“There is no such thing as a good influence, Mr. Gray. All influence is immoral–immoral from the scientific point of view…to influence a person is to give him one’s own soul. He does not think his natural thoughts, or burn with his natural passions. His virtues are not real to him. His sins, if there are such things as sins, are borrowed. He becomes an echo of someone else’s music, an actor of a part that has not been written for him.”Lord Henry Wotton, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is a horrific tale of a young man who sells his soul for eternal youth. He sits for a portrait by his friend Basil, who esteems him as the perfect artistic specimen, beautiful and innocent, unmarred by time’s discomposure. Lord Henry Wotton calls on Basil, and against the painter’s wishes, he introduces Wotton to Dorian, in spite of his forboding insight that Wotton was sure to despoil Dorian’s grace. Wotton is known for being a “bad influence,” and when Dorian questions him, he responds with the aforementioned soliloquy. Ironically, after this interaction, Dorian is permanently altered; Basil’s worst fears are confirmed. When the stark transformation of Dorian evinces, Basil chastens Lord Wotton, “This is your doing, Harry,” to which “Lord Henry shrugged his shoulders. ‘It is the real Dorian Gray–that is all.'” From Wotton’s perspective, his expatiations merely induced the emergence of the real person, rather than influencing the man’s conversion to something far more worldly than he was before the interactions.
This passage–the entire scene, for that matter–struck me. It reminds me so much of my own experience. In my opinion, however, I find it more fitting to distinguish between influence and indoctrination as forces that shape the personality of a man, a woman, or an entire society. Lord Henry Wotton rants about the superficiality of Victorian society, as collective conformity. From his perspective, the enculturation of personality is repulsive, and he would gladly trade conformity for indivualism. Nevertheless, one cannot discount the industry of influence in the formation of a mind. To me, influence bears fruit when the person influenced is able to glean insight from diverse mentors, deconstruct diverse ideologies, and synthesize learning and experience into one personal, empirical and authentic point of view. It is my opinion that the most masterful creators are those who collect relics of truth from the arduous experience of human existence and merge those relics into a composite structure, taking on a new form, and amplifying meaning, purpose, and feeling to facilitate a more thorough communication of what it means to be human.
With that said, I think that one can be influenced and still emerge distinct from his or her peers. Wotton influenced Dorian. No, he didn’t tell Dorian what and how to think or behave. On the contrary, he shared his own insight, his own understanding of life’s purpose, contrasting that to the distractions that intercept authenticity. After their conversation, Dorian emerged transformed, but only because the knowledge he gleaned enabled liberty. Thus, when Wotton says, “It is the real Dorian,” he is communicating that Dorian received insight, embraced it, and allowed it to function as a catalyst to become who he was already.
This passage symbolizes, to me, my own journey away from religion and to an introspective, creative spirituality. Like Basil’s foreboding, I feared that to question, to think, to ponder, to diverge would corrupt and defile me–in the same manner that Wotton’s insight split Dorian, diverting his course. In truth, it merely unshackled me, permitting the bloom of authenticity. The same goes for Dorian, though in his case, he engages in a dangerous transaction. Nevertheless, he is true to himself. He embraces that which he already is, and that motion is worthy of admiration.
All the same, knowing what we do of Oscar Wilde’s life experience, it is also likely that Dorian’s corruption is somehow symbolic of a man’s repressed sexuality, and the disfiguration of his soul and pristine figure of his body represent the effect of indoctrination and enculturation on spirit. This reading also resonates for me. My experience in fundamentalist religious communities felt a lot like Dorian’s corporal existence. In attempt to maintain the exterior sheen of purity, my soul within withered and decayed. In exchange for the appearance of perfection, I traded my own self-worth and autonomy.
Regardless of the interpretation of Dorian Gray, I find the import of Lord Wotton’s sagacity timeless, and exceedingly relevant today. For an ex-fundamentalist, I can say without restraint that American Evangelical communities share much in common with the British Victorian society of Wilde’s day. Repression is a volatile tyrant, and it tromps across the lives of broken humans, leaving brittle brown stalks of devastation crunched, impacted, dry and infertile. Lord Wotton solicits critical thought, and I think it best we furnish such, engaging in the conversation he initiates across the ages, across the pages, and into the recesses of human consciousness.