The Importance of Being Wicked

Ophelia Gregory & James Soderholm

Trigger Warning: This dialogue includes a description of the murder of one fictional character by another fictional character.

JS: It is not clear if Dorian Gray is a hero or a villain. Neither is it clear if Wilde would have disdained that moralistic question. What do you think?

OG: Dorian himself is neither clearly a hero nor a villain because he does not stand for anything but hedonism, which is neither morally good nor bad. He merely enjoys sinning and, when it is so fun to do the opposite of what is expected of you, who would not enjoy sinning? Perhaps he is born of Wilde's own frustrations about being a 'villain' or 'a corrupting influence.’ I think the having to choose between these terms would have irritated him about the question. Why must he be a hero or a villain? Wilde has created this outrageous character of Dorian, who is young, beautiful, aristocratic, and who has the ability to moralise but ultimately has no moral scruples. Being a 'wicked' sinner like Dorian (or Wilde for that matter) is delightful, or so it is presented in the first part of the novel. When does it cease to be fun and, more importantly, why? Wickedness is as an attractive a state of being as a beauty of Hellenic proportion. Dorian embodies that beauty and yet the novel does not end happily. Can living a life of pure pleasure really corrupt the soul? Does being a contrarian automatically make you wicked or a villain? 

JS:  I think you’re right to observe that binary thinking is not Wildean. He loved paradoxes that present us with two ‘ands’ rather than a facile and tiresome ‘or’ (hero or villain, good or wicked). And, to amend William Blake, “Without contrarians, there is no progression.” Wilde also presents ‘Mobius Strip’ sorts of musings, the most circuitous being, perhaps, the one Lord Henry presents for Dorian’s consideration: “To cure the senses by means of the soul, and the soul by means of the senses.” Dorian becomes expert in the latter half of this paradox but struggles with the former half. Hedonism revels—and then wallows?—in the second half, while Christianity (and other forms of spirituality) come to life in the first half.  

And, after, all, Wilde is the one who wrote: “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are either well written or poorly written. That is all.” Wilde characteristically replaced moral categories with aesthetic ones as a way of moving—as Nietzsche would say—“beyond good and evil.” What does the word ‘wicked’ even mean in a non- or amoral register? As you so elegantly put it: “Wickedness is as an attractive a state of being as a beauty of Hellenic proportion.” That is just the kind of thing that Lord Henry would say.  

I suspect you know all about being a wicked contrarian and I wonder what the novel taught you about the value of upsetting peoples’ pieties and hypocrisies. It seems the English are particularly good at hypocrisy and it takes a damned good paradox to shake them up.

OG: Lord Henry and Dorian both end up miserable because they have only taken into account a small part of the idea of hedonism – they only do deeds that give them momentary pleasure and not deeds which could lead to the pleasure of things other than sensory – they have severed the ‘Mobius Strip’ and therefore born the consequences. This is why hedonism seemingly thrives and then wallows.

In this book Wilde is trying out the idea of aesthetics being the thing to take us beyond ‘good and evil’ – ultimately the conclusion of the novel would suggest that aesthetics cannot and will not. It is very true that ‘books are either well written or poorly written’ but they are not as ‘useless’ as Lord Henry would suggest. Ethics and beauty are seemingly opposed but life would be boring without either. If we live only for vanity then our lives shall be in vain – as Dorian’s was.

‘Wicked’ is a wonderful example of English sarcasm bleeding into the essence of a word and twisting its meaning. In other languages such as Latin, the language in which the bible was translated into English from, ‘malus’ is given the English definition of bad, evil and wicked. Bad and evil were once considered as severe ‘wickedness’ but very quickly it became associated with the hysterics of devout Christians and thus it has become a rather amusing word. It carries a sense of fun, mischievousness and the desire to go against the quite frankly boring doctrine of the Bible – a rebellion against being told how to live your life. 

This novel has highlighted to me the different types of ‘wicked contrarian’ that you can be. If you are Socrates then you must go against the grain in order to achieve a good moral outcome – even if it means ‘corrupting the youth of Athens’. Dorian Gray also had the corrupting effect of being ‘an evil influence to others’ but he was never trying to achieve anything morally good or bad – he merely did things for the thrill of it and what is more thrilling than being a contrarian? As Dorian found, being wicked is extremely enjoyable, to a point, then it stops being so. What changed for him? Having fun and being happy are separate things: one is the satisfaction of the senses and the other of the soul – another ‘Mobius Strip’ in the novel perhaps? Or was it the fact that, in standing against everyone, he stood for absolutely nothing himself? Is contrarianism a philosophical ethos or a personality trait? 

JS: In an oft-quoted letter, Wilde wrote: "Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry what the world thinks me: Dorian what I would like to be — in other ages, perhaps.” Other ages indeed, for in a few years Wilde himself—having lived a bit too ‘gayly’—was in the courtroom and basically on trial for having corrupted the youth of London, especially an eager dandy/protégé called ‘Bosie.’ He did not escape the wrath of Victorian morality and spent two years doing hard labour for his crime against nature, what he called ‘the love that dare not speak its name.” Wilde was more than a wicked contrarian, on several levels, and he finally paid the price for his rebellious flouting of convention. There is something arrogant and juvenile in his slavish admiration for Bosie, who played Dorian Gray to Wilde’s Lord Henry—and after all, sodomy was against the law.  

I would like to think of contrarianism as a philosophical ethos (Socrates) but I think too often it is merely a personality trait. Perhaps Dorian himself embodies the difference. After having been engrossed by the infamous ‘yellow book,’ we learn that “there were moments when he looked on evil simply as a mode through which he could realize his conception of the beautiful.” This remark about Dorian’s inner life seems to hover uneasily between an emerging philosophy of enlightened decadence and a twisted aspect of a demented personality. Is Wilde again having it both ways? Dorian’s wickedness is both fascinating and repellent, as was Wilde’s. Who wouldn’t like to live like Dorian Gray (or an uninhibited Wilde)—but not get caught? Isn’t realizing one’s conception of the beautiful more important—certainly more interesting—than being part of a tribal mediocrity? But Dorian is a murderer and there is nothing ‘beautiful’ about the way he kills Basil. Or is there?

Dorian Gray glanced at the picture, and suddenly an uncontrollable feeling of hatred for Basil Hallward came over him. The mad passions of a hunted animal stirred within him, and he loathed the man who was seated at the table, more than he had ever loathed anything in his whole life. He glanced wildly around. Something glimmered on the top of the painted chest that faced him. His eye fell on it. He knew what it was. It was a knife that he had brought up, some days before, to cut a piece of cord, and had forgotten to take away with him. He moved slowly towards it, passing Hallward as he did so. As soon as he got behind him, he seized it, and turned round. Hallward moved in his chair as if he was going to rise. He rushed at him, and dug the knife into the great vein that is behind the ear, crushing the man’s head down on the table, and stabbing again and again.

OG: I take great issue with the idea of ‘corruption’ – the only person to blame in that scenario is the one who is ‘corrupted’ and not the ‘corrupter’. If you are so weak as to be influenced entirely by others, then you deserve to bear the awful consequences – just as Dorian did. The issue is not the fact that Lord Henry ‘gave him one’s own soul’ but that Dorian all too readily accepted it. That was his Hamartia and he paid a heavy price – it was also the reason why his life was so beautiful. It had ‘all the terrible beauty of a Greek tragedy’ and after all Lord Henry did tell him that ‘[his] life is indeed [his] art’.

There is certainly beauty in evil – Dorian Gray is the pretty young face of it and yet I am tempted to say that different rules apply in literature than in real life. Is tragedy as beautiful in reality as it is in literature? Through Lord Henry, Wilde attempts to answer this question:

I fancy that the true explanation is this: It often happens that the real tragedies of life occur in such an inartistic manner that they hurt us by their crude violence, their absolute incoherence, their absurd want of meaning, their entire lack of style. They affect us just as vulgarity affects us. They give us an impression of sheer brute force, and we revolt against that. Sometimes, however, a tragedy that possesses artistic elements of beauty crosses our lives. If these elements of beauty are real, the whole thing simply appeals to our sense of dramatic effect. Suddenly we find that we are no longer the actors, but the spectators of the play. Or rather we are both. We watch ourselves, and the mere wonder of the spectacle enthrals us. In the present case, what is it that has really happened? Someone has killed herself for love of you. I wish that I had ever had such an experience. It would have made me in love with love for the rest of my life. […]One should absorb the colour of life, but one should never remember its details. Details are always vulgar.

It is a very convincing explanation - it certainly makes it clear how Dorian has been so easily influenced by this man and yet I am not quite convinced. Both Sibyl Vane and Dorian died beautifully, as all great characters in literature do – that is because they are in fact fictional characters – we are able to glorify their deaths in such a way. John Keats also died a beautifully tragic death but the ‘details’ were very vulgar because he was a real person. Was his death beautiful? When you put it to pen and paper it most certainly was but can we look upon it in the same way without committing it to a piece of art? Or is it a change in our culture that has driven this change in feeling towards tragedy? Tragic deaths in real life were glorified in the ancient world, due to the influence of its literature – they perhaps saw no distinction between the two. Can we have poetic justice outside of poems? 

The death of Basil Hallward is decidedly ugly, however. He is simply killed in a fit of animalistic rage on the part of Dorian, no final words, simply the ‘vulgar’ reality of death and evil. What makes it even more so is the fact that it is not even animalistic – it is childish. Dorian is a childish character with the temperament to match his baby face – he kills one of his greatest friends on a whim. There is no panache, no dramatic exchange of words, no warning – he just does it. This is when we start to understand why his soul is so ugly: he is no longer the beautiful young man (even with the ‘wicked’ smirk he is beautiful) – he is foul and ugly on the inside. 

JS: I think The Picture of Dorian Gray is a cautionary tale that Wilde tells to himself—and then ignores. Wilde’s life was becoming literature—the self as a work of art—until he got involved with his homme fatale and gave over to frankly unartistic forms of wickedness (they called it ‘buggery’ and the law forbidding it was repealed only in 1967). One begins to understand why Wilde and the other aesthetes kept insisting that life is superior to art, that art really is the only thing that justifies our existence. Recall the words Dorian uses in his final rejection of Sibyl Vane:

You have spoiled the romance of my life. How little you can know of love, if you say it mars your art! What are you without your art? Nothing. I would have made you famous, splendid, magnificent. The world would have worshipped you, and you would have belonged to me. What are you now? A third-rate actress with a pretty face. 

When unfortunate Sibyl kills herself for disappointed love, Lord Henry offers Dorian his epitaph using aesthetic logic that is so beguiling that it once more turns the lad’s head.

No, she will never come to life. She has played her last part. But you must think of that lonely death in the tawdry dressing-room simply as a strange lurid fragment from some Jacobean tragedy, as a wonderful scene from Webster, or Ford, or Cyril Tourneur. The girl never really lived, and so she has never really died. To you at least she was always a dream, a phantom that flitted through Shakespeare’s plays and left them lovelier for its presence, a reed through which Shakespeare’s music sounded richer and more full of joy. The moment she touched actual life, she marred it, and it marred her, and so she passed away. Mourn for Ophelia, if you like. Put ashes on your head because Cordelia was strangled. Cry out against Heaven because the daughter of Brabantio died. But don’t waste your tears over Sibyl Vane. She was less real than they are.

Only works of art are real. Life is merely a shabby imitation of art. Hamlet’s mourning in the graveyard for his Ophelia is bound to be more durable and magnificent rather any actual mourning for an actual Ophelia. Is this the logic of the demented aesthete? Or is this prizing of art over life the wisdom that the ancient Greeks were trying to give us?  

OG: Wilde obviously realised exactly what he was becoming – so why did he not stop himself? What could make an aesthete, such as Wilde or Dorian, give himself away to something so unartistic? While I agree art is one of the most important things in life, there must be something more, something that completes the human experience. Harry and Dorian are not happy – why is that so, if their lives are so beautiful? Lord Henry, although a seemingly devout aesthete, has a ‘melancholy smile’ as though he realises that aesthetics cannot really cure the soul of all its woes. It is like a religion to him, the only thing that can answer the age-old question ‘what is the meaning of life?’ definitively – when in reality nothing can truly answer that question. Basil sees this in him to some extent, commenting on one of his many theses in the first chapter, ‘I don’t believe that, Harry and I don’t believe you do either.’ Dorian, on the other hand, takes all of Harry’s remarks more literally than Harry himself and that is their fundamental difference. 

The characters who are as spectacular as Hamlet, who exist in the real world, would mourn for any Ophelia in just as much of a spectacular way – they are just few and far between and usually labelled ‘dramatic’. Their suffering does not count until it is written down; tragedies in real life do not exist until they become literature but they most certainly happen and often under our noses. Hamlet mourned for Ophelia after her death but did he see the tragedy of her life before that point? Even the most perceptive of us can miss the tragedies of the everyday or, worst of all, ignore them. 

I know not if it was the intended wisdom of the Greeks but they certainly acknowledged more of a link between life itself and art – that’s why Plato hated the poets – they made people believe that evil was beautiful and being good was boring. It’s certainly a chicken and egg scenario: what came first – the beauty of literary tragedy or the beauty of literal tragedy?

Art and literature are the realisations of beauty and tragedy but can they ever capture the whole reality of those things? Can they capture the essence of the human soul? The picture of Dorian Gray would suggest that they can but I think that the only art form that ever comes close is music – some things cannot have words or images put to them – only music can close the gap. 

JS:  Many of the ideas and issues we have been discussing seem to dovetail in the following passage, the moment when Lord Henry first truly influences Dorian and plants the fatal wish for everlasting youth.

‘And yet,’ continued Lord Henry, in his low, musical voice, and with that graceful wave of the hand that was always so characteristic of him, and that he had even in his Eton days, ‘I believe that if one man were to live his life out fully and completely, were to give form to every feeling, expression to every thought, reality to every dream,—I believe that the world would gain such a fresh impulse of joy that we would forget all the maladies of mediaevalism, and return to the Hellenic ideal,— to something finer, richer, than the Hellenic ideal, it may be.   

Dorian is highly susceptible to such a ‘musical voice,’ and it stirs longings in him and excites his vanity. Plato was also suspicious of certain kinds of music—flute music in particular—for its ability to ‘charm the bowels’ and deeply influence human beings. Some music, too, was banished from his rational utopia, his Republic. I think Plato would have banished Lord Henry.  

I think if you have all the gifts of Wilde—charmingly implanted in your literary characters—then you must feel almost god-like and as if you can—and should—get away with anything, including buggery, which Wilde sublimes for his courtroom jurors as ‘the love that dare not speak its name.’ He is referring to Platonic love and he gives it a fine defence. But Wilde was delivering a Lord Henry speech that was, to my mind, thoroughly disingenuous. The ancient Greeks of course would have been far more forgiving of actual sexual relations between the wiser older man and his younger partner. And, today, we are also much more forgiving.   

But to return to one of your many insights, it is endlessly intriguing to speculate about the relative merits of art over life, and I always recall in this regard one of Nietzsche’s most mysterious epigrams: “Existence and the world are justified only as an aesthetic phenomenon.” Nietzsche was a kind of an early, philosophical aesthete who prized art over life and saw in Greek tragedy the full blossom of artistic achievement, ‘the beauty of literary tragedy,’ as you put it. Can literal tragedies ever measure up? Must pain and suffering be written down to be real? Or does art make pain and suffering precisely unreal, fabricated, and illusory? Do we enjoy watching Hamlet’s grief and excessive mourning over his dead girlfriend because we know that both Hamlet and Ophelia never existed? Here, we come upon an old question: why do people enjoy seeing tragedies? Why do people love to read sad, tragic novels? Why is Tess at Stonehenge far more beautiful and moving than Tess walking down a country lane without a care in the world? 

OG: Although Plato was an interesting thinker, his republic would have been supernaturally tedious. All dystopias are born of utopian ideals and his utopia would have been a nightmare – a world without the arts, could you even imagine how dull that would be? I would certainly be living in the place where all the other people like Lord Henry have been banished. Art definitely is a good justification of our existence but striving to do good would not go amiss in the world either. Dorian lived for the Art that was his life but nothing else and that’s what made him such a miserable creature – there is simply something else more to life than just art. 

I think that plays imitate the tragedy of life but they are written in such a way that we truly see it. A lot of tragedies are caused by miscommunication and could perhaps be avoided if the characters just got together and actually talked about how they actually felt. In real life there is no audience to listen to Hamlet’s soliloquies and so he just dies; we assume he was a bit unhinged and move on. That is the real tragedy of life – the inability to ever have the whole picture of something – literature is an answer to this. 

I think people enjoy seeing tragedies because although they are sad they are beautiful – no emotion is more fascinating to portray than all the ‘bad’ ones such as grief, anger and torment. There is no point to suffering other than to write about it; therefore in reading literary works about suffering we are making it worthwhile for them – a good deed if you like. Or maybe there is something more twisted about it, the same reason people loved public executions or going to the gladiatorial games – we love seeing suffering that is not ours. I think it depends on what level you ‘enjoy’ tragedy; some like it for entertainment, others for something to contemplate and the Lord Henrys of this world love it for its beauty.

JS: Maybe God sees all the pieces, the whole picture, and for him the world, if not the universe, is a ‘divine comedy.’ I think it was Horace Walpole who said in a letter, "This world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel.” Ironic distance is god-like and makes everything that happens potentially comic, at least in form. As soon as Dorian thinks about Sibyl Vane and her tragic love, he sees both the tragic and comic elements of her story. The actual painting of Dorian ‘feels’ his sins and his wickedness and when Dorian occasionally looks upon the decaying personage in the painting, he loses any sense of distance. When at the end of the novel Dorian stabs the painting, this loss of distance comes to a sharp point. And so Dorian ends up killing himself. The reader gets to enjoy all reading about—and thinking about—all this suffering but not really feel a thing. But do you think Walpole is right? And do you think if we could only see the entire narrative of cause and effect, the ‘world’ would go from tragic to comic?  

OG: Suffering and comedy have always been intertwined – the word “pathetic” is a good example of this. It stems from the greek word ‘pathos’ meaning ‘suffering,’ but we use it in such a sarcastic way. I think that Walpole summaries it beautifully but makes it rather binary. There is a value to both thinking and feeling, not either or - seeing the world in all its comedic glory and all its pains – that’s why Shakespeare wrote both comedies and tragedies. It’s also why he was so good at writing two seemingly different genres of plays, because they are so inherently linked. 

If the outcome of the narrative was still full of suffering then the world would remain a tragedy. Comedies and tragedies have similar themes of miscommunication and never knowing the full truth but as the audience we get to see the whole picture – like gods. Whether they are comedies or tragedies depends on how they are resolved – tragedies unsurprisingly end tragically and comedies end happily despite all the issues. It works the same way in life – the outcome defines the narrative– if something is painful then it is harder to look back and see it as funny. Still the ‘world’ is a funny old place and yet so full of suffering – it merely depends on whether you are ‘wicked’ enough to laugh or emotional enough to cry.

JS: Or wise enough to laugh. In the great scheme of things we are merely, as Byron said, ‘a sad jar of atoms.’  

OG: To be wise is to be wicked.