Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Picture of Dorian Gray

Day 135 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project, and Kim K* is reading The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde, because Ivan Albright made her do it!

"First I should explain," said Kim K, "that in this case I'm 'reading' it via audiobook."

"Aauugghh," I replied, since I am focusing on reading books in print in this blog, curious about the concentration and thought processes involved in reading from the page, rather than through the ear....Interestingly, Kim K's experience applies!

"I have to say that being nearly through it now, I'm likely to go follow up by reading it in print soon. It's compelling, and I'm really enjoying a lot, but I inevitably feel that I miss some things in audiobooks, and I think I want to take it at my own pace as well. (That said, I also think audio makes some parts easier, especially when it's well read, as this one is.)

"So, there are probably 3 reasons why I picked it:

"(1) Circumstance: I need audiobooks for my auto commute, which is why I was looking in the first place. I'm backed up a mile and a half with print books** waiting to be read, but that 35-90-minute commute demands audiobooks.

"(2) It's a classic, and I don't believe I've actually read any Oscar Wilde before.

"(3 - and I really think this is the main reason) I have loved Ivan Albright's painting by the same name in the Art Institute for years and years and years. It's probably one of the first things I ever fell in love with there, right along with the Monets. I could sit for hours and look at it, and never tire of it. I love Albright's painting in general, and this is absolutely one of my favorites. An utterly astonishing painting. If the book could inspire that, then it had to be worth reading."

In the Wonderful Land of CoincidOz that is my mind and this book blog, I handled a copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray at the bookstore yesterday, a volume in the Connoisseur's Edition of Wilde's Collected Works, introduced by Coulson Kernahan with a preface by Walter Pater. Both Kernahan and Pater praise Wilde for his geniality and generosity as a person, and wit and beauty as a writer.

Pater also says Wilde carries on "the brilliant critical work of Matthew Arnold," referring I think to pursuing "sweetness and light" as the aim of a culture, beauty over function, intangible values over utilitarianism. This also fits with Bertrand Russell's sound bite (who knew Russell and "sound bite" would ever be in the same sentence?) at the end of that youttube clip (previous ungodly entry) saying we should value what is true, not just what is useful. (Hmmm. Pay no attention to the man behind that curtain. Arf, arf! What is it, Toto?) In his own aphorism collage preface to Dorian Gray, Wilde says, "All art is quite useless." And, coincidOzally, in another volume of that same Collected Works, Wilde comments on Pater's Imaginary Portraits.

Anyhoo! The Picture of Dorian Gray is a compelling "horror" story, adapted for film a jillion times, about a man who sells his soul to retain his youth and beauty, but, as literature, cliche, and Bertrand Russell might tell him, the truth will out. Ivan Albright "outs" it wonderfully. Albright's portrait is used in the 1945 film version.

The horror is not just supernatural but also psychological, and, as Pater argues, moral. Pater says that Wilde's heroes tend "to lose the moral sense" and thus "to become less complex, to pass from a higher to a lower degree of development." So, even in the world of art-for-art's-sake, beauty is not merely aesthetic. There is moral beauty. Sigh. My brain hurts.

Oh, I know! Wilde can help me out. Here are some of the aphoristic claims in his preface:

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 art consists in the perfect use of an imperfect medium.

Here, in the 21st century, in my little town, and my Wonderful Land of CoincidOz, I can go see Caliban rage in The Tempest at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival this summer. Under the stars.

OK. *Kim K is not the Kim addicted to hummus, at Hummus Anonymous. **I hope Kim K will tell us what's in her stack of print books, maybe giving us a list like Doug's List! Or Lizabeth's on the road reading list. Lost in the world of coincidLinks? Just hit the back button.


Kim K. said...

I would have stopped by sooner to fill Kathy’s request to tell you about my book list, but to tell the truth… I was too busy reading. I borrowed “The Girl Who Kicked Over the Hornet’s Nest” (by Stieg Larsson) from a colleague on Friday and promised to read it quickly so she could send it along to someone else. I just finished it last night. The main character in this series is so unusual, and I think so beautifully developed, that she alone would have made this 3-book series well worth reading, but I have loved each of these books for many reasons.

What else is on my reading list? Well, as mentioned above, I’ll need to get a print copy of “The Picture of Dorian Gray” to expand on my audio experience. But right now I’m working on “The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries,” by Marilyn Johnson. (That one really is about obit writers, readers and collectors --yes, collectors.

Also in my coming-attractions stack: “A Lion Among Men” by Gregory Maguire; “Timothy McSweeney’s At War for the Foreseeable Future and He’s Never Been So Scared;” “Bonk,” by Mary Roach; “Special Topics in Calamity Physics,” by Masrissha Pessl; “Ghost Dogs of the South,” by Randy Russell and Janet Barnett (a book of southern folklore about dog ghosts); John Irving's “Last Night in Twisted River;” an annotated edition of “The Wizard of Oz;” J.M. Coetzee's three-volume autobiography - "Boyhood," "Youth" and "Summertime;" and "Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter," by Tom Bissell.

Those will be interspersed with a variety of other books that I’ll pick up along the way, either because I just feel like something different at that moment or because someone loaned me a title that I want to return quickly or because I saw a new release that just grabbed my attention. I’m trying to work my way through all of Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason books in chronological order (I’ve been addicted to mysteries ever since I first got hold of Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys and Encyclopedia Brown as a kid.) I stumbled onto Terry Pratchett about a decade ago and am working my way through all of his books as well. (My favorite is still the first one I ever read by him, “Hogfather.”) And then there are books that I just read and re-read and re-read and never get enough of, including E.B. White’s collected essays, “Great Expectations,” and Ann Patchett’s “Bel Canto.”

That’s what I’m up to these days.

Kathleen said...

Thanks for the list, Kim! I think Bob, who comments here frequently, is going to like what you are reading. In fact, I think you should become pen pals at my blog and fall a teensy bit in love from afar (way far, as you are married to different people), and let us live vicariously through your epistolary reading romance!

Kim K. said...

Just an update. It's been 2 1/2 days since I typed my reading list above, and already I have added 2 more books to it. The most recent addition is "The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story of the Company that is Connecting the World, by David Kirkpatrick," added just now because I read the review in the NYTimes book reviews (just received via email), and because social media is part of what I do for a living. I don't honestly remember the name of the other book that's been added to the list, but it's written down at home, so I assure you that it really is on the list.

Meanwhile, Kathy, I think I need you to assure me that no one is going to start stalking me here -- I'm just a teensy bit worried since you've constructed an extramarital love affair for me with someone I've never met!

Kathleen said...

I'm pretty sure both of you are safe from stalking each other and from my wacky sense of humor.