Agreeing and Disagreeing with Lord Henry from Oscar Wilde’s only novel
The Picture of Dorian Gray, a masterpiece, originally published in the year 1890, is a mind-rattling work of artistic inquiry about life, death, hedonism, and art, that leaves you wondering for hours in your chair after you bear through the discomfort and marvel of its every chapter. I would skip the details of the plot here, as an oath to not spoil the experience of a reader.
The most fascinating element of this book for me are the aphorisms of a rather mysterious character, Lord Henry Wotton; an aristocrat, infamous for corrupting most of his acquaintances by his careless opinions about life and conduct of individuals in a society. A man who could change another with a mere power of words, now that is top-notch fascinating.
While his most opinions carried depth and rationality, some, in the shallow contexts he positioned them, left me, the reader, with an appalling sense of investigation beyond the background or essence of the story.
Words out of context are capable of having their meanings change entirely. A dialogue put in a different scene, character, or a story, not only alters the essence and colors of the words expressed, but also their utilities and purpose. And yet, how wonderful is it, that a single sentence, that an author may have directed a particular way, could occupy multiple dimensions in the receiver’s head. Standalone words, entirely different in their causalities, can make us tinker beyond their real purpose and soul.
Having alluded to the idea, it would be interesting to try and cull a few excerpts from the book and investigate, primarily the words of Lord Henry, but it would be too voluminous and complicated an inquiry.
Therefore, I will only dissect the one idea from the novel that pulled me out of myself for days.
“Basil, my dear boy, puts everything that is charming in him into his work. The consequence is that he has nothing left for life but his prejudices, his principles, and his common sense. The only artists I have ever known who are personally delightful are bad artists. Good artists exist simply in what they make, and consequently are perfectly uninteresting in what they are. A great poet, a really great poet, is the most unpoetical of all creatures. But inferior poets are absolutely fascinating. The worse their rhymes are, the more picturesque they look. The mere fact of having published a book of second-rate sonnets makes a man quite irresistible. He lives the poetry that he cannot write. The others write the poetry that they dare not realize.”
- Lord Henry Wotton, Chapter 4, Page ~ 68, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
Honestly, this excerpt haunted me for days after having read the book. Certainly, when Oscar Wilde speaks of art, you ought to listen, interpret, think, and react in your own natural ways. The questions I asked myself night and day then, were-
Is an artist really supposed to bare his soul and mind absolutely all the time that he/she sits with her/his art? Are we all assigned with such limits of creativity that once extracted, could leave us empty and with no juice? What does it mean to live a life of an artist? By this definition, do I, at all, create anything worthwhile? What path should I then tread down as a writer, as a writer who seeks greatness from myself, who wants to make the best of what I could make? And what would it make me in turn?
Let me begin to try and discuss these thoughts in three parts.
One : Is an artist really supposed to bare his soul and mind absolutely all the time that he/she sits with her/his art?
Here, one must wonder, what does it really mean to bare one’s soul? I will omit the discussion about what the soul is, or how it could be interpreted.
If we simply focus on the nakedness of an art, and the frequency of its portrayal, we should investigate, what is this pure art, that spouts out from an artistic soul? What is this willingness to put your everything in every detail of an artform? What is it that the great artists see and do, that the mediocre techniques don’t?
Is it the amount of effort that one employs in perfecting the canvas or the draft, so that no detail remains untouched?
Is it the honesty of the artist?
Or is it simply an expression of one’s soul, that nobody can decipher, but only practice and praise as a necessity?
Well, I cannot speak for other artists, as I have never really met a great one. And so, I can only speak of my experience as an amateur artist, and an interpreter of those whom I have admired.
To bare one’s soul must be threefold, carrying itself on all the above mentioned grounds. To leave no stone untouched in a piece of art, gives an artist an edge beyond what could be seen, and what is, into the unimaginable. Even then, an artist faces with certain choices, of when to leave something the way it is, when to work it further, and when to overwork to push one’s limits into creating something absolutely different. Here, it is the authenticity that helps one bear the technique the right fruits, the honesty, gashing away the hogwash- to be who you really are. Too much authenticity though, that is, putting too much of oneself into an art could also be a danger to its credibility and beauty. Thus, comes the expression, an instinct of an artist, that guides her or him onto the path of desired perfection.
Although, one could very smartly conclude also, that the defining factor here really is the courage a creator needs to discover unknown territories in the world and himself/ herself, thereby daring to transform his/ her ideas and tendencies over and over again.
When it comes to frequency, well, it is not a measure to the practice, but to the result, which eliminates its parametric reliability once and for all.
Two : Are we all assigned with such limits of creativity that once extracted, could leave us empty and with no juice?
When you are too busy creating something really cool, it is common sense that you no more possess time or energy or even a need to work on your personality, on your opinions, conventional societal standards, and perhaps even to seek most forms of trendy entertainment.
What happens then, when you walk out of your studio after ten years of working like a dog and thoughtless strolls in the city? How ordinary or even ghastly could be your face, how pallid or crazy your walk? How plump or lean your belly? How little would you have left to speak to the false charm of society? How would you thrive then, in the mediocrity, or even in this battle of morality and immorality that no more concerns you, but still bewitches the outside world?
You will be least interesting perhaps, or perchance those aspects of your personality will automatically shape themselves in a pattern that is appealing to the masses, even then, its simply a matter of rare luck, not pertaining at all to your art or your trajectory of growth as an artist.
Three : What does it mean to live a life of an artist? By this definition, do I, at all, create anything worthwhile? What path should I then tread down as a writer, as a writer who seeks greatness from myself, who wants to make the best of what I could make? And what would it make me in turn?
Creativity is a difficult muse to please. It doesn’t reveal itself to the greatest creators at all times. Very often, it just comes once, and then disappears without notice. It is everything you do, and how you do it, that determines its persistence, and increases or decreases your chances of catching a glimpse of her.
She is the rare sandwich that makes you smack your lips, hoping the taste would last forever, but it doesn’t. And even when you sit by the same table at the same restaurant everyday, you may never get the same sandwich again. Those who have ever eaten THAT sandwich, understand the chase for the amazing few moments, that one might witness at its discovery. The reverie is even more enthralling, when it is you who create the experience.
Such originality might be rare, or perhaps impossible, and yet, we all chase it all the time by our persistence. What is the cost of the persistence one might ask? Do you turn all dull and uninteresting by the end of the day, after having put down the greatest painting you have painted in a month, or a scene you could never imagine writing?
Honestly, I don’t know. For as long as I write consistently, I have very little to say, and very tiny portion to expect in return from the world. So conceivably, I am quite boring as opposed to the times I might not put myself absolutely in the creative work. They say when one is chasing a dream or catching a train, one doesn’t care about much but the destination, and the experience.
When I think of it, I do discover, that most great artists are actually not very attractive people by personality. They think deeply and for hours, work all day long. They are too passionate for the one thing their eyes see, and ignore life as it passes, and they have their unique reasons for it. But that, in no way means that all artists are supposed perform this way. Isn’t that the fascination of art? It’s uniqueness and individuality?
There are things certain and things uncertain about art, artists, creators and innovators. Not all great artists behave a certain way, not all commit to the same forms and practices, but they all, in some way or another persist longer than ordinary beings, or mediocre artists.
And so, I might disagree with Lord Henry here, when he says that great poets have very little personality left in them. But then, what do I know, I am just a….well….yeah.