In his celebrated novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde, whether knowingly or not, has created a fictional illustration of the words of the Apostle Paul about two hypostases inside one person – about a man’s internal and external selves.
A great culture and literature has sprung up around those handful of sentences tossed off by the apostles. Christian literature, even as it transitions into a post-Christian genre, has continued to draw heavily upon evangelical sources. And those sources must be very deep indeed, since many authors, despite riding roughshod over the ethical norms of Christianity, have not managed to escape the gravitational pull of the ideas of the New Testament.
“Though our outward man perish,” writes Apostle Paul, “yet the inward man is renewed day by day.” (Corinthians 4:16) And now Wilde has composed a living illustration of these words. Of course the lifestyle of the writer himself would be subject to furious condemnation by the same Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. Wilde is one of those who did not bother to “retain God in their knowledge,” and for this “God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not proper.” The writer is one of those who have forsaken the natural use of the female sex and are inflamed with lust for men like themselves. He is an aesthete. His heart is attuned to the worldview of the ancient Greeks, and Wilde is ready to retreat backward into the depths of ancient worldviews in order that he might be allowed to salivate at the sight of young men’s bodies. Therefore, his apologia for Paul’s ideas is not direct, but oblique. More precisely, it is an apologia by contradiction.
For the apostle, the inner man is beautiful, if he has been reborn through the actions of the Holy Spirit. The external man, with his wrinkles, decaying teeth, weakening eyesight, and creaking bones in the morning – in other words, with all his signs of mortality and transience – is destined to decompose, so he can then be resurrected. This English aesthete, excluded from his own community in his own country, takes the opposite stance. For him, the external man is beautiful, as beautiful as an ancient god, and the inner man, accordingly, is putrid and ugly. But this is precisely an example of proof by contradiction, and any mathematician will tell you that it quite satisfactorily proves the truth of the theorem. In our case, what it proves is the teaching of the apostles.
And so, The Picture of Dorian Gray. This is a book about how the inner man, “hidden of the heart,” is offered up in sacrifice for temporary beauty and success. This is a simple fable, and thus all the more ingenious. A handsome young man is offered a deal. He bargains with his conscience to lay down his own soul, the soul of his inner man, in return for celebrity, success, and unfading beauty. The young man accepts the terms of the deal. He will no longer age on the outside. Instead his portrait will grow old. From now on all his sins and wickedness will be recorded in the ugly face of the man in the portrait. But outwardly there will be no ripple in the surface of his beauty that would disrupt the fantasies of those who do not not believe in eternal life and do not spend much time listening to their conscience.
At first Dorian’s life is fine. He is the object of envy, gossip, and whispers behind his back. He is a lucky boy – young men wish they could trade places with him and women dream of his embrace. But Dorian could not be just a shameless lucky boy. The changes inside his soul are signaled daily by the portrait. Therein lies the immense power of true art, which reveals the inner mechanisms of human life and unmasks sin. Often the artist himself is unmasked.
Everyone – rich people and actresses, dictators and narcissists – can all see themselves in a work of art. They reflect upon their own “portraits,” which don’t actually exist of course, except that they do. Those portraits do not hang in a secret room. They live in our conscience.
And what do they show? Has some new pimple appeared after last night’s party? Since signing that contract yesterday, is there perhaps a new abscess under that scab that finally dried up? How many new wrinkles have appeared on this portrait while the owner was getting Botox to smooth out those external ones? You do not need to run to the bedroom, over to the portrait, in order to inspect this. Peering into a mirror will be even less help.
Literary fiction, which evolved out of the texts found in the Gospel, turn the reader toward himself, toward his own conscience. And the more similarities between the lives of Dorian Gray and the reader (external celebrity purchased at the price of internal compromise), the more obvious and irrefutable the inner parallels.
In one of his sermons Saint Basil the Great teaches that what begins badly must always end badly. We can watch as the portrait decays, hinting at the transformation taking place in the heart. Because of his sins Dorian will already be spiritually dead, yet frozen for the time being, so that neither the sight nor smell of the corpse inside him will be noticeable. Then the conflict will reach its climax and our lucky boy will commit suicide in a very particular way, violating the integrity of the portrait. The blow struck against the face of his own monstrosity incarnate in the picture will be a blow against himself. This Adonis will fall over dead, his true image instantly overtaking him. The grotesqueness of the portrait will be transferred to his corpse, and in the frame will hang an image of the “other” Dorian, so lovely and now immortalized in all that beauty that has been lost forever.
And it is certainly not just actresses and playboys – concerned with liposuction and photo sessions – to whom this is relevant. The issue is applicable to everyone, since anyone who ever gazed at his own internal ugliness, should it surface before his eyes, would want to lash out at that monster with a knife.
If one continues to look for the roots of this, then remember the Blessed Augustine. He claimed that man’s morality lay in the expanse between two poles, which are: the love of God carried as far as contempt of self and self-love reaching the point of contempt for God. Each of us oscillates between these. Oscar Wilde built his own, regrettable, life on “self-love.” Thus it is all the more remarkable that he wrote a very wise, insightful book that castigated himself as much as others.
It’s time to return to the beginning of this article: the Christian sources of European culture must run very deep indeed, since many authors, despite riding roughshod over the ethical norms of Christianity, have not managed to escape the gravitational pull of the ideas of the New Testament.
The essay from a Russian source was adapted and exclusively translated by ORIENTAL REVIEW.