Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Dorian, You'd be Right at Home in the 21st Century

This asylum we’re investigating must be a rather posh place. Look at the beautiful high-society gentleman up ahead. One such as he wouldn’t be caught dead in a low class establishment. Odd how he’s covered the painting in his room though.

Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray” is interesting in that Wilde wrote a novel in which he can examine good and evil, and allow his characters to monologue on the subject. However, I would argue Wilde’s interest in, and words devoted to, evil is far more developed than his interest in good.

My evidence? Lord Henry/Harry and Wilde allowing him page after page of eloquent sounding rubbish. Harry’s value system, which quickly becomes Dorian Gray’s value system, is one of debauchery, worship of fleeting things (art, beauty), and self pleasure to the detriment of everything else. In short, Harry is a Hedonist, and a very good one. He disguises his massive appetites behind a hypnotic voice and a quick wit that leaves his fellow characters, and the reader, wondering if he means what he says or is just trying to be provocative.

His counterpoint in this novel is Basil Hallward, an artist of some talent who recognizes the basic good in the world. But his good is fleeting and really only is featured in spots. He too slips over to the dark side of the equation, though, in his devotion to Dorian Gray, whose beauty overpowers and inspires Basil.

Then we come to Dorian Gray. Wilde is wonderful in naming his main character “Gray” as he intends for Dorian to be in the middle of these two counterpoints (Harry and Basil). However, Wilde never really gives the good side of the equation much stage time. After the title “Picture” is painted Dorian essentially shuns Basil and allows his way of thinking and his life to follow Harry’s Hedonism. Dorian could very easily have been called “Dorian Black,” but of course that isn’t nearly as interesting.

Wilde does an excellent job of showing all three of these main characters vacillating between their positions on the moral scale. In Chapter One Harry says “I don’t suppose that ten percent of the proletariat live correctly.” Earlier he says “The masses feel that drunkenness, stupidity, and immorality should be their own special property,” Harry is telling Basil that people are generally bad, and that high society people are looked upon as worse when they do bad things, which is ironic and hypocritical since the common folks are at least as sinful as the upper class.

To this Basil replies “I don’t agree with a single word that you have said, and, what is more, Harry, I feel sure you don’t either.”

Throughout this book Harry makes statements that truly demonize society. From marriage to art, Harry has a quip or a theory, and all of them paint societal norms as a sham, a façade, something only dull or stupid people engage in or believe in. For example, when Dorian tells Harry he plans to marry, Harry has many comments on marriage. In chapter six, Harry tells Basil about Dorian’s actress/fiancé “Oh, she is better than good – she is beautiful,” and later in the same chapter he says: “You know I am not a champion of marriage. The real drawback to marriage is that it makes one unselfish. And unselfish people are colourless. They lack individuality.” Harry also says: “I hope that Dorian Gray will make this girl his wife, passionately adore her for six months, and then suddenly become fascinated by someone else.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement of marriage, and that is the essence of Harry.

He is fascinated by fleeting things: youth, beauty, fads. If alive today he would be a Hollywood fashion reporter or a person who compiles lists of “what’s hot and what’s not” for some fluff magazine. He is all style and no substance. Throughout the book Wilde softens this cynicism by providing dialogue partners to counter his points or brush off his rhetoric as balderdash.

But the reader wonders: is Harry truly speaking to be provocative or does he believe the things he says? Wilde provides an example for both options. For the evil, Harry counsels Dorian to stay clear of the investigation into the death of Sibyl Vane and feeds Dorian’s ego further by having Dorian romanticize his role in her death into something of a little play. Sibyl was nothing more than an interesting plaything that is now broken and must be forgotten. For Harry she was pretty, yes, but she couldn’t act so she isn’t worth mourning. To the good, in Chapter nineteen Dorian essentially confesses to murdering Basil: “What would you say, Harry, if I told you that I had murdered Basil?” To which Harry replies: “All crime is vulgar, just as all vulgarity is crime. It is not in you.” Again, not exactly an angelic attitude from Harry, but at least he couches his dark side somewhat.

Dorian Gray certainly believes what Harry says. From the day he meets Harry to the day he takes his own life Dorian is living his life according to Harry’s code (if you watch “Dexter” you understand a double meaning here, if not, don’t worry, not central to the reading of this novel).

The other side of this equation is Basil. On two separate occasions he comes to Dorian Gray’s home and there is a chance his influence may help, or even save, Dorian from the path he is on. The first time is in Chapter nine, shortly after Sibyl Vane has committed suicide. Basil had heard that the night after her death Dorian had gone to the Opera: “I called last night, and they told me you were at the Opera. Of course I knew that was impossible.” Basil can’t believe that such an event (death) would be responded to with such indifference by Dorian, especially after so short a time (a day). Basil continues: “You can talk to me of other women being charming, and of Patti singing divinely, before the girl you loved has even the quiet of a grave to sleep in?” And later in chapter nine: “You were the most unspoiled creature in the whole world. Now, I don’t know what has come over you. You talk as if you had no heart, no pity in you.”

Dorian responds to Basil’s horror still later in chapter nine when Basil remarks “How fearful,” upon learning Sibyl’s death was suicide and not accident. “No … there is nothing fearful about it.” Then Dorian explains: “I suffered immensely. Then it passed away. I cannot repeat an emotion.” Dorian reveals himself to be void of empathy or sorrow here.

Basil then tries to take the picture that ages while Dorian remains young in appearance, and this is what drives the two once close men apart. Basil can’t have the picture, and Dorian will never sit for another one. Basil leaves confused and hurt. Later, in unlucky chapter number thirteen Basil is going to Paris, but stops at Dorian’s home again to quell his own fears as he’s heard dreadful things about Dorian Gray. Dorian shows Bail his painting, and how hideous and deformed the image has become.

Thank God Wilde gave the reader a second witness to the portrait changing. Had only Dorian put eyes on the picture after moving it upstairs to his childhood study/library, the reader could surmise the eternal youthfulness and the changing in the painting as all in Dorian Gray’s head.

But Basil sees it. He sees it and is horrified. Instead of fleeing, or threatening to reveal this terrible secret to the world, he tries to put Dorian Gray on the right path. He tries to save him. In chapter thirteen: “Good God, Dorian, what a lesson! What an awful lesson!” Basil continues: “Pray, Dorian, pray, … What is it that one was taught to say in one’s boyhood? ‘Lead us not into temptation. Forgive us our sins. Wash away our iniquities.’ Let us say that together. The prayer of your pride has been answered also. I worshipped you too much. I am punished for it. You worshipped yourself too much. We are both punished.”

Basil recognizes his sin, and tries to help Dorian recognize his sin. Basil’s reward? To be stabbed to death in the same library, left dead slumped over a table, then to be melted away to hide the evidence by Campbell, one of Dorian’s old friends (lovers?). Dorian’s reaction to Basil is hatred, and then murder.

So, why the title of this blog? As a person reading “The Picture of Dorian Gray” in 2009 my mind kept equating Dorian’s eternal beauty with our current societal obsession with youth and beauty (and sex), and how accurate a picture Wilde’s novel paints even today.

Today Dorian Gray would simply be known as “Dorian.” He’d live in Hollywood and be addicted to plastic surgery. Instead of jewels and tapestries he’d collect high end European sports cars and would be one of the people who just had to have the latest tech gadgets first so he could show them off. Instead of opium he’d prefer crystal meth.

Our present day Dorian Grays go by the names Paris or Britney. We have an entire class of people who exist in that rarified air known as celebrity who don’t have a discernable talent or contribute one iota to society. Dorian can play the piano a little, but he never is shown to have a job or a purpose other than fulfilling his every whim.

But even in this Wilde couches the evil in Dorian. Up until Basil confronts him and is shown the picture Dorian’s sins are mere rumor. Wilde gives us the dreadfully dull chapter eleven that painstakingly catalogues fad after fad, shallow interest after shallow interest that Dorian tries to lose himself in. Chapter eleven could have been a catalogue of visits to opium dens and Dorian Gray stealing into high-society homes to ruin reputations. Instead of seeing these sins directly Wilde has the reader learn after nearly two decades that Dorian has been a very bad person. Would the book have been too horrible if the reader could see what eternal youth can grant a person of standing?

“The Picture of Dorian Gray” was published in 1890/1891. Oscar Wilde is rebuking the nineteenth century as one filled with debauchery and decadence. He takes shots at society, art, vanity, relationships between men and women, and the classes. I bet even he didn’t know how accurate a portrayal of twentieth/twenty-first century society this would still be today.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Doctor Will See You Now

We’ve entered the asylum and found a mad doctor waiting for us. He has a secret, it seems a little thing, deformed and easily agitated, but his secret is why we’re here tonight.

Robert Louis Stevenson gave the world “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” a wonderful tale of the duality of man. My post on the Griffin Gate page excoriated (Dr. Arnzen’s word) Dr. Jekyll’s final statement concerning his transformations into the evil Mr. Edward Hyde, but this is one of those stories that allows for every generation to delve into their own darkness, to give meaning to Hyde.

Elaine Showalter delved into the darkness at the back of Dr. Jekyll’s closet and she found Hyde to be a homosexual mirror image of the good doctor, a free spirit reveling in the gay underworld of nineteenth century England. Dr. Jekyll let Hyde out of the closet, but he never allowed himself out of that closet.

Showalter makes an excellent case, one I personally didn’t pick up until Dr. Jekyll’s statement at the end of Stevenson’s book. There isn’t a female character outside of the maid who witnesses Hyde stomp and beat Carew to death. Not one. All the major characters are men of means, all have servants and homes, and they have some standing in their society. Yet, none has a wife; none even mentions having a girlfriend. Showalter states: “The characters are all middle-aged bachelors who have no relationships with women except as servants.” At first I wrote this off to them being a little older, but none refers to a past love or a wife who died in childbirth or anything of the sort.

The line that really got my mind thinking in Showalter’s terms, though, was “chocolate brown fog.” I’ve seen lots of fog, condition are excellent for it on a waterfront and at sea. I’ve seen gray and white, even green fog tinted by popping smoke to mark a target, and red smoke popped to show a helicopter where we were.

I’ve never seen brown fog. I was willing to write it off to an industrial age city full of soot, ash, and wood burning fireplaces. But that line did gnaw at my brain. It stood out.

The second point is Hyde’s slight stature. Monsters of the modern era are enormous. They overpower we puny humans, their very size is part of what is terrifying. Not Hyde, he goes the other way. He’s deformed, monstrous, he snarls and beats innocent old men to death, but he is small. Stevenson never uses the word dainty, but I got the impression that would be an apt description. Women, generally speaking, are smaller in stature than men so Hyde representing the feminine side of Dr. Jekyll, the side he must hide from society also fits.

However, her argument falters when Hyde is described as “ape-like.” I buy her arguments of femininity being considered less evolved (from that era), but I’ve never thought of a woman as “ape-like.” The other was Hyde’s hands. If he is to be the effeminate side of Jekyll, shouldn’t his hands be more delicate? She quotes Jekyll’s rather conceited assessment of his own hands being “large, firm, white, and comely.” This is far more feminine than Hyde’s “lean, corded, knuckly,” hands. I believe Hyde also had a lot of hair on his hands. If Hyde is to be the less evolved and feminine side of Jekyll, in my opinion, his hands can be small, soft, dainty, but hairy and knuckly evokes almost nothing female for me.

Ultimately, I think this is the genius of Stevenson’s story. He provides specifics for his era, but we never get a clear picture of Hyde, which makes him timeless and all the more scary. Also, we never hear from Hyde. Ever. All of Hyde’s dealings are provided to the reader second-hand, the most reliable is probably Utterson’s meeting him outside his shabby door, a “back entrance” to Dr. Jekyll’s home as it turns out, another point for Showalter there.

However, just off the top of my head, this story can be interpreted as a warning of drug addiction, self control, simply breaking free from strict society rules to run free among the common folks. Hyde can be any number of things.

Personally, Hyde doesn’t represent homosexuality. I don’t see homosexuality as dark subversive stuff. I think Showalter makes an excellent argument for this, but Hyde, to me, is too dark and evil, and that is what is wonderful about him.

Showalter cites several more modern examples of the Jekyll/Hyde tale, some of these bolster her arguments very well, some seem silly. Again, this is testament to the strength of Stevenson’s original idea, the duality of man, the constant struggle for good and evil.

Who knows? A hundred years from now this same story could be seen as drawing the line between remaining on earth, the sensible respectable Jekyll thing to do, or blasting to the stars to discover a new place to live, the youthful dangerous Hyde thing to do. I’m grasping perhaps, but I’m just trying to illustrate how very open to interpretation this story is.

I hope to one day write something that captures so central an idea to humanity as Stevenson has done here.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Madness and Time

We are dipping into madness, and on purpose, so what does that say about us? It's one thing to be mad, no fault in that really. It's another thing to recognize madness, and instead of doing the rational (sane) thing, which would be to walk away, perhaps even flee, we are walking towards it, embracing it, staring it straight in the face. It is said that those who lay down with dogs will get up with fleas, I wonder what will become of us as we step through the gate of the asylum? Will we return unchanged except perhaps a little more wise? Or will we not return at all?

This post is covering the three short stories we have begun the semester with: "Dread" by Clive Barker, "Telltale Heart" by Edgar Allan Poe, and "The Sandman" by E.T.A. Hoffman. Obviously all three concern madness in one form or another, but what struck me was the historic difference each story approached insanity with.

"Dread" was published in 1984, and the madness or 'dread' Quaid is seeking is done in a clinical and near-scientific way. He befriends and interviews two separate lab rats, then takes them individually, imprisons them, and forces them to face the fears they have revealed to Quaid.

Madness, or insanity, in this instance is something to be studied, conquered, and ultimately triumphed over. If a person looks at this story from only Quaid's point of view, he is seeking answers to his own dread, and in a perverse way is perhaps offering a service to his unwilling lab rats. After all, isn't it good to face one's fears?

This is Quaid's perspective, and it is what makes him the craziest of all the characters in this story. He is completely removed from empathy, he simply doesn't care about what happens to others. Barker doesn't show Quaid taking pleasure in his torture of Cheryl or Steven, for him his experiments are purely academic. As the story unfolds the reader learns that he has his own dread, and it comes to visit him in the end.

"Telltale Heart," published in 1843, provides the reader with an insane person narrating, and never bothers to explain the source of the madness. The narrator has killed his or her boarder simply because the old man had an "evil eye." The narrator obsessed on the eye for a week, then killed and dismembered the person.

Throughout Poe's tale the narrator is trying to convince the reader, and later in the story the police, that they are sane. Obviously this is not true, and the madness proves to be the narrator's undoing as they reveal the location of the body to the police at the end because the murder victim's heart is still beating under the floorboards.

So, Poe and his era were well aware of sane and insane, but his story is less clinical concerning the madness. His narrator is insane, that's what drives the story. That character, I believe, is well aware of their instability, is aware of how they come across to others. That's why they are constantly assuring the reader that all is well, nothing to see here. In short, me thinks thou protest too much.

Finally "The Sandman" and poor Nathaniel. Published in 1817, this story's take on madness is one of many older tales. That is, that madness can grip a person in a "fever" or a "spell," but someone, especially of high social standing, can "come out of it." No need to lock them up, just let them sleep it off, or summer along the coast. That pesky madness will clear up in no time.

I'm being a little silly, but that does seem to be a trend of older works and insanity. The poor received full frontal lobotomies or were locked up and experimented on, those of some standing could buy their way out of it, or at least appear stable enough at times.

Alas, in "The Sandman" Nathaniel shows his true colors in trying to kill Clara at the end and instead falls to his death.

In fact, none of our insane characters ends their stories well. At the end of "Dread" Quaid is still lying on the ground of his apartment being hacked at with an axe while he begs for death or mercy, whichever comes first. The narrator in "Telltale Heart" reveals their grisly crime and is surely carted off to jail or an asylum for a long time. And in "The Sandman" Nathaniel ends his story and his life by leaping to his death gripped with madness shrieking "Circle of fire spin round! Spin round!"

Over time more evidence has been gathered about insanity and madness. There are all kinds of labels for it now: paranoia, schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder. A person can be a sociopath, a psychopath, poorly adjusted, or have "blank" issues (fill in the blank with any number of things ranging from sex to parents to work or whatever).

It could be argued the pendulum has swung too far into categorizing every personality quirk as some kind of ailment, but that's great for writers. We can take any number of official clinical sounding issues and turn them into stories of horror and suspense. One might fear the more revealed about the psyche and the inner workings of the human creature, the less mystery there will be. However, it seems the more we reveal, the more we categorize, the more great fodder there will be for stories.