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.”

On The Commonplace Book: The Need To Keep Records of Words Not Ours

A great writer is a profesHaving Decided To Stay - Bryana Johnson - Commonplace Booksional reader. The man who strings words that everyone reads, the story-smith who compiles fascinating fictions, the bard who sings the language that wakes us to wonder, these are all mighty borrowers, mighty collage artists, mighty rememberers. They draw from the well of what has been said, to say what has not been said. Indeed, they can do no other. For we are poor and weak creatures when we have only our own minds to entertain us.

All great words spring from other great words. This is a statement we can trace in a backward glance through the pages of history to the first Word that called everything else into being, to the Word that was, in the beginning. Nothing comes from nothing.

This truth about the nature of language and writing gives rise to another truth, which is that really passionate readers have a great need to keep records of the most significant and memorable passages and statements made by the authors whose works they explore.  It is not enough to merely consider for a moment, to allow ourselves to be shaken by the staggering thoughts we encounter and then to close the book on them and leave with only a vague and dusty recollection of what was said. This is inadequate.  We need a ledger, a place to compile the words that change our lives line by line and day by day.

The commonplace book is a tool that was widely used by readers for centuries (until the last one: a century in which we received many new things all at once, and let many irreplaceably good things go.) It is a journal for the words we have not written, a notebook for taking note of the magnificent.

The term, ‘commonplace’ is a translation of the Latin ‘locus communis’ which means ‘a theme or argument of general application’, such as a statement of proverbial wisdom. In this original sense, commonplace books were collections of such sayings.

The commonplace book can be a leather-bound art journal or a cheap, college-ruled composition book. It can be a work of art in itself or merely a collection of scribbled quotations. However, I believe that putting in the time to make the collection a pleasure to peruse is by far the more effective of these options. I know that for my own part I am more likely to want to come back to and read over something that is well-constructed and lovely than something untidy and hastily thrown together. And the commonplace book is something to come back to again and again and again.

Having Decided To Stay - Bryana Johnson - Commonplace Book 3 When I started my new commonplace book, I chose to use an art journal with 90 lb paper and a 0.5 m wet ink pens. These materials have worked very well for me, providing an ideal writing space that is durable and elegant, but almost anything will work as well or better given a determined reader. The most important thing is to begin.

In addition to being a place to gather the words of others, the commonplace book also serves as an excellent collection of writing to memorize. I copy into a journal that is small enough to fit in a handbag and take it with me anytime I think I am likely to be alone. Then I can take it out and go over it.  This record is a way that we interact with literature, that we seize hold of it and make it our own, that we incorporate it into our lives, that it becomes a seed of greatness – or, in the words of Charlotte Mason, “a living power in our minds.”

The Best Kind of Letter

“Dearest Friend,” wrote Abigail Adams on sheet after sheet of stationery in letters to a husband long-absent, too-often away on decks of swaying ships or in stifling Parisian apartments. “Dearest Friend ,” to a man too-much away to be well-known to her. Or was he? Do words perhaps say more sometimes than the expressions of the face and the gestures of the animated hands?

I have a friend coming to see me this week whom I’ve never met before. We’ve exchanged photographs but never seen one another’s real faces in real life and real time in six years of talking. In a whole lot of ways, though, I know her better than so many of the people I more literally live among. Because we have a camaraderie based on words. And so those mighty things, those earth-shattering thoughts, those holy and fragile things that must be said in words and which most of us can’t bring ourselves to say — we’ve said. Words were all we had.

We who are Christ-followers have been called a people of the book. More significantly though, we are the people of the Word. For the Word was words on pages for so many ages. Then the Word became flesh. And we got the best of everything.

I write a kind of letter to One who is all-seeing and Who already knows. And I call Him Dearest Friend because despite the distance and the silence and the waiting, He is.