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.”

8 thoughts on “On Dorian Gray, Pre-Raphaelitism & The Treason of All Clerks

  1. Well, communication at its best has a chance to go awry, and typed communication has even more chances. There are so many ways to read between the lines, and so much depends on the perspective of the writer and the reader. I find that thought both frustrating and encouraging. Frustrating, because I can be misunderstood, and encouraging because God can bring meaning out of my writing that I didn’t even know was there.

  2. Hm… food for thought. “Since it becomes increasingly evident that it is the doing which counts, after all.” Is not the writing, shared, a doing? And the art? There is both art and writing that, in impacting me, has brought me closer to God and improved my life and understanding. Truly, I begin to believe, more and more, that writing is something God not only wants me to do, but something he demands of me. No gift is given that is not meant to be used.

    It is true that many humans express, in many ways, more wisdom and truth than they practice in their lives. Hypocrisy is bred in all of us. I truly believe that Jesus is the only Man who ever was or ever will be (at least until we are remade) free from hypocrisy. But I also believe that any truth that comes through any person and into the world is something that person has done. Perhaps it is not much, but it is the alternative to hiding a lamp under a basket.

    You’re right to chide yourself and me and all our fellows for not heeding the wisdom we, ourselves, broadcast by the grace of God. You are right that writing, alone, leaves too much undone, too many people in pain, too many hungry, too few examples of following Christ. And yet, without it, where would so many of us be? Would I even be a Christian? …most likely not. I find that a chilling thought, and it emphasizes to me that writing is, quite literally, one of my duties in life.

    It seems to me that the issue here is less that writing is not doing, and more that hypocrisy destroys.The difference is subtle, but I cannot get away from it. Whether or not I am right, though, thank you for making me think. It is a wonderful, thoughtful post.

    1. I understand your concerns. I don’t in any way mean to imply that writing is not of value and that it is not something to which many are called as a means to share Christ. What I was trying to communicate was that if it takes away from us doing the right thing, it is wrong for us. This may not be an issue for many people, but I know that it was for me, because I grew tethered to my writing, my need to “capture” what had occurred and to make records of my ideas and thought processes — not because I wanted other people to be blessed by what I had learned, but because I hadn’t learned how to hold my life lightly and rest in the assurance that there is a “book of days” elsewhere which has honest records of all my doings — and for which I will have to give account. But rather than this obsessive chronicling, I could have been taking a much more valuable action, albeit one with results that can’t be tracked or measured and one that rests entirely on faith: praying. (Which, by the way, since I wrote this post, I have finally begun learning to really DO, and it has made all of the difference.)

      So I guess I was really making two points in this post:

      1. Art that we offer to the world but don’t live out ourselves is void.
      2. Introspective writing that we don’t offer to the world, and that keeps us from wholly living where we are, is void.

      But I think they may have got a little mixed up in the post :).

      1. Ah, I see where you are coming from a little better now. I easily misunderstand because I come from the other end of that spectrum. I was afraid to write, and God has had to coax me. Praying isn’t easy sometimes, but oh does it make a difference!

        I think I still do not wholly agree with point 1, but point 2 I agree with entirely.

        I do not think you wholly agree with your point 1, either. You seem to find value in The Picture of Dorian Gray as well as in the art of the Pre-Raphaelites. The failure of their creators does not invalidate their truths, though it does make their existence more melancholy.
        Art which we offer the world but don’t live out is void to us as their creators, perhaps? Many authors I admire were honest about struggling with truths they knew but failed to practice. Lewis was particularly good at bluntly pointing out his failures, and in doing so maintained his credibility when he wrote about truths he struggled living up to.

        God on high knows I know in my head and heart far more than I practice daily. One of my constant prayers is that he will let my writing and my art touch people in spite of me.

        1. Yes, I did mean that art which wasn’t lived out was void to its creator, and not void for everyone. Obviously, truth is of immense value wherever we find it. But I think sometimes we place too great a value on art that has been produced by hypocrites, and we esteem them much higher than God does. For instance, while we may find great value (and assuredly, there is great value to be found!) in the works of John Everett Millais, and may be blessed by the truth he has illustrated, God may have much deeper respect for an illiterate peasant woman in India who knows much less about the truth than Millais did, but is actually seeking with her whole heart to live it out. My point was that it can be dangerous to respect a person too much for their literary merits, if they don’t actually act on what they know to be true.

          Well, and a lot of other points. These topics are very broad, and it is difficult to summarize in just a few paragraphs everything that we want to say! 🙂

          1. Ah, now in that, I am whole-heartedly with you! Linking personal achievements of a worldly sort to a person’s worth is worldly thinking. You are right, we must leave that behind and ask God to open our eyes to the way He sees us and our fellow children. Now, I think, I finally get what you were driving at. Thank you for bearing with me!

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