Saturday, 20 February 2010

From 'Dorian Gray' to Auschwitz

No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style.

Two years hard labour picking Oakum in Reading Jail may have helped Oscar Wilde to a less supercilious view of life and art; he certainly needed it. The extract quoted above is from the preface to his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, published in 1890 when Wilde was 36 and approaching the peak of his celebrity. Public disgrace and personal humiliation were five years away.

Wilde's preface is a manifesto in which he proclaims that art has but one purpose: the creation of beauty. He does not say what beauty is, merely that its apprehension is not for everybody. Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope. These are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only beauty. Arguments about art and morality are fruitless. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all. In the words of Ben Jonson: "Sententious Numps!" The finality of Wilde's assertion is as preposterous as the rhetorical flourish with which Keats winds up Ode to a Grecian Urn:-

Beauty is truth, truth beauty - that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

Physical beauty may be a mask for moral ugliness: cruelty, egotism, conceit. Physical ugliness, however, may conceal moral beauty, as in The Beauty and the Beast and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. If poets were, as Shelley imagined, the unacknowledged legislators of the world, the Industrial Revolution would not have happened; the population of these islands would have remained in rural squalor like the people of Ireland, romanticised by poets and painters living on unearned income. Keats and Wilde assume that only bad art produces ugliness. Whether aesthetic ugliness - the Great Western Railway, for argument's sake - encourages moral deformity, Wilde does not say; but from his contention that hope is the preserve of the cultivated, we may infer that his credo excludes the possibility of one of the beautiful people harbouring an idea or intention that is ugly, soul destroying, homicidal.

In Crime and Punishment, Dostoyevsky's great, dark human comedy, one of his charcaters exclaims that the world will be saved by beauty. I do not for a second believe that the beauty Dostoyevsky had in mind corresponded with the beauty celebrated by Wilde and his fellow aesthetes - the Pre-Raphaelites among them. For the Russian writer, beauty without ethical sympathy is unthinkable. In Wilde's credo, beauty is simply itself, free and transitory. The beauty so admired by Dorian Gray has more to do with cold perfection than the reality of life. Wilde was at one with the writer Huysmans whose novel Against Nature is a clever, world-weary fanfare in support of all that is contrived and artificial. One of Wilde's witty paradoxes was that life imitates art. An artful arrangement of exotic flowers in a choice vase is superior to a field of wind-blown wheat or waywardly growing garden. Artifice will always be preferred by the discriminating sensibility to the genetic chaos spawned by Mother Nature. A rose is a rose is a rose, declared that old bore Gertrude Stein. Wilde would have none of that. His buttonhole was a green carnation.

The beauty that Wilde and the Pre-Raphaelites raised on a pedastal, the obsession with perfection, carries the stink of the tomb. The Picture of Dorian Gray is replete with imagery denoting the paleness of objects; his favourite simile is the coolness of ivory. The women painted by Edward Burne-Jones represent death's perfection after the solemn mortician has done his work. In death, human beings are stripped of necessity and action: death objectifies us. The Pre-Raphaelites liked their women to be pale and languid. The epitome of perfection was Orphelia - a corpse. The medievalism of William Morris and the Pre-Raphaelites are tapers at a time of electricity. After Blake, after Cotman, after Turner and Constable, English painting drifted into an Arthurian backwater and got stuck among the reeds. While the Pre-Raphaelites worked out their twin obsessions with a mythic past and Morris's langurous wife Janey, artists across the English Channel were painting the very objects that Wilde and his friends would have found disastrously commonplace. I want to stun Paris with an apple! Cezanne declared. Wilde sought to stun London with his version of Helen of Troy - Salome.

Wilde's obsession with perfumes and sensory experience was imported from the Paris of the 1840s, principally from Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal. Personally, I prefer Baudelaire's last poems written between 1859 and 1863, the great prose poems that anticipate the worldy despair of Existentialism. Baudelaire was, to my mind, an incomparably greater poet than his Victorian counterparts; his dandyism did not get in the way of his best work. French writing, like French painting, moved on. Compare Wilde's languorous lilies with the adolescent Rimbaud's wild and sardonic strictures regarding flowers in his poem to Theodore Banville - To the Poet on the Subject of Flowers -

See! it's the Century of hell! and the telegeraph poles,
the iron-voiced lyre, are going to adorn your magnificent shoulders!
Above all, though, give us a rhymed account of the potato
blight! -!

English poetry dallied at the border of the forbidden waving a perfumed silk handerchief, whereas French poetry tore across it in search of the unknown. The nearest that Wilde got to publicly stepping across the bounds of propriety was in the tedious The Importance of Being Earnest, with its abundance of arch references to bun-burrying. How his chums must have laughed. How contrived it all is now. Writing in late Victorian England assumed the shape of a ponderous bathysphere, washed up on the shingle of Dover beach. But French writing was a rocket. Is it any surprise that cinema, painting with light, was invented in France?

England looks back to the past, as any nation does when it has no confidence in the future. The England of the Pre-Raphaelites was less sure of itself, less smug perhaps, than modern critics allow. There is a dark thread of despair in Tennyson. Arthur Hugh Clough personified what the Austrian Arthur Snitzler came to imagine at a later date as the man with no values. In architecture, John Ruskin espoused the Gothic. He hated the adoption of Renaissance designs by Bradford's industrial tycoons for the Town Hall, the Wool Exchange and Salts Mill. Even the celebrated modernism of Robert Browning - My Last Duchess - comes off a poor second to the best of Baudelaire. The English intelligentsia, like their monarch, were in mourning for the past; they could neither see nor feel wonder or beauty in the things produced by the Industrial Revolution, the advances in so many fields simultaneously. How ironic that Wilde, of all people, was blind to the marvels of scientific and industrial artifice, to the age that was coming.

Dostsoyevsky's vision of beauty - ethical and transcendent - as personified by his heroine Sonia in Crime and Punishment, is neither transitory nor unearthly. Art for art's sake meant nothing to the Russian. Ultimately, this credo came to mean nothing to Oscar Wilde, as can be seen in the second part of De Profundis, his post-Reading Jail testimony. Wilde died in exile: another Irish writer, unwise but witty, dying in a country less foreign than his own. Dorian Gray, amoral, bereft of ethical sympathy, concerned only with the physically beautiful, is the Aryan ideal, Adolf Hitler's National Socialist man. Hitler so believed in this ideal of physical perfection that he systematically murdered everybody who was disfigured, ugly, socially useless, politically dangerous and ethically undesirable. Yet the uplifting art he espoused was commonplace; Wilde would have mocked it mercilessly - until he was taken away by the herrenvolk. Dorian Gray would have been an ardent Nazi - as so many of the English upper-class were. England had its Black Shirts, just as Germany had its Brown Shirts, and Wilde's native Ireland its Blue Shirts. At a time of economic uncertainty Fascism has an understandable appeal: that is its danger.

Victims of political tyranny may object, saying that Wilde was anticipating the ideological barbarities of the Twentieth Century's murderous 'isms' - Communism, Naziism, Maoism, Year Zeroism. The writing of one era may indeed anticipate events of one to come, think of Franz Kafka's Joseph K, arrested, tried and convicted without ever knowing what he's supposed to have done. But I think Wilde's preoccupation with the aesthetic of beauty was intended as a shocking antithesis to the social, political and religious orthodoxies, hypocrisies, of his day, which he found morally deforming and ugly. Fair enough, but art without ethical sympathy, without what Walt Whitman called eternal tendencies, may result in Reinhard Heydrich: a man of moral and artistic accomplishment and a committed Jew-exterminator. It is perfectly possible to love the music of Beethoven in the evening and mastermind the Final Solution in the morning: Heydrich is the historical proof. Jews on their way to the gas chamber in Treblinka, the 'Road to Heaven' the path they took was called, were accompanied by an uplifting selection from the classics played by an orchestra.

Wildean aesthetes are able to pursue perfection because somebody else must work to provide their income. They can afford boredom and world-weariness because the effort costs them nothing but stylishly Romantic ennui. Only in the symbolism of death do they find what they are seeking. Auschwitz-Birkenau is the ultimate manifestation of the ideal of physical beauty, dedicated, as it was, to the annihilation of anyone deemed unworthy of the elect, the master race.