Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Reflections: The Picture of Dorian Gray

Everybody is likely to be proud and content of at least one of their attributes... and possibly worried of losing it someday. I for one used to be quite happy with my memory. It served me well for a little more than two decades of my life and I basked in the glowering warmth of those who dearly wished I would forget a few things. Perhaps I incurred far too many curses, for now my ability to retain much in my memory has been rapidly dwindling, causing me to resort to reminders for reminders. As I have rattled on previously, one's memory is far too precious in defining one's identity. My recent fear is me waking up in another twenty years (if at all) and wondering who I am. With such a strained panic, if some wizard were to materialize in front of me and ask me if I would make a trade to gain an expansive photographic memory which would be in tact no matter how old I aged, wouldn't I love to jump at the offer? Absolutely. But that's what nerds like me ask for...memory. If a vain teenager were asked this question, what do you think she would like to retain no matter how old she became? Wrinkle free-skin, luscious hair, a perky body. Beauty. Youth. To many, beauty and youth are the definitions of their identity... things that they cling onto with a crazed unimaginable fear of losing themselves one day. So, what if such a wish did come true? Would she have the world under her feet? Would she be the luckiest person in the world? Would she be comfortable with such vanity and superficiality and not let them taint her conscience?

The Picture of Dorian Gray is an incredibly interesting psychological experiment on the depths of human vanity. Oscar Wilde deftly explores how we define morality and conscience and what shape we give to our soul. Dorian Gray is an extremely handsome man with perfectly chiseled features. He inspires a painter to give life to his beauty through an exquisite portrait. Just as how Eve was hypnotically deceived and "poisoned" by the snake, Dorian's mind falls into a trance due to a cunning influence of a friend, and in a moment of frenzy he makes a feverish wish to give anything to preserve his beauty, while the lifeless portrait of him would instead bear the signs of his old age. And the wish comes true.

I received this book as part of a surprise parcel from my exceptionally generous and sweet friend, who just woke up one morning and decided to send me gifts! I really am lucky to have such friends! And being the mind reader that she is, all the books she sent completely appeal to me! And this book hit the bull's eye.

All our scriptures insist that any pursuit for the satisfaction of the senses leads us to misery. But an accompanying view is that human beings live on instincts. Our ancestors survived because they heedlessly acted on their senses. It seems to be discordant with our nature to rebel against our instincts, to suppress them and contrive the necessity to act rationally and in concert with what we have been taught as good and virtuous. Dorian Gray represents a man who was convinced that man achieves his highest sense of purpose and integrity, if and only if, he were to focus on pleasuring his senses, with very little thought or suppression. He turns into someone who awakens the "evil Mr.Hyde" from within him, and feeds him with his vanity, materialism and callousness. The pleasure of sadism corrupts him. But something in him that represents him, deteriorates due to this hedonistic life. With every sin, every materialistic hoarding, his portrait turned ugly, evil and aged. The horrific transformation that Dorian could witness is shown as a metaphor, mirroring the deterioration of his soul. As much as Dorian derives pleasure from its atrophy, he couldn't completely be blind to it. Wilde hints at how our conscience, even if it be made separate from our body, cannot be ignored. It is sure to haunt us, no matter how much we isolate ourselves from it.

This, in essence, was Wilde's take on the philosophy of morality. Man's implicit conscience defines morality for him, no matter what religion, or era. Sins need not be categorized as applicable to the Victorian era, or the present era; the conscience always knows. As natural as it might sound to always act in tune with our senses, if the mind is totally cut off, our acts and decisions tend to run out of hand, and place us in scenarios wherein our senses can no longer help us, or benefit in any way. In a philosophical sense, Wilde seems to start with the hypothesis that the mind and the body need to be separate, but he crafts a clever tale to convincingly disprove the hypothesis, asserting that the mind (the soul/the conscience) and the body need to harmonize with one another. He also burrows into the ways and means through which man defines and values his identity. In reality, one's identity is deeper than what the body embodies. Personality is the result of the orchestration of many subtle factors emanating from our consciousness and self-awareness. It is difficult to give form, shape or color to them. But that is what Art tries to capture. A good artist is one who is perceptive to see through such ethereal aspects and is creative and imaginative to represent them through a physical, abstract artifact. In the context of such a discussion, Wilde also explores the meaning of Art and the role of an artist in capturing the abstract from a concrete physical form. Does Art mirror the artist or the inspiration? Or does it instead obscure the artist? What does Art truly represent? Or what should Art truly represent?

As dark and brooding as the book might appear, Wilde's masterful and contemplative writing is a treat. Despite the tragedies, the cynicism and the pessimism, the book encodes hope and optimism for humanity.

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