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Spring Term Notes #3: Influence and (Im)personality in Dorian Gray

I think it's been twelve years since I first took an undergraduate seminar - on Aeschylus' Oresteia - and I was thinking recently which text I have taught the most. I think there is a good chance that it is Wilde's Picture of Dorian Gray, an irreducibly popular text that has been a fixture on Exeter Penryn's nineteenth-century module since before the financial crash. I certainly see that I have not one but two blogs on it, from 2016 and 2010 respectively.

I was pretty fascinated by Wilde as a student, but it might surprise the undergraduates who routinely turn to it in essays and exams to know that Dorian Gray certainly wouldn't be my first choice of text to write about. The problem of reading is always one of negotiating a relation between surface and depth, and Wilde is deceptively elusive insofar as this novel is both about absolute surface (style, performativity, 'mere' beauty) and absolute depth (secrecy, the impasse of paradox, and the deliberate withdrawal of meaning).

One of the discussions which is fairly routine, but always valuable, was about agency. What kind of protagonist is Dorian? On the one hand, he might be considered the infinite embodiment of decadence, a character who through the supernatural ruse of exchanging his life with a portrait, can literally live a biological life as if it were art. The exorbitance of this makes him a kind of Faustian anti-hero, operating - perhaps ironically, perhaps even parodically - within a classic moral narrative of guilt, crime and punishment.

On the other hand, is this quasi-tragic agency not rather fragile when we come to think of it? If the aesthete or decadent is supposedly a protagonist who seizes experience without reserve, is not his experience something of a pale imitation? One interesting point made in seminars was the idea that Dorian was a naive and passive tabula rasa across which two contending ideals play out: that of Basil Hallward (Dorian as homoerotic apogee of beauty and cultural grace) and that of Lord Henry (Dorian as dandy and wit who exists beyond conventional morality). In this reading, far from the locus of agency, Dorian would be fated to live passively, always at second-hand, always displaced from his self through a kind of mimesis that is also implicated in the painting motif. As Lord Henry himself says, one becomes 'an echo of some one else's music'.

Through absolute chance (and the fact that the ravages of illness had reduced the seminar numbers, including the person who due to give the presentation) this discussion went side-by-side with an impromptu activity where we used nineteenth-century periodicals to trace the history of some of the objects and references in the novel's strange eleventh chapter. The many and varied things collected by Dorian are exotic and often dangerous, displaced in time and space from the Victorian present: gorgeous fabrics from the Machiavellian city states of Renaissance Italy; tribal fetishes from 'barbaric' continents; the religious apparatuses of ritual and ceremony.

As some of the students uncovered the narratives concealed behind these objects (e.g. the secret masculine rites involving the Brazilian juripari, an instrument which children and women are forbidden to see on pain of death), something snapped into view, which was the theme of influence. The objects have a magnetic ability to fascinate, compel, act and react, something frequently glossed under the figure of poison:
The Renaissance knew of strange manners of poisoning - poisoning by a helmet, and a lighted torch, by an embroidered glove and a jewelled fan, by a gilded pomander and by an amber chain.
The word 'influence' occurs thirty times in the novel, each occurrence fascinating in its own right. Influence can flow from beauty, phrases, styles, a mode of thought, a perfume, books. Despite Basil stating that Dorian's personality had 'the most extraordinary influence' over him, the operations of influence are broadly speaking impersonal: they work dimly, elusively, even scientifically, and appear to move between objects and subjects - organic and inorganic - without distinction.

If we think about action in the novel in terms of 'influence', in a way that absorbs subjects into a wider network of subjects and objects and absorbs normal psychological categories (such as morality) into an impersonal web of attraction and repulsion, then questions of agency and - importantly - character suddenly look very different. Agency (or indeed passivity, normally conceived) are the wrong concepts. In Dorian Gray, the seduction of an object, the incalculability of an aphorism or the momentary effect of a face in profile 'act' to bring situations and dispositions into being every bit as much - if not more - than the conscious work of human characters. The yellow book or a snatch of music is as much a narrative 'subject' as Dorian, Henry, Basil or any other character. Dorian Gray hence evokes a mysterious lattice of influence, lines of force which are at once scientific and magical, leading this novel of such dazzling personalities towards a much more impersonal sense of life.

[See here (Irish poetry) and here (Anne Brontë) for my other two late blogs on spring 2017 teaching, as well earlier posts on In Memoriam and Caleb Williams.]

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