Sit quietly in a room alone and eventually you’ll encounter the dark recesses of your soul. Blaise Pascal said this is why people filled their lives with busyness. Reading Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray” will take us to the dark places inside ourselves.
The leering Lord Henry Wotton is the dark whispering voice in our ear pushing us to seek excess, leisure, and gain with no regard of the means. Unlike Dorian Gray, when we follow his advice the adversity it creates in our soul is soon recognizable with no hope of a surrogate painting.
We meet Lord Henry in a beautiful garden, much as we met the great antagonist of all men.
Oscar Wilde is brilliant. His wit was well renowned and his one-liners in “Dorian Gray” his play “The Importance of Being Ernest” and his lectures are timeless. Visiting his memorial in Dublin, Ireland in September I saw his many quotes surrounding his statue.
Dublin, Ireland - Oscar Wilde Memorial
Wilde was indeed the first modern celebrity. He used photography the same way celebrities use Instagram today. Posing in unique places and in elaborate costumes he inspired curiosity, built fame and stoked his enemies. He backed up his persona with intelligence/. He toured and spread his thoughts. He wanted to be known. To quote his Lord Henry character, “…there is only one thing worse in the world than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”
Wilde reveals himself in the pages of his book, “Be always searching for new sensations. Be afraid of nothing…A new hedonism – that is what our century wants.”
Wilde was seeking new sensations. He is often noted as the first true martyr for gay rights. He was charged in England in 1885 with sodomy and sentenced to two years in prison and hard labor. He was never the same after his incarceration. His enemies found a way to rob him of his zeal, but they failed to eliminate his influence which lives long past their hate.
Much like Dorian, the weight of life came to Wilde. Gray taking his life, and Wilde roaming the streets of Paris alone and dying of Meningitis at 46. However, Wilde did seek something beyond himself in his last years. Seeking retreat with the Jesuits and attending mass on occasion.
“Catholicism had held Wilde's interest all his adult life. Born in Dublin in 1854 to a Protestant Anglo-Irish family, Wilde came at age 20 to Oxford University in England, where he was taught by the critic and novelist Walter Pater. Under Pater's influence Wilde became fascinated aesthetically, at least by the mystery of Catholic ritual, and took to attending Mass regularly. One of Wilde's friends was David Hunter-Blair, a recent convert, who paid Wilde's way on a sojourn in Rome that included an audience with Pope Pius IX. Hunter-Blair had hopes of converting Wilde, but Wilde was apparently moved only to a kind of romantic excitement at this close brush with the dangerous Catholic Church,” writes Andrew McCraken in “The Long Conversion of Oscar Wilde.”
The Catholic Church holds Wilde in a redeemed position. Before his death he was provided conditional baptism and anointed by Father Dunne who described Wilde as lucid. I fully believe in last minute conversions, but looking at the life of Wilde this seems unlikely.
I would much like to have met Wilde. I like to laugh and I am confident he would deliver unique ways of looking at life in one-liners. In modern society he would be the super celebrity he was, but further out of the reach of his haters.
In the pages of “Dorian Gray” we can decide for ourselves if the consequences of excess are worth it. We must decide if sin is real or a societal illusion. We must face the dark corners of our soul and chose our own path. To read Wilde is to wrestle with one’s self. To read Wilde is to understand the modern world.