Out of the depths

If being reread is a prima facie reason for thinking that a book is literature (as C. S. Lewis suggested), then for it to be still in print a century or more after its first appearance is the objective correlative of that judgment. Who would have thought that Huckleberry Finn would still be read in the third millennium? Or Little Women? And who could raise children without reading Treasure Island and Kidnapped to them? Two nineteenth-century stories that have never gone out of print are Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey. They are both morality tales, almost parables, dealing in their different ways with the relation between going bad and growing old.

The fact that Jekyll invokes the Hyde in him by drinking a potion may seem forced, but sometimes universal depravity has to be coaxed into the open. Coaxed once too often, as it happens, and Dr. Jekyll becomes permanently Hyde. Wilde’s story is the more haunting, I think, though Dorian is less popular with actors than Hyde, if only because his transformation takes place off stage – up in the attic, actually. A life of dedicated dissipation leaves Dorian unmarked, unchanged in appearance, still a young man on the threshold of life. But up in the attic his portrait grows ever more grotesque.

Nowadays we seem intent on repainting the portrait, lest age, if not our vices, should alter our youthful appearance. It has come to the point where age seems wasted on the old. Why do we feel warm all over if someone says we look younger than we are? We dread growing older, although the natural alternative is grim. So we seek artificial stays against aging – Botox, liposuction, hair plugs, contact lenses, plastic surgery, exercise. Bodies are recalled like automobiles for new knees and hips, and laser surgery makes eyes 20/20 again. Open heart surgery has made many of us posthumous, as it were, still alive when we might very well have been dead. But there is still no cure for mortality.

If Dorian never went grey, the fictional character had a real counterpart, John Gray. One of the joys of wintering in Florida is the Main Street Book Store in Sarasota, four floors of remaindered books where one can stock up on odds and ends, get a bushel of books for the price of one new one. It was there that, a year or two ago, I came upon a book about John Gray and was surprised to learn that he had ended his life as a Catholic priest in Scotland. However dissipated his youth had been, he apparently became an exemplary cleric, and his fellow priests and parishioners never knew of the volume of early poetry that had so impressed Wilde.

Joseph Pearce has stated the case for Wilde’s Catholicism – some would say, overstated it. For all that, Wilde’s life provides many points for meditation. De Profundis, written while Wilde was in Reading Gaol — serving a sentence for deviant behavior; not playing by the Marquis of Queensberry’s rules, so to speak — is addressed to his companion in vice and is a moving appeal to the young man to repent, to convert, to save his soul. The ballad also written there is hard not to like, though it is as insistently repetitive as Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha, but De Profundis is profound. Alas, Wilde served his time and went back to his old ways, providing a kind of argument for life sentences.

Nonetheless, Wilde was reconciled to the Church before he died. He is said to have looked around the ugly Paris hotel room in which he lay and said, “Either that wall paper goes or I do.” But this was a quip more like St. Lawrence’s on his gridiron than any of the mots in Wilde’s frothy plays. There is some confusion about who attended Wilde at the end. Jacques Maritain was told by one of his spiritual directors that he had been at Wilde’s bedside, but there is no mention of him in either Ellis or Pearce. There was a priest at his bedside, however. God is merciful, thank God.

Ralph McInerny (1929-2010)

Ralph McInerny was a writer of philosophy, fiction, and cultural criticism, who taught at Notre Dame from 1955 until his death in 2010. He was among the founding contributors to The Catholic Thing.