On Dorian Gray, Pre-Raphaelitism & The Treason of All Clerks

Dorian GrayKnown for his biting wit, flamboyant dress and glittering conversation, 19th century Irish author Oscar Wilde was one of the best-known personalities of his time. A lavish and expensive character, he tackled his personal life in a cavalier manner and his many homosexual affairs brought about his two-year imprisonment in 1895. An aestheticist and a worshipper of beauty, Wilde wrote in his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray,

Beauty is a form of Genius–is higher, indeed, than Genius, as it needs no explanation. It is one of the great facts of the world, like sunlight, or springtime, or the reflection in the dark waters of that silver shell we call the moon. It cannot be questioned. It has divine right of sovereignty. It makes princes of those who have it.

These words he puts into the mouth of his character, Lord Henry, a luxurious, sensual, amoral, and dangerous dandy, who reminds the reader sharply and distinctly of Wilde himself. Indeed, Wilde is often identified with dozens of the quips and one-liners uttered by the cynical Lord Henry, who babbles incessant, destructive foolishness in a markedly eloquent manner.

But as Dorian Gray drags on, it becomes apparent that Lord Henry is the novel’s antagonist and the villain who is ultimately responsible for the tale’s tragic ending. Even Wilde, who created him in his own image, hates him. In fact, the end of Dorian Gray is a firm and frightful condemnation of everything its author stood for in the real world. It is as though this book is Wilde’s message to us from the other side of his own experiences. Like he is standing over there crying, “don’t come this way!” Crying, “it’s not what you think it is!” The author of Dorian Gray was full of wisdom.

Why, then, the absurd folly that followed him all his days? Why, when we know the truth, do we not go free? This is not a question that I mean to answer, but a question that is in itself an answer to the myth that knowledge is an answer of any kind at all.

The great end of life,” wrote Thomas Huxley, “is not knowledge but action.”

Poor old Oscar Wilde was vivid, devastated proof of the way that knowing, divorced of doing, is deceitful, is death. There are other examples, of course. And sadly, they throng in great numbers around the canvas and the colors, the paints and the pens, the poetry and the publishing-houses. Because art is a medium of theory, and one may hold a theory forever without doing anything about it.

found-rossettiIn April I had an opportunity to visit the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, and was fortunate enough to be there at the same time as a touring Pre-Raphaelite exhibition. A long-time Pre-Raphaelite enthusiast, I was looking forward to this exhibit eagerly, but even I was not prepared for the full splendor of the vibrant colors, fascinating imagery and deep symbolism portrayed.

All of the artists represented had crafted brilliant and meaningful representations of redeeming love in a number of varied settings. Their works were weighty with truth, sparkling with beauty, truly magnificent. And yet I knew well that none of them had lived up to the ideals they so devotedly espoused.

300px-William_holman_hunt-the_shadow_of_deathAt the bookstore, I purchased Laurence Des Cars’ informative, illustrated volume about the Pre-Raphaelites, and over the next two days of the trip read it in other, less-interesting museums. All of my preconceptions about the artists’ tumultuous personal lives were proven correct, as were all of my suspicions that their art (for the most part) represented the glory they refused to incorporate into their own lives.

There is, of course, something disappointing about this realization. But, what is more important, there is in it a grave warning for the world of “creatives” and writers and thinkers and every form of artist and everyone who deals regularly with theories and with thoughts. As Ann Voskamp says so memorably, “The words must always become flesh. Else they aren’t words but lies.”

The journals that have housed my thinking and my ponderings for many long years are wide with words. I have kept them in very good repair, have lovingly glued loose bindings and washed stains from their leathern covers and looked after them. Why? Because my soul is so easily unsettled, so quickly ruffled. Writing has been a way for me to anchor my anxious and wandering mind. “Nothing has really happened until it has been described in words,” said Virginia Woolf. I have lived according to this motto and have hundreds of pages of tiny calligraphic script to show for it. The books are beautiful to look upon, and my heart laughs when I read through them. And yet, like anything built upon an untruth, this habit of obsessive chronicling hasn’t been accompanied by satisfaction.

Because it isn’t true that things haven’t occurred unless we tell of them. (Indeed, the telling of a thing very often makes it other than it was when it happened.) On the contrary, the only time a thing does not occur is when we don’t do it.

Our 26th president knew this. “I have a perfect horror of words that are not backed up by deeds,” wrote Teddy Roosevelt. Theoretically, we all share his disgust with hypocrisy. And yet, is our horror deep enough yet? Is our horror so deep yet that we understand that the wretched innocence of ignorance is to be preferred over the deathly disobedience of the learned?

C.S. Lewis wrote, in a letter to Arthur Greeves,

It is a shock to realize that the mere thinking it may be nothing, and that only the tiny bit which we really practice is likely to be ours in any sense of which death cannot make hay.

What is everything going to look like on the other side of the rain-curtain? Will our art be enough to outweigh our days in the solemn scales of justice? Hardly.

W.H. Auden knew this well, and At The Graves of Henry James bemoans it hauntingly.

All will be judged. Master of nuance and scruple,
Pray for me and for all writers, living or dead;
Because there are many whose works
Are in better taste than their lives, because there is no end
To the vanity of our calling, make intercession
For the treason of all clerks.

What, then? What shall we do about this? Since it becomes increasingly evident that it is the doing which counts, after all.

Perhaps it is not as important as we thought it was that we publish ten books or express our inner struggles in pages of private prose or compose a symphony as stupendous as the Fifth, or paint a masterpiece that will endure for a thousand years.

Not to say that there is no importance accompanying these things, but only that there may not be. Because after a thousand years, what then? Because what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and lose his soul?

The misused, deceived Dorian Gray gets the last word. He says it to his betrayer, Lord Henry, in defiance, in anguish. In his careless, offhand way, the story’s villain has told the tortured protagonist of an encounter he had with a street-preacher. Lord Henry says,

“I thought of telling the prophet that art had a soul, but that man had not. I am afraid, however, he would not have understood me.”

“Don’t, Harry,” says the younger man, the scales dropping from his artificial, gorgeous eyes, his evil eyes, “The soul is a terrible reality. It can be bought and sold and bartered away. It can be poisoned or made perfect.”

Some New Songs and Some Old Ones

deepdarkvalleyOver the past few months, I’ve been introduced to some fresh music that has substantially enriched my life. Some of this was recorded decades ago and some of it only just released this year on Noisetrade. As a symbol of appreciation for those who have compiled and composed all of this beauty and for those who have presented it to me, I have created a little list in order to present these songs to you in turn, and hope you will find something here that stays with you a long, long time.

Through The Deep, Dark Valley (The Oh Hellos) – [This album is still available as a FREE download over at Noisetrade] The Deep Dark Valley, which I discovered courtesy of the Inkslinger, is one of my favorite finds of this year. Tyler and Maggie Heath’s exquisite concept album explores themes of creation, sin and renewal in language that avoids clichés admirably and employs melodies both fascinating and surprising. With a folksy style that features festive rhythms and powerful backup vocals, The Deep Dark Valley is sharply reminiscent of The Lumineers and some of the tracks (especially The Truth Is a Cave) sound almost like a redeemed version of Ho Hey.

It seems impossible to pick a favorite piece from this album, (especially since the tracks are intended to flow into one another) but I found the songs on prodigality to be particularly well-realized. Second Child, Restless Child captures the wildness of the universal runaway with its intense tones. Wishing Well and In Memoriam are two winsome and heartfelt laments and the Lament of Eustace Scrubb is eerie and hopeful. All told, if this album weren’t being offered for free right now, I’d consider it worth paying for, and will be eager to hear more from The Oh Hellos in future.

Where Eyes Don’t Go (The Gray Havens) – [This album is still available as a FREE download over at Noisetrade] How can you go wrong with a band called The Gray Havens? A relatively short collection with its six tracks, Where Eyes Don’t Go is newlywed Dave and Licia Radford’s very first album. These artists certainly have room to grow, but the album includes at least a couple of especially enjoyable pieces. I was quite taken with the swinging poetry of Silver and the delicious hopefulness of Let’s Get Married.

2ndactsThe Hymns Collection (2nd Chapter of Acts) – Even before we were old enough to read C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, my sister and I already knew by heart some of the songs from the 2nd Chapter of Acts’ concept album, Roar of Love, which explores themes from The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. One of my earliest memories is of putting that cassette into the tape-player in our family living-room and dancing in circles around the carpet to Are You Goin’ to Narnia? (Oh, take me along with you!)

This was the only experience I had with the 2nd Chapter of Acts until I discovered their lovely (and rather old, seeing that it was released in the year I was born) Hymns Collection a couple of months ago. I suppose that, given the circumstances, it is hardly surprising that I fell in love with this album immediately. It sounds to me like Edmund and Lucy singing our triumphant melodies of declaration, and there is really something irresistible about hearing the same voice that celebrated redemption with Something Is Happening In Me rejoicing in turn with, “my sin –  of the bliss of this glorious, thought – my sin, not in part, but the whole, is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more…”

Matthew Ward and his sisters deliver a grandiose rendition of A Mighty Fortress of Our God, and chorus the Ode To Joy delightfully. Some other highlights for me are their passionate renderings of Fairest Lord Jesus and Be Still My Soul.

lotrThe Lord of the Rings: Complete Songs and Poems (The Tolkien Ensemble) – This massive project is one of my family’s favorite finds of this year. The collection of four albums and over 60 tracks includes musical renditions of every song and piece of poetry included in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Tolkien’s ideals and moods have been remarkably well-realized by over 150 professional musicians. The CD lyric booklet includes illustrations by Queen Margrethe II of Denmark. These albums have been a wonderful supplement as my sister and I are taking turns reading the trilogy to our little brother, who has finally come of a suitable age to be introduced into this great and exciting story, which is a thing he has been anticipating expectantly for over half of his life.

Some pieces which I felt were captured especially well include Bilbo’s “Old Walking Song,” (the road goes ever on and on) “Tom Bombadil’s Song” (which we sang in our house for weeks after first finding this music), “The Merry Old Inn” song, (which continues to be sung all too often around here) “The Song of Beren and Luthien,”The Song of Earendil,”Galadriel’s Song of Eldamar,” and “Sam’s Song in the Orc-Tower.”

burlaptocashmereBurlap to Cashmere (Burlap to Cashmere) – Burlap To Cashmere’s 2011 self-titled album was my first introduction to this fascinating group of artists. A collection of upbeat music with strong Greek and Mediterranean influences and rhythms and gritty, thoughtful lyrics, this album packs a huge punch. One of my favorite tracks is The Orchestrated Lovesong, with its stirring refrain, calling, “I want to live on a boat and sail away with my children…” The Other Country, which exudes contagious confidence and urges us, “do not be afraid of this earthly city,” is strongly reminiscent of some similar words from another author, and is a fitting finale for this remarkable compilation of songs.

The Harvest (K.S. Rhoads) – [This album is still available as a FREE download over at Noisetrade] K.S. Rhoads is a talented artist, but I don’t feel that this album (From Outside The Wilderness) is his best work. However, it does include my favorite of his songs, The Harvest, and I feel it’s worth downloading the entire album for the sake of that one exquisite and haunting piece of music.

The Weight of Glory (Heath McNease) – [This album is still available as a FREE download over at Noisetrade] The Weight of Glory is a collection of songs inspired by the works of C.S. Lewis. I haven’t had an opportunity to listen to this in its entirety yet, but have enjoyed some of what I’ve heard, and look forward to an opportunity to listen to the rest of the album.

The Luggage of an Optimist (Miriam Marston) – I discovered Miriam Marston some time ago, but can’t pass up an opportunity to share a link to this album. Although it’s by no means a perfect compilation, The Luggage of an Optimist is riddled with poetry and cosmic ideas and the influence of Chesterton. I discovered this album at Christmastime and was particularly struck by two pieces dealing with witnesses of the Incarnation. Rumors of a Good Thing is presumably narrated from the perspective of one of the famed “kings of orient.” In tones that are wistful and awaken a wild longing, Marston sings, “I hear there’s a king on the other end of this star lit road,” and every single sense in us wants to take the road as far as it goes.

Simeon tells of the aged prophet in the “graceful moment” when he “finally sees what faith becomes.” When she tells how, “with his last breath he thought how we were in the best of hands, and at that he smiled,” we smile too.

In Morning At Ostia, Marston succeeds in imparting a sweet, strong flavor of the peace that passes understanding when she says,

“By the way there’s a chance I may seem relatively
Unattached to this place.

And he said to me ‘one day you’ll see, all of this will feel like one of your dreams,
You will wake up in my arms.’
And he said to me “all days can be steps on a road leading to me, til you wake up in my arms.”

And, oh! Maybe this is all that it takes to be satisfied.

So, what have you been listening to lately?