INTRODUCTION: THE AESTHETICISM
The term “aestheticism” derives from Greek and means: “Perceiving through senses”. It was also for the Romantic culture, in fact the movement has its roots in the Romanticism, but, at the same time, it signs a turn: now tartist, or better the aesthete, has to feel the sensations but also live them in his life. The message of the aestheticism is: “Living the beauty!” The figure of the aesthete presents some corrispondences with the French figure, “the poete maudit”, who refuses all the values and the conventions of the society, he chooses the evil, he conduces a dissolute, unregulated life, till the extreme limit of the destruction through the vice of the flesh, the use of alcohol and drugs. Both of them refuses bourgeois normality: Also the “poete maudit” follows the mystic cult of the art and exalts the evil for its aesthetic value, for its sublime and horrid beauty. The aesthete too refuses the moral rules and the conventions, he arrives to accept the crime because it indicates free action without rules. The movement evocates a return to the art of Middle Ages, when the artist is a sort of craftman, who creates his art- work with his creativity, he is free from any rules (while the academic art of the Victorian society is characterized by a rigid respect of the rules),he creates entirely his work, not only a piece of it.
We can consider as forerunners of the movement John Keats, who belonged to te second generation of Romantic poets, D.G.Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelithes, who wanted an art closer to the primitive beauty. In France the best representative of Aesteticism is J.K.Huysman with “A ribour” (1884), whose protagonist Des Esseintes becomes the ideal incarnation of the aesthete. In Italy G.D’Annunzio creates another important model of the aesthetic movement with Andrea Sperelli in “Il piacere” (1889).
OSCAR FINGAL O’FLAHERTIE WILLS WILDE:
A major spokesman for the Aesthetic movement in the late 19th century and an advocate of “Art for art’s sake”, which proposes that beauty has no utilitarian value and is independent of morality, is Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde. He was born in Dublin, Ireland, on October 16, 1854, of professional and literary, but also very eccentric parents: his father, Sir William Wilde, is a known eye and ear surgeon, he gives him several names, which are a concentrate of ideas ( for example “Fingal” is the name of a legendary Irish figure, a sort of ossianic poet , “O’Flahertie” is the name of a warrior tribe of Ireland), his mother, Jane Elgee, is a fervent nationalist poet, and she, for her desire to have a daughter, dresses little Oscar in girl’s clothes. After attending Porpora Royal School (1864-71), Wilde goes, on successive scholarship, to Trinity College, Dublin (1871-74), where he studies Latin and Greek literature. Here he first reveales his unconventional personality and thanks to his love for classics he wins a Gold Medal for Greek and a scholarship for Madgalen College, Oxford (1874-78), which awards him a degree with honours. Soon he becomes famous as poet winning the Newdigate Prize in 1878 with a long poem, “Ravenna”. During these four years he is well known for his wit, his ostentatious dresses and his eccentric behaviour as well as for his aestheticism. He is an anticonformist , a wonderful entertainer and a brilliant talker; his conversation is a provocative combination of satire, paradox and epigram through which every Victorian institution and value is criticized and ridiculed. He is deeply impressed by the teachings of the English writers John Ruskin, a critic of art, and Walter Pater, the theorist of aestheticism, on the central importance of art in life and particularly on the aesthetic intensity by which life should be lived ( the life imitated the art and not vice versa). Like many in his generation, Wilde is determined to follow Pater’s urging “to burn always with a hard, gemlike flame”. But Wilde also delights in affecting an aesthetic pose; this, combined with rooms at Oxford decorated with “objects d’art”, results in his famous remark: “Oh, would that I could live up to my blue China!” ( However, Japanese and other oriental art, eighteenth-century furniture, distempers walls in pastel colours, stylised floral motifs have all made their appearance in English art before Wilde becomes their advocate; in fact in 1885 the essayist and cartoonist Max Beerbohm affirms: “Beauty had existed long before 1880. It was Mr Oscar Wilde who managed her debut”).
In the early 1880s, when the Aestheticism is the rage and despair of literary London,(where he inherites from father) Wilde establishes himself in social and artistic circles by his wit and flamboyance. Soon the periodical “Punch” makes him the satirical object of its antagonism to the Aesthetes for what is considered their unmasculine devotion to art; and in their comic opera “Patience”, Gilbert and Sullivan base the character Bunthorne, a “fleshly poet”, partly on Wilde. His caricature is provoked above all by his eccentric way of dressing and behaviour : he wear an aesthetic costume of velvet jacket, knee breeches, black silk stockings, strange tie and exotic flowers in the buttonhole, and he uses to walk up and down Piccadilly with a sunflower in his hands. In constant need of money to live up to his worldly life, Wilde acceptes an invitation to lecture in the United States and Canada in 1882,pronuncing on his arrival in New York his famous sentence: “I have nothing to declare except my genius!” , in reply to the Customs officer’s routine question. On his return to Europe, he spends three months in Paris, where he meets writers and painters like Flaubert and Huysmans. In 1884 he marries Constance Lloyd, who bears him two children. Their style of life is beyond their means and Wilde is obliged to work as a reviewer for the “Pall Mall Gazette” and then as editor of “Woman’s world” (1887-89).
In 1889 Wilde produces his anti-realistic manifesto “The decay of Lying” which asserts that “Art is our spirited protest, our attempt to teach Nature its proper place”. Art’s aim is to offer man pleasures and sensations without regard to any preconceived standard of morality and utility. The life has to be similar to an art-work and so his same life is an example of it in its reckless pursuit of pleasure. In addition, his homosexual relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas, whom he meets in 1891, infuriated the Marquess of Queensberry, Douglas’ father. Accused, finally by the Marquess of being a sodomite, Wilde, urged by Douglas, sues for criminal libel. Unfortunately the accusations are proved true, and Wilde is arrested, tried and sentenced to two years’ hard labour. After the prison, which provokes him many sufferings, because of public opinion against him and the impediment to read and write, he adopts a new name: Sebastian Melmoth. “Sebastian” remembers the Christian martyr transfixed with arrows, but also the arrows printed on his prison uniform and “Melmoth” is inspired by Maturin’s Gothic novel ” Melmoth, the Wanderer” . He spends some time in Naples and Switzerland, writing against the brutality of prison life. Then he settles in Paris, where he dies suddenly on November 30, 1900, from an attack of meningitis. In his semiconscious final moments, he is received into the Roman Catholic Church, which he has long admired.
THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY
It is the only novel written by Wilde. When it is first published in 1890 in the “Lippincott’s Monthly magazine”, it is fiercely attacked by critics who judges it immoral. To reply to these accusations the next year Wilde publishes another edition, with the addition of six chapters and its famous “Preface” which becomes the Manifesto of the Aestheticism. The novel challenges all the fundamental values and beliefs of Victorian society and probes deeply into the shadow world behind the respectable social façade. The novel is the story of Dorian Gray, a typical dandy, that’s to say a heroic figure, created by Wilde, that is the living protest against this democratic levelling, he is at his ease everywhere and in every situation. He is against any social convention. Nothing can surprise him. He is never vulgar. He presents all the canons of the classical beauty: handsome, young, aristocratic, refined. His sex is ambiguous: he unites the feminine grace and the male virility. On his lips there is a smile of a stoic philosopher. He is the last romantic hero, the last manifestation of heroism in a moment of decline, like the sunset, the last ray of sunlight of human pride, for his elegance in dressing and his intellectual honesty. His only ideal is to realize an inimitable life. And proper this ideal conduces him to the perversion. When his friend painter Basil Hallward paints his picture he can translate on it even the soul of Dorian, the young is enchanted by it and together Hanry Watton, an elegant and cynic man, whose principles have corrupted him, makes a reflection on the fugacity of the time and desires intensely to transfer the passing of the time on the picture and to remaine always beautiful and young. His desire is so strong that it really happens. So he lives a dissolute life, in search of the most unrestrained pleasures: he despises the love of Sybil Vane, a kind actress because an evening her performance, for a bodily discomfort, isn’t perfect as always. It will conduce her to suicide. At this point the decadence of Dorian’s soul begins, he becomes a criminal, his physical aspect remains beautiful, but inside he becomes cruel and cruel. The signs of the time and of his decadence appear on the picture, where his face becomes evil and it is furrowed with wrinkles, so, to appease his conscience he collocates the picture in the attic even if every evening he goes to look it :every day the signs of the decline increases. A day Dorian shows the picture to his friend Basil but he recognizes it only for his signature, painted in red; the painter, who is a sincere and integral man, reproaches him for his shameful conduct, but the cruel Dorian kills him, because he is the creator of the picture, and dissolves his body in the nitrile acid. Then he has also a dispute with Sybil Vane’s brother. But, better than every word, the picture remembers to Dorian the deception of his double life, showing him his real face, unknown to everyone in its own cruel eloquence up to, overcome by unhappiness, he brakes the picture with a knife and he immediately falls down dead, as if he has stabbed himself. The servitude rush to the place and they look a wonderful picture of their master and on the floor a dead man with an evening dress, with a knife in the heart, with an old and cruel face. They understand that he is their master only for his rings. The life, broken the charm, prevails over Dorian, who wants to oppose to his necessary pain another life, fictitious and mysterious.
The allegoric meaning of this novel exalts the absolute and eternal value of art, which triumphs over all the ugliness and lowness of the life. In this work the author states that for obtaining the essential detaching from the life, for looking himself in third person it is necessary to invent, to lie, to wear a mask. And the mask is deliberately formed by himself, because it is different from his imperfect nature and because it is the product of his intellect; it really is the only reality of the man. His behaviour is more important than his nature. “To be artificial!” is the real saying of the aesthete, who understands this reality. “The truthfulness is a pose; and the most irritating one that I know.” Says Lord Henry at the beginning of the story. Then he observes: “I like the theatre. It is truer than the life!” and he praises the hypocrisy, typical of the good society, where the manners are most important than the moral, and then, like in the art, the form is all. The mask makes the life richer, flooder. It permits to the aesthete to feel pleasure for every kind of experiences and it permits to the thinker to play with the ideas, to sustain different point of view for the love of speaking. In fact the primary concern of Wilde in his novel is the exploration of the power of the language. It is rich, elaborated and ornamented as the embroideries, the jewels and the works of art it so accurately describes. Similes and metaphors compare things in the real world to the products of art and craftsmanship, to the materials and effects created by artists. The novel is mostly written in an intensely poetic style that does not only describe, but communicates sensuous pleasure by the richness and musicality of its language. Words produce in the reader the same hypnotic effect, the same “form of reverie” and “malady of dreaming” that Dorian experiences at the sound of Lord Henry’s voice and while reading his book. The novel “The picture of Dorian Gray” derives from the influence of different sources:
-The novel “A Rebours” (1884) by the Belgian writer J.K.Huysmans, a mannered portrait of aristocratic decadence whose protagonist Des Esseintes becomes the prototype of the aesthete of fin de siecle literature. This book is read by Dorian and produces in him ” a form of reverie, a malady of dreaming”, and from whose influence he can not free himself for years.
– The psychological horror stories, such as “The strange case of Dr Jekill and Mr Hyde” (1886) by the Scottish novelist R.T.Stevenson and “Frankestein” (1818) by Mary Shelley. He draws inspiration from the Stevenson’s way of describing the characters of his work: he looks inside “the haunted house of Victorian values” and he speaks about the “homo duplex”, that’s to say a man with a double personality, a respectable public one and a hidden, violent and animal one. (Since the beginning of his friendship with Lord Alfred Douglas the Wilde himself had led a double life).
-The British and German stories about a character selling his soul to the devil, such as Chistopher Marlow’s “The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus” (1588-89), Charles Robert Maturin’s “Melmoth the Wanderer” (1820) and Goethe’s “Faust (1808-32). However, in Wilde’s novel there is no real devil and no contract with it. Dorian manages to remain young and beautiful by the force of his narcissism. Lord Henry Wotton has diabolical connotations and exercises a powerful and wicked influence on him. His familiar name “Harry” is an allusion to the expression “Old Harry”, a common and familiar name for the devil. His low, languid voice has seductive power that is characteristic of representations of the devil in literature. The scene in which he delivers his panegyric on youth and beauty takes place in the garden and borrows several images from the episode between Eve and the serpent in Milton’s “Paradise Lost” (1667).Dorin Gray and Sybil Vane are also meaningful names. “Dorian” means of Doria, a part of Ancient Greek. It suggests both the young man’s classical beauty and Lord Henry’s “Hellenic ideal” to which he aspired to return. “Gray” indicates the contrast between the good and evil. “Sibyl”, according to the ancient Greek mythology, was a prophetess who was thought to know the future. The pronunciation of “Vane” suggests, on the one hand, that her words and her truth are spoken “in vain” because Dorian rejects and abandons her, and on the other, that the girl herself may be vain, empty and superficial.
– The romances by Dickens, for the realistic part of the novel, for example the detailed description of night London.
– The “dandy” romances written in the first part of the century, such as “Tremaine” (1825) by Robert Plumer Ward, “Pelham” by E.G.Bulwer Lytton and in particular “Vivian Gray” by Bejamin Disraeli, the story of the political and amorous ambitions of a young man, whose name is remembered by Wilde in the protagonist of his novel.
THE PREFACE OF DORIAN GRAY
The artist is the creator of beautiful things.
To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim.
The critic is he who can translate into another manner or a new material his impression of beautiful things.
The highest, as the lowest, form of criticism is a mode of autobiography.
Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault.
Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope.
They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only Beauty. There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.
The nineteenth-century dislike of Realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass.
The nineteenth-century dislike of Romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass.
The moral life of man forms part of the subject-matter of the artist, but the morality of the art consists in the perfect use of an imperfect medium. No artist desires to prove anything. Even things that are true can be proved.
No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympaty in an artist is an unpardonable manerism of style.
No artist is ever morbid. The artist can express everything.
Thought and language are to the artist instruments of an art.
Vice and virtue are to the artist materials for an art.
From the point of view of form, the type of all the arts is the art of the musician. From the point of view of feeling, the actor’s craft is the type.
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.
Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital.
When critics disagree, the artist is in accord with himself.
We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.
All art is quite useless.
Leggi anche il Riassunto di Il ritratto di Dorian Gray in italiano.