Oscar Wilde: The Picture of Dorian Gray - Youth Cult and Illusion of Beauty. The new Hedonism in Light of our Society of Experience
Term Paper 2000 19 Pages
Table of contents
2. The New Hedonism
2.1. “A fresh impulse of joy” – the theory itself
2.2. The background – the theory as philosophical heritage
2.3. Learning by doing – the theory in practical test
3. A “Dorian-Gray-Society”?
3.1. Live your life – a sensation project
3.2. A very demanding ideal: youthfulness and beauty
4. The truth of tomorrow? - The problem of today!
5. Works consulted
“I speak the truth of tomorrow”[i] Lord Henry says on being asked to defend his “throne” as Prince Paradox. Although one of his usually witty answers in high society conversation, this indubitably self-confident statement leads to a general question: The “New Hedonism” as presented in Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, does it anticipate developments and structures of our modern society? To find an adequate answer to the question is the task of this research paper. Starting with an analysis of the theory presented by Lord Henry Wotton, there follows an overall view of the philosophy’s intellectual background. Afterwards, the look at Dorian’s life under the influence of the hedonistic model shall give first impressions of its practical effects. These three chapters therefore deal with the “New Hedonism” directly related to the novel itself and to its author Oscar Wilde.
The second part of the paper then centres around the present situation. After introductory clarifications to the term “Erlebnisgesellschaft” and to general social changes, it scrutinises modern society for parallels to the outstanding pillars of the hedonistic programme. These are on the one hand self-realisation and the motive to be always seeking sensations, and on the other hand the cult of youth and beauty mania. Eventually, the findings of that examination end up in a conclusion which shall also serve as an outlook.
Concerning the research done in this special field, it astonishes that there was only one work to be found which explicitly dealt with the relation between the “New Hedonism” in The Picture of Dorian Gray and modern society, namely a chapter of Norbert Kohl’s Oscar Wilde biography. Due to this circumstance, the literature consulted is clearly divided into two sectors: literary science and sociology. For the latter, it was the study “Die Erlebnisgesellschaft” by Gerhard Schulze which was used as a main reference. Thus, syntactic fusion of German and English might be excused.
2. The New Hedonism
As the motivation for Dorian Gray’s newly oriented way of life and his slow but sure fall into the depths of murder and corruption, the hedonistic programme is one of the novel’s crucial aspects. It is “[a] philosophical hotbed from which [the protagonist rises] like a poisonous flower”[ii] – prepared by his seductively brilliant master Lord Henry Wotton. On meeting his later object of tutelage in Basil Hallward’s studio by occasion, he already infects Dorian with his “wrong, fascinating, poisonous, delightful theories (VI, 91).” By his cleverly structured “panegyric on youth, his terrible warning of its brevity (II, 33),” Wotton opens up new horizons to his attentive scholar: “Suddenly there had come someone across his life who seemed to have disclosed to him life's mystery (II, 29)." But what are the principles of a philosophy that impressive?
2.1. “A fresh impulse of joy“ – the theory itself
“The aim of life is self-development. To realise one’s nature perfectly – that is what each of us is here for. People are afraid of themselves, nowadays. They have forgotten the highest of all duties, the duty that one owes to one’s self (II, 25).” Thus, according to Lord Henry Wotton, the imperative of a full and satisfying life must be to live up all emotions, all desires one fosters freely:
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 mediævalism, and return to the Hellenic ideal – to something finer, richer than the Hellenic ideal it may be (II, 25).
Self-denial therefore results in emotional sickness, the restriction to “the standard of one’s age” is to be considered as the “grossest immorality (VI, 92).” Nothing but self-realisation is of importance – a culte du moi which centres around the subject and the impressions it gets from a particular situation. These impressions or rather experiences are all the more attractive, the more they appeal to the individuality and stimulate the subject.[iii] No wonder then that Lord Henry calls upon his pupil: “Be always searching for new sensations. Be afraid of nothing... (II, 30).”
The peace of mind, however, is not at all endangered, since “[nothing] can cure the soul but the senses, just as nothing can cure the senses but the soul (II, 28).” This motto, which will ring in Dorian’s ears far beyond the mere conversation, already underlines another pillar of Wotton’s philosophy: Apart from the interior spiritual field, there is the exterior even playing a much more significant role. “The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible (II, 30).” The greatest good in life is bodily beauty, and Lord Henry makes it quite plain:
You have a wonderfully beautiful face, Mr. Gray. Don’t frown. You have. And Beauty is a form of Genius – is higher, indeed, than Genius, as it needs no explanation. It is of the great facts of the world, like sunlight, or spring-time, or the reflection in dark waters of that silver shell we call the moon. It cannot be questioned. It has its divine right of sovereignty. It makes princes of those who have it. (...) People say sometimes that Beauty is only superficial. That may be so. But at least it is not so superficial as Thought is. To me, Beauty is the wonder of wonders (II, 29, 30).
The period in which beauty can express itself to the most and sensibility reaches its peak does not last very long of course: It is fleeting youth. The very circumstance nearly forces to lift it up into the hedonistic triumvirate of self-development, the permanent chase after new sensations, and physical beauty. “Ah! realise your youth while you have it. (...) Live! Live the wonderful life that is in you! Let nothing be lost upon you (II, 30).”
Lord Henry Wotton’s forceful sermon doesn’t fail in being effective. As mentioned at the beginning, it falls on fertile, narcissistic ground. Dorian thinks the strange influences “at work within him (...) to have come really from himself (II, 26).” He does not take long time until he starts putting his mentor’s vague dreams into action. “A new Hedonism – that is what our century wants. You might be its visible symbol. With your personality there’s nothing you could not do. The world belongs to you for a season (II, 30).” – this outlook will soon be echoed as follows:
Yes: There had to be, as Lord Henry had prophesied, a new Hedonism that was to recreate life, and to save it from that harsh, uncomely puritanism that is having, in our own day, its curious revival. It was to have its service of the intellect, certainly; yet, it was never to accept any theory or system that would involve the sacrifice of any mode of passionate experience. Its aim, indeed, was to be experience itself, and not the fruits of experience, sweet or bitter as they might be. Of the asceticism that deadens the senses, as of the vulgar profligacy that dulls them, it was to know nothing. But it was to teach man to concentrate himself upon the moments of a life that is itself but a moment (XI, 151).
2.2. The background – the theory as philosophical heritage
The idea of a life for the sake of pleasure, the “Hedonism” Lord Henry Wotton provides with the attribute “new”, is indeed based on a long historical tradition. It is entangled in various philosophical schools and trends which all influenced Wilde in writing the novel.
Hedonism itself goes back into antiquity to the philosophies of Aristippos of Cyrene (Cyreanism) and his scholars as well as Epicure (Epicureanism). Both maintained that pleasure and desire are the highest good and simultaneously the aim of acting.
Nevertheless, direct relations between the novel and the theory held in it can be made out in Oscar Wilde’s intellectual surroundings and in his own preceding works. For example, the aesthetic principles which Lord Henry and his pupil both preach and live up had already been reflected in Wilde’s theoretical essays The Decay of Lying (1889), and The Critic as Artist (1890).[iv] The very fact suggests that the novel and its characters must be rooted in the tradition of contemporary trends among the literary élites of that time: Aestheticism with its emphasis on art’s autonomy and the motto “art for art’s sake”[v], just as the Find du siècle decadence. And indeed, all aspects of the latter are represented in The Picture of Dorian Gray: perversion in Basil Hallward’s and Dorian Gray’s homosexuality[vi], morbidity in Dorian Gray’s obsession with sin and his guilt feelings, and of course hedonism in Lord Henry’s paradoxes and in Dorian Gray’s search for sensations.[vii]
However, most of the philosophical ideas Lord Henry spreads refer, even directly, to Walter Pater and his Studies into the History of the Renaissance (1873). A book “which opened a new world to [Wilde], or rather, gave [him] the secret of the world in which [he] was living.”[viii]
In his “Conclusion” to The Renaissance, Pater had already anticipated much which Oscar Wilde would put into Lord Henry’s and Dorian’s mouth:
Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end.
While all melts under our feet, we may well grasp at any exquisite passion, or any contribution to knowledge that seems by a lifted horizon to set the spirit free for a moment, or any stirring of the senses, strange dyes, strange colours, and curious odours, or work of the artist’s hands, or the face of one’s friend.
For our one chance lies in expanding that interval, in getting as many pulsations as possible into the given time. Great passions may give us this quickened sense of life, ecstasy and sorrow of love, the various forms of enthusiastic activity, disinterested or otherwise, which come naturally to many of us. Only be sure it is passion – that it does yield to this fruit of a quickened, multiplied consciousness. Of such wisdom, the poetic passion, the desire of beauty, the love of art for its own sake, has most. For art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.[ix]
But Wilde, although nearly quoting from his former Oxford colleague, gave his own air to the theory. For instance, “Dorian Gray takes pleasure not so much in enjoyment of the moment as in watching the effect of the moment to himself.”[x] And he even gets involved in evil to strengthen the effect of sensations on him. The very plot, Dorian Gray’s moral degenerate under the influence of Lord Henry’s – i.e. Pater’s[xi]- ideas points to a critical dealing with his philosophy of the moment.[xii] It does not astonish then that Pater refused to accept this interpretation on his theory:
[i] Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Penguin Popular Classics, Berkshire 1994, hereafter information to the chapters and pages within the quotes from the novel.
[ii] Aatos Ojala, Aestheticism and Oscar Wilde, Helsinki 1954, p.208.
[iii] See Manfred Pfister, “Kult des Ich”, in: Oscar Wilde. The Picture of Dorian Gray, München 1986, pp. 52-68.
[iv] Pfister, “Kult des Ich”, p. 61f.
[v] Karl Beckson (ed.), The Oscar Wilde Encyclopaedia, New York 1998, pp. 2-4.
[vi] In terms of homosexuality see e.g. Hans Mayer, “Oscar Wilde, Das Bildnis des Dorian Gray”, in: Außenseiter, Frankfurt/M. 1975, pp. 260-67.
[vii] Ojala, Aestheticism, p. 213; see also Karl Beckson (ed.), Encyclopaedia, pp. 63-65.
[viii] Quoted from Barbara Charlesworth, “Oscar Wilde”, in: The Picture of Dorian Gray, A Norton Critical Edition, ed. Donald L. Lawler, New York 1988, pp.381-405, here: p. 384.
[ix] Quoted from Walter Pater, “Conclusion”, in: A Norton Critical Edition, pp. 310-12.
[x] Barbara Charlesworth, “Oscar Wilde”, p 384.
[xi] See Richard Ellmann, “From ‘Overtures to Salome’”, in: A Norton Critical Edition, p. 412-14.
[xii] See Philip K. Cohen, “The Crucible: The Picture of Dorian Gray and Intentions”, in: A Moral Vision of Oscar Wilde, Rutherford 1978, pp. 105-55.
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- Oscar Wilde Picture Dorian Gray Youth Cult Illusion Beauty Hedonism Light Society Experience Introduction English American Literature Studies