Rant Number 363 17 September 2009
The Londoner who happens to amble into the short Adelaide St, between Charing Cross and Trafalgar Square, will be stunned by the sight of a low structure of utter, unredeemed ugliness. A repellent monstrosity. A thing called ‘A Conversation with Oscar Wilde’, by Maggi Hamblin. I will only say that the poet’s face in bronze resembles a plateful of spaghetti. That a high priest of beauty should be insulted in such manner is surely an aesthetic crime that cries to Heaven for vengeance. Should an avenger take a hammer to the horror and smash it into pieces, he would have the priest’s undying gratitude.
The ill-luck which dogged Oscar Wilde’s life extends beyond the grave. His name is discernible in a cobalt blue window in Westminster Abbey’s Poets Corner – maybe that is not so bad, though I doubt Wilde would enjoy being next to many people with whom he would never have got on. Then that peculiar brotherhood, the ‘gay community’, has made him one of their icons – something that supreme wit would surely have mocked and scorned. Now, a further indignity. His only novella, The Picture of Dorian Gray, is made into a movie. The author is turning over in his grave, methinks.
What’s wrong with it? Neither the Gothic overkill nor the detailed, recurrent fornications – that is mere decoration. Nor the acting – everyone does his job well. Rachel Hurd-Wood as innocent, tragic Sybil Vane is especially, adorably convincing. And Ben Barnes as young Dorian is certainly handsome. Merely handsome, unfortunately. Banally so. What you would call a nice, good-looking boy but no more. A far cry from the golden Dorian of the story. Colin Firth’s Lord Henry Wotton also cannot hold a candle to George Sanders’ cynically suave rendering in the 1945 filmed version of the same book but that’s carping. The true problem runs much, much deeper.
Dorian’s depravity – aye, there’s the rub. Victorian critics were put out by the strange tale’s overt immorality. The self-obsessed lad drives jilted Sybil to suicide, takes to opium dens, ruins his young minions and eventually murders the painter who had painted the fatal portrait. What Queen Victoria’s subjects really drew the line at, however, was the whiff of homosexuality – beyond the pale for them but today no longer. So the film goes over the top in conventional horrors. Even the famous picture is no more than grotesque. But the overall effect is still disappointing. Dorian’s depravity falls short of the real McCoy, that’s it. To make the boy’s sins really scarlet, more is needed.
Let’s see...what could that be? What’s the height of evil today? Ah, yes. I have got it. The film should have made Dorian into a Nazi. Better, an SS man. Maybe a member of the Totenkopfverbande, the SS units who ran the concentration camps, why not? A perfect embodiment of darkness. The smart black uniform, the red arm-bands with the aggressively hooked swastikas, the silver death’s head on their caps, the Gott mit Uns on the belt buckle – young Dorian would look cruel and darkly beautiful in that, aye, lethally beautiful, and, ahem, awfully sexy to boot.
No, on second thoughts...that too palls a bit. Nazism has been done to death, let’s face it. Its very mention makes me yawn... Swastikas and whips – isn’t that part of the tired arsenal of sadomasochism? From the tenebrous, from the darkly sublime to the frankly ridiculous. The Soho dens today are hardly the ultimate dens of iniquity, surely. Dorian Gray’s perversions should be a tad more original than that. Otherwise the dreadful, sin-bearing portrait would appear no worse than an average mess by Damian Hirst or by the Chapman brothers – perish the thought!
Should Dorian perhaps be a leader of the BNP? A dastardly demagogue, bent on stirring up hatred against immigrants? An anti-Muslim agitator? A slimmer, improbably handsome version of podgy Nick Griffin? Hmmm...Once again, I fear we stray into the familiar cliché, the domain of the political correct. However much the far right may annoy right-thinking people these days, its alienated, embittered working class members are hardly the stuff a super-aesthete like Oscar’s Dorian would relish leading. No, no way.
What’s left? Being nasty to animals? Bashing up old ladies? Polluting the environment? Chasing the kiddies? Alas, we read of those terrible things daily in The Sun, the Daily Mail and The Guardian. All corny. Is there anything else? Anything truly unacceptable to out society? An abomination to mirror, even faintly, the disgust people felt at gays in Wilde’s Victorian days?
There is. Yes. There is indeed something frightening, lurid, lurking and fearful. Like a spectre. A spectre haunts present-day Englishmen, Britishers, Ukanians, call them what you will. It is called religion. Religion is what our society cannot abide. (I don’t mean of course today’s Anglicanism. That stands to real religion as a pussycat to a lion.) A religionist must be either mad or bad, tertium non datur. So, let us make Dorian into a Muslim. A white convert, perhaps. Wearing one of those shaggy Islamic beards which are ever so menacing. One of the chaps who are seeking to conquer Europe, you hear. Who will stop women working and will drive them into purdah, wearing impossible burkas. Who will bring in Sharia law, flog adulterers and chop off thieves’ hands. Who will burn books criticising the Prophet, shut down all porno shops and...Wait a minute, I think this is not going to go down well with some. Huh! Perhaps the scenario should switch to Dorian as a zealous Christian. And evangelical from All Souls, Langham Place. Nobody likes them, I am on safe ground here. Or maybe a Catholic from the St Pius X brigade. Bishop Williamson’s lot. Holocaust-denying...ye Gods! Getting into hot waters, I fear. The darned portrait is getting really gory. Too much, I feel. It will burn the very canvass and self-destruct. Even in wickedness, there are limits.
Wickedness, real wickedness, what is it? Shakespeare’s shows it in Othello’s Jago and Melville in Billy Budd’s Claggart. I myself have occasionally seen it in a certain painting by Odillon Redon and intuited in a few persons I have met – all baptised Christians, by the way. Jesus speaks about in the Gospels. He also fought it and vanquished it in Jerusalem (Al Quds!) long ago. Jesus alludes to it as the sin against the Holy Ghost. The sin that will not be forgiven.
As to the writer of Dorian Gray and De Profundis, I am sure he has deserved forgiveness aplenty.
Revd Frank Julian Gelli