Dorian Gray, literary criticism, and use

This blog post takes as its ambitious guiding star the wholesale interpretation and explication of The Picture of Dorian Gray (whatever this could even mean), and the work’s preface as its humble starting point. There is, of course, no prima facie justification that can be given for an interpretive tactic; the strategy’s merit will have to show itself in the readings for which it allows. But we may innocuously note that Picture is a work of art about a work of art, and that its preface (written by the author temporally last, experienced by the reader temporally first) is itself about works of art. What it has to say about art, then, may provide us a starting point for discussing the novel. Let us begin with its last sentence: “All art is quite useless.”

The past fifty years of literary criticism have been dominated by an academic approach quite at odds with this statement. The so-called Yale School, influenced by Jacques Derrida and emblematized by Paul de Man, expressly viewed literature as a space for radical political action, and was as such pejoratively deemed responsible for “the politicization of the humanities”. We would do well to quickly review the philosophical underpinnings of the Yale School, that we might acquire a sense of how to begin to approach Wilde’s assertion.

Jacques Derrida published his first three major works in 1967, and continued to write just up until his death in 2004. Scholars usually use “Deconstruction” to refer to Derrida’s thought (though he was said to have expressed puzzlement over why this particular conceptual term was singled out amongst others—and for Derrida naming is never a neutral gesture). Deconstruction can be thought of as an extension of the critiques of Platonism initiated by Nietzsche and developed further still (with a phenomenological and hermeneutic influence) by Heidegger. Derrida diagnosed the entirety of “the history of Western metaphysics” with an ideological bias toward something that he called logocentrism. Logocentrism may be summarized as the belief that the entities that compose the world all possess an essence of some sort that they either accurately represent or fail to accurately represent, and that entities that successfully represent their essences are normatively superior to entities that do not. Derrida thinks that this bias expresses itself throughout the history of thought primarily in the form of conceptual binaries (good vs. evil, man vs. woman, white vs. black, speech vs. writing, same vs. other, etc.) in which inhere a normative hierarchy (here, the former in each pair being privileged). His strategy is then to take the texts that compose this ethnocentric canon and “deconstruct” them by isolating those binaries, showing how the texts allow a reading that inverts the normative hierarchy, and finally showing how the texts allow a reading that shows the paradoxes of the binary itself.

This is the context in which to understand Barthes’s proclamation of the death of the author and Derrida’s related statement that “there is nothing outside the text”. The danger of author-driven approaches to literature is that they can violently close off discussion, with the assumed intention of the author serving as a type of “essence” of the work of art. Barthes, Derrida, and others like them wanted to permanently open literature up to new use. They also wanted us to become conscious of the ethnocentric nature of “the canon”—whose language was privileged in our culture, and whose language was silenced.

We then seemingly confront a difficulty in our reading of Picture’s preface. For, Wilde proclaims that:

All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril. Those who read the symbol do so at their peril. It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors. (4)

This, by itself, would seem to cohere very well with Deconstruction, with all of its talk of “endlessly deferred meaning”, the “free play of signifiers”, and the “excess of the signifier over the signified”. There is no ultimate meaning in the work of art that somehow correlates with the “life” that art is meant to mirror (this is Aristotelian mimesis); rather, art is pure artifice—all signifier, no signified. Anything that the spectator reads into the work of art is the spectator’s doing, not the creator’s. Wilde also refers to art (and thus literature) as “an imperfect medium” that attains this status of pure surface when the artist attains “perfect use” of it—and, last but not least, the preface is intertextual, with two references to The Tempest’s “Caliban” (3).

The absence of use evoked at the end of the preface, then, would seem to be a kind of present absence, much like that kind of spectral presence spoken of by Derrida in much of his work (see especially Specters of Marx). We may think of Derrida’s diagnosis of Western metaphysics as “being in force without significance” (see Agamben in Homo Sacer), that is, as being present only in virtue of its absence. It is as if essence maintains a zero-relation with us—and we are as such eternally inadequate (this is the source of Derrida and many others’ labeling of Western metaphysics as “nihilism”).

But, just as de Man and others saw in this emptiness at the center of thought a space for political action, it would seem that Wilde too affirms in the preface a space for the reader. And consider the novel’s first sentence:

The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden, there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn. (5)

It is almost too easy to read here the image of present absence, with the studio “filled” with nothing but smells, that is, sensory experiences of absent sensory objects. We may just as easily read the portrait itself as a cipher for the artistic essence, or as the essence that supposedly inheres in one’s identity (in the form of an ‘image’, a social projection of oneself). The fact that Dorian feels he must constantly hide the picture then corresponds again to the absent presence of the ultimate explanatory principle that defines a given domain of discourse and supposedly gives it its justification for existing. (The end of the novel is, then, a very interesting artistic gesture—we will get to that later.)

But that’s just it—isn’t this almost too easy? And boring? It would seem that as art in postmodernity increasingly takes on pastiche and self-reference as its dominant tropes we become increasingly capable of reading ‘whatever we want’ in works of art, especially those works in the canon or at its margins (e.g. finding an ideology in a work ‘avant la lettre’). It is not that any of this is bad per se—Derrida and de Man, in fact, would love the critical space opened up by postmodern art. But I think of Giorgio Agamben’s sparsely scattered remarks concerning Deconstruction. He worries that if Deconstruction limits itself to infinitely repeating its gesture of isolating the aporias necessarily implicit in any metaphysical system it might calcify in a sense, taking its “arche-concepts” like trace and différance and turning them into new concepts in a new metaphysical system.

Agamben urges us (with inspiration from Walter Benjamin’s reflections on history) to read the texts of the past with an eye to their utility in the present. I would argue that we may conceive of Agamben’s work as the production of historical re-narrativizations of the present in the form of what he calls “paradigms” that are designed to shock us into seeing our present in the context of history in a new way. We thus begin to see that things other than what we had thought possible are at least not impossible, and new use becomes possible. Now, Agamben’s hope seems to be that we could think a kind of life that was characterized by “pure use”—and his hope for achieving this seems to be through continuing to actualize things but keeping within them the capacity to not be, or within our necessities containing contingencies. In the context of literary criticism, we could say that that means we shouldn’t feel like Deconstruction means we have to conclude that every text says the same thing, which is nothing. We can still further unique theses on works without claiming that they are the “truth” of those works. (To be fair, Derrida himself was very good about doing this; Agamben seems to be worried about his followers.)

I would say, then, that our class is a wonderful example of the utilization of literature’s capacity to affect positive social change, and that Dorian Gray itself may very easily be “used” for a cause (such as sexual liberation) regardless of whether or not Wilde intended it to be (or at least wrote it to be). Our class’s exemplary status is fairly obvious—we are reading less-canonized authors, discussing oppressed parts of society and what may be done about that oppression; all that is left now is for us to truly seize this opportunity and make great things happen!

And as far as the book, I will end with a reading of its end. If we accept my earlier suggestion that the portrait is a cipher either for the “artistic essence” or for identity, then we may draw both of these together under the preface’s suggestion of emptiness, and say that the portrait shows that identity is itself empty. Dorian Gray may himself be thought of us as one who denies the true, purely potential nature of human existence (that is, existing absent a necessary essence) and instead tries to impose the necessary conditions on living of his particular identity—for, he holds onto his past self, he desires his portrait and fears changing. This would be akin for Benjamin or Agamben to historical writing that remains totally remote from our time, in fact doing nothing to push the boundaries of what we think is possible. His life was a reading of a text that refused to open it up to free use. But Wilde’s gesture, then, in having Dorian stab himself (or the painting?) at the end of the novel, is quite significant. Dorian destroys the present absence, in a sense (here his lost youth); that is, he abolishes the law, he destroys identity. But this was accomplished only after having sank deep down into the depths of narcissism. The novel, by turning tragic, seemingly also turns sacrificial, with Dorian as the offering. This would seem to give the novel a definite meaning, insofar as throughout literary history form has in some sense conferred the context in which the content ought to be viewed, and so then uselessness of the art is diminished somewhat, insofar as a constraint on how the work can be interpreted is introduced. But this gesture is perfectly symmetrical to the gesture of taking a meaningless work of art and giving it a particular meaning as Derrida and Agamben both intimate. Wilde, then, is engaged in an incredibly clever political gesture, and one with human agency at its core. Note that we, in fact, don’t care whether or not Wilde actually intended this—we can use the work to say it. And, as long as we remain within the constraints of criticism and logic that are dictated by the text we are given, it would seem that we can reasonably call these new interpretations “new truths”.



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