“Youth is the only thing worth having. When I find that I am growing old, I shall kill myself.” – Dorian Gray, pg 34
Upon the first sight of his portrait after Lord Henry’s corruption, Dorian’s all-consuming jealousy of his portrait and desire for permanent youth and beauty drive him to Basil’s couch in tears. Citing every instance of lamentation at the eventual loss of his youth and beauty–and every moment of exultation once he discovers the portrait will do all his aging for him–would take hours. But, despite instigating this desire in Dorian, Lord Henry consistently expresses a horror of anything eternal. Only a page before Dorian’s portrait is revealed, Lord Henry scoffs: “Always! That is a dreadful word…[Women] spoil every romance by trying to make it last for ever. It is a meaningless word, too. The only difference between a caprice and a life-long passion is that the caprice lasts a little longer.” (32) Later, after Sibyl’s suicide, he says: “Life has always poppies in her hands. Of course, now and then things linger. I once wore nothing but violets all through one season, as a form of artistic mourning for a romance that would die. Ultimately. however, it did die. I forgot what killed it. I think it was her proposing to sacrifice the whole world for me. That is always a dreadful moment. It fills one with the terror of eternity.” (81) Not only is the prospect of eternity terrifying (easily terrifying enough to kill a romance), even attempting to relive a moment which has passed, granting our pasts with a kind of weak eternity through memory, is forbidden. “The one charm of the past is that it is past. But women never know when the curtain has fallen. They always want a sixth act…” (81). I doubt the flaw is limited to women, but if I were to expunge the sexist phrases from Lord Henry’s lines, I’m not sure I could quote him at all. The point is that even our memories belong to a finished act; we’re on to a new act with new caprices, waiting with as much style as possible for the curtain to fall on this season of the world.
Later even Dorian develops a fine appreciation for the momentary. “…the aim [of the New Hedonism] was to be experience itself, and not the fruits of experience, sweet or bitter as they might be…it was to teach man to concentrate himself upon the moments of a life that is itself but a moment.” (99, italics mine.) If the moment is to be cherished, why is eternal youth desirable? Youth almost seems to be a state of being, embodying courage and beauty, more than a defined period of life. Besides, as Dorian decides after Sibyl’s suicide, death can be a stylistic action–almost a plot device–which actually makes life more beautiful. Instead of marrying her, being disappointed, and both of them whiling away their lives in quiet misery, she commits the perfect tragic suicide, enacts the poetry she channeled when she acted, and ties the story up in a neatly aesthetic conclusion which makes life seem elegant and artful. If moments deserve concentration and death is beautiful his obsession with never aging–and perhaps never dying–becomes inconsistent with his professed philosophy. If the moments are unceasing he can’t appreciate them all and he can never be more beautiful by dying poetically appropriately.
The juxtaposition of the eternal and the momentary reminds me of “The Artist,” in which the symbol of “the love of man that dieth not, and a symbol of the sorrow of man that endureth forever” is dismantled and recast as “the image of The Pleasure that abideth for a Moment.” (900) Dorian is praising the idea of momentary pleasure, but he desires to experience momentary pleasures forever. But that doesn’t work. There isn’t enough bronze for both. Which might partly explain the end of the novel. He always remained the symbol of sorrow that endured forever, as much as he pretended to be pleasure for a moment. Moments have to pass and men have to die, and I think the decadents especially needed the idea of death so that they could more fully concentrate upon life.