After spending a delightful weekend with my mom in Minnesota at the Mall of America, I had a long couple of flights to get back to my university. I decided I’d take that opportunity to read some good books! We stopped by Barnes and Noble before our plane left, and I picked up The Problem of Pain and George MacDonald by C.S. Lewis and The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. I don’t think I could have picked a better contrast. I read Dorian Gray front to back and started George MacDonald (a collection of his quotes from sermons and books that Lewis collected) during my time. What a juxtaposition of ideas! I thought I’d just share some of my thoughts.
In case you aren’t familiar with it, The Picture of Dorian Gray is about a young man, Dorian, who is young and innocent but becomes corrupted by the ideals of asceticism as voiced by Lord Henry (Oscar Wilde’s spokesperson for his own personal views). An artist, Basil, paints a beautiful picture of him, and Dorian prays to himself, “If only the painting could age, and not I,” and his wish comes true. He idolizes his beauty and uses it for his own ends, and as his deeds become darker and darker, his soul (as portrayed by the aging and progressively more evil-looking portrait) shrivels into an old and reviling picture of wretchedness. Finally, as the emptiness of a worthless and selfish life overtakes him, he stabs the painting, which kills him, as it embodies his very soul.
What this novel portrayed to me was the emptiness that our culture has embraced. Asceticism (Wilde’s views) dictates, “Nothing can cure the soul but the senses, just as nothing can cure the senses but the soul,” in the words of Lord Henry. “Live! Live the wonderful life that is in you! Let nothing be lost upon you. Be always searching for new sensations. Be afraid of nothing. A new Hedonism–that is what our century wants. You might be its visible symbol. With your personality there is nothing you could not do.” Very dangerous views indeed! But our culture has swallowed this lie hook, line, and sinker. What baffles me, though, is that Oscar Wilde wrote this book, which seems to me like a warning of embracing this lifestyle since Dorian’s life falls apart and ends in murder and death. But yet he led this life himself! I can’t help but ask… Why?? When he knew…? Anyway. People are dumb.
I think the thing that struck me the most as I read this book is twofold, the striking apathy of Lord Henry towards life and people in general, and the futility of everything Dorian Gray does. Nothing ever satisfies him, he always hungers for more, and one evil crime inevitably leads to another as he tries to cover each one of them up. Death follows him closely, eventually taking him when he tries to destroy the painting. Towards the end of his life, he tries to do something good: he decides not to touch a beautiful, innocent girl he meets who falls in love with him. When he tells his “victory” to Lord Henry, he simply shrugs it off, saying, “I should think the novelty of the emotion must have given you a thrill of real pleasure, Dorian.” Dorian denies this: “Perhaps if his life became pure he would be able to expel every sign of evil passion from the face. Perhaps the signs of evil had already gone away. He would go look.” However, “The [painting] was still loathesome–more loathesome, if possible, than before–and the scarlet dew that spotted the hand seemed brighter, and more like blood newly spillt… Had it been mere vanity that had made him do his one good deed? … There had been nothing more. Through vanity he had spared her. In hypocrisy he had worn the mask of goodness.” This passage shows me that, apart from our redemption through Christ, our sins can never be washed away. Even our good deeds are motivated out of selfishness and vanity, and the ugliness remains on our souls. Life is empty and condemned without Christ.
After Dorian Gray, I perused George MacDonald. What a different view of life! C.S. Lewis reflects on his pre-Christian days, when he first encountered George MacDonald’s Phantastes. As he read it, he found deep, rich life in its pages. “The whole book had about it a sort of cool, morning innocence, and also, quite unmistakably, a certain quality of Death, good Death. What it actually did to me was to convert, even to baptize (that was where the Death came in) my imagination.” He said that, unlike other realities he had investigated, what MacDonald offered was a reality through and through, not an empty promise of fulfillment.
“There was no question of getting through to the kernel and throwing away the shell: no question of a gilded pill. The pill was gold all through. The quality which had enchanted me in his imaginative works turned out to be the quality of the real universe, the divine, magical, terrifying, and ecstatic reality in which we all live. I should have been shocked in my teens if anyone had told me that what I learned to love in Phantastes was goodness. But now that I know, I see there was no deception. The deception is all the other way round–in that prosaic moralism which confines goodness to the region of Law and Duty, which never lets us feel in our face the sweet air blowing from “the land of righteousness,” Never reveals that elusive Form which if once seen must inevitably be desired with all but sensuous desire–the thing “more gold than gold.”
This “prosaic moralism” is exactly what Lord Henry tries to avoid in Dorian Gray, and it is what C.S. Lewis had rejected his whole life as dry and empty. And it is both of those! But the richness of life–the true, whole, through-and-through goodness–that comes with the gospel of freedom and life is what awakened his imagination and showed him God’s nature, the true nature which leaves the human soul longing and thirsting for more, not condemned and guilted into submission and bondage. This life could not be imagined by Lord Henry’s asceticism. But we know this life, this freedom, this longing for the fulfillment of our souls by the thing “more gold than gold.” And if you don’t, I truly believe you’re missing it. If Christianity to you is bondage, you haven’t experienced the heart of God. There is freedom and fulfillment in Christ, not empty promises and deferred hope. This is why I love God!
Anyway, just a few thoughts. Or more than a few. Thanks for reading! Have a blessed week!