At the end of chapter ten of The Picture of Dorian Gray, Lord Henry gives Dorian a yellow book, one that will influence him for years to come:
It was a novel without a plot, and with only one character, being, indeed, simply a psychological study of a certain young Parisian, who spent his life trying to realise in the nineteenth centry all the passions and modes of thought that belonged to every century except his own, and to sum up, as it were, in himself the various moods through which the world-spirit had ever passed, loving for their mere artificiality those renunciations that men have unwisely called virtue as much as those natural rebellions that wise men still call sin. The style in which it was written was that curious jewelled style, vivid and obscure at once, full of argot and of archaisms, of technical expressions and of elaborate paraphrases, that characterises the work of some of the finest artists of the French school of Symbolistes. There were in it metaphors as monstrous as orchids, and as subtle in colour. The life of the senses was described in the terms of mystical philosophy. One hardly knew at times whether one was reading the spiritual ecstasies of some mediaeval saint or the morbid confessions of a modern sinner. It was a poisonous book. The heavy odour of incense seemed to cling about its pages and to trouble the brain. The mere cadence of the sentences, the subtle monotony of their music, so full as it was of complex refrains and movements elaborately repeated, produced in the mind of the lad, as he passed from chapter to chapter, a form of reverie, a malady of dreaming, that made him unconscious of the falling day and creeping shadows.
Because I read The Little Professor, I learned a month ago that this yellow book wasn't a product of Wilde's imagination, but was in fact recognized as being Joris-Karl Huysman's Against Nature, a book previously unknown to me, but readily available in an Oxford World's Classics edition in the library.
Confession No. One: I'd read The Picture of Dorian Gray prior to its selection as a Slave of Golconda title, but since my reading took place in the fall of 2004, I was having difficulty working up enough enthusiasm for a reread quite so soon, especially since I feel I'm reading at sloth speed these days. I was, however, fascinated by Miriam Burstein's contention that chapter eleven of the Wilde was plagiarized from the Huysmans. How could it be regarded as a plagiary instead of a homage if people at the time of DG's publication knew what the yellow book he referred to was supposed to be? Wouldn't a mere footnote suffice to educate those not already in-the-know?
My views on plagiarism were formed by Doris Betts, who I had for two English classes, including a creative writing one, all those years ago in Chapel Hill. Betts still tops my Brilliant While Being Totally Moral About It list, and she was delighted when one of my classmates brought in a strange story about a weird tree. Turns out my classmate's roommate had turned in his own weird tree story the previous semester, and Betts, married to an attorney, seized upon this usurpation of another's idea to make sure that we knew it was perfectly all right to do so. She said there was no way any of us could possibly come up with the EXACT story the other had in mind and we should therefore not worry about where we stole our ideas from.
Of course, stealing another person's words does fall under the legal definition of plagiarism, so I decided to reread only chapter eleven of Dorian Gray and then read Against Nature. I could decide for myself if Wilde had plagiarized Huysmans.
Confession No. Two: I suck. I totally suck. I read the prologue, I read enough to know that in chapter eleven Dorian models himself completely on Duc Jean Fioressas des Esseintes, the neurotic and effete aesthete the novel revolves around, and while I truly intended to read Against Nature, I could not muster the wherewithal to do so. I'm quite good at my own brand of decadence, which involves turning a blind eye to piles of clutter so I can read and consuming a liberal supply of chocolate while I do so, but compared to des Esseintes', mine was sure to be revealed as mere slovenliness, at which point I would need to cut down on my evil ways or amp them up considerably, leaving me no spare time to read about indulgent nineteenth century Frenchmen anyway. And really, cultivating or affecting utter amorality at this point in my life would just be absurd.
Confession No. Three: I'd assiduously avoided reading Dorian Gray until 2004 out of the conviction that it just wasn't very good. Why did I hold this idea? Because one of my friends had written her 12th grade research paper on it. This particular friend had a reputation for being rather superficial and shallow—compared to the rest of us—and her enthusiasm for a supposedly superficial and shallow character screamed Don't Bother to a gal from out in the county such as myself, one trying desperately to navigate the social rivers of my high school with only an intellectual paddle at her disposal. I myself wrote my senior paper on Kafka's The Castle, and while that seems shrug-worthy now, at the time it distinguished me, most tellingly in college the next year, when a weird guy in my French class asked me out immediately after I'd revealed that bit of information.
Such is life in North Carolina, all surface and symbol.
And I'm terribly sorry I suck.
Tuesday, February 28, 2006
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