"The tragedy of old age is not to be old, but to remain forever young."
Immoral. Controversial. It corrupts the honest Englishman.
This is what was said about the novel "The Picture of Dorian Gray", published by Oscar Wilde in 1890, as soon as it came out.
Critics claimed that it would not make it to a second edition. But, it is 2021 and a teenager from another continent is writing an article about it.
Why did this controversial book become one of the best-known classics of all time?
Basil Hallward is an artist who is strongly impressed by the beauty of a young boy named Dorian Gray.. Basil paints a portrait of the young man. Realizing that one day his beauty will fade, Dorian wishes to always be the age he was when Basil painted him in the painting. While he forever maintains the same appearance as the picture, the portrayed figure ages for him. His quest for pleasure leads him into a series of acts of lust; but the portrait serves as a reminder of the effects of his soul, where it will bear the burden of his aging and his sins. The author portrays the society of his time: the narcissism, the ambition, the temptations and the sins.
There is a philosophical movement called hedonism in which pleasure plays a central role. It states that our behavior is determined by desires to increase pleasure and decrease pain. It speaks that we must pursue pleasure for there to be a balance in the soul.
Dorian Gray meets Lord Henry, and as a consequence, a new hedonistic way of understanding the world. Tempted by his youth and beauty, where everyone looks up to him and where he can easily manipulate people to get what he wants, Dorian Gray is going to become a selfish person in order to seek short-term gratification, indulging in sensory pleasures with no regard for the consequences he leaves on others.
"Pleasure is the first good. It is the beginning of all preference and all aversion.
It is the absence of pain in the body and restlessness in the soul."
So said Epicurus, one of the founding philosophers of the movement that Dorian Gray and Lord Henry, took to an extreme. For Epicurus, the purpose of philosophy was the pursuit of happiness, characterized by the absence of restlessness in the soul and pain in the body. His hedonistic ethics considered the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain as the purpose of human life; always in a rational way to avoid excesses, since these cause later suffering. The pleasures of the spirit are superior to those of the body, and both must be satisfied with intelligence, seeking to reach a state of bodily and spiritual well-being. He criticized both the excess and the renunciation of pleasures.
Although the philosopher believed that the pursuit of pleasure should not be an excess that would cause suffering to others, Dorian and Lord Henry only heeded the first part:
The pursuit of pleasure.
Our main character only thought of himself. It did not matter if he had to provoke a woman´s suicide, it did not matter if he had to bribe a man to do his dirty work, if he had to tempt people and then abandon them, if he had to murder to vent his feelings of rage, or if he had to trap his soul in a painting if it implied eternal youth, and therefore, the possibility of experiencing pleasure, giving him momentary happiness while leaving eternal sorrow in others.
When you are young you have all your teeth, getting out of bed in the morning is not painful and death is not a possibility. You can fall into vices, break hearts, and make irresponsible decisions without immediate consequences. There is no likelihood of getting sick and there seems to be no possibilities of dying. The world is a mystery full of opportunities, and the young person wants and can take them all.
So who wouldn't want the toothless part of us, with pains, guilt, and responsibilities, to be trapped in a painting far away from us?
What makes one life mundane and another extraordinary? According to the author, there is a big difference between existing and living.
What makes us live and not simply exist?
Dorian Gray is on a quest to live: to live every emotion, every vice, every sin. His eternal youth allows him to live fully, there is nothing beyond his reach.
However, in his eagerness to live, in his constant quest to indulge whims and pleasures, the protagonist ends up killing the man in the portrait, the one who bore those sins.
Epicurus affirmed that the pain of the soul was much more serious than that of the body: body's pain hurts in only one place and for a period of time, while the pain of the soul hurts everywhere and forever.
Dorian neglected his soul to protect the pleasure and beauty of the body, not realizing that the corrupted soul would end up killing both
By the end of the book, his beauty and youth were no longer masks to anyone who knew him, and neither was he to himself.
Beauty, like pleasure, is momentary, something we see or feel for an instant, but which after a while is no longer enough, it´s no longer satisfying and it no longer matters.
Dorian Gray leaves us wondering how we can find the middle ground between living every emotion, every vice and every sin while still having a balance in the soul that satisfies both ourselves and our moral duties to others.
To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.
How can we find the middle ground between living and existing?