Dorian GrayÂ is one of those books which I found unusually striking at the time whenÂ I read it. Wilde had completely turned the traditional way of looking at things onÂ its head and illuminated to me a philosophy whichÂ was at onceÂ seductive and rebellious. I have since come to take the aesthetic philosophy espoused in that book with a grain of salt but there is infinitely more to be learned from the failures of great men than from the successes of small ones. Wilde failed eventually at his own philosophy. He died in penury, alone, and what is to me the most heartbreaking negationÂ of his own life, lost to the mystical and mediocre ideas of Western religion. If only he had died headstrong and rebellious his philosophy could be taken much more seriously. Still, I find the crux of Dorian Gray as illuminatingÂ now as I found it then. I find it brimming with the potential for further thought.
The central thesis of the book is that in this world the one thing worth having is youth and wisdom is what old people like to call their absolute surrender to life's inexorable web which closes in on each and every one of us. I think this thesis is pretty spot on and this is what this little post is about. If there's one argument which opens and shuts the case for youth, it is that young peopleÂ find it easy to be happy. Sneering and cynical people on the wrong side of 25Â ascribe this to inexperience and a general lack of responsibility and they are correct. But so what if at the end of the day someone is happy?Â Of course, the youth of today would grow up and join the ranks of the cynical old people and the cycle would continue. This, therefore, is an argument precisely in support of youth and not ofÂ those who are young. There's nothing special about those who are young as they will be, in general, condemned to the same misery in a few years time. Youth likes to think that it has a special grip on reality, a special understanding of the age. This is, thankfully, never true. I say thankfully because such an understanding, if it existed, would be built on very superficial foundations, and because this arrogance is precisely what gives youth its happiness, abandon, and attraction. As people grow old their edges are blunted by circumstances, they are bruised, broken, and battered by life's many pulls. This lost man (or woman) finds it difficult to see his utter surrender honestly in the face and invents a fiction and a euphemism. He calls it experience. I don't say that this experience is useless but it is nothing more than hisÂ weak attemptsÂ in the face of the incredible forces of life and it signifies the loss of a precious quality, of the happiness which comes so naturally to youth. Old age deals with it in the only way it knows how, byÂ belittling youth through the labelsÂ shallow and superficial, byÂ aggrandizing its own follies not as something which is inevitable but as something which is desirable,Â and by turning its face away from the one truth here, that there exists a deep seated jealousy in the hearts of those who have thus surrendered against those who have not yet had to. Old age waits in vengeful anticipation, knowing that the young will turn into them soon enough, that they will soon enough be smoothedÂ by the sandpaper of experience. The man with such conventional experience, to me, is a broken person and there is very little that is attractive about him. There is even less to learn from him because his ideas are not his own but are owned by the group to which he belongs. Even his surrender is not his own. He surrenders in a completely conventional fashion, devoid of any story, any brilliance. He surrenders in a way which is expected of him by the community, meekly and subserviently.
This brings us full circle. Wilde's ideas in Dorian GrayÂ are those of a man drunk on youth and arrogance. While flawed,Â theyÂ do point honestly to the truth. His eventual surrender is unfortunate and serves only as a reminder, at least to me, that his later ideas need not be taken seriously.