“Drift beautifully on the surface, and you will die unbeautifully in the depths” (Richard Ellmann)
So wrote the venerable American critic when assessing the artistic message of The Picture of Dorian Gray. Although Oscar Wilde distanced himself from the idea that his works should have a moral message, he would surely have appreciated the artistic flair that Ellmann displayed in his critical writings. Indeed, his biography of Wilde is infused with a love and a largesse of spirit that Wilde displayed throughout his life and proved, in the end, to be his downfall. Wilde once quipped “I have put all my genius into my life; I put only my talent into my works”. However, such epigrammatic brilliance masks that he did indeed put genius into his works. His place in the pantheon of great writers is assured for he mastered many forms: fiction, drama, poetry, children’s stories and critical essays. Wilde didn’t like his stories for children to be classified solely for children, insistent that they could be read whether you were 8 or 80 years of age. This alludes to an intrinsic aspect of Wilde’s writing: his sense of wonder and amazement at the world around him, key faculties that every child possesses and which are very easy to lose as we grow older. These qualities coupled with his fierce intellect mean that to enter the kingdom of Wilde is to be continually surprised, refreshed, entertained and energised.
There are many writers, poets and thinkers who I greatly admire. But if I was to choose a desert island choice, it would have to be Oscar. Having recently re-read The Picture of Dorian Gray (a book which I have given to countless people), I never fail to be charmed and astounded by the radiance of his writing. When it was first published in the early 1890s, critics were in uproar, labelling it a work of “moral depravity”, implying that it was unbefitting of someone of Wilde’s stature to degrade himself by writing such putrid literature. Perhaps the reason why critics were so upset was that the novel probed some uncomfortable truths that Victorian morality was desperate to suppress. Wilde was unafraid to explore aspects of humanity and life that he touches on elsewhere in his writings: the relationship between art and decadence; the dichotomy of body and soul; the mutable nature of the self, to name a few. The genius of Dorian Gray is that it is a timeless classic. One could argue that it brilliantly predicts the hollowness at the core of modern celebrity, that in the insatiable lust for fame there is a desperate price to pay, namely that of one’s soul.
Wilde’s love of language, delight in wit, playfulness with paradox, command of philosophy and foreknowledge of the future never fails to dazzle the imagination. Dorian Gray is a book that can be read on so many levels. If you haven’t, I cordially invite you to read it and then maybe to dip into his other works. His detractors at the time of his sensational trials in 1895 were determined that that would be the last that the world would hear about this giant of a man. Yet, Wilde would have the last laugh. For like the transformation of the Picture of Dorian Gray back to its youthful beauty at the end of the novel, his writings will remain forever young.
“Those whom the Gods love grow young” (A Few Maxims for The Instruction of the Over-Educated)
“Nothing can cure the soul but the senses, just as nothing can cure the senses but the soul.” (The Picture of Dorian Gray)