IF THERE IS an image that mirrors the mind of the West today, it is strikingly reflected in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. This familiar story describes an exceptionally handsome young man so physically captivating that he drew the persistent and awe-stricken adulation of a great artist. The artist talked him into being the subject of a portrait, saying he had never seen a face more attractive and pure.
When the painting was completed and presented to young Dorian he became so fixated and enraptured by his own looks that he wistfully expressed the longing to draw license from such beauty and to live any way he pleased, unfettered by any restraint. Any ensuing disfigurement from a dissolute life he hoped would mar only the picture, leaving him unblemished. Like Faust of old, Dorian received his wish. His life of sensuality, indulgence, and even murder left his physical appearance completely untainted. Spurred on by the success of his undiscovered duplicity, he plummeted ever further into the depths of wickedness.
One day, alone and pensive, he uncovered the portrait he had kept hidden for all those years, only to be numbed by the hideousness of the face, which bore the horror and scars of a life scandalously lived.
Besieged by the fear of being found out and of the incriminations the portrait would reveal, he buried it among the goods he kept stowed in his attic. But the pathetic charade came to an end one day when the artist himself laid eyes on it. Overcome with grief because of what he knew it meant, he confronted Dorian and implored him to turn his wasteful life around and seek God’s forgiveness. “Does it not say somewhere,” he pled, “ ‘Come now let us reason together. Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow. Though they be red like crimson, they shall be as white as wool’?” In a fit of rage Dorian Gray grabbed a knife and killed the artist, silencing the voice.
The story reaches an emotional climax when, no longer able to stand the indictment of the picture, Dorian reached for the knife once more to destroy the portrait and remove the only visible reminder of his wicked life. The moment he thrust the blade into the canvas the portrait returned to its pristine beauty, and Dorian Gray himself lay stabbed to death on the floor. The ravages that had marred the picture now so disfigured his own countenance that he was unrecognizable to the servants who heard the scream of death and came rushing in to help.
The power of this book lies in its most central idea: Can an individual or a society live with complete disregard for a moral and spiritual center and not suffer from the wounds of wickedness? Can the soul of a people who have lived without restraint be left unravaged? Is there a point at which one must cry a halt to the passions and the whims of unbridled appetite and admit that enough is enough?
Ironically, Oscar Wilde himself is renowned for his disdain of any moralizing. It was he who said that “form is content,” “nothing succeeds like excess,” and “nothing is good or bad, only charming or dull.” He died at the age of forty-six, finding out that it was easier to live out his maverick philosophy in art than in life.
The book has a grave message for the West, so imbued with strength, so splendidly attractive, and so rich in resources. But here, too, the culture is living with philosophical risk, not pausing to uncover, even for a moment, the ramifications for the soul. One strongly suspects that in story after story that headline the news almost every day of the week there is betokened a deep disfigurement in the soul of a culture.
Tragedies and atrocities are common fare, and in any corner coffee shop discussions can be heard of the latest horror or carnage to strike at our communities. Evil has taken on forms and concoctions that shock the world. Any catalog at the end of any given year tells a painful story of what is happening in our streets and homes and institutions.
But it will not do to just bemoan the reality or to condemn the evil. Much more is required of us as thinking people before we can get past the symptoms and diagnose how this has all come about. Behind an act is a thought or a belief, and those thoughts unleashed in antisocial behavior make the headlines. Yet seldom are these thoughts and beliefs scrutinized.
When that is done we, like Oscar Wilde, may find out that though we may play with sinister ideas in our imaginations and artistic escapes, we cannot do the same with life.
The ideas we now popularly espouse are reshaping our culture, redefining our destiny, and are at the heart of the rampant evil that we now witness. They are ideas, therefore, that must be seriously questioned or we will find ourselves in some remorse-filled future, wondering how it all happened.
What are your thoughts? Is Ravi right in saying that “The ideas we now popularly espouse are reshaping our culture, redefining our destiny, and are at the heart of the rampant evil that we now witness.”?
Feel free to comment below.
Zacharias, Ravi (2009-09-10). Zacharias 2 in 1-Jesus Among Other Gods & Deliver Us from Evil (Kindle Locations 3774-3811). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.