Utopian Decay: Oscar Wilde, Art and Utopia.
The utopian potential is inherent in the works of most of the aesthetes and decadent authors of the period. The fin de siecle, the heyday of aestheticism and literary decadence, was a period of uncertainty and, in Lyn Pykett's words, "a crisis in civilisation" (2). It was a period of clash of various ideologies and world views, and it is not surprising that such a crisis gave emergence to various, usually conflicting literary and sociological developments. It should be noted, however, that while the distinctive mood of the fin de siecle was a feeling of failure and doom, this condition of crisis was also capable of producing hope from within. Aestheticism and the decadent movement were the expressions of this hope; the literature of the period embodied implicit commentaries on that crisis. Although the aesthetes and decadents laid no claim to any ideological stance, their works were both subversive and utopian. This study aims to explore this subversive and utopian element focusing specifically on Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray as well as some of his essays.
Wilde has continued to be a controversial figure since his lifetime, and his position both as a participant and an opponent of the cultural milieu of nineteenth-century England has been highlighted by various critics. These critics pointed out the paradoxical nature of his stance, arguing that Wilde as a writer and a public figure partook of this cultural atmosphere he ostensibly stood against. Recently Josephine M. Guy and Ian Small argued, for example, that "in his attitude towards his career as a writer, Wilde was (to adapt Norbert Kohl's terms) more the conformist than the rebel, much more complicit with, than critical of the commercial interests of late nineteenth century British literary and theatrical culture" (12). From a perspective, this argument has validity; he gained popularity and became an iconic figure in the 1880s. Although he constantly wrote against the poor taste of the masses, he was very popular for his time. Moreover, he assumed the self-conscious pose of the dandy, both partaking of and criticizing the consumerism and comfort of this milieu. The fact that aestheticism was both the product of and existed in opposition to the bourgeois culture has also been extensively discussed by various critics such as Regenia Gagnier and Jonathan Freedman. As Gagnier puts it, "the 1890's dandies Wilde and Whistler accepted the commercialism that artists were forced to adopt if they wanted to participate in life. In an age of debased production, their commercial products were nothing less than themselves" (83). Similarly, Freedman states that "Wilde learned (at first giddily, thereafter tragically) that within [the mass market economy], one's very being could be transformed into a marketable good--a piece of information, an object of publicity, gossip, and revilement, all in the interests of selling more papers" (1998, 5). The aesthetes, then, were acutely aware of the commercialization of the artist, and they were in a sense impelled to take it as a given. This awareness on the part of the artist brought about a paradoxical reciprocity; the artist had to participate in the mechanics of commercialism while criticizing it. Such negative reciprocity implies, however, that it is not possible to consider Wilde merely as a figure seeking popularity or affirmation either by means of participation or disapproval. As Marcuse argues in The Aesthetic Dimension, "[t]he fact that the artist belongs to a privileged group negates neither the truth nor the aesthetic quality of his work" (18). For Wilde, too, art is and aspires to be autonomous. This autonomy turns a work of art into a complex, multi-dimensional entity and also constitutes its utopian aspect. However controversial Wilde's stance may be, his ideas about art imply his recognition of art's utopian potential which functions both at ontological and epistemological levels.
On the other hand, Fritz states that it is necessary to "avoid the temptation to cast Wilde as either rebellious or complicit, triumphant or vanquished" (307), which reveals the polarities Wildean criticism has so far created. He was a controversial figure during his lifetime and he has continued to be an intriguing figure, because his work allowed for various, even contradictory perspectives. It is therefore necessary to recognize the complexity of drives and diversity of stances. Having admitted the impossibility of drawing out a uniform portrait of his, I nevertheless believe that Wilde's popularity during his lifetime may accurately be attributed to the fact that, however aloof they may seem, his works reflected the complex truth about the Victorians. He was a disturbingly appealing figure. He occupied the insecure space linking reality to art, in some respects even turned himself into a work of art, which appealed to his audience, albeit out of differing reasons. Some saw their own reflection in Wilde's work, while some others saw what they wanted to evade. As is well known, Wilde's ambivalent public appeal continued until he was charged with "gross indecency" and sentenced to two years' hard labour, which was shortly followed by his death in exile.
His catastrophic fall may be taken as proof of the ambiguous and insecure position he occupied within this culture, which informed his writings. As already implied, from this perspective, his aestheticism gains a political dimension, and must be taken as a commentary on the society that he wrote about and against. Although ideology is all-encompassing, art is capable of developing an alternative outlook from within. As Pierre Macherey states, "[a] work is established against an ideology as much as it is from an ideology" (133). A work of art and the social conditions that produce it are in direct relationship to one another, and any attempt to evaluate a work of art independently of its roots would be reductionism. Yet art also aspires to be beyond these conditions. That is why Wilde's emphasis on art for art's sake, when considered with relation to the concept of utopia, can yield a more holistic view of his position in the literary circles and cultural life of late nineteenth-century England. The aim of this paper, accordingly, is to consider his notion of art and its relation to utopia as integral to, but also transcendent of, the reality of the period; and his ideas regarding the nature of art are studied with a focus on their capacity to indicate transcendence.
John Gross observes that aestheticism has various political implications varying from a reactionary outlook to political quietism. He adds that in Wilde's case, aestheticism meant a sort of socialism (171-72). Although I do borrow from Marxist terminology and make use of the ideas of Marxist critics, I believe that Wilde's definition of utopia goes beyond the definitions and formulations provided by those critics. I also believe that Wilde took the concept of utopia out of its Marxist context and turned it into an ever-changing concept which refuses to draw a definitive picture of the future, yet points towards a state of being which constantly evolves and is potentially real; in Wilde's use of the term it becomes a concept which negates its identification with "nowhere". This may be read as an anticipation of Bloch's concept of concrete utopia he discussed in The Principle of Hope; it may be argued that by means of his detached aestheticism, Wilde defines his "homeland". It indeed sounds identical to Bloch's formulation of concrete utopia; yet in the sense Wilde employs the concept, it has a wider signification devoid of an alignment to the Marxist outlook. Wilde did not explicitly advocate class struggle, in fact, this is partly why he has been blamed to be a wishful thinker. My argument, however, is that the wishful thinking he exhibits in his work does not annul his connection to the reality of his time; his utopianism directly addresses this reality although he does not offer an explicit depiction of his utopia. With an awareness of the fact that Wilde's stance cannot be read unanimously, I aim to consider art both as the embodiment and the conveyor of Wilde's own idiosyncratic utopia, and read The Picture of Dorian Gray as well as some of his well-known essays as expressions of his utopian outlook.
As is well known, utopia and ideology are significant concepts for Marxist criticism, and the interdependence between ideology, utopia and art has been highlighted by various critics within this tradition. Herbert Marcuse, for instance, extensively discussed the subversive potential of art and its utopian function, and highlighted its emancipatory nature. In his view,
[t]he political potential of art lies only in its own aesthetic dimension. Its relation to praxis is inexorably indirect, mediated, and frustrating. The more immediately political the work of art, the more it reduces the power of estrangement and the radical, transcendent goals of change. In this sense, there may be more subversive potential in the poetry of Baudelaire and Rimbaud than in the didactic plays of Brecht. (xii-xiii)
Marcuse thus put emphasis on the inner dynamics of the work of art rather than its direct relationship to the ideological forces creating it. From his perspective, art has the capacity to create a feeling of estrangement, which indicates its potential to go beyond the limits of the ideological framework that produced it and to show this framework from without. And paradoxically, this potential is most obvious in works which lay no claim to an ideological commitment.
Fredric Jameson also emphasised the emancipatory nature of art. Nonetheless, he was more cautious while evaluating this emancipatory potential. He argued that each cultural product carries the traces of freedom along with oppression within itself. According to Jameson, "within the symbolic power of art and culture the will to domination perseveres intact" (277), which highlights the omnipresent nature of ideology. Yet, he also maintained that "all class consciousness--or in other words, all ideology in the strongest sense, including the most exclusive forms of ruling-class consciousness just as much as that of oppositional or oppressed classes--is in its very nature Utopian" (267). He thus underscored the variable nature of utopia, and maintained that there are multiple utopias which are in a dialectical relationship with each other. He also emphasised that the difference among them lies in the different forms of consciousness they embody as well as in their potential. While the class consciousness of the oppressed is more universal and emancipatory, that of the ruling class is repressive and violent (268-69).
Wilde's works embody this emancipatory utopian potential. While in some of his works he expressly manifested his interest in the idea of utopia, he explored the concept implicitly in some others. His extensive emphasis on the autonomy of the individual and of art is at odds with the dominant perspective of his time, and shows his preoccupation with transcendence. This utopian perspective was initially made manifest in some of his essays. When he, in the persona of Gilbert, famously argued in "The Critic as Artist" that "England will never be civilised till she has added Utopia to her dominions" (982), he openly expressed this preoccupation.
There is more than one of her colonies that she might with advantage surrender for so fair a land. What we want are unpractical people who see beyond the moment, and think beyond the day. Those who try to lead the people can only do so by following the mob. It is through the voice of one crying in the wilderness that the ways of the gods must be prepared. (982)
To Wilde, living in the moment was not as significant and vital as envisioning utopia. He developed his argument by implying that the agency of the individual was what was needed to bring about a transcendence of the reality of the time. Indeed, autonomy and the individual takes up a huge space within his discussion of utopia, and for Wilde, art is the unique manifestation of the autonomy of the individual, and the sole means of achieving utopia.
Throughout his writing, Wilde either implies or openly states that the recognition of the autonomous individual is a must for development. In "The Soul of Man Under Socialism", he argues that giving primacy to individualism is what is needed for "the full development of life" (1019). In this essay, he brings together two concepts which are regarded to be mutually exclusive: individualism and socialism. Critics have long been intrigued by Wilde's reconciliation of these concepts. Jarlath Killeen, for instance, maintains that the essay has a deeply ironic tone. Some others think on the contrary, and state that the two concepts are not exclusive of one another and that his paradoxical language is intentional. Hilary Fraser argues, for instance, that "[i]n The Soul of Man Under Socialism, Socialism is defined in moral rather than political terms" (198). In the same vein, Dollimore observes that these concepts are adopted by Wilde to transgress the readily accepted notions imposed by the dominant outlook: "Individualism joins with socialism to abolish other kinds of conformity, including, says Wilde, family life and marriage, each being unacceptable because rooted in and perpetuating the ideology of property" (41); he maintains that Wilde uses these concepts as a strategy to subvert the unquestioned authority of the institutions so much prized by nineteenth-century consumerism. Still another critic, Matthew Beaumont, discusses the meaning of the concept of individualism in the sense Wilde uses, and states, "Wilde does not mean the kind of individualism that is 'now more or less dependent on the existence of private property for its development' (296), an ethic of the marketplace that is indissociable from the idea of competition. On the contrary, he is here referring to the individual creativity that, if it is ultimately an inalienable part of human identity, is stifled or repressed in a capitalist society" (16). To Beaumont, individualism takes on a different sense within the context Wilde creates, pointing towards the autonomy of the artist. Despite their differing interpretations, all these critics make manifest the fact that Wilde criticises capitalism and its institutions, and tries to give primacy to individualism, which conveyed freedom from the consumerist mechanisms of the period. To Wilde, "[a]rt is the most intense mood of Individualism that the world has known. I am inclined to say that it is the only real mode of Individualism that the world has known" (1938c, 1029). He considers art in close proximity to the concept of individualism as it is the sole means of expression, and adds that the oppressive power of the masses on art is "as immoral as it is ridiculous, and as corrupting as it is contemptible" (1029); the control exercised over art and the artist is immoral because it deters development and change. Wilde highlights the discrepancy between the nature of the work of art and the evaluative standards set by the masses, because the judgement of morality so emphasised by the masses functions as a control mechanism used to censure art.
Wilde, then, seeks an intact space for the work of art and the artist. He grants art a position above any form of authority, whether it be governmental, religious or public. "The work of art is to dominate the spectator: the spectator is not to dominate the work of art" (1035), he states, emphasising the importance of art's autonomy. He thus ascribes art a reformative function. As already stated, art is the clearest manifestation of individual expression for Wilde, and it is laden with a certain power: "Art is Individualism, and Individualism is a disturbing and disintegrating force" (1030). It is important to note that this power does not imply an overtly political mission. Wilde does not argue for committed art; rather, art can fulfil its function only when it is autonomous. He therefore advocates art the subversive power of which emerges from its being above any ideological stance.
Wilde's utopian outlook reveals itself most clearly at this point; "the past is of no importance. The present is of no importance. It is with the future that we have to deal. For the past is what man should not have been. The present is what man ought not to be. The future is what artists are" (1039). The past and the present are inconsequential because they have been what utopia is not. Nevertheless, the future still carries the potential of change; it is where, to use Bloch's designation, "hope" is invested in. Art and the artist are the guides to this future. Jody Price, discussing the utopian aspect of Wilde's works, develops a similar argument about Wilde's perspective of the nature of art, and states that "Wilde's theory of aestheticism is what he believes will 'save' everyone from the oppression of capitalism" (2). She also argues "Oscar Wilde is an essentialist who believes in a human nature which can be realized once thousands of years of oppressive socialization are scraped away" (7). Although she maintains that such concepts as multiplicity and diversity are also within the range of his philosophy, her claim about Wilde's essentialism implies that Wilde had a definitive utopian vision which only existed with reference to its opposite rather than suggesting a plurality of possibilities. I think, however, that by investing art with a utopian potential, Wilde tries to go beyond any essentialist thinking. Although he takes the mainstream Victorian culture as a point of reference, he refrains from giving a concrete depiction of the utopian future, which cannot be unintentional. He avoids such a depiction as all systematic descriptions of utopia have been dismissed as unrealistic and unrealizable; rather, he relies on the dynamic potential of the concept. Avoiding such a definition, Wilde equates utopia with art, which is the individual's only output not subject to decay, and has the largest potential to embody and communicate truth.
The most extensive manifestation of Wilde's utopian perspective is probably given in The Picture of Dorian Gray. The novel focuses on art and carries the indications of Wilde's subversive use of the concept. Admittedly, the text does not offer a clear-cut argument. On the contrary, as is the case with Wilde's aphorisms, it constantly deconstructs itself and refuses to present a definitive statement, which enables Wilde to explore the potential of art in all directions. About this potential Richard Ellmann writes,
by its creation of beauty art reproaches the world, calling attention to the world's faults through their very omission; so the sterility of art is an affront or a parable. Art may also outrage the world by flouting its laws or by picturing indulgently their violation. Or art may seduce the world by making it follow an example which seems bad but is discovered to be better than it seems. (1998, 34)
Ellmann observes that within the context Wilde creates, art projects different states of existence; it is represented above reality and provides alternative ways of perceiving and reacting to this reality. It either judges, reflects, or sets an example.
The paradoxes Wilde employs extensively are an aspect of the subversive nature of the text. He privileges paradoxes in his writing, which is one of his strategies of revealing and undermining the complex nature of the prevailing social structures. These epigrammatic statements must have had considerable effect in creating an image of Wilde as the detached, corrupt artist. Moreover, as Thain suggests, a paradox may be employed in order to reassemble a world that is falling apart and at the same time to recognize a newly emerging one (226). This is the case with Wilde's epigrams; by means of them he reveals and reinforces the reformative potential inherent in art. Still another aspect may be added to these points. As a means of communicating truth, he uses paradoxes to imply various dimensions of reality in a society that passes and imposes one-dimensional, clear-cut judgments: "The way of paradoxes is the way of truth" (The Picture of Dorian Gray 40). Accordingly, Brown states that, for Wilde, "truth itself is contradictoriness, or perhaps twofoldness" (93) (emphasis original), and his paradoxes enable him to communicate this contradictoriness, which highlights the complexity of truth.
In the novel, Wilde makes extensive use of paradoxical statements, yet this is only one aspect of the text's utopian nature. Throughout the work Wilde explores the various dimensions and possibilities of art; in this sense it is a work that reflects on its own nature. There are various layers of meaning, and as stated by Ellmann above, the text at once reproaches, outrages and seduces. Wilde makes each character express an aspect of the experience of art, and the text is the sum of all these perspectives. Thus it becomes an expression of that which is too complex to be readily communicable.
Each of the main characters of the novel may be read as representing an aspect of Wilde's stance. Lord Henry is one of these characters through whom Wilde expresses negativity and comments on the transgressive nature of art. He is decadent, art-loving, and constantly preaches immorality. As Philip K. Cohen jokingly states, "Harry is immoral even according to his own standards" (141). Nonetheless, his immorality does not find its counterpart in his actions. Basil points this out, and says, "[y]ou never say a moral thing, and you never do a wrong thing. Your cynicism is simply a pose" (8). Jody Price highlights that "Lord Henry, like Basil, is fragmented from whom he would like to be and what he is because of cowardice. He is too weak to challenge social convention, and too frightened of exclusion from society's dinner tables" (92). Yet, Lord Henry's pose may also be considered to be a means of subversion, enabling Wilde to turn the expectations of the reader upside down. After all, he is the only character who most frequently and openly addresses the issues of morality and immorality; while he speaks approvingly of the immoral, he essentially questions the nature of these received ideas and destabilizes them.
Nevertheless, his influence on Dorian is problematic, and the novel presents it as a form of immorality. The idea of influence assumes a variety of forms throughout the novel, as underlined by Mighall (236). Since the character of Dorian Gray is shaped under his influence, he is responsible for Dorian's doom. He first claims that "[a]ll influence is immoral [...]. Because to influence a person is to give him one's own soul. [...] He becomes an echo of some one else's music, an actor of a part that has not been written for him" (20), but later on he reflects: "There was something terribly enthralling in the exercise of influence. [...] [T]here was a real joy in that--perhaps the most satisfying joy left to us in an age so limited and vulgar as our own, an age grossly carnal in its pleasures, and grossly common in its aims" (37). His influence on Dorian is very strong; in fact, he turns Dorian into an echo of his ideas. Dorian, a tabula rasa before meeting Lord Henry, parrots his aphorisms. This is significant because, as Freedman notes, "[s]ubjectivity so constituted, [...] is never free from the forces of power, domination, and control" (1990, 43). To Wilde, all influence is immoral as it effaces individuality, and is equated with mediocrity and vulgarity. The only immoral act attributable to Lord Henry, therefore, may be his influence on Dorian.
Yet, Lord Henry is first and foremost the playful spokesperson of the decadents, and to a certain extent, of Wilde himself. He speaks in paradoxes, constantly disturbing the notions about morality. "Sin is the only real colour-element left in modern life" (30), he comments in his usual playful tone. However, he argues just the opposite towards the end of the novel, and to Dorian he says, "[a]ll crime is vulgar, just as all vulgarity is crime. [...] Crime belongs exclusively to the lower orders" (203). To him, vulgarity is a crime simply because it diverts from the cult of beauty. Here, Wilde is again preoccupied with the ideas about morality, immorality, sin and guilt, and the novel is full of such aphorisms by Lord Henry which partly reflect Wilde's own stance. While Lord Henry is speaking to Basil, he says that "[m]odern morality consists in accepting the standard of one's age. I consider that for any man of culture to accept the standard of his age is a form of the grossest immorality" (76), which reminds one of Wilde at the court, defending himself against charges of immorality. Wilde grants him negativity by making him play with the expectations of the reader, and adopt the stance of the outsider. Lord Henry thus becomes the character through which Wilde reflects his decadent outlook; he is the immoral dandy who constantly speaks in paradoxes and deconstructs the bourgeois morality.
Although Wilde uses a character from the nobility to communicate his critique of society and social convention, Lord Henry's stance is not shaped exclusively by his social status, and behind his aloofness is the aim of drawing attention to the necessity of transcendence of these conventions. As Dowling remarks, Lord Henry is
meant to translate into an older language of rank and status Wilde's conviction that aesthetic consciousness represents, especially amid the bleakness of a modern mass or industrial society, a superior mode of existence, a way of being in the world that is in some genuine sense higher, richer, and more complete than is available to those who choose to remain ignorant of art, literature, and music. (95)
The primary source of Lord Henry's negativity, then, is his aesthetic consciousness. His interest in the world centres on beauty and art, even his class-consciousness is shaped by and focused on the notion of beauty and individualism. At one point he says, for instance, that "the real tragedy of the poor is that they can afford nothing but self-denial. Beautiful sins, like beautiful things, are the privilege of the rich" (The Picture of Dorian Gray 76). What is central to his perspective is not his social status, but what his status enables him to do.
Basil Hallward, too, comments on the nature of art, albeit from a different viewpoint. In his case, art becomes a means of expression; it is his means of expression of his desire for Dorian. He gradually develops an attachment to Dorian's portrait: "I grew afraid that others would know of my idolatry" (111), he says, regretful of this admiration, which transgresses the limits of social convention. As Jody Price argues, "Basil represents anyone who is forced to hide one's 'soul' from society" (87). Again as Price remarks, "Basil rejects human contact and passion, for it would expose him to social condemnation. [...] Basil is the antithesis of the artist who is transgressively reinscribed into the culture as a subversive element to challenge hegemony" (87). From this perspective, rather than challenging the notion of morality and propriety imposed by the social norms, Basil concedes to suppress his identity and desires. Yet, he includes the subversive element in his art. By means of Dorian's portrait, Basil defines art as the ultimate means of expression. "I really can't exhibit it. I have put too much of myself into it" (The Picture of Dorian Gray 6), he protests, when Lord Henry suggests him to send the portrait to an exhibition. Indeed, the portrait is not a proper work of art by his standards. He observes that "[a]n artist should create beautiful things, but should put nothing of his own life into them. We live in an age when men treat art as if it were meant to be a form of autobiography. We have lost the abstract sense of beauty" (14). Paradoxically, therefore, his admiration for Dorian is not only what his art feeds on but also that which impairs his existence as an artist.
Dorian's overarching influence over Basil becomes evident immediately after his initial encounter with Dorian: "A curious sensation of terror came over me. I knew that I had come face to face with someone whose mere personality was so fascinating that, if I allowed it to do so, it would absorb my whole nature, my whole soul, my very art itself" (9-10). Later on, he confesses that Dorian's presence did affect him profoundly. "Dorian, from the moment I met you, your personality had the most extraordinary influence over me. I was dominated, soul, brain, and power by you" he tells Dorian shortly before being killed by him (110). Just as Dorian loses his individuality because of Lord Henry's influence, Basil sacrifices his being to Dorian.
The relationship between Basil and Dorian also indicates Wilde's struggle for survival in society; the parallel between Wilde and Basil has been noted by various critics and Wilde himself. As he remarks in an interview, "Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry what the world thinks me: Dorian what I would like to be--in other ages perhaps" (in Sturgis 124). Matthew Sturgis draws attention to this autobiographical element distributed among the characters of the novel, and writes, "Wilde's self-identification with the upright Hallward suggests that his regard for convention, even conventional morality, was much greater that his outward--Henry Wooton-ish--pose would allow" (124). This note signifies Wilde's feeling of entrapment in a society the conventional morality of which is a constraining force both for himself and for his art. Moe Meyer draws attention to this autobiographical parallel, and carrying the implication further, highlights the symbolic emancipation presented in the novel. Meyer points out that "[t]he apparent murder of Basil by Dorian actually marks the conceptual birth of Wilde's homosexual social identity by freeing the artist from self-definitional dependence upon the posed model" (88). Symbolically, then, Basil's death may be read as his emancipation. He detaches himself from Dorian's influence, and his art survives in Dorian's body. Meyer remarks that "[a]s Dorian commits crime after crime, his interiority is reflected by the mutating monster on the canvas, but his body surfaces, because they now signify only Basil's desire purified under the ideal of art, remain unchanging and immortal" (87). Thus, Basil's art continues to exist in Dorian free from his interior corruption; on a symbolic level art is purified of corruption and decay, and the canvas becomes the mirror of Dorian's conscience. At the end the ugly image in the canvas resumes its original form; Dorian's death marks the moment when the canvas retains the original form created by Basil. Consequently, art reasserts its autonomy.
The main character, Dorian, is perhaps the most ambiguous one. He is at once the idealized subject of a work of art and the embodiment of evil. Wilde's novel is a tale laden with a moral obvious to modern readers despite Wilde's attempts to conceal it as much as possible, and this moral is most clear in the case of Dorian since he demonstrates the consequences of mere hedonism. As Ellmann suggests, "Dorian Gray is the aesthetic novel par excellence, not in espousing the doctrine, but in exhibiting its dangers" (1988, 297). Nonetheless, it would be an oversimplification to evaluate his position solely from a moralistic point of view. He is the embodiment of the tension between the surface and reality, between the caricature and the individual. The work of art, reflecting the subjectivity of the artist along with that of the model, represents a multidimensional existence whereas Dorian, despite being the subject of art, exists in opposition to it, representing surface without depth.
The idea of corruption is explored most overtly through this character. The initial traces of corruption in Dorian's character as well as the split between Dorian and the portrait emerge when he abandons Sybil, a lower-class actress, and subsequently causes her suicide. At first Dorian is impressed by her because he has "seen her in every age and in every costume" (51) and also because "she is all the great heroines of the world in one. She is more than an individual" (54). What appeals to him is not Sybil as an individual, but her art. She seems to be an agent for the fulfilment of Dorian's wish to experience all sensations. It is not surprising that Dorian's refusal to acknowledge the ethical dimension of his actions manifests itself in Sybil's case first, and her death accentuates Dorian's alienation to his conscience. When Sybil decides to quit acting, she says: "You taught me what reality really is. [...] I have grown sick of shadows. You are more to me than all art can ever be" (84). "You have killed my love" (84) replies Dorian, with a sudden change of feeling towards Sybil. As Ellmann observes, "Sibyl is no mere performer; her fatal weakness in his eyes is that she values life above art. She loses her capacity to act because, instead of preferring shadows to reality as she once did, she is drawn by love to prefer reality" (1988, 298). If the novel is an account of Dorian's eventual fall, Sybil's death is the first indication of his doom, pointing towards the outcome of his reluctance to recognize existence fully in all its dimensions. By reducing life to individual moments of experience, ignoring the relationship between life and art, and subordinating one to the other, Dorian takes the decisive step towards this fall. It is important that the first change on the portrait emerges after Sybil's death. Paradoxically, as Dorian subordinates life to art, the work of art mirrors his moral corruption. Obviously he fails to recognize the interdependence of the two.
As discussed above, Dorian is the outcome of Lord Henry's influence; his identity is a reflection of Lord Henry's ideas. His portrait drawn by Basil, on the other hand, functions as his mirror; this mirror is important in that it negates Dorian. As Jackson maintains, "[b]y presenting images of the self in another space (both familiar and unfamiliar), the mirror provides versions of self transformed into another, become something or someone else. It employs distance and difference to suggest the instability of the 'real' on this side of the looking-glass and it offers unpredictable (apparently impossible) metamorphoses of self into other" (87-8). Dorian's portrait, accordingly, functions as a mirror that creates an image of the other, and highlights the difference between the original and the self. Throughout the novel, the difference between Dorian and his image gets deeper, indicating his corruption; he eventually grows horrified of "the terrible portrait whose changing features showed him the real degradation of his life" (135). While Dorian does not change but turns into a stable image, the portrait undergoes constant metamorphosis; as it gets uglier, the contrast between Dorian and the living portrait gets deeper.
Dorian's lack of individuality entails lack of emotional depth. As Nicolas Daly observes "Dorian becomes increasingly a 'thing', an unchanging automaton whose defining trait is an appetite for sensation, as his portrait becomes increasingly lifelike" (101). The fact that Dorian is a passive receptor of sensations indicates this degradation; the portrait, on the contrary, is endowed with an independent existence. The only change that he experiences is his deepening corruption, and while the mirror gets more powerful as Dorian's corruption increases, Dorian is enfeebled by it. As Mighall observes, "'[c]onscience' (whether one reads that in sacred or secular terms) is strongly delineated in the novel. Dorian believes that he has destroyed conscience, but in truth it destroys him" (xxviii). Similarly Philip K. Cohen argues, "[t]he portrait will mock Dorian, and he will kill himself, but inward corruption rather than the loss of beauty will drive him to self-destruction" (134). While the portrait mirrors this decay, the parallel between the original and the mirror gets weaker, and the portrait constantly accentuates his corruption. The fixity of the subject is thus contrasted with the multi-dimensional nature of the work of art.
The link between Dorian and his portrait is significant also because it reveals the discrepancy between appearance and reality. As Christopher Craft argues, "[i]nstead of transposing surfaces laterally as everyday mirrors do, the portrait reverses the usual relation between surface and depth, core and facia. It turns Dorian inside out so his eyes may witness what, by definition, they cannot see at all--the legible condition of his inner being" (114-15). This reminds the reader of the double lives maintained at the time. The notorious cult of respectability that was promoted during the period has been highlighted by various critics. Peter Ackroyd, for instance, drawing attention to the multiple layers of meaning invested in the novel, depicts the novel as "one of the best narrations of the 'double life' of a Victorian gentleman, so it is also one of the best accounts of the divisions within London itself" (229). The novel indeed is a commentary on many aspects of the age; it reflects the split personalities of the Victorians as well as the sharp division between the different segments of society. Just as the painting is the conscience of Dorian, works of art are represented as the conscience of the age and society. Lord Henry once tells Dorian, "[a]rt has no influence upon action" (208). Yet, this statement is ultimately undermined when Dorian attempts to destroy the painting and kills himself instead. Symbolically, this end points towards art's utopian function as it is represented both as a point of reference and a judicial power. Similarly, when Lord Henry states that "[t]he books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame", the text equates those "immoral books" with the portrait (208). As one of the most straightforward statements by Lord Henry, this sentence may be read as a self-reflexive commentary on art's status with relation to the milieu that it mirrors. It once again emphasises the fact that art is directly connected to "the world" it is born into, but it is also beyond this reality.
In "The Critic as Artist" Wilde writes, "[i]t is through Art, and through Art only, that we can realise our perfection" (977). Both in his work and his life he granted art a privileged status above reality and singled it out as the one initiator of change and 'perfection'. This perfection was not clearly defined, however, because Wilde's perspective of utopia did not point towards a static point. Even though utopias are visions and descriptions of a better world, they are of evanescent nature. Besides, once depicted, they embody the risk of stagnation and corruption. Wilde was aware of this ambivalence inherent in the concept, and he chose to replace it with the dialogic nature of art; he thus evaded committing himself to an ideological stance. Adorno remarked that the artist "denounces the narrow untruth of the practical world" (241); and he maintained that a work of art is meaningful and functional to the extent that it cherishes the idea of utopia: "At the center of contemporary antinomies is that art must be and wants to be utopia, and the more utopia is blocked by the real functional order, the more this is true" (32). Wilde, too, by aligning utopia with art and defining art as the ultimate form of individual expression, aimed to go beyond various forms of--to use the once popular formula used to denote ideology--"false consciousness" prevalent during the nineteenth century in England. He was aware of the transcendent power of art, a power which is at once the product of but also beyond any ideological or political bias. Despite all his contradictions, he was a proponent of the autonomy of art and of the individual because for Wilde this autonomy was the prerequisite of change. He was obviously aware of his position as a wishful thinker and he embraced it, trying to use this form of thinking as an outlet from the stifling reality he was a part of. As Rosemary Jackson comments on fantasy, she writes, "fantasy has tried to erode the pillars of society by un-doing categorical structures" (176). I believe this statement is valid for Wilde's stance and work as a whole. To most Victorians, his writings were fantasy, and they did a good deal in eroding the pillars of Victorianism, pointing towards a rather unstable, vague, yet still concrete utopia.
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Ansi Sev Ates received her BA degree in English Language and Literature from Bilkent University in 2004 and completed her PhD at Ege University in 2012. She has been working at Kutahya Dumlupinar University since 2013. Her research interests include nineteenth-century fiction, utopia, and dystopia. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
(1) This paper is based on my doctoral dissertation submitted to the Department of English Language and Literature at Ege University.
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|Author:||Ates, Ansi Sev|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2019|
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