The Tragedy of Old Age: Happy Birthday, Oscar Wilde

To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all. 

– Oscar Wilde

On this day in 1854, the crown prince of the Aesthetes, master of wit, artist of wordplay, Mr. Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde was born. That was 159 years ago. And in much less time than that, Wilde would experience the tragic rise and fall of an infamous career.

What shall we do, Mr. Wilde, to celebrate this day for you? Here, would you reply with something witty and cynical? Something that would make the room titter and chuckle? Tuckle and chitter? Of course. I will make no attempt at an Wildean aphorism. Rest in peace, my flamboyant idol-of-sorts. No need to roll in the grave.

Oscar Wilde! What shall we do then? No need to write a biography about you. Many have already done so. People already know you were a playwright, with “The Importance of Being Earnest” being perhaps your most popular. And no need to mention your only novel, censored for over 150 years, The Picture of Dorian Gray. Only in the past couple of years has the full original edition – the draft publishers rejected as gross and dangerously “immoral” – become available to the public.

But perhaps that really is what needs mentioning…

The Uncensored Picture of Dorian Gray - Oscar Wilde

The Picture of Dorian Gray has been my favorite book since I first read it at the easily chewable age of 13. While the themes were classic and resonant, they were not the hook that drew me under. It was the words. The language in this book moved me in both shallow and deep ways. It is true that I was very easily won over by the purpley prose, those empty words that did nothing but- no, they did everything. Wilde’s words opened up for me a world of richness and flavor such that I had never read before. Even now, when I read through my favorite passages, I remain amazed at the almost purely aesthetic nature of the language. “Art for art’s sake.” Plot? TPoDG has only a semblance of a plot. It is more a vehicle for Wilde’s witticisms and poetic waxing than a captivating story.

The premise is fascinating and has endured this long, as it will continue to endure. In despair over the thought of losing his youth, Dorian Gray makes a Faustian wish: eternal youth in exchange for his soul. But it is not as if his soul has disappeared – it has manifested in his portrait, painted by a true artist in love with Gray. Basil Hallward outdid himself with his painting. He Pygmalion and Dorian his Galatea– a wondrously beautiful statue come to life. The painting shows every line and liver spot of Dorian’s age and sin. He is able to watch it year after year as it ages and he remains young and beautiful. Without the moral culpability, his soul, he is able to get away with almost anything. He ruins men and women alike, marring their reputability and making them unfit to step out into respectable society. He drives people to suicide. He murders. He takes all he can get from others and lavishes himself in the finest material wealth. All without remorse.

Throughout the years, the themes have become more poignant, becoming more important to me than the language. Wilde, King of the Aesthetes, still acknowledged moral depth. Beauty is not enough on its own. Dorian drove himself to a sort of madness in his final moments, tormented by the ugly sight of his own soul. In the end, he is dead, and for what? He was not a happier man for living the Epicurean lifestyle, indulging in all the carnal and material desires in his path.

What does this mean for us? What does it mean for me? To be honest, I do not yet know. After all these years, I am still mulling Wilde’s sole novel over in my head. He has taught me that it is all right – and perhaps he encourages this – to love art for the sheer beauty of it, regardless of the semantics or any other beyond-surface level meaning.

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 Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde

He taught me about the subjectivity of morality, but at the same time pointed out that morality must exist, even if it’s something that we pull out of our derrieres. In what form remains to be illuminated. He showed me the facade of high society with its trivial worries and preoccupations. He gave me the appreciation for lovely language. He gave me the appreciation for intelligent language. He allowed me to feel without having to think too hard about it.

Thank you, Oscar Wilde, and happy birthday, old chap.

Read on about Mr. Wilde: