I came across a quotation by children’s author C.S. Lewis (of ‘Chronicles of Narnia’ fame) that struck quite a chord with me – “We read to know we are not alone.” Yes, reading is about connecting, and about entering the mind of someone who lived long before you / lives alongside you right now, carrying on his or her business in a town you have never visited, in a society you will never know. And really, it’s always something of an ego boost to realize you have thoughts in common with some of the brightest minds around; agreed?
The experience isn’t always quite so pleasant, I have to say. Some time ago, in a sudden burst of affection for the Arts, I formulated a little philosophy on why I felt artistic expression was really the only important thing around. I happened to be taking a walk with my sister through a lush green meadow complete with horses and picnicking families on a wonderfully breezy day, and I couldn’t help but pledge whole-hearted loyalty to Beauty, saying that what could get you through any heartache, any sorrow, was to look at it as a piece of art, the ending to a well-penned tragedy, a touching scene in a delicately crafted film. I told her how I’d ‘watched’ things I had experienced with a spectator’s appreciation of their beauty. My sister had listened, smiled, and said this sort of yogic detachment wouldn’t always be that easy, but theoretically, the idea was interesting.
A short while after, I finally got down to reading Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, and came to respectfully abhor one of its principle characters, Lord Henry’s, hedonistic ethos – a predilection for all things pleasurable, an advocacy of linking, invariably, the cerebral with the sensory so that all one’s deeds, intellectual or physical, were carried out in the service of pleasure and beauty. As I progressed through the book and Lord Henry became increasingly hateful, his words also became eerily familiar:
“Sometimes… a tragedy that possesses artistic elements of beauty crosses our lives. If these elements of beauty are real, the whole thing simply appeals to our sense of dramatic effect. Suddenly we find that we are no longer the actors, but the spectators of the play. Or rather we are both. We watch ourselves, and the mere wonder of the spectacle enthralls us.”
This coming from the same man who goes on to commend Dorian’s cruelty to the woman he courts with the words: “I have never seen you really and absolutely angry, but I can fancy how delightful you looked” (my emphasis). It suddenly seemed far more heartless than life-affirming to see beauty in misfortune. And really, it rather frightened me to see with whom I had inadvertently identified myself.
Unpleasant or not, it’s really pretty interesting to see what hidden facets of your personality you unearth when hearing your views articulated in sometimes wholly different contexts, and to see the multidimensionality that those same thoughts develop. It’s like having a heavily intimate, scarily honest conversation that leaves you even just a little bit disconcerted. Your insides feel like wall panels resonating at a shared frequency, a sort of sympathetic vibration that goes beyond mere physical explanation. Good books can do that to you, I think. Dorian Gray is definitely one of them.