Book review — ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ by Oscar Wilde

Published under this cover by Penguin books

I feel when reviewing a book such as this, I must either come out with some new and unthought-of insights into the meaning of the novel, revolutionary perspective or — dare I say it — extreme criticism, and perhaps derision at the long-lasting hype over such mediocrity.

I’m not sure I can offer any of these things. However, I would hope that if someone wants my thoughts, they would come here — if you want the views of the many more eloquent academics that come before me, they’re readily available online, I’m sure. My insights are ones already much explored, my perspective far from revolutionary and as for derision … I just can’t. This novel was wonderful. So many facets of the work came together to dazzle, stupefy and chill the blood of the reader. What immediately catches the attention is the prose — delicate, evocative, florid, yet at no point descending into the overbearing lectures of other antiquated authors that have, just recently, been the bane of my existence.* The book is an absolute joy to read, in a purely linguistic sense, from start to finish. If you let yourself become absorbed in the language, the story flows.

Of course, as always my attention is captured most easily by the philosophical aspects, and in this area the book is a triumph indeed. Even aside from the heady language, the value of this book is within the controversial, subversive, psychologically challenging philosophy expressed. One is never sure if Wilde is enamoured with, or abhors such cynical nihilism — an argument could be made for both, simultaneously. The nihilistic aspect, explored rather seductively, is ultimately condemned — nonetheless it is written as an argument, a persuasion, into harsh, logical, witty and blunt mannerisms and a casual, perhaps nonexistent, stance on morality in any traditional sense. It appears to be Wilde’s exploration of the allure of such methods of thought, yet as attractive as it is written to be, the consequences are clear.

The plot, is one widely known, at least in part, through the famous nature of the classic, as well as the many adaptations of the work for stage and film. However, spoilers are a concern for many, so I will simply say that this book is not for the easily disturbed — though the sinister nature of the book lies not in open terror or violence, but a disturbing and slow rot of the soul, which I found unnerving to say the least. It’s horror lay in psychological unease, no shocks or starts. But this form of fear lingers long after closing the book.

As for the subtext, this book was known for being what began trouble for Oscar Wilde. Beyond the nihilistic cynicism, there is much to do with love in the book — whether of others or one’s self. However, it is easy to spot an extremely homoromantic tendency among the characters of the book, which led to public suspicion of Wilde himself. Of course, as a retrospective analysist  of such ideas, it’s simpler to connect Wilde’s known sexuality to the views of his characters, but in the 19th century this still lead to Wilde’s trial and imprisonment for ‘unnatural acts’. Leaving behind such outdated controversy, the descriptions of character and personal/inner beauty within the book are truly moving at some points, though the book was certainly never a romance of any kind.

I must confess that I disliked the vast majority of the characters, but in such a novel I hardly expected otherwise. What I adored was how they yet seemed so human, in the worst ways. Not monsters, just far too human. Then the beautiful prose, the beautiful and horrifying story of morality and the soul — and the corruption of both — makes ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ one of the most rewarding books I have ever had the pleasure to read, and I’m sure my (already battered second-hand copy) will inevitably suffer through many a re-read, and cause much reflection.

*  ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ by Victor Hugo. Really good book thus far, but with no sense of brevity or conciseness. If I have to hear the history and geography of Paris one more time …

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Apologies for the lack of posts lately, but I was busy. Exams and such. But that’s all over and I have my results and I did pretty well! (*cheers*). But I’m back now and hoping to post with much regularity this summer!

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An assortment of jugglers, priests, activists, socialists, atheists, buskers and conspiracy theorists

…  and I only walked down one and a half streets.

Sin, hellfire, death and bloody foetuses — some of the cheerful topics mentioned on O’Connel Street on a daily basis. In fairness, that’s not the only stuff happening.

O’Connell Street — not my photo

I go into town quite often, and I see a lot of loud people on the side of the streets of Dublin. As a lover of music, I am always delighted by buskers. Even those with a lack (or over-abundance) of volume or skill will elicit a smile, and deserve it. Busking takes courage, which I know as someone who tried once. Just once. And drunk guys are scary even in the middle of the day when there are two of them and one of you and you’re already a little bit scared shitless. Also, I’m a really small woman who frankly at twenty still considers herself a child in the world. So: huge props for anyone with the guts to put themselves out there. Even if you’re rapping, or break-dancing, or juggling, I massively respect your will to perform, and I think you ultimately make town a much more awesome place. Please continue. Don’t forget to be awesome, my friends.

However, I wouldn’t be fond of the charity hounds that are really hard to avoid on Henry Street on a Saturday. I mean, I respect that your charity is quite possibly lovely, and that perhaps you’re a volunteer and giving your time to help others. Or, if you’re getting paid (I know people who have a harsh view on this, and am a bit sceptical myself), then for all I know you really care anyway and might just really really need the money and who am I to judge? Not the worst thing you could be doing. You’re just freaking annoying. And you really need to understand that while I feel quite guilty every time I pass … how am I possibly supposed to pick a charity? I have limited funds. And if I give money to the blind, then I’m not giving money to cancer research (for example). And in that case, do I just give the money to the most aggressive salesperson? Because that seems a little … off to me. But either way, while I really dislike being approached by you, I don’t actually dislike you personally.

Then there are those on the street who I view with full disapproval. And no, I’m not talking about drunk people and drug addicts (frankly, while a little wary, I’m sure they’re getting enough disapproval to be getting on with). No, I’m talking about the guys (and yes, always guys for some strange reason) who stand on a box with a megaphone and declare to the street that we’re all sinners who are going to hell. Those people really piss me off. I’m not religious. You may have noticed. Religion frankly doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, but that’s OK because if it did I wouldn’t be an atheist. And I’m sure my atheism doesn’t make sense to a lot of people either. We’re not all the same. Tha’scool. Peace and love and all that. However. Hell always seemed to be the most hateful concept imaginable. Especially for those who believe in an all-loving God. Burning for eternity? Really? Either God condemns us/doesn’t save us just ’cause we’re not giving him enough attention (is he five?), or else you think he’s dispensing justice and that I truly deserve eternal hellfire, despite the fact that I try very hard to live good life. And that, I think, makes you a really crap human being. Monstrous, actually. What happened to compassion? Second chances? Redemption? Why do I feel like the person you make Christ out to be would not approve of this? He loves us all, apparently. That’s some seriously tough love, darling.

So yeah, I sort of despise these people. And the fact that people like them are still influencing the politics and social issues of Ireland, my country, is both heart-breaking and deeply unsettling. And this is not me ranting against religion per se. If you want to hang out on the streets singing religious songs and telling everyone about God and Christ and love I will not begrudge you it. I will not believe you, but I’ll think you’re probably a nice person. I just can’t stand those who spread needless hate. It makes me feel vaguely sick inside. It makes my heart hurt. It makes me weep for the children you raise to believe in this hate, who will turn that hate on others or on themselves, or will turn away and be hated by you. I don’t really understand. I’m not sure I want to.

Of course then there’s the anti-abortionists (I have to say, Pro-Life is the most incredibly loaded term I’ve ever heard, for various reasons. I will not be using it), who make me pretty angry. I’m not saying you need to get an abortion. I’m not saying you have to vote for it. I’m not saying you even have to approve of it, though I could give you a few reasons why you should. What I am saying, is that the scare-mongering, dogmatic, idiotic mis-information you constantly spread with your disturbing flyers is simply horrible. You’re lying to people. You’re emotionally black-mailing people when you send your small children to hand out flyers about the death of foetuses and rape. Not to mention indoctrinating your children. They have no idea what they’re handing out, the amount of hate they will get for handing people things like that. And then there’s the terrible parenting involved in dragging your children into your political, dogmatic, fundamentalist agenda, which is completely inappropriate (bringing up rape? Seriously?). Then there’s the fact that YOU JUST LET A CHILD WANDER UP TO STRANGERS in the middle of O’Connell Street (handing them highly controversial leaflets)! A street which I have seen many druggies and drunk people on. And while someone is either arguing with you or praising you for spreading God’s Law, someone could kidnap or injure your child. So you’ll protect unborn life, but not the child in front of you? It seems really illogical.

*deep breath*

This just really upsets me, and if you get a dirty look after attempting to give me a leaflet, I … I can’t even say I’m sorry. I might be judgemental. I don’t really know you as a person. But I know one thing about you, and I hate it. I hate what you’re doing to this country. I try not to hate you. But it can be hard. I can be very judgemental, and I’d like to be better, I try to be better. But when you tell people that abortion is murder, you judge them too. You upset people who you don’t know, you hurt them. You know nothing about why they did it, you’re just giving them a label that is untrue. Murderer. I’d probably cry if someone called me that, and I don’t even kill spiders on purpose (there was an accidental incident or two when I was trying to catch some spiders to release into the Wild. A story for another time).

However, while there was the usual hoard of anti-abortionists hanging around with their distasteful flyers, I was positively delighted to see a stand representing Atheism Ireland right beside them. I clung to their stand like a raft of reason in a sea of ignorance. I had a really interesting discussion with one of the guys handing out stuff. They had print-outs about humanism and secularisation and such. I’ll have to write something about my opinion of them once I’ve done more research. While I am a proud atheist, and a firm humanist, I didn’t agree with everything we discussed, but I firmly follow their goals of secularisation of state-funded schools, secularised teacher-training, non-religious oaths for presidents and judges and legislation that is completely without Catholic control beyond the vote of individual Catholics along with every other Irish citizen.

One of the fellow-atheist’s complaints that I disagreed with, however, was that religious people waste their time focusing on an afterlife that doesn’t exist. I’m honestly of the opinion that as long as they’re not wasting anyone else’s time, or hurting anyone, then … why not? If it might bring them comfort of guidance or whatever (though I do believe that their children should get to choose what they believe for themselves). I might not believe in it, but not everything worth believing in is true. I for one very much valued the (embarrassingly long) period of time that I believed in Santa Claus. I like to think about magic. I don’t actually believe in it, but I wouldn’t consider it a waste of time either. As long as religion promotes love and not hate, I can’t dislike it. Anything that makes the world a little kinder, a little more accepting, can only be good. I don’t think you need religion to be good. I don’t think religion makes you bad. And I think good deeds only done for heaven aren’t really good at all. If your religion makes the world better (and I mean by reducing the pain and suffering of people, and helping them to have a chance at health and happiness, not fulfilling the strange agenda of people who died over 2000 years ago — by which I mean specifically the writers of the Old Testament, but also various more recent people), then good. If your cynicism, your atheism, makes the world a sadder place … why promote it? I’m an atheist, but first and foremost I’m a humanist. I believe that we have to make this world good, and I want to work with anyone who will help with that. If your atheism becomes nihilism, the meaninglessness feared by Nietzsche a hundred years ago, then why spread it? I believe that we do not need a god. That there is no god. But we can help each other, and that is what we should do. Because we are each of us human, and have value if only because we feel pain and feel pain for others.

So, I’m going to look up atheism Ireland, and see what kind of message they spread. But regardless, I was very much pleased to see people from my side of the fence about. We can’t find any middle ground or compromise if we only ever see one side out in the open.

So, buskers? Keep on busking. Music is good for the soul.

Atheists? Stay positive. Let’s make life better, shall we?

Theists? Believe in love, and a god who loves. Because you deserve a god who returns your unconditional love — and those around you deserve it too.

Those happy Irish Buddhist guys? Keep dancing if that’s your thing. You seem lovely.

Charity muggers? I like you a lot more when you’re not obnoxious. I won’t give you money anyway. If I give money, it will be because I rationalised it and looked up charity info, not because you were chatty. Hope you find a more fun job.

Scare-mongering anti-abortionists and hell-obsessed preachers? Please just go away. You make me really sad, and kind of scared of the future of this country.

Photo is not mine. Opinions are. However, if you think I made a particular generalisation or unjust comment, tell me specifically why it was unfair and I’ll either defend my choice of words or apologise and revise. My aim is to become less ignorant, not stick to my guns to the point of obnoxiousness.

The gift of words …

“We read to know we are not alone” ~ C.S. Lewis*

When I was five, I hated reading. I loved stories, but others had to read them to me — it was just too much work. It was so much easier to just make up my own stories (and act them out using my hands — my parents are still talking about this, for some reason).

That all changed with one book. My brother read the first Harry Potter to me (he was only eight at the time — retrospectively I’m really impressed by his patience), and then refused to read out the second.  So, if I wanted to find out what happened next to Harry and his friends (who seemed so brave and cool, being a whole 11 years old) I would have to, horror of horrors, read the next one myself.

I like to tell my brother that he created a monster, but really he gave me my love of reading, which I think has defined me as a person more than anything else in my life, except perhaps for my family. It’s entirely possible, perhaps even probable, that I would have discovered the joy of literary endeavour anyway, but I don’t think as soon, or with such a passion.

“What a treacherous thing to believe that a person is more than a person.” ~ John Green

I think the most important thing about books is that they can be an insight into the mind of the Other. An insight into a mind completely unlike your own unlocks thoughts, and the realisation that everyone thinks, just as you do. That everyone remembers and dreads and hopes and dreams. That the same thoughtless fury that provokes your own harsh words can be why others lash out — books taught me that the villain can be human, and that the hero can be flawed. They taught me that my own flaws must be recognised and overcome. And even better when you discover a like mind, a kindred spirit, and realise that you are not some bizarre abnormality for thinking the way you do.

“It always shocked me when I realized that I wasn’t the only person in the world who thought and felt such strange and awful things.” ~ John Green

I was not a neglected child, by any means, but we all have our hardships, and I found solace in the stories of others, feeling like Matilda as I escaped to Hogwarts, Middle Earth, Time City, the amazon and even rural Britain. Books made me think about the world, and its complexity.

The first time I truly began to think about my own morality, or my own possibly passive immorality, was when I was 12, and read a heart-breaking book called Is Anybody Listening by Larry O’Loughlin. Almost anyone in my class who read this book seemed to say, “It was good, yeah. Sad, though.” I cried at least once an hour for about two days. It made me think of horrible things happening in other places, it made me think about how privileged my own existence was, and it made me feel achingly guilty for the fact that I ever forget this, or ever ignore the suffering in the world.

I came to realise that, in fairness, I was only 12, and there’s a limit to what a 12 year old can do. A cause for current guilt is that I still don’t do a lot to help in various matters. But if ever I make any sort of difference or impact in this world, I think it will be because of that book, and others like it that I stumbled upon in later years.

Another advantage to reading: people often assume that I’m smarter than I actually am, and I attribute this directly to a rather good vocabulary. You really don’t need to be smart to have a good vocabulary, you just need to read a shit-load of books. But this can be a serious asset when writing essays or engaging in debates — if eloquent and verbose sentence construction is second nature to you, you will be able to more accurately convey your precise meaning and thoughts. So, on a purely technical level, reading helped me with my writing and those silly comprehensions they make you do throughout secondary school. Also, good knowledge of English can help with comprehensions in French, or Italian, or other Latin-based languages. They can have very similar roots.

So yeah, reading is good from that aspect. But I think the true value will always be emotional, historical and intellectual. Books taught me to think in the way I do. Books taught me why others might think in the way they do. They taught me about historical events — not with dates, but from psychological and sociological perspectives (Animal Farm, by George Orwell. Good book). Books were my first peek into philosophical thought.

The Discworld series (by Terry Pratchett) taught me folklore, sought out the absurdities in both foreign and familiar cultures, taught me the beauty of parody, and taught me that no matter how silly a character, or how flawed a person, they have the ability to inspire with their own quiet determination. Also, for comedic works, Pratchett’s books contain an astounding amount of philosophical insight — no, really! (A philosophy lecturer of mine even quotes Discworld from time to time).

The Lord of the Rings (by J.R.R. Tolkien) taught me that heroes can come from anywhere. That bravery, especially in the face of fear, is far more admirable than physical strength or worldly knowledge (especially Samwise Gamgee — my hero).

“Sam: It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something.
Frodo: What are we holding onto, Sam?
Sam: That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo… and it’s worth fighting for.”
~ The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien

A Little Princess (by Frances Hodgson Burnett) taught me the strength of the will, the strength of the imagination, the desperate need for it in the darkest days.

And Harry Potter … well, Harry Potter teaches me new things every time I read it. Honestly. It taught me to re-evaluate my first impressions. It taught me the importance of forgiveness, the value of friendship, the bravery of necessity, that people are people no matter where they’re from or what gifts they possess.  It taught me that

“It is our choices … that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” ~ Albus Dumbledore (Harry Potter, by J.K. Rowling).

These lessons cannot be undone, and nor would I want them to be. Sometimes they were hard to learn (the tears — good god, the tears), but they’re important, and I will endeavour to always remember them.

This post is about books, but by no means do I wish to ignore other media of expression, I simply express that which had the most profound effect on me. Graphic novels can also be powerful (Sandman by Neil Gaiman, and Watchmen by Alan Moore are very much recommended). Films, while falling short of books in some areas, surpass them in others (Groundhog Day. Don’t even get me started. Everyone should see that film). Art, photography, plays and poems (Emily Dickinson’s where it’s at) all help to shape the world, and describe it in a way that our own minds cannot.

Tonight, I am going to a Harry Potter quiz. 14 years and infinite re-reads later, it’s still one of my favourites.

“Not all those who wander are lost.” ~ J.R.R. Tolkien

A little doodle depicting one of my favourite quotes of all time …

*Attributed to C.S. Lewis in the film ‘Shadowlands’ — my lazy researching (by which I mean Googling) did not verify whether he actually said that.

Is it good to exist?

He’s adorable *_* And exists …. That is the only relevance, to be honest.

Is it good to exist?

This was a question put to my philosophy class today, while we were studying the environmental ethics of Hans Jonas, a German philosopher.

When discussing whether it’s wrong to destroy a rainforest or a species or even the future of our own race … all arguments for preserving nature are null and void if existence is not a good thing.

My lecturer told us that for the Buddhists, life is suffering (which is why detachment is the way to enlightenment — if you don’t have something you are not sad when you lose it). I cannot refute this. Life is suffering. Some have suffered more than me, some less — but we all suffer.

“Life is a disease: sexually transmitted, and invariably fatal.”~ Neil Gaiman

So why is existence good? Why do we strive to live? Why do all things strive? Why do we think killing is one of the highest sins? Why is the destruction of the human race to be feared, rather than desired? There is a clear way to end all suffering, yet most of us deny it with every fibre of our being.

I’ve thought about this before, perhaps more than is healthy. The conclusion I’ve come to, the only true answer I can find … is one of potential.

Sure, most of us will experience happiness at some point, but it will not last, before we descend once more into sadness, stress and general angst. So is the sadness balanced out by this happiness? Not necessarily, perhaps for some of us.

But when we are at our worst … death offers us nothing. I do not believe in an afterlife (you may differ from me, here), but death … leads to nothing. It means that your life had an imbalance of sadness. But if you choose to live … there is a chance. It might be small, it might be vaguely irrational, depending on your circumstances, but it is there. This hope of happiness. That is what we strive for.  And as someone who has experienced what I believe to be both intense joy and intense sorrow … I think the joy is worth waiting for. A gamble. We exist for all those little moments in which we are happy, or hope to be happy. We live to see it in others, see it for others when they can’t see it for themselves.

“All things strive.” ~ Terry Pratchett

I believe life is worth it for that chance. Because nothing compares to that joy. We have all heard Sartre’s famous quote, “Hell is other people” yet he fails to mention that only with other people, choosing life alongside us, will we reach a form of heaven. It may be fleeting, it may fade, but it existed, and it was utterly beautiful.

We may see it again.

“FOR THE SAKE OF PRISONERS AND THE FLIGHT OF BIRDS. WHAT CAN THE HARVEST HOPE FOR, IF NOT THE CARE OF THE REAPER MAN?” ~ Terry Pratchett

While I don’t dislike Buddhism, I could never adopt it for myself. Life is suffering, true. And you minimise this suffering through detachment. However … when you are detached, you lose that chance at euphoria. I don’t think it’s worth it.

Image

Someday … we shall all be gone. All that we know, all that we have done, all that we have thought and dreamed and achieved shall have faded. But not yet. There is beauty to be found that has not yet come to pass.

I ask only that you give it a chance.

“After all this time, it still seems to me like straight and fast is the only way out — but I choose the labyrinth. The labyrinth blows, but I choose it.” ~ ‘Looking for Alaska’ by John Green.

So … is it good to exist? Not always. Existence can be good or bad. But who are we to deny anyone, including ourselves, that chance?

Let me know what you think. Let me know if you have questions. I wrote this at 1am. Bear that in mind, please.

If you have a thought that you think is relevant, or might change my own view, I might write something else on this topic incorporating your philosophies.

Influences: Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, John Green, Sartre, moral philosophy, life, Buddhism, etc.

The first photograph is not mine. The second is (it’s of Stephen’s Green Park, in Dublin, Ireland).