The Picture of Gray Pleasure

If you took AP Literature in high school, Oscar Wilde is probably an easily recognizable name. Many have read a few poems or discussed his sordid life, but few have read his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. At the time of its publication, Dorian Gray was highly controversial, receiving harsh criticism because of its homoerotic undertones and unapologetic references to drug use, debauchery, and unabashed hedonism. It tells the story of Dorian Gray, a captivatingly beautiful young man who charms an entire community with his innocent youth and attractive face. His friend Basil, an accomplished painter, is particularly enraptured by the mystery of Dorian’s purity; he devotes himself to making a portrait of Dorian his greatest work, even to Dorian’s censure. During the portrait’s final sitting, Basil introduces his muse to Lord Henry, an incredibly cynical, worldly, and selfish older gentleman who lectures the young man on what he believes is the chief end of man: beauty and youth. Basil attempts to fend off Lord Henry’s poor advice, but as Dorian stares at the unblemished oil paint version of himself, he succumbs to Henry’s seductive proposal. He makes the extraordinary promise that he would trade his soul to preserve the beauty of the painting, amusing the older man and shocking the painter.  Dorian’s life of hedonism begins with understandable naivete, but it does not take long for his self-gratifying lifestyle to transform and pollute his mind. Every cruel, self-destructive, or lascivious act is quickly cast off with a simple selfish excuse, ridding him of all responsibility and relationships, save the carnal Lord Henry. The once innocent man’s vow comes true, and the more he sows vanity, the quicker the portrait reaps his depravity, ultimately morphing into a hideous replication of the real man’s darkened soul.

In some ways, Oscar Wilde’s short novel was before its time, painting plainly what a life that ascribes to post-modern society’s mantras of “following your joy” and “living your truth” actually looks like. The tragic tale of Dorian Gray begs the questions: Does following your joy actually bring joy? Does creating justifications for any action make it truth? And furthermore, is there a cost to such a lifestyle? A life of recklessly pursued pleasure may seem alluring – freeing, even – at first glance, but perhaps this desire is not too selfish or grand, but too small. It is evidence that humans need and were designed for more than gratification.

Solomon, son of Israel’s King David, lived hundreds of years before the fictional Dorian Gray, yet his life looked very similar. Today, we would say that Solomon was the guy who had it all: good looks, incomprehensible wealth, more women than he could possibly keep track of, and wisdom beyond understanding. He is the author of Ecclesiastes, a book of the Bible grouped in what Christian tradition calls the Books of Poetry. The “Preacher” – Solomon – laments that “there is nothing new under the sun”: the world is a never ending pattern of meaningless realities.[1] One generation comes and dies, being replaced by another; the worker labors, but receives little profit for hard toil; the senses are never satisfied by what they see, hear, or experience; all of nature runs aimlessly in continuous cycles; and anything that seems lasting is quickly forgotten as its allure diminishes. All these things, he says, are “vanity.”

In order to combat his disillusionment, the Preacher attempted to gain satisfaction in knowledge and wisdom, only to find that “he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.”[2] He then throws himself into sexual and material pleasure, gorging off the spoils of his exorbitant wealth and hundreds of concubines. Whatever his eyes desired he did not withhold from himself, but he then found that this was “grasping for the wind,” meaningless as everything else. Vanity.[3] This proved to him that there was a negligible difference between the wise man and the fool – do they not both grow weary? Do they not both feel joy and pain? Do they not both die, forgotten within generations? He spends the rest of the book wrestling with the meaning of the world around him, addressing everything from the prosperity of the wicked and tyrannous, to the meaning of friendship.

Though Solomon did not preserve his youth as Dorian Gray, he too found that selfish hedonism possesses the same despondency as a mundane life. We can see in both of these men aspects of ourselves that we do not wish to acknowledge. Sometimes it is simply craving the days when youth was a ready excuse for ignorance or failure, or wondering why that one thing which used to be your everything no longer elicits any happiness. We are continually searching for avenues to escape the seemingly meaningless aspects of life, but, more often than not, they are pathetically pale substitutes for what we truly need. For example, by selling his soul to a canvas, Dorian Gray traded the true object of Basil’s affection, Dorian Gray the living and real man, for the shadow – a 2D, hand-drawn, easily flammable, destined-to-fade replica. He missed the intended purpose of his friend’s gesture: he was worth treasuring as a work of art, not the painting itself.

Basil comes to apologize to Dorian when he begins to hear rumors of Dorian’s philandering. He asks forgiveness for stoking his vanity and thereby tainting the young man’s innocent youth. But what the painter does not consider is that perhaps he also missed the point. He, enraptured by Dorian’s beauty, attempted to encapsulate it into a personal success, leaving it out in the open so he could daily admire his handiwork. In so doing, he missed an opportunity to be the voice of wisdom in the Dorian’s life, instead leaving him susceptible to the terrible confidence of Lord Henry. Or worse, he missed his chance to enjoy the true Dorian. In this way, he was not far removed from Solomon and Dorian, searching for a way to fill his heart with beauty that was fleeting. Vanity of vanities.

In his letter to the Romans, the author, Apostle Paul, explains that we should not be surprised that humankind’s desires fall short of what their hearts actually need. Humans continually change the glory of “the incorruptible God” into a mere image, like corruptible man.[4] And yet, despite the fact that we “profess to be wise,” we become like fools, time and again chasing fleeting pleasure only to time and again be bitterly dissatisfied.[5] After his long journey of failed searching, Solomon asserts that God “has put eternity on our hearts,” which explains both why everything is beautiful in its time and why we do not find lasting satisfaction in merely beautiful things.[6] Humans do not find lasting gratification in instant gratification because we were made to be filled, not appeased. This realization can easily be perverted into extremes such as gnosticism or asceticism. However, recognizing the inherently fleeting nature of many things in the world around us does not mean we should not enjoy it. Indeed, Solomon encourages that we “remember” our youth before it is taken from us, before the world grows dim with our heightened awareness of its brokenness. Therefore, it is the heart behind the pleasure, not the pleasure itself, that must be examined.

The human heart begs for things which not only have meaning, but also have permanence. If one is without the other, disillusionment and pain is inevitable. Often we try to find meaning in the mundaneness of life from temporary, ultimately meaningless pleasures, whether that be consuming too much food or alcohol; excessive, difficult exercise to take our mind off of our problems; or a casual hookup that leaves us both lacking a meaningful relationship while dehumanizing another. It is no wonder that this simply gratifies and does not satisfy: finding meaning in the mundaneness of life cannot come from something temporary, otherwise it becomes just as meaningless. Dorian lived a life of lasting, but meaningless pleasure; his soul was constantly being filled, but with destruction, as exhibited by his deformed portrait. Solomon experienced meaningful pleasure, but none of it lasted, leaving him despondent and desperate. Both of these men pursued whatever their hearts desired, and yet found their hearts emptier than when they began.

In the end, the ultimate difference between Dorian Gray and King Solomon was their conclusions to vanity: the former sought to eliminate the “problem” – the portrait, the incessant reminder of his depravity. The latter sought to add the solution: a life founded on true meaning. Solomon looked at every vain thing at which he had recklessly thrown his soul and concluded that if everything under the sun was vanity, then the only thing worthy was to “Fear God and keep his commandments.” “This,” he states, “is man’s all.”[7] He does not argue that one must spend his or her life huddled in a corner, anxiously awaiting the wrath of God; rather, that he or she lives their lives boldly with a respect for their Creator. She comes before everything she encounters with the firm belief that every good and perfect gift – every opportunity for meaningful, lasting pleasure–comes from above.[8] And, even when life is mundane, all can find meaning in the One who came not only to give life, but to give it more abundantly.

Solomon’s choice was not the easy one, but a meaningful, incorruptible, and most joy-giving response to a seemingly hopeless life of pleasure-chasing. Our lives are not empty vessels waiting to be filled with tiny, momentarily-gratifying aspects of “our truth” or “our joy”; we will never reach fullness in this way. Why live aimlessly, desperately grasping for vanity when you could be overflowing with abundance? This – abundant life – is what we were designed for. The world equates abundance to Solomon and Dorian’s lives: money, reckless abandon, and hedonism. This desire is too small. Real abundance is neither temporary nor meaningless; it is in an eternal relationship with Jesus Christ. When we add this true meaning to our lives, seemingly meaningless things become truly pleasurable, as they point us toward ultimate, eternal pleasure. When feelings of meaningfulness and mundaneness come – and they will – it is okay to acknowledge and lament. But this is a confirmation that the Christian life means submitting temporary pleasure for eternal. This is not just pleasure – this is joy.

 

1 Ecclesiastes 1

2 Ecclesiastes 1:18 NKJV

3 Ecclesiastes 2:1-11 NKJV

4 Romans 1:23 NKJV

5 Romans 1:22 NKJV

6 Ecclesiastes 3:11 NKJV

7 Ecclesiastes 12:13 NKJV

8 James 1:17 NKJV

Abi Bernard is a junior from Michigan, or, as she prefers to call it, The Great Mitten State. She is always ready to gush over Fruits Basket, Hans Zimmer, and why Haitians make the best rice. If you cannot find her, she’s probably taking a nap, or reading her history and government homework in her home away from home, Morrill Hall.

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