Hard Science, Soft Psychology, and Amorphous Art in The Picture of Dorian Gray

by Heather Seagroatt
Citation
Title:
Hard Science, Soft Psychology, and Amorphous Art in The Picture of Dorian Gray
Author:
Heather Seagroatt
Year: 
1998
Publication: 
Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900
Volume: 
38
Issue: 
4
Start Page: 
741
End Page: 
759
Publisher: 
Language: 
English
URL: 
Select license: 
Select License
DOI: 
PMID: 
ISSN: 
Abstract:

SEL 38 ( 1998)
ISSN 0039-3657

Hard Science, Soft Psychology, and
Amorphous Art in

The Picture of Dorian Gray

HEATHER SEAGROATT

In the first scene of the 1945film adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray, Lord Henry Wotton captures a butterfly in his top hat, slides a plate of chloroform under its rim, and asphyxiates the insect. After he impales the butterfly with a pin and mounts it on a clean white card, he presents the specimen to Dorian Gray. This first glimpse of Harry is both effective and mislead- ing. Though the procedure foregrounds the arch-aesthete's peculiarly scientific predilections (and reveals his alarming cruelty), it belittles his scientific curiosity: Harry's specimen gathering seems the result of boredom rather than a sustained interest in the natural sciences-or indeed, sustained interest in anything.

Yet Oscar Wilde never made light of science to the degree that this episode suggests. Several recent critics have shown that Wilde was not only conversant with scientific theory, he was keenly interested in many of Victorian science's most pressing questions. Philip Smith, Michael Helfand, and Bruce Haley argue that although literary critics overlook his engagement with scientific issues and discourses, science played a crucial role in Wilde's aesthetic theory.' No recent critic, however, has explained why Wilde often discussed scientific theory in terms of the relatively new science of human psychology. Nor has any

Heather Seagroatt is a doctoral candidate at the University of Virginia. Her work-in-progress examines the relation between popular Victorian sensation novels and Pre-Raphaelite aesthetics.

critic considered Wilde's representation of psychology in light of Victorian debates over the status of science and art. This is particularly surprising because throughout The Picture of Dorian Gray Wilde figures Harry's (and Dorian's) dilettantism as a passion for scientific inquiry into the psyche. Harry had "always been enthralled by the methods of natural science, but the ordinary subject-matter of that science had seemed to him triv- ial and of no imp~rt."~

Only "[hluman life" seemed "worth investigating" (p. 82). In fact, Harry and Dorian are interested almost exclusively in human psychology. Once Harry begins "vivisecting" himself and others, his scientific curiosity gets the better of his idleness: he enthusiastically performs experiments, notes responses, and collects data in order to derive a "scientific analysis of the passions" and the psychology that accompany them (p. 84).

What does this mean for our understanding of the novel? What place does science-particularly the science of human psychology-have within Wilde's theory of the novel? What does it reveal about Wilde's engagement with contemporary debates concerning the relation (and status) of science and art? By examining Harry's and Dorian's research within the context of late Victorian theories of psychology, we can recognize how and why Wilde participated in the contemporary debates over the status of psychology and traditional science. The first part of this essay examines Wilde's critique of overconfident scientific mate- rialism and his attack on simple-minded oppositions between the fields of science and art with particular attention to the relation between his novel and the work of Wilhelm Wundt and John Tyndall. Part two considers the implications of Wilde's criticism of Victorian sciences for his theory of the novel and shows that by exposing the exclusions that scientific methodologies enact and reproduce in a novel, Wilde argues that art is both a crucial determinant in psychological development and a more appro- priate means of representing the range and mutability of the human mind than any scientific discourse.

Drawing on evidence from Wilde's Oxford notebooks, Smith and Helfand reveal Wilde's extensive knowledge of T. H. Huxley, Tyndall, W. K. Clifford, Herbert Spencer, and, of course, Charles Dar~in.~

Still, they point out that many readers underestimate the importance of science in Wilde's work and overlook his thematic treatment of Victorian science in The Picture ofDorian Gray4By casting the novel's central conflict between Harry and Basil Hallward, Wilde creates a dialectic between materialist and idealist schools of thought that elucidates the role of scien- tific theory in the novel. Very early, almost immediately after Dorian recognizes his beauty in the painting, he begins to resist Basil's pure idealism (his focus, for example, on the soul) in favor of Harry's rather arrogant materia1isrn.j By the end of chapter three, Dorian rejects Basil's idealism for Harry's scien- tific materialism and sets out to "look at life" with him (p. 68). Dorian was both scientist and subject of study: his initial role was as secondary investigator in a study initiated by Lord Harry. Dorian was "a subject made to [Harry's] hand, and seemed to promise rich and fruitful results" (p. 84). Every aspect of Dorian's life and character "made him a more interesting study"

(p. 82). Harry applies the "experimental method" to Dorian's consciousness to test his hypothesis that "[nlothing can cure the soul but the senses, just as nothing can cure the senses but the soul" (p. 44). Then he begins to trace the psychological effects of Dorian's sensory experience to derive "a scientific analysis of the passions" (p. 84). Soon Harry's protkgk discovers his own scientific curiosity. Entranced by the spectacle of his person (and personality), Dorian gazes on his portrait "with a feeling of almost scientific interest" (p. 124). He begins to develop Harry's premise that "the true nature of the senses had never been understood" (p. 161) and uses scientific methodology to examine and analyze the "new Hedonism" (p. 162).

But although Smith and Helfand describe Wilde's interest in theories of both evolution and the processes of the human mind, they do not specifically address the role contemporary theories of psychology played in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Yet human psychology was essential to Wilde's critique of Victorian empiricism in the novel. According to Haley, Wilde's interest in evolutionary theory was usually motivated by questions that we associate with psychology. Rather than applying theories of evolution to physics, astronomy, or chemistry, Wilde usually brought them to bear on theories of the development of the individual consciousness and the ways that the individual's psychology influenced the social group.G In his notebooks, for example, Wilde often moved from a general statement to its application in psychology: "Comparative anatomy shows us that, physically, man is but the last term of a long series which leads from the highest mammal to the almost formless speck of living protoplasm which lies on the shallow boundary between animal and vegetable life so does comparative psychology or the anatomy of the mind."'

This tendency is particularly evident in The Picture of Dorian Gray. When Harry begins "vivisecting," for instance, he looks not at circulatory systems or cell reproduction, but at the psychology that underpins the individual's response to the world. Although the site of their inquiries changes rapidly (and often), there is a consistent focus: both Harry and Dorian are interested in the ways sensory stimuli shape mental life. Dorian, for example, admits that "[olld brocades, green bronzes, lacquer-work, carved ivories, exquisite surroundings, luxury, pomp" fascinate him, but it is "the artistic temperament that they create" that truly concerns him (p. 140).Dorian's shift of focus from the description of outward stimuli to interior response is characteristic of the narrative itself. Consider the impressionistic description of Dorian touring the portrait gallery: "the whole of history was merely the record of his own life, not as he had lived it in act and circumstance, but as his imagination had created it for him, as it had been in his brain and in his passions. He felt that he had known them all, those strange terrible figures that had passed across the stage of the world and made sin so marvellous, and evil so full of subtlety" (pp. 176-7). Wilde's tendency is to move past realist descriptions of what Dorian saw to explore the psychology of his responses. His strategy-like Dorian's-is to move away from the "act and circumstance" inward toward Dorian's "brain and in his passions" where consciousness is staged.

Wilde's interest in psychology is especially intriguing because the status of that field shifted dramatically during this period. Once labeled the "problematic science," psychology had been in the hands of philosophers for centurie~.~

During the 1870s and 1880s, however, many theorists argued that psychology belonged to the natural sciences. A. Bain, WilliamJames, Wundt, and other influential psychologists challenged the widely accepted notion of Cartesian dualism (its rift between mind and body) by insisting that the study of the mind should proceed as if it were a natural science.We can understand the mind's processes, they argued, by using the same empirical methods that revealed the laws governing material bodies. The mystery of human consciousness remained, they suggested, only because no one had conducted the experiments and applied the theories of the physical sciences to mental events. By adopting the methodologies of the natural sciences, these scientists made psychology, according to Wundt, "coordinate with natural science and supplementary to it."lo

Yet despite its claim to the authority of the natural sciences, psychology continued to occupy a liminal position within Victo- rian science because theorists uncovered few "laws" to consoli- date their claims. Many leading psychologists found their theories singularly unsuited to traditional, empirical testing." Wundt realized that psychical causality required a different language for explication and different systems of proof than those that applied to the natural or "hard" sciences. To compre- hend psychological responses, he argued, one must understand the influence of socially constructed systems like language. If psychology intended to derive a universal notion of a "general psychology," Wundt observed, history and anthropology must complement it.12 Thus, unlike the more material sciences, even the limits of the discipline were uncertain. Since the late 1880s, psychologists have disputed whether laws govern psychic causal- ity and whether the methodologies of the natural sciences are appropriate to psychology. But few have challenged Wundt's claim that a complex relationship exists between psychology and disciplines like history, anthropology, and literature.

Like many of his contemporaries who were interested in the problems psychology posed to traditional scientific theory and practice, Wilde recognized that the "problematic science" chal- lenged hard and fast distinctions between sciences and the arts. As we shall see in a moment, by casting Dorian's scientific inves- tigation as a study of the psychology of specifically aesthetic response, Wilde put additional pressure on what he perceived to be false distinctions between science and art. At first glance, however, it seemed Wilde was upholding those distinctions by creating an oppositional dynamic (like the one Smith and Helfand identify between Basil the idealist and Harry the mate- rialist) between science and art. But although Wilde's repre- sentation of Alan Campbell, for instance, seems to oppose the two fields, in fact, the relation between them is far more compli- cated. Campbell is the novel's only true scientist-and he is an artist. Although he has "no real appreciation of the visible arts," he is "an excellent musician, however, as well" (pp. 199-200). This odd construction ("however, as well") underscores the apparently peculiar marriage of the aesthetic and scientific in Campbell. It is a short-lived combination. "His dominant intel- lectual passion" for science soon eclipsed his gift for music (p. 199). Campbell would not play because "he was so absorbed in science that he had no time left in which to practise. And this was certainly true. Every day he seemed to become more inter- ested in biology, and his name appeared once or twice in some of the scientific reviews, in connexion with certain curious experiments" (p. 200). Whether science becomes for Campbell what ecclesiastical vestments become for Dorian-a "means of forgetfulness" (p. 172)-remains unclear. But Wilde's charac- terization raises the question: are art and science in the novel incompatible? Although Wilde initially unites art and science in Campbell (suggesting that the two are not straightforwardly opposed), the two tendencies struggle until his scientific "passion" overcomes his weaker inclination for music. By making Alan a musician who abandons his music for science, Wilde implies either that they are irreconcilable "passions," or that Campbell is not a man for all seasons. To a man like Campbell, who is too busy to practice, there is no reconciliation (or complementarity) between science and the arts: in Wilde's novel, Tyndall's famous assertion that science and art are not in the least "opposed, but supplementary-not mutually exclusive, but reconcilable" seems as nai've as it was idealistic.13

Campbell's importance to the plot is relatively small, which makes Wilde's descriptions especially suggestive. We glimpse Dorian's past through their interaction, and we get the unmis- takable hint that scientists are more useful with dead bodies than they are with the souls or minds of living beings. "'Alan, you are scientific,"' Dorian remarks, "'[y]ou know about chemistry, and things of that kind . . . [Dlestroy the thing that is upstairs . . . destroy it so that not a vestige of it will be left"' (p. 202). Deduc- ing that, because he is a scientist, Campbell is uniquely qualified to destroy the evidence, Dorian persuades him to pick up the debris. At the same time, Dorian reveals his distorted sense of what being a scientist involves: destroying the body, Dorian insists, will be a "curious experiment" for Campbell (p. 200). In a novel that examines the psychology of aesthetic response, the scientist only appears when the drama of Basil's consciousness is over.

If Wilde implies that scientists are poorly equipped to deal with the "vivisection" Harry proposes, he also suggests that this inabil- ity diminishes scientists' attention to aesthetic events that power- fully influence living creatures. Wilde questions scientists' disinterest in and suppression of the aesthetic when Dorian wonders whether there is some biological predilection passed on that might explain his character. He carefully qualifies any biological explanation for his nature by insisting on powerful aesthetic influences. "[Olne had ancestors in literature, as well as in one's own race," Dorian contends, "nearer perhaps in type and temperament, many of them, and certainly with an influence of which one was more absolutely conscious" (p. 176). Yet a science based on biological determinism or evolution can not account for an aesthetic genealogy or other "strange legacies of thought and passion"(p. 175). Nor could its theories explain a "poisonous book" or the dangerous influence of a mythic person- ality (p. 156).

By describing influences in terms of books and personalities, Wilde breaks down the oppositional dynamic and unites the scientific and the aesthetic to highlight how fundamental the latter is to any scientific theory of the mind. The implication is clear. Because traditional science fails to recognize aesthetic influences and genealogies in its accounts of life, its narratives efface the aesthetic and dangerously reduce the complex process of evolution to natural selection. Wilde's account of evolution- ary theory may seem reductive, too: his attempt to correct for the type of overconfident materialism he associates with Harry's brand of empiricism echoes Tyndall's more sophisticated critique-but from the equally entrenched perspective of the Aesthete. Consider Harry's refusal to recognize the power of poisonous books and the spoken word. Dorian, on the other hand, finds that Harry's words "touched some secret chord that had never been touched before" (p. 42). Their force changes him: "Music had stirred [Dorian] like that . . . Words! Mere words! How terrible they were! How clear, and vivid and cruel! One could not escape from them. And yet what a subtle magic there was in them! . . . Mere words! Was there anything so real as words?" (p. 42).Recognizing that an idea's influence becomes a crucial determinant in the development of consciousness, Dorian practices a sort of Paterian empiricism. He notes and records his psychological responses to the book with an atten- tion that Harry (the more traditional empiricist) finds useless.

Although he identifies his scientific curiosity with Harry, Dorian enacts the challenge that Basil, the idealist, makes to Harry's materialism: to Dorian's mind, the immaterial soul, a Neoplatonic truth, or a fleeting sense of beauty, are far more potent forces in life than Harry's theory of human develop- ment allows. Wilde makes this point clearly in "The Critic as Artist," in an analogy between aesthetics and sexual selection: "Aesthetics, in fact, are to Ethics in the sphere of conscious civi- lization, what, in the sphere of the external world, sexual is to natural selection. Ethics, like natural selection, make existence possible. Aesthetics, like sexual selection, make life lovely and wonderful, fill it with new forms, and give it progress, and vari- ety and change."14 If "evolution is the law of life, and there is no evolution except toward individualism," then, as Haley points out, the individual consciousness (always becoming more specialized, more differentiated) is in a constant process of evolution.15 Haley explains that since Wilde believed that evolu- tion tended toward individualism, and that the artist was at the apex of the individualist triangle, evolution tends toward the development of the artist, the consummate individualist (p. 222).16 How, then, could science, particularly an evolutionary science, systematically exclude that which gave life its impetus and variation, that which directly contributed to the specializa- tion and development of the individual consciousness? Because Victorian science failed to recognize aesthetic influences, Wilde contended that it was an inadequate explanatory system. It could offer only an impoverished notion of nature's relation to human experience. Insofar as science keeps the real scientist Campbell from practicing the violin or piano, it threatens to

(re)produce its own blindness and exclusions and to reduce life-which Wilde imagines as a richly embroidered, densely textured fabric-to a dull, flat surface.

Wilde positioned himself right on the critical fault line of the Victorian debate over the status of traditional science. Like many of his contemporaries, including Tyndall and George Bernard Shaw, Wilde recognized that the "problematic science" challenged traditional methodology.17 He used psychology throughout the novel to confound the ideologues of science (men like Spencer) who claimed that science could reveal universal systems. While Wilde engaged with the debate over the status of psychology, he put an aesthete's spin on it: rather than collecting butterfly specimens and mounting them on white cards, Harry and Dorian Gray methodically and scientifically observe Dorian's psychological responses to aesthetic experi- ence. By casting their scientific endeavors in the service of both science and art, Wilde uses psychology to exemplify the ways in which the materialism of the "hard" sciences (which cannot measure or assess aesthetic response) threaten to efface the impact of the arts on the individual psyche. Thus Wilde deploys psychology to resist the growing hegemony of scientific materi- alism. And, by associating the increasingly opposed fields of science and art, Wilde consolidates the role of art within and beyond the province of scientific practice and creates a rich ambiguity between experience and experiment.l8

The Picture of Dorian Gray, then, is a critique of both Victorian evolutionary science and Tyndall's compelling theory of the scien- tific imagination. This theory, which Tyndall proposed in two addresses ("Scientific Limit of the Imagination" and "Scientific Uses of the Imagination") to the British Association for the Advancement of Science, demonstrates the imaginative basis of important scientific concepts like force and causal relationships.lg In Tyndall's formulation, the imagination is not subordinate to material evidence; rather, it empowers scientists (with their "brightest flashes" of insight) to explore realms of truth they never laid claim to before.20 The implications of Tyndall's science were vast: he promised in his 1874Belfast lecture on "Science and Religion" to "wrest" the "entire domain of cosmological theory" from theology.21 Tyndall's imaginative science implicitly encroached on the territory of the arts for it "claims unrestricted right of search" over all things.22 Despite conciliatory closing comments (in which Tyndall suggests that the "world embraces not only a Newton but a Shakespeare-not only a Boyle, but a Raphael-not only a Kant, but a Beethoven-not only a Darwin, but a Carlyle"), his argument incorporated the imaginative within the empiricists' realm.23 His rhetoric gives science dictatorial sway: "All schemes and systems which thus infringe upon the domain of science must, in so far as they do this, submit to its control, and relinquish all thought of controlling it."24 Thus, Tyndall's science not only made authoritarian claims to a higher status than poetry (which in his formulation was exclusively imag- inative and therefore made no apparent claim to empirical truth), but it also threatened to absorb art.25

Tyndall's theory outraged his Belfast audience. It would have been especially alarming to Wilde, although in several respects he accepted its premises. In his Oxford notebooks, for example, he adopted many of Tyndall's arguments that challenged the pretensions of Baconian science as the ultimate explanatory system. Like Tyndall, Wilde recognized that scientific material- ism told only half the story. It could not explain human origins or humankind's place in the universe. Nor could it account for the mystery of human consciousness.26 Wilde identified two tendencies within scientific practice that weaken its ideologues' claim that science reveals universal systems. First, Wilde described the danger of extending by analogy the natural laws of science to assume that natural laws exist in the realms of religion or art: "The influence of physical science is rather the attracting influ- ence of a new analo[g]y than a practical disproof of any partic- ular belief. . . [Blut the force of analogy . . . [has] led men to infer that the reign of Law which is the first message of physical science, is also to be extended to those phenomena which seem the most remote from Law."*' Wilde (like Tyndall) explicitly exempted human thought in any of the "spheres" of aesthetics, history, criticism, etc., from the rule of Natural Law. Second, Wilde (like Tyndall) argued that science needed a more imagi- native and emotional component than modern methodology allows: "Rem [ember] how the early Greeks had mystic anticipa- tions of nearly all great modern scientific truths; the problem really is what place has imagination and the emotions in science: and primarily rem [ember] that man must use all his faculties in the search for truth: in this age we are so inductive that our facts are outstripping our knowledge-there is so much observation, experiment, analysis-so few wide conceptions: we want more ideas and less facts."28 Wilde's debt to Tyndall is clear. Both crit- icized what they saw as too great a reliance on the methods and presumptions of traditional scientific methods. Like Tyndall, Wilde seemed eager to assimilate the visionary imagination within science to guard against reductive materialism.

Because Wilde (like Tyndall) bases his critique of overly mate- rialist, Baconian science on its inability to explain psychological events, he focuses squarely on human consciousness and the ways in which "the arbitrary definitions of ordinary psycholo- gists"(~.83) restricted more nuanced understanding of mental events. Ultimately, however, Wilde rejected every leading psycho- logical theory of the day, from the materialist evolutionary biol- ogy of Sir Francis Galton to the elaborate theories of the "mentalists" and "behavi~rists."~~he

grounds on which Wilde rejected these theories clarify his critique. During their lengthy examination of "shallow psychology," Harry and Dorian reject the one fundamental principle that mentalism and behaviorism share-the surface/depth model.30 They resist this model because it presupposes a separation between symptom and cause and requires that an individual privilege either interpretation of the "deep" meaning (as the mentalists do), or description and understanding of the outward sign itself (as the behaviorists do). To Harry, the blurry distinctions which result from such defin- itions confound psychology to imprecision: "Soul and body, body and soul-how mysterious they were! . . . Who could say where the fleshy impulse ceased, or the physical impulse began? How shallow were the arbitrary definitions of ordinary psychol- ogists! And yet how difficult to decide between the claims of the various schools! . . . [Harry] began to wonder whether we could ever make psychology so absolute a science that each little spring of life would be revealed to us" (pp. 83-4). Like Alger- non Swinburne and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Harry responds by luxuriating on the surface, on the subject's behaviors, rather than speculating on imperceptible internal action. But the portrait visually represents the melding of the apparent and the invisible: Dorian's deep essence appears on the canvas's surface. It was surface and depth-an exposure of the behaviors that his magically preserved countenance did not betray. As the marks of his crime become visible, the portrait represents for the read- ers (and Dorian himself) the "true mystery of the world" (p. 45). The "shallow people who do notjudge by appearances" (p. 45) find that their search for "deep" meaning requires no more than careful attention to the phenomenal world.

Wilde's persistent pairing of the words shallow and psychology does not simply challenge readers' expectations and enforce new, more sensuous modes of reading. It dissolves what seem to Harry the "arbitrary" distinctions of psychologists by represent- ing both the surface of behaviors and the depth of psychologi- cal response. Shallow is a strange adjective for Wilde to choose, but it can help us determine more precisely his point. Wilde was not denying depth or consciousness: on the contrary, he insisted that consciousness, like art, "is at once surface and symbol" (p. 22). Wilde created a slippage between "shallow," which refers to that which was not deep (that which was readily apparent), and "shallow," which suggested theoretical oversimplification, to show how the theoretically sophisticated have been hoodwinked by their own surface/depth model. He suggests that the meth- ods psychologists use privilege depth and neglect the surface, which also has meaning. Anticipating the charge that focusing on behavior is shallow, Wilde applies the charge to those who look exclusively on what the behavior means, and shows how they have systematically overlooked the apparent (the "shallow"). Shallow people are those who do not recognize the mystery right in front of them. The picture, then, has several functions: it requires the reader to disentangle the reality of appearances and "deep" meaning-to note their distinctness and their connection. Wilde did not deny deep or surface "truth," but eliminated any distinction between the two.

The assault on these distinctions was part of Wilde's rejection of paradigms in general-and it has evident consequences for any theory of psychology. Like Walter Pater, he believed that any "all- embracing theoryn31 endangers knowledge: because its claims of inclusiveness and universality efface the uniqueness of individual experience, it is irredeemably reductive. Pater's skepticism-in the old sense of examining, searching, without the more modern ass* ciation of resignation-was crucial to Wilde's vision. The skepti- cal observer must reject all theoretical frameworks to release facts from subordination to a general system of scientific, philosophic, or ethical laws (systems that ignore the basic condi- tionality of reality) .32 In his infamous "Conclusion," Pater argued: "In a sense it might even be said that our failure is to form habits .. . What we have to do is to be for ever curiously testing new opin- ions and courting new impressions, never acquiescing in a facile orthodoxy of Comte, or of Hegel, or of our own."33 Paterian empiricism sought to recapture the unique, sensuous experience of the object or moment that was otherwise lost in the grand theory for which it was evidence. Because both the mentalists and the behaviorists based their theories on a rigid distinction between surface and depth that limits their vision, Wilde imagines a Pater- ian alternative: the "new Hedonism" was designed "never to accept any theory or system that [involves] the sacrifice of any mode of passionate experience" (p. 162). Dorian must never fall "into the error of arresting his intellectual development by any formal acceptance of creed or system . . . Mysticism . . . moved him for a season; and for a season he inclined to the materialis- tic doctrines of the Daminismus movement in Germany" (p. 164). Although willing to consider materialist doctrines, Dorian must not embrace any system, mystical or materialist. Like Pater, he seeks multifarious experience, or dilettantism, as a means to Absolute Spirit.34 Dorian's theory liberated sensory evidence from the system that it supposedly illustrated so that he could savor the complexity of every individual experience.

Of course, perpetual skepticism involved assumptions about the nature of knowledge that are similarly universal and "all-embrac- ing."35 Consider Dorian's discussion of the self's essential insta- bility. He wonders "at the shallow psychology of those who conceive the Ego in man as a thing simple, permanent, reliable, and of one essence" (p. 175). To Dorian, "man was a being with myriad lives and myriad sensations, a complex multiform creature"

(p. 175). In The Picture of Dvn'an Gray, the self is anything but stable: it has as many "lives" as it has experiences that shape and change it. The juxtaposition of Dorian and his portrait powerfully render Wilde's contention that change, continual change, is the only constant. Dorian's human body is monstrously rendered stable, nondegenerating as the portrait takes on the ravages of time and conscience. The portrait literalizes Wilde's contention that "nature imitates art," and simultaneously illustrates the unnaturalness of Dorian's lack of physical metamorphosis.

If Dorian's body does not change, his mind clearly does. It is because his imagination is in a constant process of evolution that Harry finds him so interesting. Dorian is a "psychological phenomenon of no small interest" because "purely sensuous instinct of boyhood had been transformed [in him] by the work- ings of the imagination" (p. 84). The imagination transforms instinct. Since the mind constantly transfigures the self, no origin is really worth seeking. If we find one, Wilde suggests, it is so altered by time, the imagination, and other influences, that it is unrecognizable. This has important implications for struc- turalist and evolutionary psychology: their reductive explanatory systems, according to Wilde, are likely to neglect the ever- evolving imagination as a force (not just a result) of variation and natural selection. Wilde was not suggesting that the imagi- nation worked outside a system of laws. He hints, in fact, that the imagination proceeds rationally when he claims that "there was something terribly logical in the imagination" (p. 237). Yet his point, that evolutionary scientists have not theorized the imagination enough, is clear. Because even the "soft" science of psychology is inherently limited in focus (or made rigid by its own assumptions or methodologies), Wilde was profoundly skeptical of its ability to theorize the imagination or trace the influence of some dangerous yellow book.

Unlike Tyndall, Wilde was not interested in creating a new scientific methodology. His indirect but unmistakable challenge to the explanatory pretensions of psychology and, by extension, all the sciences, was not motivated by a new vision of science. Wilde's critique was never independent of the assertion that art was the best means of representing and understanding human beings in their "myriad" biological and psychological states. It was art, and its status in a world dominated by a new imaginative science, that remained Wilde's primary concern. Unsatisfied with Matthew Arnold's suggestion that literature become an appendage to science, Wilde recast Tyndall's argument and estab- lished a dialectic between scientific and aesthetic discourses to break down the authority of scientific discourses in favor of more flexible, more vital aesthetic discourse^.^^ Because Wilde believed that "[ploets, you know, are always ahead of science," he posed his challenge to the explanatory pretension of Victorian science not in a critical essay or in a lecture, but in a

As he strolls through the picture gallery, Dorian examines each portrait and hypothesizes biological, racially transmitted explanations for his decadence. Ultimately, however, he asserts the importance of aesthetic influences in any account of his nature.

His thoughts move to that "wonderful novel that had so influ- enced his life" about a young man in "whom the romantic and the scientific temperaments were so strangely blended" that Dorian considered him "a kind of prefiguring type of himself' (p. 158). Dorian's ruminations are important for several reasons. They curtail his almost rhapsodic pleasure in scientific investiga- tion, and these thoughts represent Dorian's intellectual move- ment in aesthetic rather than scientific terms. For Dorian, reading this fascinating and poisonous novel (or the portrait) becomes an alternative to scientific experimentation-and a way of reassert- ing the importance of aesthetic influences on the individual consciousness. His apparent move away from science toward art, however, only binds the two fields more closely together. They are, according to Wilde's figuration, both distinct and inseparable.

Wilde's tendency to juxtapose ostensibly incompatible discourses of science and art structures the entire novel. In a long and complicated dialectic in chapter four, Wilde explores the oppositional tension between these two apparently competing fields as Harry goes back and forth between aesthetic and scien- tific discourses, unwilling to commit himself to either one. Initially, he revels in the idea of vivisecting Dorian's consciousness: "To note the curious hard logic of passion, and the emotional coloured life of the intellect-to observe where they met, and where they separated, at what point they were in unison, and at what point they were at discord-there was a delight in that!" (p. 82). His method is orthodox (he would "note . . . and . . . observe"), but his subject matter is almost incomprehensible (how could one identify "the emotional coloured life of the intel- lect?") and certainly pushes at the limits of scientific discourse. To complicate matters further, in the following paragraph Harry imagines Dorian as a work of art: "This lad was his own creation . . . now and then a complex personality took the place and assumed the office of art. . . Life [has] its elaborate masterpieces,

just as poetry has, or sculpture, or painting" (p. 83). Two para- graphs later, Harry addresses psychologists again. The effect is deliberately destabilizing. This is Wilde's representation of the mind's movement and its ability to use credibly many different (apparently incompatible) discourses and conceptual systems simultaneously or consecutively. His careful juxtaposition of ostensibly competing modes of representation reveals the primary characteristic of the novel form according to Mikhail Bakhtin: its unique ability to engulf all other genres and discourse^.^^

If this slip irritates generic purists, Wilde, like Bakhtin, presents it as one of the strengths of the novel form. But because he wanted to extend his argument about the arts to forms other than the novel, Wilde used the nonliterary arts to suggest its extraordinary flexibility. The portrait is much more than a "visi- ble emblem of conscience" (p. 121). It is a remarkably econom- ical demonstration of the failures of scientific modes of representation and the magical possibilities of artistic repre- sentation. Like any theory of psychology (imagined by Wilde), the portrait is initially fixed, unmoving, and doomed to misrep- resent. Only a monstrous picture, a diabolical art, can represent the metamorphosis and degeneration of Dorian Gray. As Wilde conceives it, aesthetic forms and discourses differ from their counterparts in science because they are supremely flexible and suggestive even when they are necessarily immobile. Consider, for instance, the Japanese print in chapter one, which never- theless can express motion; or, by extension, The Picture ofDorian Gray itself, which, although obviously fixed as a text, resists immobility at every opportunity. This resistance is evident from the very beginning. The preface, with its gemlike aphorisms, creates a diffracted response and immediately challenges read- ers to find coherence or a monolithic voice at their own risk. It enforces "[dliversity of opinion about a work of art" which "show[ed] that the work is new, complex, and vital" (p. 22). The novel for Wilde, like the essay for Pater, delineates the "quick- ened, multiplied consci~usness"~~

and offers the contingency and open-endedness that Bakhtin calls "~nfinalizability."~~

It is not surprising, then, that Wilde's novel elaborately chore- ographs and multiplies readers' responses. The type of reading the preface prescribes is fundamental to the formal dialectical structure Wilde employs throughout the novel to destabilize readers' responses. The novel opens with this description: "The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden, there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn" (p. 23). This sentence challenges readers to determine which of several possible scents in this multiple-choice description pervade the room; it conveys the invisible movement of the wind and the scents it carries before abruptly launching into a description of what Harry saw, tasted, and heard from his position on the divan. Just as suddenly, the narrative moves from sensory over- load to chronological rupture: "some little distance away [from the portrait], was sitting the artist himself, Basil Hallward, whose sudden disappearance some years ago caused, at the time, such public excitement, and gave rise to so many strange conjectures" (p. 23). Our first introduction to Basil is through the distorting lens of the narrative future. Because the reference foreshadows an event about which readers remain unaware, their sense of readerly stability is necessarily undermined. This type of disruption-and the narrative's reliance on detailed description of things that resist linguistic depiction (certain smells, for instance)-pulls at the limits of representation as they point at their challenge to those limits. Art, Wilde said, can give us a "psychology of perfumes," for it is flexible and sensi- tive. If we experiment with it long enough, art can yield shape and form to even the most ephemeral objects, emotions, and ideas.

Smith and Helfand argue that the portrait corresponds with Friedrich Hegel's idea that art was the "spiritual expression of the collective social self":41 "The sensuous and the spiritual which struggle as opposites in the common understanding are revealed as reconciled in the truth expressed by art. . . Against the view that art is a means of instruction and moral improvement, aspiring to something that remains an ought to be, we must maintain rather that its purpose is to reveal the truth in an arresting sensuous form, representing for mind the reconciliation of opposites just de~cribed."~~

But the portrait acts very differently from art in Hegel's definition. For Wilde, art does not seek to reconcile oppositions. It represents and exploits opposition and variety: art's remarkable power comes from its ability to produce "[dl iversity of opinion" (p. 22). Because of the novel's extraor- dinary agility-particularly its ability to deploy any number of competing discourses, and favor none-it, like the artist, "can express anything" (p. 21).

Even as Wilde asserts the intimacy and interdependence of scientific and aesthetic discourses, he reifies art by turning Dorian's experiment inside out. Wilde shapes the story of Dorian's scientific investigation of the arts into an artistic, narrative inves- tigation of the sciences. The dialectical form of Wilde's novel works like that of the "poisonous book (p. 156). With its "curi- ous jewelled style, vivid and obscure at once" (p. 156)-the novel blends prose and poetry, science and art. Harry's "extraordinary improvisation" has an analogous power to combine, recombine, and transform a multitude of discourses and ideas: "He played with the idea, and grew wilful; tossed it into the air and trans formed it; let it escape and recaptured it; made it iridescent with fancy, and winged it with paradox . . . Facts fled before [Philoso- phy] like frightened forest things" (p. 66). Philosophy's "white feet" bring poetry into Harry's "brilliant, fantastic, irresponsible" soliloquy (p. 66). His conversation mingles fact and fancy into a marvelous performance, in the same way that Wilde's novel brings together Realism, Romance (the Gothic, sensation, and senti- mental novels), and the discourses of science and art. The effect is totalizing: the novel subordinates all the material Harry and Wilde have at their disposal in an "extraordinary improvisation" that swallows up all competing modes of representation.

Wilde maintains that "to art belongs all things that are and all things that are not."43 Art is not limited by material reality; nor is it limited to the truth. It enjoys extraordinary powers that Tyndall's new imaginative science could not claim. Even as Wilde's novel employs scientific discourse, it seeks to contain the various methods and imperatives of scientific discourse within its own aesthetic. Thus Wilde put art right back where it ought to be in every Aesthete's world order-in the ascendancy.

NOTES

'See Philip E. Smith I1 and Michael S. Helfand, eds., Oscar Wilde's Oxford Notebooks: A Portrait of Mind in the Making (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1989); and Bruce Haley, "Wilde's 'Decadence' and the Positivist Tradition," VS 28, 2 (Winter 1985): 215-29.

'Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, ed. Peter Ackroyd (London: Penguin Books, 1985), p. 82. All subsequent citations are from this edition and will appear parenthetically in the text.

3Smith, "Protoplasmic Hierarchy and Philosophical Harmony: Science and Hegelian Aesthetics in Oscar Wilde's Notebooks," in Critical Essays on Oscar Wilde, ed. Regenia Gagnier (London: G. K. Hall, 1991), pp. 202-9.

4See, for example, Peter Morton, The Vital Science: Biology and the Literary Imagination, 1860-1 900 (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1984), p. 149. Morton, for example, contends that Wilde "knew little and cared less for the specific difficulties in which biology found itself in the early 1890s." Quoted in Smith, pp. 202-9. In this fascinating but brief essay Smith argues that Wilde's carefully developed synthesis of evolutionary theory and Hegelian philosophy not only influenced but also served as the basis of Wilde's aesthetic theory.

5Smith and Helfand, p. 97.

6Haley, p. 218.

%mith and Helfand, pp. 163-4.

9.A. V. Chapple, Science and Literature in the Nineteenth Century (London: Macmillan, 1986), p. 99.

William R. Woodward, "Introduction: Stretching the Limits of Psychology's History," in The Problematic Science: Psychology in Nineteenth-Century Thought, ed. Woodward and Mitchell G. Ash (New York: Praeger Special Studies, 1982), p. 7; David J. Murray, A History of Western Psychology (Englewood Cliffs NJ: Pren- tice-Hall, 1983), p. 199; Chapple, p. 99.

loWilliam James and Wilhelm Wundt regarded this professional position- ing as an act of will: James "wished, by treating Psychology like a natural science, to help her become one" (James, Collected Essays and Reviews [New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 19201, p. 317; Wundt, Outlines ofPsycholog3, ed. Charles H. Judd [New York: G. E. Stechert, 18971, i:3).

I1Murray, p. 207; Timothy Gannon, Shaping Psychology: How We Got Where We're Going (New York: Univ. Press of America, 1991), p. 69. Thomas Hardy Leahey, A History ofPsychology: Main Currents ofPsychologica1 Thought (Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1987), p. 257.

I2Murray, p. 204.

13John Tyndall, "Science and Religion," in Victorian Science: A SeljPortraitfrom the Presidential Addresses ofthe British Association for the Advancement of Science, ed. George Basalla, William Coleman, and Robert H. Kargon (New York: Anchor Books, 1970), pp. 436-78, 477-8.

14Wilde, "The Critic as Artist," in The Artist as Critic: The Critical Writings of

Oscar Wilde, ed. Richard Ellmann (New York: Vintage, 1969), p. 406.

l-aley, p. 221.

l-aley, p. 222.

"The idea that science could not elucidate human consciousness was a popular one among Wilde's literary peers. In The Quintessence oflbsenism (1891), George Bernard Shaw wrote that "the fact remains that when Young, Helmholtz, Darwin, Haekel, and the rest, popularized here among the literate classes by Tyndall and Huxley, and among the proletariat by the lectures of the National Secular Society, have taught you all they know, you are still as utterly at a loss to explain the fact of consciousness as you would have been in the days when you were instructed from The Child's Guide to Knowledge. Materialism, in short, only isolated the great mystery of consciousness by clearing away several petty mysteries with which we have confused it." Quoted in Thomas Postlewait, "Bernard Shaw and Science: The Aesthetics of Causality," in Victorian Science and

Victorian Values: Literary Perspectives, ed. James Paradis and Postlewait (New York: New York Academy of Sciences, 1981), pp. 319-58, 328.

18Perhaps this is why Dorian and Harry relish the process and pleasure of experimentation over results. As Dorian wonders at the portrait, he asks "might there not be some curious scientific reason for it all?" (p. 136). He proceeds through a series of critical questions until he seems to give up the inquiry altogether: "Why inquire too closely into it?" (p. 136). In the next para- graph he turns back once he determines that "there would be a real pleasure in watching" the outcome of such an investigation. Oriented toward process rather than result, Dorian does not map the methodology of the natural sciences over his experience in order to draw conclusions. He derives pleasure, not a grand theory, from his exercises. Scientific inquiry in Wilde's novel leads not to a confirmed hypothesis, or even a logical deduction, but rather to an assertion that the pleasure of gathering the data is an end in itself. In this way, Wilde's novel is a most unscientific text: despite Dorian's extended survey of stimulation and response, he fails to produce clear-cut findings-and so does Wilde. To Wilde, this is one of the strengths of the novel form: its inci- dental pleasures ought to be as compelling as its narrative outcome.

lgTyndall was on the cutting edge of the movement within Victorian science away from the methodology of Baconian science toward what we now call the hypothetico-deductive method. He rejected Baconian science because of its absolute reliance on induction and suspicion of hypotheses. Instead, he adopted the hypothetico-deductive method in which the imagi- native (the hypothesis) aspires to truths which the material world cannot necessarily communicate. Science, he argued, must be more imaginative, less materialistic, and less limited by empirical proofs. This was particularly necessary, he contended, if scientists seek to develop useful theories of human cognition. Donald R. Benson, "Facts and Constructs: Victorian Humanists and Scientific Theorists on Scientific Knowledge," in Paradis and Postlewait, pp. 299-318, 309. See also Jonathan Smith's discussion of Tyndall in Fact andFee1- ing: Baconian Science and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagznation (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1994), pp. 13-37; 166-79.

20Benson, p. 310.

21Tyndall, "Science and Religion," pp. 474-5.

22Tyndall, "Science and Religion," p. 477.

23Tyndall, "Science and Religion," pp. 477-8. But although he professed to make no "exclusive claim" for science as the ultimate explanatory system, Tyndall's earlier, more provocative assertions (that "all schemes and systems . . . must . . . submit to its control") suggest that these closing references to Shakespeare and Carlyle may be more strategic than substantive.

24Tyndall, "Science and Religion," pp. 477, 475.

2jSmith, Fact, p. 36.

"%mith, Fact, pp. 34-5.

2iQuoted in Smith, "Protoplasmic," p. 206.

2XQuoted in Smith, "Protoplasmic," p. 207.

2gLeahey, p. 238. Galton carried on the spirit of Darwinian psychology, or psychophysics, by firmly basing theories of the psyche in materialistic evolu- tionary biology. A Victorian gentleman dilettante, Galton cut a Wildean figure. He performed an empirical study of the efficacy of prayer, and analyzed the nature of female beauty in England and boredom at scientific lectures. The "mentalists" sought to understand consciousness by breaking it down into its basic structures or components (Leahey, p. 260). This form of "behaviorism" must not be confused with B. F. Skinner's.

30Leahey, pp. 259-60. Fin-de-si6cle behaviorism was an attempt to turn mentalism-whose primary interest was consciousness, and whose method was introspection and experimentation-inside out. Unlike the mentalists, who used empirical data as outward signs of internal activity, the behaviorists stud- ied data to predict, control, and explain behaviors themselves.

31Wolfgang Iser, Walter Pater: The Aesthetic Moment (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1987), p. 17.

321bid.

33Walter Pater, The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1980), p. 189. 341ser, pp. 16-7. 35Iser, p. 17. 36Benson, p. 316. Although Arnold "predicts that poetry will replace a

'hollow' religion and philosophy" he also suggests that poetry will become an "appendage to science, the knowledge of fact."

3iE. H. Mikhail, ed., Oscar Wilde: Interviews and Recollections, vol. 1 (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1979), p. 45. Wilde is freely extending Shelley's argument from "The Defense of Poetry."

38Mikhail M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagznation (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1992), p. 33.

3gPater, p. 189.

40Bakhtin, p. 33.

41Smith and Helfand, p. 102.

42Friedrich Hegel, Hegel: On the Arts, trans. Henry Paolucci (New York: Fred- erick Ungar, 1979), pp. 5-6. 43Wilde, "Artist," p. 241.

Comments
  • Recommend Us