The Nakeder Wilde


The Picture of Dorian Gray is a certifiable classic (for whatever that's worth), its supernatural, Faustian bargain having long passed into the culture as popular mythology, but the book remains a mystery to me. How can the novel contain so many pleasures, reading after reading, year after year, despite the fact that it is, unmistakably, a disjointed, sloppy, and cliché-ridden novel?  I had cause to revisit my strange attraction to “Dorian” upon picking up a copy of the recent publication of a new version.  Sensationally denoted as the “uncensored” story, the new edition, handsomely if crowdedly packaged by editor Nicholas Frankel, is based on Wilde's original, unedited manuscript.  After its submission to Lippincott's and its editor, J. M. Stoddart, the text was toned down to protect the virtue of its readers.  The new version faithfully restores the text as it was when Wilde shipped it off to Philadelphia in the spring of 1890.

The restorations are, for the most part, uninteresting and add little to the novel one way or the other.  Many of them will interest only the most dedicated Wilde scholar, such as alterations in spelling (“Sphynxes” instead of “Sphinxes”), punctuation (Stoddart put in dashes to make the dialogue seem livelier), and some minor moralistic whitewashing (in one place, referring to men who commit adultery, the line “live with their own wives” becomes “live correctly”).  Some are significant, such as the more overt treatment of Basil Hallward's deep crush on Dorian.  Stoddart deleted the sentence “There was love in every line [of the portrait], and in every touch there was passion”, for instance.  If such changes qualify as “censorship”, the naked text, as it were, remains far removed from the tawdry or the salacious.  No rampaging queerness to satisfy our jaded palates. Moreover, the alterations only vaguely cover up the novel's homosexual subtext.  Only idiots would have been fooled by Stoddart's changes, and if deference to morons was the only way to get a ripping yarn into the shops, so be it.

Curiously, of the two versions which have been published before now—the original serial published in Lippincott's in 1890 and the longer, reworked version published in 1891, both available in the Norton Critical Edition—I have always preferred the earlier, shorter, graspingly commercial one.  The removal of Stoddart's little “refinements” only enhances my enthusiasm for the original's rawness: I prefer it because it is bad. Unlike the expanded novel of 1891, or any of Wilde's other publications, the Lippincott's “Dorian” gives us a surpisingly hackish Wilde, a serious artist testing the waters of popular fiction with a supernatural thriller which its author, on an unconscious level perhaps, must have known was too juicy to lock away in the tower of High Art.  There was something in the tale which absolutely cried out for handling by the smudged hands of commerce.  With apologies to Quentin Tarantino, this is Wilde's version of a Grind House feature: shameless, self-indulgent, and oh so fun.

So it must have seemed in 1890, when Wilde cranked out a brief encounter with Mrs. Leaf, Dorian's housekeeper, whom he summons for the keys to the attic where he will hide the accursed painting.  Mrs. Leaf is "a dear old lady" who wears a picture of her dead husband around her neck.  She distrusts the French valet, scoffing, “Them foreigners doesn't understand jam, Master Dorian.  They calls it 'compot'.  But I'll bring it to you myself some morning, if you lets me”.  The narrator goes on: “It was a poor thing, she felt, for anyone to be born a foreigner”.  Cheap comedy; in 1891 Wilde shortened and tamped down this exchange, as he should have done, but the first Mrs. Leaf, a weak pass at a Dickens domestic, is a bizarre, jolting intrusion.  She doesn't belong in either text—Wilde could easily have had his hero manage to hide the painting on his own—but in Lippincott's she appears as what she is, a silly old bird introduced for space-filling comic relief.  If Wilde believed he was turning in a work of superior art, he surely wasn't in his right mind. 

The unevenness isn't always charming.  The Lippincott's version exposes a ghastly mistake on Wilde's part.  No modern reader can fail to be shocked at the appearance of the repulsive theater manager, "a hideous Jew"..."smoking a vile cigar"...with his "greasy ringlets, and an enormous diamond blaz[ing] in the center of a soiled shirt", a "monster", as Dorian describes him, who has all but enslaved poor Sybil.  The theater manager is a stock villain in the worst tradition of popular anti-Semitism, a vile caricature unworthy of its author.  Still, there is nothing in Wilde's body of work to suggest he was an anti-Semite, and in keeping with the novel's other tone-shattering missteps, the "hideous Jew" shows how impatient Wilde was with the necessities of the form. Perhaps it is no less forgivable, but surely it was expediency, not anti-Semitism, which prompted his choice. He needed a grotesque, so he plucked one off the shelf.   Expediency marks “Dorian Gray” from start to finish. Whatever Wilde needed, he threw in, almost like a shaggy dog tale. In any of its versions, but particularly so in the shorter text, leaves most readers with the impression of sorting through several different novels at once: a supernatural thriller, an essay on art, a Victorian melodrama, a prose poem, a moralistic fairy tale, and a play molded into fiction. 

More than any one of these things, the novel is like overhearing a conversation Wilde was having with himself.  The three main characters, as is fairly obvious to anyone with knowledge of their creator, embody different sides of his personality.  The unoriginal and sensationalistic plot frequently allows Wilde to try on different masks and conjure up different pretexts for the expression of his poetic sensibility.  The entire book can also be seen as a work of criticism, a meditation on both Pater and Huysmans' "A Rebours", the poisonous book which so transforms Dorian's life.  The 1891 text smoothes out the heterogeneous elements, making them fit together a little better, but even the slightest scrutiny still reveals a novel thrown together with amateurish disdain for unity.  It cannot escape its own hodgepodge.  The quick and dirty 1890 text unapologetically leaves its various parts clumsily patched together.  The seams show, and the seams are often unsightly; but it is the seams which nevertheless give the book its charm.

Chapter Seven offers the best glimpse into why the novel's appeal lies precisely in its ungainly jamming-together of different tones and styles.  In this chapter, Dorian, Harry and Basil attend Sybil's first performance after accepting Dorian's proposal of marriage. During her disastrous turn as Juliet, Dorian is horrified to discover that love has ruined her talent. Backstage, he cruelly breaks off their engagement.   At the end of the chapter Wilde gives us an impressionistic transition between Dorian's fight with Sybil and his awakening the following afternoon.  It is probably around 11:00 or 11:30 when he storms out (the inquest reports that Sybil and her mother left the theater at 12:30). But not even the dark, infernal streets of London at midnight really interest Wilde.  Here is the only paragraph given to the night-hours following his wrenching break with Sybil, when Dorian wanders through the East End:

Where he went he hardly knew.  He remembered wandering through dimly-lit streets, past gaunt black-shadowed archways and evil-looking houses.  Women with hoarse voices and harsh laughter had called after him.  Drunkards had reeled by cursing, and chattering to themselves like monstrous apes.  He had seen grotesque children huddled upon doorsteps, and heard shrieks and oaths from gloomy courts.

The prose is desultory.  Dorian is walking through London for hours (five hours is my rough guess) in a gloomy state of mind, lost in “sombre passions”.  This would seem to afford Wilde's language a chance to take flight in a few of his infamous purple passages, perhaps something along the lines of his poem "The Harlot's House" ("Like strange mechanical grotesques,/Making fantastic arabesques,/The shadows raced across the blind").  Yet it is a formulaic London through which Dorian walks, peopled with cliches and rife with stagy effects.  Not until the next paragraph does the narrative open up:

As dawn was just breaking he found himself close to Covent Garden.  The darkness lifted, and, flushed with faint fires, the sky hollowed itself into a perfect pearl.  Huge carts filled with nodding lilies rumbled slowly down the polished empty street.  The air was heavy with the perfume of the flowers, and their beauty seemed to bring him an anodyne from his pain.  He followed into the market, and watched the men unloading their waggons.  A white-smocked carter offered him some cherries.  He thanked him, wondered why he refused to accept any money for them, and began to eat them listlessly.  They had been plucked at midnight, and the coldness of the moon had entered into them.

The scene turns into a richly detailed tableau vivant.  From here Dorian passes through and returns home.  At his doorstep he pauses to look around him.  “The sky was pure opal now, and the roofs of the houses glistened like silver against it”.  A few minutes later he is in his bedroom, viewing the portrait.  When he parts the curtains, “bright dawn flooded the room and swept the fantastic shadows into dusky corners”.  The phantoms of the previous night melt into the light of day.  In the fresh, clear morning air he decides he has acted rashly, and a “faint echo” of his love for Sybil returns.

Dorian is passive throughout the night, as he is for most of the novel.  Just as Sybil, prior to her fatal passion, is "but a reed" through which Shakespeare's music passes, so too is Dorian an instrument upon which different artists play.  "The passion for sin" dominates Dorian, strips his will.  He is one of those men and women who lack freedom of will and "move to their terrible end as automatons move".  The direction of his existence is swept up in the changing currents of his sensual explorations.  Chapter Nine details Dorian's successive obsessions with perfumes, music, jewels, relics, and so on, in methodical imitation of his hero Raoul (i.e. Huysmans' Des Esseintes).  Dorian "abandons himself to their subtle influences, and then, having, as it were, caught their colour and satisfied his intellectual curiosity, leaves them with...curious indifference".  He never falls into "the error of arresting his intellectual development by any formal acceptance of creed or system, or of mistaking, for a house in which to live, an inn that is but suitable for the sojourn of the night". 

Dorian's philosophy is grounded in his real experiences on the morning of Sybil's death.  In a paragraph anticipating Proust, Wilde, giving form to Dorian's emerging thoughts on how to live a life worshipping the senses, describes how one can awaken before the dawn and witness, in a half-dreaming state, the "vivid life" that lurks in the night gradually settle into the familiar: "Out of the unreal shadows of the night comes back the real life that we had known".  The return of the mundane gives us

a terrible sense of the necessity for the continuance of energy in the same wearisome round of stereotyped habits, or a wild longing, it may be, that our eyelids might open some morning upon a world that had been re-fashioned anew for our pleasure in the darkness, a world in which things would have fresh shapes and colours, and be changed, or have other secrets, a world in which the past would have little or no place, or survive, at any rate, in no conscious form of obligation or regret, the remembrance even of joy having its bitterness, and the memories of pleasure their pain. 
     It was the creation of such worlds as these that seemed to Dorian Gray to be the true object, or amongst the true objects of life.

The world was "re-fashioned anew" for Dorian during the fateful night after his break with Sybil.  The girl poisons herself and the portrait changed for the first time, showing "lines of cruelty" around the mouth.  Life has changed considerably by the time his servant awakens him the next afternoon.

Thus it is no surprise that Dorian should crave, and follow a philosophy designed to reproduce, those brief periods during which the solid world seems to melt away and become smoke-like, reality dissolving into "impressions, unstable, flickering, inconsistent" (Pater) which last only a few fleeting moments.  It is the way we experience the coming and going of these impressions, not the impressions themselves, that gives us the most pleasure.  Movement from one state to the next, the "continual vanishing away, that strange, perpetual, weaving and unweaving of ourselves" (Pater again), is the high point.  The world between worlds offers the only sense of real freedom a passive, artistic nature can experience. Or, as De Quincey wrote, "All action in any direction is best expounded, measured, and made apprehensible, by reaction".  The contrast between two conditions of mind is key for De Quincey, "the re-establishment of the goings-on of the world in which we live, first makes us profoundly sensible of the awful parenthesis that had suspended them".  In short, life's exquisite moments occur in the sensual awareness of one experience folding into another.

The Picture of Dorian Gray repeatedly inscribes such foldings in its form as the text restlessly disrupts its own univocity.  The addition of the Preface to the 1891 edition assures the reader that she is about to pick up an experimental object, the novel itself every bit as much a product of a quasi-scientific cast of mind as are Dorian's researches into mystical perfumes, rare embroideries, Ecclesiastical vestments or "curious concerts".  In the novel Wilde works from the standpoint of his own critical position, cosmopolitan criticism, just then crystallizing in "The Critic As Artist" (part of the collection "Intentions", published in 1891).  The single personality becomes multiple through the adoption of poses, masks, disguises, and the various modes of thought and expression available to the artist-critic.  A Mrs. Leaf, a Sybil Vane, an Alan Campbell, "grotesque children huddled upon doorsteps", and all of the other cliches in the novel become playthings for Wilde, taken up, used for a time, and set down again as his whimsy dictates.  To praise some parts of the novel as "sincere" or "artistic" and dismiss others as bad cliches is to miss Wilde's higher point.  Everything an artist touches is a passive instrument through which his personality passes into the world.  Dorian Gray is as much a puppet as Sybil Vane. 

And so it is the lurching, halting, skating, swerving, hiccuping text of the Lippincott's serial which best exemplifies the essence of Wilde's philosophy.  It is the raw 1890 version, not the housebroken 1891 text, which exposes its own devices to greatest effect.  The transitions between high and low, originality and stereotype, quotation and poetry, essay and dialogue—the sensation of moving between the different moods and materials in a writer's mind—make the book what it really is, namely, a vivid but messy work of criticism.  "Dorian Gray" is more of an elaborate variation on the two-person dialogues of "Intentions" than it is a proper work of fiction, and in a way the dialogues can be read as the perfected form the novel sought in vain.  The mass-market serialized novel is the purer specimen, for it enshrines an array of useful mistakes.  The publication of the original manuscript heightens the feeling, already there in the old Lippincott's version, that only when we confront its spectacular failure as a novel do its other, innumerable treasures start to appear before our eyes.

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