorian will never know true love – that genuine caring for another whose well-being so deeply affects yours – simply because perfect immortals need no such bonds.
And speaking of relationships, Dorian seems to have misunderstood…
2. “Keep your friends close, keep your enemies closer.”
And more importantly…learn to tell them the hell apart. Dorian brushed aside his portrait’s painter’s ideals, reveling in the seductive whispers of a demon’s tongue. True friends appreciate (i.e. Increase in value) each other, for the traits they desire being appreciated for. It’s important to choose who we associate with, because like or not, they influence how we paint ourselves. In the social media age, we have options to view, friend, limit, unfriend, and block others from our lives. Sometimes, people go through this whole process without ever having met them.
And on that thought…
3. We’re All A Little Gray
Who wouldn’t want to be desired? Dorian Gray’s wish – to forever be seen in others’ eyes as perfect – is now possible with technology. Instagram, Twitter, Facebook – all broadcast the best of us to the world. Each edited moment, flawless, each insightful quip, well-researched, and every iconic location geo-tagged. And when everyone’s life is a highlight reel – with everyone in an arm’s race of perfect poses – “epic” becomes normal. And no one remembers normal.
Somewhere, locked in a room we haven’t used since we were young, covered in a velvet drape, sits our true selves, changing, for no one else to see. And that – is the tragedy of 21st century Dorian Grays – consigning themselves to a lonely, not death, but un-lived existence. These days, “Pictures are worth a thousand words…most of them, lies.” And people choose the beautiful lie, over a less-than-perfect truth.
Wilde At Heart
Oscar Wilde’s masterpiece still resonates over a century since it was first published and should be required reading for denialists and the disillusioned
By Paul John Caña
“There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book,” goes the oft-quoted passage in Oscar Wilde’s preface for The Picture of Dorian Gray. “Books are well-written or badly written. That is all.” In the grand scheme of things, could there be any doubt on which column Wilde’s own book falls?
Well-known for his witty aphorisms and clever rejoinders, the Irish author’s most famous work is his only full-length novel. The Picture Of Dorian Gray was first published in 1890 and, even now, it’s still highly regarded as a classic and often appears in must-read-before-you-die lists.
A surprising thing I found about the book is how easy it is to read. For a 19th century Irish writer, Wilde’s writing style is incredibly accessible. It can get a bit flowery, and a few references are slightly arcane, but there is an immediate sense that this was a writer who not only had supreme command of the language, but who used it so fluidly and naturally that it didn’t seem alien to a Filipino boy reading it in the 21st century.
But what’s truly remarkable is how The Picture Of Dorian Gray holds up and remains almost shockingly current, 125 years since it came out. The story of an innocent soul corrupted by narcissism and hedonism is a cautionary tale, yes, but it’s also an indictment against humanity’s obsession with physical beauty and anxiety over aging and decrepitude. The characters are Victorian-era Englishmen and women, yet they are easily transplantable through various cultures and time periods. All good books share this quality: relevance through the constant shifts in thought, temperament, situations.
To be truly great, however, a book must get its readers relating to, cheering for, or railing against certain characters. The writer’s ability to create fantastical universes and carefully ferry readers through all its twists and turns is a triumph in itself, but it is how he or she fashions the characters and gradually cause them to burrow deep into the reader’s psyche that lifts the masterful from the merely competent. In Dorian Gray, the players are as fascinating and complex as they are thoroughly believable and grounded in reality.
Lord Henry Wotton is a charming opportunist who pounces on Dorian’s purity and naivete early in the story. Basil Hallward is the epitome of the tortured artist, whose personal torment is caused by his infatuation with the subject of his masterpiece. And Dorian himself is perhaps one of the most conflicted, deeply divisive personalities in all of modern literature. We see his progression (regression?) from clueless male ingenue into a soulless, debased hedonist, and then witness his far-too-late attempt at remorse and redemption. All remain chillingly present in the streets of the modern age.
Does Dorian deserve our pity and sympathy? Or do we cheer and celebrate when we discover his fate? It is a nod to Wilde’s skills that I found myself struggling with how to process the novel’s breathtaking conclusion. I felt like a passenger on a train going at breakneck speed that suddenly comes to an abrupt stop. I was ripped from the comfort of the familiar and thrown out into the abyss of uncertainty.
Dorian, to me, is the personification of apathy and destructive egoism. I loathed him for his callousness and blatant disregard of other people’s feelings, and for his deviousness and unscrupulous tactics aimed at eliciting favors from the people around him. Self-preservation is a base human instinct, but when it degenerates into indifference and a complete lack of empathy, it is heartless and unforgivable.
And yet, I couldn’t help but examine the causes of Dorian’s descent into despair. Lord Henry Wotton undoubtedly planted the seeds that took root and shaped Dorian into becoming who he was, and that brings up the timeless debate: nature vs nurture? Can we truly blame Dorian for having been exposed at such an impressionable age to Lord Henry’s views on the incalculable impact of youth and physical beauty?
The circumstances that shape our character and world view are unique, yet the standards for basic human virtues and decency are universal. Influence is essential and inescapable, but it can only go so far. One can argue that, as with all of us, Dorian eventually had to make his own choices. Sadly, by the book’s end, we know where those choices led him.
This article is the first of many “deja-views.” If there are any books/movies/TV shows you’d like the authors to review – let them know in the comments below!