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Truth and Masks in the World of Wilde ~ The Imaginative Conservative

In 1885 Oscar Wilde wrote “The Truth of Masks,” in which he claimed that there was no such thing in art as a universal truth. Attitude, he wrote, was everything. The truth, or otherwise, of masks is crucial to any understanding of Wilde’s complex and conflicted character. His public persona, cultivated and constructed from his youth onwards, was a calculated pose. He became a poseur par excellence, creating masks for himself that amused his friends, beguiled his disciples and infuriated his critics. Yet do the masks conceal the truth or do they sometimes reveal it? This question lies (in both senses of the word) at the very centre of any quest for a fuller understanding of this most elusive of characters. This was why the present author’s biography of Wilde was entitled The Unmasking of Oscar Wilde.

And yet the truth, or otherwise, of masks is not merely crucial to an understanding of Oscar Wilde, it is crucial to an understanding of truth itself.

The conclusion of Wilde’s essay, “The Truth of Masks”, was not only baffling, but was also deliberately designed to baffle. Drama critics were required to “cultivate a sense of beauty”, he wrote, adding a sentence or so later that drama should have “the illusion of truth for its method, and the illusion of beauty for its result”. Was the sense of beauty to be cultivated only an illusion? Was beauty itself an illusion? Was truth an illusion? And if truth was an illusion, a mask, could there be a “truth of masks”? How could masks be true if truth was only an illusion? None of these questions is answered or even addressed in Wilde’s essay, the logical absurdity of which is encapsulated in his trite assertion that “a Truth in art is that whose contradictory is also true”. Black was white. White was black. Or perhaps there’s no such thing as black and white, both of which are masks, but only fifty shades of grey.

Wilde covered his retreat from the absurdity of his logically untenable position by concluding his essay with a disclaimer: “Not that I agree with everything that I have said in this essay. There is much with which I entirely disagree.”

Was Wilde in earnest in these rationally iconoclastic musings, or was he simply paying a game with morality? Or was he aesthetically schizophrenic, hearing voices that contradicted those of his deeper self? If so, did he believe these voices to be as true as their contradictions? Did he really believe that black was white, and that white was black? Was he, to coin his own enigmatic phrase, splendidly insane? Or perhaps, intellectually speaking, and to coin another of his phrases, was he committing “long, lovely suicide”?

If he wasn’t splendidly or suicidally insane, was he being deliberately dishonest with himself or with others? Was he being ingenious without being ingenuous? Was he simply playing with fire for the mere hell of it while his truer self was set on heaven?

So many questions. So few answers.

And yet Wilde does answer these questions, ironically, enigmatically and paradoxically, in The Picture of Dorian Gray, the only novel he wrote. He reveals the truth of masks, and the truth behind the masks, in his work of fiction, whereas he conceals the truth in his self-conscious and self-contradictory criticism. His fiction reveals the truth; his purported non-fiction is a carefully fabricated lie. This is seen in the contrast between the overt and obvious Christian morality of the novel itself and the self-contradictory absurdity of the epigrams which comprise the novel’s preface.

“There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book,” Wilde had proclaimed in the preface. Yet the novel, in Wilde’s own judgment, was profoundly moral:

[T]he real trouble I experienced in writing the story was that of keeping the extremely obvious moral subordinate to the artistic and dramatic effect.

When I first conceived the idea of a young man selling his soul in exchange for eternal youth – an idea that is old in the history of literature, but to which I have given new form – I felt that, from an aesthetic point of view, it would be difficult to keep the moral in its proper secondary place; and even now I do not feel quite sure that I have been able to do so. I think the moral too apparent.

It is ironic that the fictional painting of Dorian Gray is a mask that reveals the innermost secrets of the soul. It is the gollumized conscience made visible.

“So you think that it is only God who sees the soul?,” Dorian Gray asks Basil Hallward, the artist who had painted the portrait. Dorian then reveals the painting, which has got uglier with every sin that Dorian has committed. Dorian calls the picture “a diary of my life from day to day”. As Hallward gazes at the cruelty etched on the features of the portrait, Dorian tells him that “[i]t is the face of my soul”.

“My God!” Hallward exclaims. “If it is true and this is what you have done with your life, why, you must be worse even than those who talk against you fancy you to be!”

As the novel approaches its climax, a prostitute whose services he had used regularly calls him “the devil’s bargain”. He reacts angrily as if stabbed by the truth of the words: “Curse you!,” he answers, “don’t call me that.” Finally, the novel’s moral, implicit throughout, is stated explicitly in Dorian’s last conversation with Lord Henry Wotton. “By the way, Dorian,” Lord Henry asks, “what does it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?”

In his only work of fiction, Wilde shows us two masks that do not conceal the truth but which reveal it.  The first is the fictional painting of Dorian Gray, which reveals the secrets of the soul and the ugliness of the sins that the body and soul of man commit. The second is the novel itself, a work of fiction that reveals the truth, the moral truth and nothing but the whole moral truth.

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The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay.

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