The Picture of Dorian Grey is Oscar Wilde’s Gothic fiction classic. In it Lord Henry (a friend of the artist who paints the portrait) suggests the only things worth pursuing in life are beauty and fulfilment of the senses. This fires Dorian’s imagination and he begins to express a wish to sell his soul to gain eternal youth. His wish is fulfilled, but like the legend of Faust and Narcissus there are terrible consequences.
As Dorian sinks into debauchery the marks on his soul are recorded on the portrait as disfigurements or through a sign of aging. The first sign is a subtle sneer after he casts aside the woman who loves him, who swallows poison as a result.
Eventually his immoral life appals him and Dorian decides to live a life of self-sacrifice. He unveils the portrait to find it has become worse. Seeing this, he realises that the motives behind his “self-sacrifice” were merely vanity, a desire to see the painting change back, and a quest for new emotional experiences.
Vanity and love of self are not qualities with much of a fan club. But there is a difference between narcissism and wanting the best for oneself. Many religions value poverty, a plain appearance and self-denial, but with the ultimate aim of achieving their opposite in paradise. In secular life self-deprecation is sometimes a way of manipulating others in the hope of gaining their approval.
The story of Dorian Grey illustrates another phenomenon however : there is a strong social taboo against desiring eternal beauty. A desire to stay forever young is equated with immorality; anyone who desires to overcome aging must be punished. This conflict between aestheticism and morality is embedded in our subconscious. Anyone wishing to preserve their youthful beauty and vitality beyond middle age is discounted as conceited, deluded and ultimately to be pitied. There has even been an attempt – albeit unsuccessfully – to medicalise it (“Dorian Grey Syndrome”).
By ‘owning’ our physical decline, we aspire to social approval. By endorsing the social cues that are fed to us by our peers, we gain validation and uphold group cohesion. This self-censorship is so powerful it overrides the desire of every human to live abundantly. The life which Wilde criticised was one he nevertheless aspired to himself.
The Hellenic ideal of beauty is quite different. The classical Greek word for beauty was “kallos” which also means good. Aristotle saw a relationship between beauty and virtue, and Greek philosophy teaches the harmony of body and soul. The gods had idealised human forms showing the connection between spirituality and physical beauty. Spiritual and aesthetic experiences are intimately linked since both connect us to the transcendent. Places of worship are always places of great beauty. Seeking beauty at any age cannot therefore be an immoral act.
Wishing to preserve the body that Nature has given us is a spiritual pursuit. Far from immoral, it is a noble aim, since by remaining healthy we can be of greater service to others, and by remaining beautiful we show gratitude to the God/Source/forces of nature which created us. Preserving our bodies also preserves a healthy sense of self, which is ultimately part of self-respect.Share this