Oh, What It Would Have Been…

The best news arrived on my twitter feed today: the Titanic movie, starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, is being relaunched in April. In 3D. I read this wonderful nugget of information and then starting jumping up and down, because I love that film. Honestly. I get completely caught up in the sentimentality and the opulence, and start wondering whether I would have done well in the aristocracy, being Rose. I very much doubt it however; I don’t like corsets, and am rather comfortable in track suit bottoms, and the dress code would probably prove beyond my tolerance. I think I just quite like the idea of being involved in such a romantic situation.

It wasn’t really romantic, of course, because it didn’t happen in real life. However for one hundred and ninety-four minutes, it seems very realistic. The special effects are remarkable; the ship seems completely real, and even to the most critical film buff, it has some value. It even contains a degree of educational value; the unsinkable Molly Brown was indeed aboard the RMS Titanic, and the crew as stated in the film were largely a part of the create tragedy. I love true stories; and whilst Jack and Rose didn’t really exist, the ship did, and I imagine there were some interesting affairs and entanglements aboard.

So, to belong to the aristocracy; it’d certainly be wonderful to experience if even for a day, because we’d all love to be the elite; not to simply examine them, and watch them like vultures, but to be them: to be the people who are the most talked about in history. I think some of the facets of this world would be luxurious beyond any kind of modern comprehension; for example, dressing in magnificent gowns for dinner, or sailing first class across the world. Being painted, being given extraordinarily extravagant gifts, dancing. That would be fantastic. But, I think only for a week.

As a student of course, I also indulge in the above; I go dancing regularly, and I have a fantastic dressing gown that I often sport in the kitchen whilst I’m making my tea. I also receive extravagant gifts, for example, a huge bar of Dairy Milk, or a nice bottle of wine. But somehow, I think the chasm between the old world of decadence is rather far removed from the one I experience, or in fact the one that any modern person can experience. The old world, although highly romanticized, was wonderfully decadent; it was almost a bottomless pit of beauty and luxury. So much so that it was unsustainable perhaps, and of course it had its flaws; it was horrendously political, and expectations preceded personalities. But undeniably, it would have been a wonderful playground to explore for a month or so.

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On Decadence and Aesthetics

English students are renouned for being fussy, sometimes pretentious students; we are the fussy eaters of the academic world. We tend to know our tastes very early on, purely because my the time we reach undergraduate level, we’ve been forced into reading something from every movement, whether we were aware of it or not. And the impressions that these types of literature make on us as children, tend to remain with us forever.

Personally, I have little patience with Greek and Roman literature, with the exception of Tales From Ovid. Mythology does not tickle my fancy very often, and instead, I’m rather enamoured with modernism, aestheticism, and nineteenth century Russian literature. I occasionally dip into the pond of Victorian certainty, when I fancy something rather more tame; occasionally into a little satire, when I’m feeling sceptical. But when I’m bored, I’ll venture to look at Virginia Woolf, and if I’m feeling particularly adventurous, I’ll look into James Joyce too. When I’m in need of comfort, I’ll read some Wilde, and feel much, much better about almost everything. If I had to choose  a favourite period, I’d be hanging somewhere between aesthetics and modernism. I dare say I’d attempt to look at both of them.

An excellent quotation of Oscar Wilde (1)

The sublime was a concept present in the late Romantic period; an idea that succeeded the concept of the picturesque, but came before aestheticism. The sublime essentially meant something of overwhelming natural beauty, something that was difficult to process intellectually. Wordsworth writes of the sublime in one of his most famous poems, Lines Written A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey (1798). This revolutionary piece of writing marked a progression in the field of aesthetics, being a truly sublime piece of writing, however is not quite a fully formed aesthetic work, still considering issues of the deity, which can be considered political. Aestheticism fundamentally leans against the inclusion of political and social themes within art.

Arguably however, Samuel Coleridge, a lover of science and geology, but also a lover of literature and poetry, wrote the first widely appreciated work in the field of aesthetics, in his Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Whilst many can argue that the poem condemns a certain number of practices, for example the shooting of the albatross, which can be considered a metaphor for wasting life, he also writes seemingly “on the surface”, and for pleasure. This kind of writing seems connected to Oscar Wilde, and The Picture of Dorian Gray. Two of the biggest Romantic poets formed the basis of aestheticism; Keats, Byron, and Shelley went on to build on this very scarce foundation, left by the two famous writers.

Dante's Lady Lilith; an excellent example of the aesthetic period (2)

To my mind at least, the picturesque, the sublime, and the aesthetic seem to be progressions of one another; in picturesque artwork, a frame is used, to either include or exclude a concept or image, and the painter has final control over the scene; the imagination and the reality of a location or concept amalgamate to create something that is picturesque, but fundamentally, it is not purely realistic. Aestheticism takes this concept further by widening where the ‘picture’ can come from, and what frame can be used, and there is absolutely no requirement for the inclusion of sociopolitical themes.

Aestheticism emerged partly as a reaction to the Enlightenment as a later extension of Romanticism; instead of looking at science, and factual things, the idea of art being created because it is beautiful emerged. Oscar Wilde is probably the most prominent of the aesthetic writers, alongside people such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The concept of ‘art for art’s sake’ overrode any social concerns, or political agendas. This was really a period of decadence and beauty.

I’m something of a fan of decadence and beauty in literature; I love things that will fascinate my mind, blow it backwards, and take me to something of a utopia whereby there are no deep social issues. Sometimes, it is nice to be immersed in such a beautiful world, and to escape darker, more imposing literature such as Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, or Devils. Literature provides a point of escape for so many people; the decadent writers lived in a world that preceded world wars, common invasion, and a plethora of other genocides; a practice that ran rampant throughout the 20th century. In many ways, their world was something far more innocent; the British Empire covered a quarter of the globe, and nothing ever truly threatened the innately British superiority complex. In many ways, it was a world so supremely different from ours that it could be considered a whole other culture, an almost untainted one.

I wonder what everyone else finds fascinating…

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(1) http://files.myopera.com/tatora/blog/4878_PRO_sample_01.gif

(2) http://gypsyscarlett.files.wordpress.com/2010/01/art-dante-gabriel-rossetti-lady-lilith-18681.jpg

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Dorian and I? We Had a Fantastic Afternoon…

This afternoon, I sat down and watched the adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray, starring Colin Firth and Rebecca Hall. And I’ve never enjoyed a film adaptation of a novel so much in my life. Usually, I tend to rebel against them; I find them slightly abhorrent, and feel as though they potentially corrupt the value of the text itself. And whilst the novel shows some differences, the theme and concept remains completely the same. The essence of the text has been preserved; possibly the mark of some of the very best adaptations.

The adaptation very accurately and rather shockingly portrays the idea of the soul being revealed in a painting, a visual medium; the graphic image of the maggots quite literally eating away at the portrayal of the soul is a repulsive image. As humans, we reject the idea of decay, because we seek to survive and preserve. The brutality of Dorian Gray’s character as a result of impulse as portrayed in the film also represents the concept of excess, an almost epidemic problem in Wilde’s own lifetime. The sexual excesses in which Dorian indulges represents not necessarily the corruption of an entire era, but the effect these excesses have on Dorian. The effect on his psyche is spectacular; his aversion to the idea of multiple partner experiences soon changes to an insatiable appetite for every sexual indulgence possible; from the sadomasochistic, to the bi-sexual.

Dorian's first visit to the Opium Den. (1)

Decadence appeals to my frugal sense of the self because it is a luxury I lack both as a student, and as a person who works, and who realises the value of money. To be allowed a window into this world of unimaginable excess is therefore highly appealing, and Wilde as an author created small moments of complete, unrestrained indulgence for a reader, with an almost unrivalled level of skill. As a Victorian, he escaped from the restrained morality dictated by Christianity and entered a hitherto unexplored arena, notably examining the right of man to engage in homosexual activity without legal condemnation. Wilde’s trial was less focussed on condemning him for a clearly defined breach of legality; instead, the trial sought to persecute a lifestyle, instead of one element of a person’s possible activities.

The adaptation not only focussed on the destruction of Dorian’s soul, sacrificed on the altar of beauty, but also the influence of Lord Henry, the narcissistic uncle figure who first introduces the young man to the carnal and chemical pleasures of the world has to offer, most strikingly in the first visit to the opium den. The Lord himself dreams of a lifestyle of profound excess, however never quite has the courage to complete the dream; perhaps he has a conscience that is unrealised, and perhaps he cannot fathom exposing his soul to such complete tyranny; for those who harbour superstitions within themselves, it is simply an impossible notion to risk eternal damnation to such a degree as Dorian does. Dorian however lacks one of the fundamental elements of existence, in that he has no boundaries; no real influence telling him where he ought to draw the line, and to this end, he sacrifices his soul on the altar of beauty and physical pleasure.

I would recommend watching the film alongside reading the novel; it certainly brings to light some of the more subtle ideas of the novel and emphasises the value of aesthetic beauty in relation to the soul. Not only is the novel spectacularly on form, the lighting and scene cuts add a great deal of atmosphere to proceedings. I hope you enjoy it!

(1) http://th07.deviantart.net/fs71/PRE/i/2010/163/b/b/The_Opium_Den_by_FroschiLove.png

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Staring into “The Picture of Dorian Gray”

As you may have become aware, as you have looked through my growing number of blog posts, I am just a little bit in love with Oscar Wilde. And the decadence, eloquence, and rather philosophical writings of his have been long fascinating my mind, however, today, I have nearly finished his only completed novel; The Picture of Dorian Gray. Moving on through the novel, you begin to observe the complete destruction of a man through the ultimate kind of all-consuming vanity. He is essentially being made the central element of the universe, and subsequently, if his beauty, that which inspired this masterpiece, was to begin to deteriorate, then the universe around him would begin to deteriorate also.

(1) Oscar Wilde: My Literary Hero

This vanity is portrayed from a completely singular view-point, which potentially adds to the overwhelming decadence of the novel; Dorian Gray is literally the whole world, to both himself and Basil Hallward, something that is an intoxicating responsibility and power simultaneously. This obsession with the self shows how delicate the psychological perception of the self is, and how truly brilliant Wilde is as a writer, with the ability to write in such a completely beautiful fashion.

My favourite element of the novel however is the subversive portrayal of influence of Lord Henry; he fundamentally feeds Dorian Gray these twisted, backwards perceptions of life that reinforce the concerns he has for the world in relation to himself. This is because he himself seems to be more affected by realism than Dorian Gray and Basil Hallward are, perhaps because he is more exposed to London high society as prescribed by the time; the complexities of the social politics described in the novel are familiar to most of us, especially considering the festive season we’re entering. The balance one has to strike between social factions, work demands, and family duty all serve to create potentially a very stressful holiday period.

The lack of innocence however that Lord Henry represents however is the beginning of Dorian Gray’s demise; it is this that leads to his want to experiment with every kind of vice available to him, including endless intoxication and debauchery. Fundamentally however, this abuse of the satanic finery of life does not show on the man physically; his initial wish, that his portrait would grow old as opposed to himself, is fulfilled. This desire haunts him, and eventually, he is forced to greet his own reflection, himself as he was painted by Basil Hallward. The sheer fact that he killed the painter of the portrait symbolises rather aptly his desperation, and the complete disregard he had for his soul, or indeed for willpower and self-control as an entity in itself.

This rather beautiful novel of Oscar Wilde’s is a testament to the extravagant excellence of the late Victorian period of decadence; Wilde himself reflected decadence and in many ways, perhaps could see some of himself in both Basil Hallward and Dorian Gray, both being complex characters of aesthetic value, with little regard for the depth behind the necessary aesthetic value of life, and of possessions. The linguistic quality of the text reflects the richness of the plot itself and indeed the decadence of the late Victorian period as a whole. Wilde himself was critical of the conservative nature of the Victorian period, and led a life that defied many of the social boundaries set at the time.

Oh, Oscar Wilde. Thank goodness you were so naughty.

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(1) http://nigelfeatherstone.files.wordpress.com/2009/10/oscar-wilde.jpg

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