As Whitehead introduced the discovery of Galleon on the stage of the “modern world,” there is no exaggeration in what he exclaimed: “Since a babe was born in a manger, it maybe doubted whether so great a thing has happened with so little stir.” Like the birth in the manger, the new industrial revolution occurred in the late Victorian age, which spelled not the end of antiquity, but the beginning of something unexpectedly new that neither fear nor hope could have anticipated. These gleaming glances through a new instrument to the universe, immediately adjusted to human senses, and destined to unveil what once mysteriously and infinitely lies beyond them, set a stage for the courses of other events and were to usher in a modern thinking era. As nineteenth-century England witnessed the rapidity of her industrial development, which stirred up the transformative changes in the century’s philosophies and morals; from then on, the pious enthusiasm with which Kepler contemplated the sun and believed it was the most fitting dwelling place of “ God and the blessing angels,” was conspicuously no longer marveled at and vanished. Much more vehement philosophical reactions to this changing society were not despair but the Cartesian doubt by which the “school of suspicion,” as Nietzsche once called it, was founded. Echoed with the rise of skepticism and the current of materialism, the fiction’s traditional moralizing role was by no means limited to the works of Oscar Wilde, who instead often used the seemingly empty aphorisms and questioned the prevailing morality (B,Leiter, 2010). Wilde’s subversions of morally acceptable ideas, argued by Sos Eltis, have delicate resemblance to other works, like Faustus by Goethe, but have inverted the originals with its own novelty and depth. The ornate style of writing that credited Wilde with his originality in the Aestheticism, revealed the extent of the discrepancy between Victorian decorum and the morality that lies at its foundation (P, Franssen, 2010). One of his most controversial works is The Picture of Dorian Gray. While the contemporary critics it received did not go beyond the binary oppositions such as being morally good and evil. Since morality was a complex term for the Victorians, and the increase in human despair, or specifically nihilism, had spread to larger sections of the British, optimism could no longer stand up against the pessimism of thinkers and novelists. Thereby, a comprehensive interpretation of PDG’s subversive qualities is needed and will add more perceptions to the moral introspections. This paper aims to explore different aspects of morality in The Picture of Dorian Gray in the context of its time and its relations to the trends and changes of philosophies.
Failure of the New Hedonism
With the death of Romanticism, among the outstanding characteristics of nineteenth century European society, the typical attitude of people with the awakening of materialism is: the instrumentalization of the world, the conviction that each human motivation can be reduced to the principle of utility, the sovereignty regarding the whole of nature as of “an immense fabric from which we can cut out whatever we want to resew it however we like”(Hannah Arendt, 1958). Therefore, the mental effort of artists and novelists was understood to spring from the desire to create order out of the variety of nature, and their predilections for patterns for things replaced the old and simple notions of harmony. Philosophers like Schopenhauer began to attack the old Christian moral order and declared God to be a construct. Friedrich Nietzsche tipped the scale away from religion by announcing that God was dead. Therein set the plot of PDG and its three controversial characters who upheld distinctive moral values.
As the archetype of youth and beauty, Dorian Gray’s fear of his waning beauty sent him into a tailspin, and he lent his innocence as excellent clay to Lord Henry’s willing hands. As he adopted the tenets of “the New Hedonism” advocated by Henry and resolved to live an aesthetic mode of living where passionate sensations could be stimulated into a “new spirituality,” he started down the steep and fickle slope of his demise and struggled with the dissipation of his soul. Lord Henry is like a homo faber, with his equation of intelligence with pleasure seeking, and he had made an experiment for Dorian with his teachings of both moral and immoral experience pursuits. His motivation for renovating Dorian’s morality was out of the principle of utility, a process with unpredicted exultation whereas he took some theoretical effort to produce patterns in Dorian’s original ideal moralities. However, he meanwhile remained staid against the erosion of self-indulgence. Lord Henry, in other words, as he arose from the great suspicion of the conventional moralities, though he was to acquire the unexpected ingenuity in expanding his influences and attempted to topple the established notions of truth, was deprived of the permanent measures to form an authentic and reliable absolute with respect to the subversive philosophical process. Certainly, nothing as the absence of a permanent measure stood to lose the meanings of looking beyond human nature. It was manifest that his conviction being that “Crime belongs exclusively to the lower orders”, revealed the limitations of his understanding the human soul and the practical effects of his philosophy. When this happened, it was clear that if the relationship between man and world is no longer secure, if the concept of morality can no longer fit in any existing system, the radical loss of values on the influence-receiver within the restricted frame of reference of influence-creator occurs automatically as soon as the limitations of the latter’s philosophy obscures his insights into the complex reality. Dorian Gray’s ever-continuous degradation, yet with moments of repenting, demonstrates this fact. Ironically, Dorian’s persistence with the New Hedonism was based on the freedom away from moral responsibility, but his loyal belief in Henry’s teaching without critical thinking and the affliction on himself after Basil’s death proved to be restrictive on another level.
For Dorian’s failure, as claimed by Hanna Arendt, “the principle of all hedonism is not pleasure but avoidance of pain, and he who wants to make pleasure the ultimate end of all human action is driven to admit that not pleasure but pain, not desire but fear, are his true guides”. That is because among all the human emotions, only pain is completely independent of any object; one who is dipped in pain cannot sense other senses except for the pain itself. On the contrary, pleasure doesn’t sense itself but things beside itself. According to Hume, though hedonism’s ultimate foundation is the experience of pain, it is by no means the world that drives man as in antiquity into himself so as to escape the afflictions of pains. Ancient world philosophies, say stoicism, Epicureanism and hedonism, had been illuminated by the deep mistrust of the world and “moved by a vehement impulse to withdraw from worldly involvement into the security of an inward realm”; while the modern counterparts, say puritanism, sensualism, and the new hedonism were inspired by an “equally deep mistrust of man; they were moved by doubt of the adequacy of the human senses to receive reality, the adequacy of human reason to receive truth, and hence by the conviction of the deficiency or even depravity of human nature”. Dorian Gray’s depravity is not Christian either in content or in origin; therefore his failure can’t be simply ascribed to the original sin, but instead is caused by his escape from his identity, his inward reality and the outward worldly involvement. That is the loss of introspection. If none had involved in the discovery that “nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure”, or that the gulf by which ancient hedonism, stoicism are separated from modern hedonism and puritanism, forms the modern character and yields it to the “self-centered and self-indulgent egotism with its infinite variety of futile miseries”, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the sacredness of egotism and pervasiveness of self-interest wouldn’t become current to the point of being commonplace in England, while Nietzsche found out another point of reference to define morality which could offer a more potent principle than the pleasure calculus, that is the principle of life itself (Hanna Arendt, 1958). What pain and pleasure, fear and desire are supposed to achieve is not happiness, but the promotion of an individual’s existence. Thereby, if the modern egotism truly seeks pleasures, as those hedonists ever proclaimed, the justification of defenses for the value of life should be present as an indispensable element. However, since Dorian Gray’s new hedonism lacks such protection for life and his evil is right due to the ruins he brought to others’ lives, this lack of a supreme standard indicates the life philosophy here being in its most vulgar and least critical form. Life seems to be the eternal supreme standard and the last resort for any moral judgments, as though it is the highest good.
In conclusion, as the late Victorians experienced the faltering of conventional Christian moral values with the emergence of Aestheticism and Decadence, the idea of “establishing morals as an exact science by isolating in the human soul that feeling which seems to be the most easily measurable” spawned a trend to suspect the existing moral standards. With the burgeon of the Aesthetic movement, Oscar Wild’s The Picture of Dorian Gray subverted the Victorian morality and revealed the depravity of mankind. To further explore the complexities of morality, centering on the failure of Dorian Gray’s life philosophy—New Hedonism, this paper provides an analysis of the limitations of hedonism and its uncritical characteristics, as well as the supreme principle of life as the final and sole resort in the discussion of morality. Furthermore, as the turning point in the intellectual history occurred when the lifeless rigidity of a mechanic worldview was replaced, it become clear that only when the active life remained bound to life as its only reference, could life unfold its entire splendor.
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