There is a fascinating asymmetry in Dorian’s psychology: he discards Sybil Vane like a paper bag when he finds out that she can no longer embody the art of Shakespeare (the actor’s peculiar dilemma is that she is both artist and artwork, fulfilling both roles in the same breath), but has no qualms about reproaching Basil Hallward for liking his portrait more than he likes its original. “I am less to you than your ivory Hermes or your silver faun,” cries Dorian, “You will like them always. How long will you like me? Till I have my first wrinkle, I suppose.” (33)
This hypocrisy is striking, but it can be resolved by appealing to the resolution that Dorian makes at the end of Chapter 2. He declares that he would give up anything, even his soul, if only he could remain young and his portrait grow old: in effect, reversing the nature the artwork and its model. Normally, it is art that preserves a snapshot of the model for eternity, frozen and immutable, whereas the model that is thusly represented continues to develop, to grow, to exercise its subjecthood over itself and over other things. The portrait is object, the portrayed is subject. But Dorian is so enamored of the beauty of this material object (Basil’s portrait) that he sacrifices his subjectivity entirely: he gives up the human capacity to cultivate oneself, to learn from error, to be plagued by or conquer one’s own conscience: in short, to live out the full life cycle of a fluid, autonomous entity. He imagines that his resolution–to objectify himself–will only serve to preserve his youthful beauty, but in fact he does not realize what he is giving up in this bargain. Firstly, it is clear that Dorian can no longer love–an object can only be loved, it cannot impress up the world any genuine love of its own. Dorian claims to be impassioned by Sybil Vane, even going so far as to propose to her, but in fact what he admires is the beautiful way in which Sybil objectifies her true self–the way in which she skillfully re-shapes her own personality to fit into the jeweled character-costumes designed by Shakespeare. When he discovers that Sybil Vane is not actually Ophelia or Cordelia–that she is not in fact art but is in fact life, an individual with her own idiosyncratic yearnings and habits, he flings her aside in disgust. For Dorian no longer has the capacity to sympathize with other persons, in their full-blown subjecthood (and with the imperfection and fallibility that this implies). He is himself a one-dimensional being, and as such can only appreciate other things (Shakespearean heroines, rich brocades, social rôles, and Wagnerian arias) that are similarly constructed. Indeed, works of art are in themselves one-dimensional, inanimate. The text of Eugenie Grandet does not change, Desdesmona’s grief is written in formulaic iambic pentameter, and Chopin’s sensual ardor is perfectly schematized in demi-semi-quavers. It is only when they are infused with the thoughts and opinions of an audience–only when they are interpreted–that they become life-like and dynamic. An uninterpreted painting amounts to nothing more that daubs of paint smeared over a canvas, forming shapes that bear an incidental resemblance to certain things.
This brings me to a second observation regarding The Portrait of Dorian Gray, a work of art that tries to judge other works of art, seeking to answer the question of what art is, all the while confined by its status as art. A sort of “art on art” exposé. So it seems that this is exactly the sort of artwork that begs to be interpreted, and indeed there has been a rich tradition of commentary that turns over each page of the book as if it were a leaf concealing new fertile soil. However, before any of this could exist, the book had to defend itself against attempts at censorship. There were concerned citizens who decried the immorality of the book and claimed that it would corrupt its readers.
It may be rewarding, at this point, to suggest an interpretation of what Dorian Gray itself has to say about censorship. Dorian’s decision to lock the portrait away behind a shroud is undoubtedly a type of censorship. He is depriving the world access to this work of art, for reasons that may seem rather unconventional… But then again, perhaps Dorian’s reason for censorship may not be so different from the motivations of the aforementioned “concerned citizens”. Dorian wishes to hide the portrait because it betrays the social veneer that he presents to the world: it undermines the credibility of what the world sees of him. And perhaps that is what is behind many historical examples of censorship. In many cases, there are people who find that a certain novel or painting is too sordid (read: too candid, too close to life as it is actually experienced) and does not present noble ideals to which humanity should aspire. The censored artwork hits too close to a sensitive nerve; it is a too-clear mirror that reflects too honestly, and when people don’t like what they see in in the mirror they try to hide it away–precisely what Dorian does with his portrait! In addition to this revelation, the novel also discloses the consequences of censorship. It narrates what happens to Dorian (who represents the model, the world or community that is depicted in art) as a result of censoring his portrait. Specifically, when the artwork is hidden from the world, the dissociation between the snapshot and the world that it originally depicted becomes greater and greater, because there is no opportunity for the world to periodically check its reflection in the mirror and to readjust its course accordingly. Dorian’s portrait grows more and more grotesque, while Dorian himself remains pristine: this, of course, is a reversal of the snapshot/world dichotomy (as it is usually the art that remains constant while the world deviates from it), but it is precisely in this reversal that the novel’s power lies. By switching the place of man and art, their effects upon the other can be more keenly perceived. In other words, the folly of censorship is directly perceivable in the hideous visage of Dorian’s portrait–there is no need for abstract, pathos-ridden appeals to the social evils that plague the world, for the portrait speaks more eloquently than a thousand overwrought lines of rhetoric.
And so, despite Wilde’s stipulation that literature is not meant for edification, there can be a simple lesson gleaned from The Portrait of Dorian Gray after all.