‘There was something in his face that made one trust him at once. All the candour of youth was there, as well as all youth’s passionate purity. One felt that he had kept himself unspotted from the world. No wonder Basil Hallward worshipped him.’
by Mark Simpson (The London Times, September 4 2009)
“Are you tired of looking at me yet?” asks Ben Barnes as Dorian Gray in Oliver Parker’s new film adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s only novel. Ostensibly he’s asking the question of his admirers, the cynical hedonist Lord Henry Wooton (Colin Firth) and the idealistic, gushing painter of his portrait Basil Hallward (Ben Chaplin), but he could equally be asking the 21st century when it is going to stop gawping at him.
Since Wilde penned The Picture of Dorian Gray in 1890, for Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, revised and expanded the following year into the book we know today, the story of a young man of “extraordinary personal beauty” who trades his soul for eternal youth has exerted a fatal fascination. Like its uncannily handsome protagonist, the story itself seems to be timeless and ageless, becoming if anything fresher and more alluring with every passing year.
In the last decade alone there have been at least seven film adaptations, Will Self’s literary update, Dorian: An Imitation, full of debauchery and disease, and last year Matthew Bourne’s modern dance version, full of bulging underwear. Like the 2001 movie adaptation Pact With the Devil (starring Malcolm McDowell as an over-sulphurous Henry), Bourne’s update put Dorian in today’s Faustian world of advertising and fashion, in which he is the pretty face for a new fragrance for men.
Fashion itself can’t leave Dorian alone either. Last year the men’s glossy Arena Homme Plus ran a Dorian special, and Dolce & Gabbana Autumn/Winter Collection is Dorian-inspired.
This fascination is hardly surprising. We live in an age of Dorians, admiring themselves in webcams, phone cams and online profiles. If there’s a picture in the attic you can be sure it’s been photoshopped. Last month Men’s Health, the magazine for men who want to be cover girls, became the best-selling men’s mag. At least in the world of the glossies, men’s breasts are now more popular than women’s – for men.
The buttoned-down Victorians, who after all replaced the male nude with the female in art, would have been shocked by today’s adoration of male narcissism as much as, if not more than, by the openness of homosexuality. “Have you ever adored a young man madly?” Wilde the aesthete dandy and married man was asked at his first trial. He parried: “I have never given adoration to anyone but myself.” As we know, it didn’t go down well and ended up with two years hard labour for gross indecency, a fitting punishment for idle self-contemplation, let alone homosexuality, in Victorian England. An England that persisted, of course , for most of the 20th century.
The famous 1945 Hollywood adaptation The Picture of Dorian Gray, with a crystalline George Sanders as Henry, a young Angela Lansbury as pretty cockernee sparrow Sybil Vane, and a somewhat simpering Hurd Hatfield as Dorian, struggled manfully to “straighten out” the story, even if it portrayed Dorian as a kind of male femme fatale. It made a star of Hatfield, who was gay in his private life, but he felt that the movie was his own portrait in the attic: “You know, I was never a great beauty in Gray,” he said, quite truthfully, “and I never understood why I got the part and have spent my career regretting it.” (Hollywood would find its own blue-jeaned Dorian in the next decade: James Dean.)
John Osborne’s brilliant adaptation, filmed in 1976 by the BBC, is probably the most Wildean (Osborne was well equipped to highlight its exquisitely repressed homoerotics). It also boasts perhaps the best Dorian – a young, golden Peter Firth. But it is an ageing John Gielgud who steals the show, having of course been given the most beguiling lines by Wilde: “Nowadays most people die of a sort of creeping common sense, and discover when it is too late that the only things one never regrets are one’s mistakes.”
The latest Dorian is a brunette, the 28-year-old Barnes, who has the darkly blank stare of a Keanu Reeves (but of course not so young-looking as the 45 year-old Hollywood actor). In a world where Dorians are everywhere, it’s a tricky business portraying him, and for my popcorn money Barnes is a rather dull Dorian – and less attractive than, say, the gruesomely disposable youths in Final Destination 4. Parker’s Dorian Gray mostly works as a rollicking Gothic yarn, mercifully set in its proper location, Victorian England, sparing us the pointless ‘updatings’. But Wilde himself seems to be missing. There is a glistening stillness about Wilde which isn’t very movie. So instead we have lots of manly action — in one scene Dorian seduces a mother while the naked daughter hides under the bed — but does allow a brief consummation between Dorian and his painter Basil.
Colin Firth is fun as a kind of Loaded Henry: “Cheer up, boy,” he chides Dorian on a trip to a gin palace, “you’ve got a face like a slapped nancy!” This isn’t a line you’ll find in the original text. Neither is: “ ‘ow about you two gentlemen givin’ a workin’ girl a double stuffin’?” All in all, this Dorian is portrayed as a kind of American Psycho version of 1960s Mick Jagger, surrounded by groupies and jaded hedonism. Added to the mix is an assertive, modern female character: a suffragette counterbalance to the cloying passivity of Sybil Vane who tops herself when Dorian spurns her. Dorian’s portrait, always a co-star in any adaptation, becomes, thanks to CGI, a Damien Hirst installation of maggots and corruption. Or an animated Mr Hyde to Dorian’s Dr Jekyll (a book that partly inspired Wilde). Most of all, Dorian Gray portrays the glamour and horror of toxic-bachelor selfishness and leading a double life – long before the internet made it possible for everyone.
Neil Bartlett, author of the highly-regarded Who Was That Man? A Present for Oscar Wilde, staged The Picture of Dorian Gray at the Lyric Hammersmith in 1994 long before the current wave of popularity. Why does he think Dorian persists? “The idea that we can get away with our crimes just so long as they don’t show in our faces, is such a potent one,” he says. “And because, no matter how many times it gets adapted or bowdlerised, the bizarre power of the original remains. Wilde knew a lot about guilt, duplicity, the pleasure of crime, beautiful young men — and for all the purple prose, the book is really written from the heart.”
Why haven’t we tired of looking at Mr Gray? Perhaps because, as Mr Wilde might have put it despite the warning of his novel, one never tires of looking at oneself.
Mark Simpson paints a portrait of a clonosexual world of Dorians
(Arena Hommes Plus, Winter 2008, collected in Metrosexy)
Most ads these days aren’t worth a first glance. But earlier this year D&G Time launched a heavily-rotated global campaign directed by Hype Williams that was definitely worth a second. If you looked hard enough, you could see right into the mirrored heart of the 21st Century – a ‘new’ century that is now nearly a decade old. Not since the Levis ‘male striptease’ ads of the 1980s has there been a commercial that summed up – and summoned up – an era.
First time, you see an attractive young man and woman in tasty D&G evening wear checking their D&G watches anxiously, hurrying across different sides of the sexy night-time Metropolis to hook up with one another, to the urgent, techno sounds of Stylophonics’ ‘R U Experienced? (‘Dance music for people who want to listen to tomorrow’s music today!’), finally they arrive breathless at their meeting place. But rather than rushing into each other’s arms, they ignore one another and instead clinch and kiss a same-sex partner that turns up at the last minute.
So those naughty people at D&G flirt with shocking, or at least surprising homosexuality again, coolly wrong-footing our heterosexist assumptions – or ramming gayness down our throats. Either way, this seems to be the ad that most people saw. In other words, most people watched it only once.
Watching it again, paying attention this time, you realise that the ‘same-sexuality’ of D&G Time goes much deeper – and is much more shocking. So much so you can understand why people wanted to see just reassuring homosexuality – even homophobes. Second time, you notice that the same-sex couples are in fact… the same. Twins. Clones. Mirror images. These latter-day Echo and Narcissus are, like many if not most of us these days, on a hot date with themselves. Or at least, a hot, idealised D&G version of themselves. No wonder they’re in such a hurry.
What’s more, D&G Time – and this is looking more and more like the D&G Century – has the effrontery not only to ram down your throat what consumer and celebrity culture today is all about, but of course for reasons of decency usually goes out of its way to deny and disguise, it also does it in such a way that feels and looks entirely natural, entirely appropriate. The lack of shame about rotating around yourself is perhaps the most eye-catching thing of all. Only the Italians could get away with it.
What, then, is D&G Time? What is the era, the epoch it heralds and meters and so accurately, so tastefully accessorizes? Well, a cloned, digital world in which the driving force, the coiled spring at the heart of the jewelled mechanism, is not heterosexual reproduction, or even homosexual coupling, but rather, narcissistic perfection. Narcissistic perfection achieved through fashion, consumption, cosmetics, technology, surgery and really good lighting. A utopian-dystopian, twinsome future in which men and women date themselves instead of each other that has already arrived. Dance music for people who want to listen to tomorrow’s music today.
It’s a measure of how far and how quickly we’ve come that only a few years ago this ad would have been regarded as ‘sick’ by almost everyone, not just a few homophobe holdouts. But the brazen auto-strumpetry of D&G Time broadcasts that narcissism is no longer a pathological condition – it’s the contemporary condition. That’s to say, it’s no more pathological today than desire itself — since narcissism and desire are much the same thing, particularly since we’re now surrounded by such shiny, pretty accessories as D&G jewellery.
The triumph of metrosexuality has seen to that. Contrary to what you may have heard, metrosexuality is not about ‘feminized’ males – or even about straight men ‘acting gay’. To talk in such terms is merely to reveal yourself as a hopeless nostalgic. As the ‘father’ of metrosexuality, I can tell you that metrosexuality isn’t about men becoming women, or becoming gay – it’s about men becoming everything. To themselves. In much the same way that women have been for some time.
In the early Noughties I defined the metrosexual as someone who ‘might be officially gay, straight, or even bisexual, but this is utterly immaterial as he has taken himself as his own love-object and pleasure as his sexual preference.’ The metrosexual announced the beginning of the end of ‘sexuality’, the 19th Century pseudo-science that claimed that your personality and psychology and taste in home furnishings was dictated by whether or not your bed-partner’s genitalia were the same shape as yours.
As we approach the Teenies (what else should we call what comes after the Noughties?) this process, with a flush of hormones, has been speeded up. D&G Time is neither homo, hetero, bi – or even metro. It’s simply same-sexuality. Clonosexual. In D&G Time, all genitalia are the same shape: fashion-shaped. In place of the Oedipal military-industrial complex of the 20th Century we have… the all-consuming Narcissus Complex of the 21st.
We live, you can hardly failed to have noticed, in an age of Dorians, male and female, admiring themselves in webcams, phone cams, digicams, online profiles and the two-way mirrors of the global Big Brother House. There may or may not be a portrait in the attic, but if there is you can be sure that it’s been Photoshopped. Back in the 20th Century – which seems much, much longer than just a decade ago – I thought that the definition of a transsexual was someone who behaved as if they were being photographed 24 hours a day. Now, of course, this is how everyone under the age of 25 behaves. Because they are.
As the young Quentin Crisp, a reality TV winner long before there was such a thing as reality TV, or even TV, responded prophetically to his starchy father’s angry accusation: Do you intend to spend the rest of your life admiring yourself in the mirror??
‘If I possibly can.’
Whatever you or I may think of narcissism – and Gore Vidal famously described a narcissist as ‘someone better looking than you’ – it’s far, far too late for an opinion. After a century of very bad press indeed, narcissism now holds the (nicely turned) whip-handle over the culture. Even politics, always the last to know, has noticed: in the UK the ‘Nasty’ Tory Party is now led by a nice, dashing, moisturised young man who wants very much to be liked, while the American Democratic Party earlier this year chose a gym-going, preening youthful male over a tougher, older, more experienced female candidate in large part because he was much prettier than her and reflected back, in his charmingly, deliberately vague way, a more flattering image of themselves.
Now that we’re pretty much over the 20th Century we can see that at the end of the 19th Century Dorian’s Dad, Oscar Wilde, the ‘first celebrity’, wasn’t punished for his homosexuality so much as his narcissism. Wilde the aesthete may have been gaoled for sex with males, shortly after the word ‘homosexual’ was coined, becoming its most famous exemplar, but it was the ‘gross indecency’ of his vanity that had sentenced him in the minds of many Victorians, long before his trial.
‘Have you ever adored a young man madly?’ he was asked in the witness box. Wilde parried, quite truthfully: ‘I have never given adoration to anyone but myself.’ You could have heard a cologne-soaked silk handkerchief drop. A line that would have worked perfectly in a comedy of manners in a West End theatre fell ominously flat in the courtroom. No wonder he was given four years hard labour – a fitting punishment for idle self-contemplation in Victorian England. An England that persisted, of course, for much of the 20th Century.
For that other Nineteenth Century celebrity, Sigmund Freud, narcissism was a necessary and healthy part of childhood, but one that must be abandoned to reach full adulthood (remember that?). This explained, he wrote, the fascination that ‘children, humorists, criminals, and anyone who holds on to his/her self-contentment and inaccessibility’ represent for us (Wilde was of course all three). He could also have added ‘women’ to that list, since women were expected to hold onto their narcissism – and use it to attract men. Heterosexuality was based on this Victorian division of sexual labour – as this division broke down in the latter part of the 20th Century heterosexuality was, as we now know, eventually itself phased out. (The very innovations which have helped free women from domestic drudgery, such as the pill, washing machines, microwaves, Hoovers, and feminism – in that order – have also freed men from… women.)
For Freud the universal Oedipus Complex was the principle way in which boys became men. Today by contrast the universal Narcissus Complex is the way in which boys become… prettier boys. Vanity, thy name is Man. Both Narcissus – who was, it needs to be said, a chap – and Oedipus were warned by Tiresias the blind transsexual seer (and like Quentin, a reality TV contestant avant le lettre) that they would live a long life so long as they didn’t know themselves. As poor old Oedipus found out when he consulted him, Tiresias’ prophecies although always accurate weren’t exactly helpful. Narcissus doesn’t know at first that the handsome image he glimpses in the pool and falls in love with is himself (in other words Narcissus isn’t very narcissistic). It’s only when he twigs and ‘knows himself’ that he dies of despair, knowing that he can never possess himself.
The original Narcissus myth has been misrepresented for much of the last hundred years as a cautionary tale about the pathology of male beauty. In fact, it was a warning to beautiful youths to be more generous with their looks – to both sexes. Sodom & Gomorrah in reverse.
Narcissus is not doomed by his own beauty but by his thoughtless spurning of various suitors, male and female. His selfishness. One cruelly rejected youth prays to Nemesis that Narcissus should know what it is to love without hope. Nemesis, the goddess of revenge, assents and arranges for Narcissus to be punished for being so hoity-toity by ensnaring him with his own looks.
It’s a lesson that seems to have been instinctively learned by today’s tarty youths. Success and fame is now something for the heroically narcissistic and exhibitionistic, those who makes themselves constantly available for our love, on TV, at the cinema, on billboards and in glossy magazines. Or emerging glistening and glamorous from the roof of a red double-decker bus at the Beijing Olympics to the strains of ‘Whole Lotta Love’, showing a wildly cheering world their latest cosmetic surgery.
Today, narcissism is not abandoned, of course, but cultivated. It’s an industry. The industry. No wonder Oscar Wilde has been so rehabilitated to the point where he and Freddie Mercury are to all intents and purposes the same person. Today, children, humorists, criminals and footballers are not merely envied, they are emulated. We are encouraged – nay, compelled – to mistake them/recognise them for our own idealised reflection. (This is no doubt the point at which I should quote smoke-and-mirror-phase Jacques Lacan, but as far as I can tell, Lacan’s only real achievement was to turn lucid Freudianism into self-regarding Gallic metaphysics.)
The calculated childishness and fickleness of consumerism makes narcissism not only possible but necessary – since it is the very basis of our global economy. This is why 21st Century narcissism is not a form of contentment but rather of endless desiring. The Narcissus Complex is the romance of the endless perfectibility of ourselves proffered by the smoked High Street changing-room mirrors of a mediated world – the irresistible lure of a hyperreal, twinsome version of ourselves. What the entire history of human culture turns out to have been working towards.
Before his own doom, Wilde wrote a prose poem called ‘The Disciple’ which played with the story in a typically Wildean inverted fashion. Some Oreads grieving for Narcissus come across the pool and ask it to tell them about Narcissus’ famed beauty. The pool replies that it has no idea how beautiful Narcissus was. The Oreads are baffled: ‘Who should know better than you?’
‘But I loved Narcissus because,’ replied the pool, ‘as he lay on my banks and looked own on me, in the mirror of his eyes I saw my own beauty mirrored.’
As Wilde wrote in the Preface to his masterpiece, the Narcissus novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, which has proved as eerily timeless as Dorian’s looks: ‘It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.’
Oscar Wilde has been added to the UK’s National Curriculum. Teenagers in English secondary schools will now study the aesthete author alongside Dickens and Shakespeare.
This is long overdue – Wilde is a writer as vital and as brilliant today a century after his death as he was when he was when he was quipping in the salons of London, or lying in the gutter looking at the stars and the thighs of messenger boys. But I wonder whether Fisher’s biography, reviewed below, shouldn’t be required reading also.
Revenge of the Psychocrumpet
by Mark Simpson (Independent on Sunday, March 2002)
There is a terrible, filthy vice which should strike horror and shame into the hearts of any red-blooded Englishman and which is closely and intimately associated with an effete 19th-century Anglo-Irish dramatist. In fact, his name has become a byword for it. It is the love that once dared not speak its name but now won’t pull its pants up. It deports itself in shameless ways everywhere these days: in films, newspaper articles, television, and countless books.
I’m talking of course about Wildolatry.
The worst of it isn’t that Mr Wilde has become overrated and over-espoused, his every utterance treated as a gem of eternal wisdom and precious paradox. Or that public nuisances such as Stephen Fry seem to have based their entire claim to relevance on a life-long low-rent impersonation of The Witty One.
No, the most revolting aspect of this tendency is its sentimentality. The central article of faith in Wildolatry is that Oscar (oh, how the Wildolators like to utter that name, their lips forming an “O” like drooling communicants on their knees) was and is the most exquisite victim. A victim of bigotry, a victim of English philistinism, a victim of political intrigue, a victim of his psychocrumpet boyfriend, Jude Law. And a victim of the lad’s jaw-clenching, whip-brandishing, eye-popping, violent dad, the Marquis of the Daily Mail, who famously left a card for Mr Wilde at the Groucho Club addressed to that “posing Somdomite”, setting in motion a sequence of events that would lead to Wilde being sentenced to two years’ hard panto in Reading.
Precisely because we’ve heard the story too many times, fact, fiction and fellatio have blurred into one soggy mess in the Wilde myth. However, as Wilde himself hinted, he was the author of his own downfall – and with it his posterity. As he wrote in a letter to a friend in 1885: “I would go to the stake for a sensation… To be a master of moods is exquisite, to be mastered by them more exquisite still. Sometimes I think that the artistic life is a long and lovely suicide, and I am not sorry that it is so.” In Trevor Fisher’s ‘Oscar and Bosie: a Fatal Passion’ (Sutton), it becomes clear that the great dramatist was also something of a common-or-garden drama queen.
One, moreover, who had ideas above his station. He thought he could take on drama queens who had been in the business of mastering and being mastered by “moods” for centuries. What’s more, this lot played for keeps. The blue-blooded battiness of the Douglases, described by Bosie himself with dramatic understatement as a family with “theatrical tendencies”, was entirely out of his league. Wilde may have been Irish, with an eccentric father and a formidable mother, he may have been a homosexual, he may have been the greatest playwright of the late 19th century, he may have penned one of the most extraordinary novels in the English language which is even more relevant today than it was then, he may even, you might be forgiven for thinking, invented postmodernism and irony, but the Douglases were drama queens who made him look like a lisping bar-stool amateur and who outgunned him in a feud with life and sanity that for them had been going on for generations.
They also knew more about real suicide, which is frequently the last and definitely unlovely gesture of the drama queen. Queensbury’s father shot himself, as did Lord Alfred Douglas’s elder brother Drumlanrig. Queensbury’s letters to Bosie threatening to shoot him are signed in a manner which typified the “cut-off-your-nose-to-spite-my-face” technique of the serious drama queen: “Your disgusted so-called father, Queensbury”. (To which Bosie replied, with filial obedience: “What a funny little man you are.”) The Douglas instability was not without its darkly comic moments, however. Bosie’s uncle, Lord Jim, caused a scandal when he filled in the 1891 census describing his wife as a “cross sweep” and a “lunatic”, and his stepson as a “shoeblack born in darkest Africa”. (He committed suicide shortly afterwards by slitting his throat from ear to ear.)
When Queensbury was stalking his son and his playwright boyfriend, Bosie took to carrying a loaded revolver in his jacket, which he somehow managed to discharge accidentally one evening in an expensive restaurant, like an early, high-class gangsta rapper (no one was hurt, though Wilde probably needed several glasses of absinthe to calm his nerves). Of course, you or I or Jennifer Lopez would decide that things were getting a tad out of hand, that we were getting a teensy bit out of our depth and quietly move on. Not Wilde. The self-styled “Lord of Language” thought he could master both Bosie and his father when in fact, as events showed, he wasn’t equal to either of them.
But then again, perhaps I underestimate Mr Wilde, or at least his unconscious. After all, Queensbury succeeded in destroying Wilde’s reputation – in a manner which guaranteed Wilde’s present-day fame. Bosie destroyed his private life – in a manner which guaranteed that their love affair would be one of the most famous ever. Though, it’s worth asking, as Fisher does, what kind of “love affair” it was.
Bosie and Wilde shared appetites more than they did each other’s beds, or hearts: chiefly an appetite for teenage working lads. “On Saturday,” Fisher recounts, “the [16-year-old] boy slept with Douglas, on Sunday he slept with Oscar. On Monday he returned to London and slept with a woman at Douglas’s expense.”
Wilde was prosecuted and sentenced not for gross indecency with Bosie but for gross indecency with teenagers from the lower orders. Indeed, Wilde could have been tried and convicted of the same offence for another hundred years – and decades after the ‘decriminalisation’ of homosexuality in the 1960s, until the Age of Consent for male-male sex was equalised with male-female sex at 16 in 2001.
Bosie’s designation by Wilde as his “Judas” in history’s longest and bitterest Dear John letter, De Profundis, is arrant, self-dramatising nonsense, as Fisher makes clear. In fact, Bosie stood by Wilde during his trial and while he served his sentence. Though it’s difficult not to suspect that this was down to the dramatic potential of the situation – shortly after Wilde was released they met in Naples and promptly lost interest in one another.
Fisher’s charmingly old-fashioned book (he can’t quite bring himself, for example, to write “anal sex”) is a necessary corrective to Wildolatry, and if it is sometimes rather repetitive, then so were Wilde and Bosie, who were on and off more times than a tart’s knickers when the fleet is in.
“Do you want to know the great drama of my life?” asked Wilde of Andre Gide after his downfall. “It’s that I have put my genius into my life; all I’ve put into my works is my talent.”
Perhaps. Trouble is, the “great drama” in its full, unabridged detail is ultimately rather tedious.
Something, of course, utterly unforgivable in Wilde’s books.