Becoming John Gray transcript

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'Becoming John Gray', a talk by Jerusha McCormack as part of Dublin: One City, One Book 2010.  Audio.

Welcome to the Dublin City Public Libraries and Archive Podcast. In this episode, 'Becoming John Gray', Dr Jerusha McCormack discusses Oscar Wilde, Dandyism and the Aesthetic Movement and asks, “Was this the beginning of celebrity culture?”  Recorded in front of a live audience at Dublin City Library and Archive, Pearse Street on 26 April 2010, as part of Dublin: One City, One Book.

Thank you Jane and thank you for coming on a lovely spring evening, on a Monday night, I appreciate that. I want to say that John Gray has been, in some sense, my academic life because as a young scholar I was offered access to his papers in a way no-one else was. This is a story in itself but it happened in the late ‘60s and very few people were interested in Oscar Wilde, they didn’t really want to know about Oscar Wilde, even in Dublin when I came in 1971, because he was gay and no-body was gay as you know in the 1960s. I was even asked if I was gay which I thought extraordinary since I was married and having a child but, however, interest in Wilde has grown and I’m glad because I think he is a really fine thinker, even a great thinker and my first introduction to him was through his essays not through his plays or poetry. His essays are extraordinary, I think you should look at them, the ones – The Decay Of Lying, for instance, or Pen, Pencil and Poison and we’re going to be looking at Wilde through a very strange prism tonight which is through the prism first of all of John Gray, of the life of a person he completely transformed and it gives another kind of perspective on Oscar Wilde and his life we don’t often hear from the people who were close to him and we only have Wilde’s version very often of how they felt about that relationship. And also it throws I think intense light on our own culture which we call today a celebrity culture, that’s a kind of cliché about the world in which we live, but celebrity culture is a recent invention even in my own, as you can see, recent times. That it really wasn’t a phrase I was even familiar with until about 20 years ago and it is something that has grown up certainly in the last 50 years – 40 to 50 years. I think it was Andy Warhol, the American artist, who said everyone has this 15 minutes of fame and that’s what You Tube and Twitter and Blogs give us now but that is the version of celebrity culture. However, tonight I want to explore Wilde through both these aspects, the relationship with John Gray and the relationship to celebrity culture which actually has a much longer genesis than we would think. It goes right back, 200 years in fact. So I’m going to begin with Oscar Wilde and his relationship to his public at the beginning of his career and then jump back and look at what we call celebrity culture.

Let’s begin with Oscar Wilde. Celebrity culture today is, I think we all acknowledge popular culture and it has to do with building an image. 30 years ago, building an image was not considered quite honest. I remember talking to an official, a very high official, in my university then University College Dublin, at the end of the ‘70s and saying you don’t have a Public Relations Office? and the Secretary turned to me and said, 'Well, we don’t. We’re more honest than that, you know.' Now everyone has PR, we all set up our own websites, we all know the importance of image, how you appear. We talk casually about spin and politicians as if to be expected that politicians will only appear to be sincere, and will not mean what they say, or if they mean what they say, someone will come along and twist it around so it’s acceptable. This began actually, in a very important book by an American called Daniel Boorstin, I urge you to read it, call ‘The Image’ and he called it then a ‘Guide to Pseudo-events in American’, dated 1961. I remember revolutionising my idea of American culture which is where a lot of this PR celebrity culture of course, was generated and then came to Europe later. And Boorstin’s thesis was based on the media, he said many people create what we call media events here, he called them pseudo-events. They used to be called in the ‘60s, happenings and they are created by the media, for the media in order to publicise something, in order to give someone those 15 minutes of fame. So media is important and event is important. And it was to publicise what is acknowledged everywhere as an entirely fabricated image, nobody thinks this is anything to do with the authentic self or the authenticity of the person, it all has to do with creating what they call the optics, the picture.

Even today talking about the pension of Maura Geoghan Quinn, and this is going to run the whole week folks, someone said well this is more a matter of optics, you know, by which they mean image. So publicity and fabrication, that is artificiality, are now entering the language in a totally accepted way that’s very new, particularly for Americans who are very keen on transparency and what they think of as honesty, you know, what you see is what you get kind of mentality. At the same time, of course, America is the home of the first mass consumptive, or consuming society we should say, and this image is created to promote mass consumption so now we have an audience that’s into consuming an image. So let’s see how this impacts on Wilde and his public.

You probably don’t know this but Oscar Wilde really began his career as an advertisement and he was very aware of the power of advertisement throughout his career. He created his own public through the mass media. He actually edited a Woman’s magazine called ‘Woman’s World’ and he was sent on an American tour, he was sent to the home if you want of image creation for a whole year in late 1881 and there to give mostly public lectures and to create a spectacle. And, of course, he landed in New York and immediately created a spectacle when he got off the boat and the customers officials were going through his luggage saying do you have anything to declare? And he said only my genius and of course that was the kind of sound bite that immediate made all the American papers. Who is this whippersnapper? And the news coverage of this was intense because it was what we call tabloid journalism was growing up then. We have a new public that are increasingly literate and they are reading day-to-day coverage but also some cartoons and photographs literally making a spectacle, literally playing into the image of himself. We’ll see how we did this on this tour because Wilde is first and foremost a performer, we should never forget that. Even if you read his prose essays aloud they sound like performances, they are very often in fact in dialogues so that energy of spectacle is always there.

This is the play or I should say the comic operetta for which Wilde was an advertisement, and there he is pictured, it’s called ‘Patience’. It was an early operetta by Gilbert and Sullivan and it was meant to satirise as many of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas satirise of course formal opera with its impossible plots and its long arias and so forth but they also satirised current cultural movements. And here the head of the D’Oyly Carte Company, which produces even to this day Gilbert and Sullivan are Richard D’Oyly Carte, a very smart, in this case, American business man who is based in New York hired Oscar Wilde to go on a lecture tour in order to appear as an advertisement for ‘Patience’. And ‘Patience’ is important because the cultural movement it was satirising was what was called the Aesthetic Movement which by 1881 was quite firmly established in the British mind as a kind of counter culture of its day. It emphasised things like art for art’s sake when the British public was very interested in art for morality sake. Art that would induce people to join the legions, who were holding, you know, keeping law and order in the British Colonies for instance. The aesthetes by comparison tended to be very preoccupied with design, they were very foppish and you can see here the wonderful velveteen costume of Oscar Wilde and the long hair and the lily because this was Bunthorne, Reginald Bunthorne was the young man who sings this wonderfully comic opera about walking down Picadilly with a Lily in my hand, you know. And he’s wonderfully graceful and strikes great attitude and is hopelessly limp and obsessed with his appearance. There is the leading opera actor of the day, George Grossmith as Bunthorne in ‘Patience’ and you can see marching down and the wonderful – these had gone out of course – velvet knickerbockers, a velveteen jacket, foppish tie which W.B. Yeats by the way picked up in the 1880s in London, you see wonderful pictures of him and the wonderful gestures, you know, which in our company can only mean one thing, like I’m gay today but actually then just meant I’m aesthete today and I don’t give a hang for marching in the British army or for being a lovely, you know, kind of stolid British man, I’m going to take out this culture. So the English Aesthetic Movement unfortunately was not well known in America, unfortunate for Richard D’Oyly Carte because you can’t satirise something that isn’t known. So he sent over Oscar Wilde as the nearest thing to exemplify it and Wilde accordingly made a series of spectacles and appearances and lectures and made sure all the media knew when he was arriving right across America. He began, of all places, in Harvard University where he was booed and I believe there were even rotten tomatoes thrown about at him because he was in these velveteen knickerbockers and the Harvard students didn’t know quite what to make of him, going all the way through Mid-West and finally to the far West through the mining towns of Colorado, down through Missouri and finally ending up in San Francisco where he was a great hit. Now these are a series of photographs taken of him by a prominent New York photographer called Saxony, it was a firm, and there he is in his cloak – none of this is very British as you can see – velveteen jacket, a tie, soft trousers and a kind of American Stetson hat. Long hair and a gaze nobly I’m set on horizon not on anything practical, dreamy, sensitive – even though he was something like 6 foot 4 or 6 foot 5, he was a huge man. So Saxony made these series of photographs, which we can still access today on the web on Wilde in various version of aesthetic dress which is part of the spectacle. Designing clothes are very much part of it and there are a whole series of cartoons, some of them really frightening when you look at them. One of them, for instance, showing Wilde as a monkey because they regarded the Irish – at this point they thought of Wilde as Irish and not – Irish were considered more animal like but this is one of the ones that I think tells you something about how Oscar Wilde was seen, this is called The Modern Messiah. Now if you look at it carefully everyone is sunflowers, sunflowers being also like the lily – a sign of the Aesthetic Movement – and Wilde is wearing a sunflower, waving a sunflower, on a saddle with a sunflower, here is the Mayor of – this is in San Francisco, holding a sunflower. But look at what he’s riding, not a white horse but a white donkey. Why? Because this is blasphemous, this is a satire on Christ entering Jerusalem and they are waving the sunflowers. He is to save American culture from itself, right, by bringing arts to America. So you have – and he himself saw it as a mission, the actual lectures he gave in America were extraordinarily interesting, but he would do bizarre things. In Colorado talking to miners, silver miners. He said the silver miners were the best dressed people he’d ever seen and he very much admired their mining costumes which were like cowboy costumes and their large hats and he thought they were quite stylish people. But he also gave them then a lecture on the Italian Renaissance and people were saying Why are you talking about Chelini and Da Vinci, you know, and Botticelli to these men, you know, they wouldn’t even know an oleograph if they saw it? And he said well they have a right to culture too, I’m bringing culture to them so this was Wilde’s mission, The Modern Messiah.

Now, you see, one of the towns he visited was the hometown of this man who none of you would recognise I’m sure because he’s an American hero – Jesse James. Jesse James died on April 3rd 1882 shot by a confederate in the back of the head when he was significantly trying to put a picture straight in his picture frame on the wall. He was an aesthete too. Two weeks after his execution Oscar Wilde was lecturing in James’s home town of St. Joseph Missouri and he witnessed the auction of Jesse James’s stuff and wrote a hilarious letter back about the fights that broke out over the auction and the kind of stuff that was being actually auctioned off. He said two men pulled a gun over the doorknob from Jesse James’s house but one man backed down when he was offered the water butt – that is the water barrel – for the price of the salary of an Anglican Bishop (laughs). So the American preoccupation with stuff and with the stuff of the famous is all there. I mean this is two weeks, also the American preoccupation with a spectacle. Now he noted, as we see, how this man was a criminal, there’s no doubt about that, he robbed banks and there were a lot of myths about him that he was kind of Robin Hood, that is not true, all the facts contradict this. But as often in America reputations can change or transform themselves. There’s a picture of Jesse James’s body, why do I show it to you? Because it’s part of the spectacle that was shown to the American public through the tabloids at the time to show he was really dead. By the way, like Elvis, there’s still stories that Jesse James escaped, it was a double that was shot. This is what happens to heroes in America, they never really die, as you can see from ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’, Wilde too began to think that death might be an option instead of a necessity. Anyway there it’s explained but what Wilde wrote home is very revealing he said Americans are certainly great hero worshippers and always take their heroes from the criminal classes. Now that’s a very interesting what we called elision or transformation. Maybe it isn’t as interesting to you because it’s so normal in celebrity culture, this is exactly what celebrity culture is made of, is fame which becomes infamy and infamy which becomes fame. There is no scandal, which doesn’t make a person famous, there is no fame, which won’t elide at some point into scandal. As you see one PR agent said to me, and it’s a famous saying among PR people, when I got a bad review from one of my books, no publicity is bad publicity; any review at all is better than none, right? And of course the 19th century witnessed an explosion in all those factors that’s going to lead to this making of heroes through the tabloids and the popular, as I say, transformation of the people, normal people or odd people becoming famous and then becoming infamous. There’s the rise of literacy, the growth of what they call yellow journalism – we would call it the tabloid papers – popular culture becoming fashionable particularly around the 1880s/1890s. Wilde and his contemporaries were beginning to slum, they were going to things like The Musical which were working class entertainment. They were beginning to write poems about prostitutes, those are not considered poetic material by the normal British classes of the 1880s. There’s an increasing consumer culture, which leads again to ads and the birth of advertising, both of these particularly in America, and the invention of photography, which leads to image making of all kinds.
So this all adds up to the celebrity culture but I want to begin with what is first modern celebrity. Maybe someone recognises this man? Yes, this is Lord Byron of course and Lord Byron 200 years ago, a great culture hero to the British also to many others – the Chinese I’ve learned since Saturday, he is also a huge culture here too – because he fought for Greek independence but he was also considered a great poet. After the publication of his first poem, the first two Cantos of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage in that great year 1812, Byron said I woke and found myself famous. Well that’s celebrity culture isn’t it? A childe, by the way here, does not mean a young person or a kid or children, it means a young knight, it was an archaic word. So this is the Pilgrimage of a young knight across Europe and he thought of himself, he was an aristocrat of course, his name was George Gordon, Lord Byron, heir to a very large estate and a famous womaniser. In fact his great love, she loved him – he didn’t love her, called him mad, bad and dangerous to know. Now what pop star wouldn’t give his life blood to be mad, bad and dangerous to know? And I was looking up, just because I missed out on celebrity culture while in various libraries all over the world, but Michael Jackson has two famous albums, one called Bad and the other called Dangerous (laughter). So here you have the spectacle. And also he has one called Smooth Criminal which, I watched the video of that, I was very interested in that which goes to illustrate exactly, he’s playing exactly the Wilding mind, you know, there is no line. In fact, Wilde said in the 1880s I intend to be famous and if I am not famous I intend to become notorious. Well he managed to become both as we know. By the way that was by Lady Caroline Lamb whom he had an affair with and then abandoned and used to follow him around dressed as a page in order to see him. But Byron is really in many ways as an artist, as an aristocrat, as a dandy – look at the way, his get up there, and as a fighter for political freedom was a culture hero of his day and was of course a model for Oscar Wilde, there’s no doubt about that.

But we also have other things that are growing up in the 19th century, Dandyism. Now we have in John Gray here an example of a dandy, a dandy is not simply a fashionable young man, a dandy is a fashionable young man with attitude. Usually the attitude is of contempt, contempt for other people as well, because he is becoming an object lesson in how to live and Wilde was a dandy first and foremost. So let’s look at what Dandyism means. The dandy, which is now a word that is totally outmoded but if you watch the television programme Absolutely Fabulous – any of you know that? That’s a dandy, you know, she is – Joanna Lumley - is the dandy, the fashionista, who completely despises all the conditions of ordinary lives, right, and will do what she damn well pleases because she’s free and will show everybody how to live as long as they’re stylish dressed, that’s the first rule of life, right. Okay. So we do have our versions of Dandyism today. So the dandy, the glory of being a dandy is you don’t have to born like Byron into an aristocratic culture. A dandy is a self-made aristocrat. If any of you want to rise in the world to a status where people look up to you you have to first cultivate – Baudelaire was very good on this – coldness, arrogance and an impeccable style and you will go far, so right. And you can come from anywhere, you can come from anywhere because you make yourself through your style and you create yourself as an aristocrat, not a born aristocrat but an aristocrat of taste. Your taste dictates the circles in which you move and the standards by which you live but not an aristocrat at birth. So in an age of rising democracy – this is Baudelaire’s words actually because he was a great fan of the dandy – the dandy becomes an object lesson to the middle classes and the lower classes in how to live and very often Wilde’s plays play into this, just think of Earnest – actually when you get to ‘The Importance Of Being Earnest’ everyone is a dandy (laughter) – everyone is treating everyone else with contempt and is telling everyone else how to live, Algernon will eat all the cucumber sandwiches, you know, and Lady Bracknell will reject Jack and so forth and so on. Dandy is an object lesson in the kind of freedom you get to cultivate what we would call your own lifestyle, that was through performance, and it’s defined by style not by substance.

Now I want you to know that I don’t personally believe this but I think it’s a very interesting thesis it explains a great deal about our modern culture and about particularly the culture of celebrity style, right. You can become a celebrity, you can begin anywhere, right. Most celebrities begin nowhere and it’s the way you create yourself through an image that allows you to enter in this culture and the dandy was onto this and I’m going to revert back to the original dandy as defined by a man, again of Byron’s time, called Bo Brummell. Have any of you heard of Bo Brummell? No. Bo Brummell was a man of – he was of good birth, his father was a private secretary to one of the government ministers, there he is there. He entirely reformed the English style of dress, that’s what he’s known for. In the 1780s when he was a young man the English aristocrats went around with loudly embroidered waistcoats, very loud colours, usually in satin and lace at the wrist, right. They were dressed very often you’d think as women and lace very often around the neck too to show their wealth and velvet knickerbockers. He did away with all that, what he called Friperie and cultivated a very plain, severe but perfect style of dress, which is still with us today. You look at Prince Charles’s suits you’ll think of Bo Brummell. In fact he befriended the Regent. There you go, very plain, beautifully fitting waist coasts, a starched impeccable linen neck cloth, this took a lot of work of many servants in the 1820s to achieve that, a soft bow, beautifully fitted trousers, riding boots and the mark of the Victorian gentleman, the Beaver hat. The Beaver hat was smooth and tall which replaced the ornamental cockade, or three-cornered hat, of the dandy, the Yankee Doodle Dandy of the 1780s. So Bo Brummell’s whole creed was clothes maketh the man, what you were is what you are. Someone said about Bo Brummell, and this is a very important marker of celebrity culture, he was a nobody who became a somebody and gave the law to everybody, okay [laughter]. I’m thinking of Nuala O’Faolain’s, you know, autobiography ‘Are You Somebody?’, like shouldn’t you be somebody because she created herself through writing not through style but then once you create yourself to that point then everyone starts to imitate you, right. So Bo Brummell became a favourite of the Prince Regent, the future George IV, and in fact transformed all the Court style and once he had transformed all the style of the Royal Court then everyone else followed. So if you wonder why Victorian gentlemen in the 1830s look so different from the Victorian aristocrat of the 1780s you can think of Bo Brummell and he initiated, as I said, of elegance and plainness and beautifully cut suits.

Now Wilde of course was a dandy, he had got it from many sources, we only have to look at the Saxony photograph to see. These were more Fripish than Bo Brummell but he knew there’s a beautiful simplicity about the line, the cloak and so forth in his style and he kept changing costumes throughout his American tour but also he kept changing his hairstyle, he kept changing his suits as we see throughout his career. The dandy, like the fashionista – like the Vogue model, it seemed to personify the desires of mass consumer society and then by a kind of Ju Jitsu he uses it to rebuke them for not being stylish enough. A lot of his plays are like that, the dandy figure is always the one who is saying my, my dear, manners not morals are what count, you know. It’s all a question of surface and keeping the surface smooth.

So let’s look at now at what I came to talk about, about the history of one young man who met Oscar Wilde and what happened to him because I think this is instinctive about what this cult did to people and what Wilde did to people. Wilde literally mesmerised people. He was a tall, charming, generous, amusing man who could talk anyone under the table. And here I’m going to go into a few biographical details because most of you have never heard of John Gray. This is the man who was reputed to be the model for Dorian Gray but it’s significant that Wilde met Gray in 1888. Now that is two years after he was, as he says himself, seduced by Robbie Ross and had began a secret gay life although when he met Gray Wilde was still publicly a married man with two young children and an aspiring writer, not a famous writer by any means. He published one mammoth book, of very imitative poetry, dedicated to others among others Gladstone, which he tried to use as a kind of PR instrument but he was not regarded as a great poet. He was known as a socialite and talker and he dominated every dinner table in London, which was quite a trick. John Gray was a working class lad and this is a time when class lines in England were extremely rigid, to rise from working class even to middle class was a huge feat and John Gray illustrates why because although he was the oldest of five children and extraordinarily bright he was pulled out of school at age 13 by his father, a huge fight between his father and mother. His mother was a printer’s daughter, knew the importance of books and education and it’s like the D.H. Lawrence it’s always the woman who is fighting to educate her sons, it’s always the father who wants to pull them out so they become men, you know. Put them down in the mines, you know, send them to the army, make men of them. And here he was sent to Woolwich Arsenal which was where the made munitions for the British Army to work in the forge there which was very brutal and hard work. However, Gray tried to escape what he saw as his feat by trying to educate himself as a gentleman. He was self taught in many kinds of things, for instance, he tried to teach himself the Violin at one point, he certainly taught himself French and some German and Latin all in his spare time from the Woolwich Arsenal and to draw and he started writing poetry at this time. This he saw as his avenue of escape and he was lucky because he went to a famous couple called Shannon and Ricketts. Now they were a gay couple before the word gay was invented and gay meant something else, the word wasn’t there. They were a couple of artists who held a salon which was open to anyone and I’ll tell you a bit more about them in a minute but they transformed John Gray because they encouraged him. He came with a portfolio of drawings and a portfolio, a notebook of poetry, and they said you’re not a graphic artist but you can write poetry, we will introduce you to poets and please write something for our magazine because they were publishing a small magazine called ‘The Dial’. Of all the people, the people who were part of their circle at what was called The Vale which was in Chelsea, a small backwater now bulldozed of Georgian houses, were for instance Oscar Wilde who probably met Gray there and W.B. Yeats who talked a lot about this couple who were otherwise unknown or virtually unknown.

Now this is where Gray began, this is the Arsenal and the forge, that would be where any child over 12 was legally employed and he talks about – he has right to talk about the engines he says of his suffering and what it meant to be there day after day working in this heat without notice any protection at all with these immense forges. It was very brutal and after a terrible fight with his father at age 16, 3 years later, he managed to escape – I’m not quite sure how. This is Shannon and Ricketts, they were the portal through which he escaped. They took him in, not literally to live, but metaphorically to educate him to introduce him, they were the portal to France. Again, barriers between England and France I suppose since the Napoleonic wars but everything bad in the 1880s were French and was regarded as decadent. Condoms were called French Letters for instance. Novels, French novels, were snatched out of the hands of young women, they were regarded as immoral. France was the home of immorality and yet Ricketts who is the older of the two, here, the man with the beard, and Shannon his partner, Ricketts had a French mother and he spoke fluent French and he actually introduced Gray to some of the leading poets of France and before we know it by 1888 how this happens as a young man Gray is recorded as being in the salon of Stéphane Mallarmé who was one of the great avant garde poets of the day. In 1888 he actually goes to Paris to look up Paul Verlaine, again, a celebrated symbolist poet of his day who unfortunately was in hospital and Gray said the pigs wouldn’t let me near him, he was too ill and then he died. But Ricketts encouraged Gray to translate – even though his French wasn’t great – and probably corrected some of the French. So Gray later said, someone said you were invented by Oscar Wilde as Dorian Gray, he said no, he said I was invented by Shannon and Ricketts. The other person who haunted The Vale was W.B. Yeats so you can see this was an important if forgotten milieu of the time. So let’s continue with Gray’s story. This is John Gray in approximately 1893. You can see he was an extraordinarily beautiful young man, most of his beauty – and again the soft bow tie and he had a velveteen jacket, declaring himself as an artist rather than a gentleman. He had by this time passed exams in the University of London just recently open to women and to people who were not members of the Anglican church – he was born a Methodist – and he passed the matriculation exams. We don’t know whether he took classes but he certainly passed the Civil Service exams in History, English, French, Art and several other skills – Map Reading – and was deployed in the British Foreign Office in the Map Room. Now, so he had a steady income, all of 25 English pounds a year. That was considered a good salary at the time. But meanwhile he had also discovered Oscar Wilde and Oscar Wilde had discovered him and there follows then a few years of intense mystery. Gray was churning out a lot of interesting poems, one of which was clearly a love poem to Oscar Wilde. Nobody knew it was Gray but I identified it as in Gray’s handwriting and it was signed yours ever Dorian. So what was the relationship? Well it’s very hard to tell. It was certainly an affair of the heart. They were certainly passionately in love with each other but if you don’t have a category for that, if the word – gay is fairly recent, that’s a 1940s slang. Then in the 1890s, 10 years after this affair, it was called inverti in French, that means you’re inverted somehow sexually, you’re upside down, you’re not quite what you should be, you’re a mirror image of what you should be or it was called Uranian love after the planet which was considered the planet of same sex love but there was no word for it. Homosexual was only invented in 1898. So they had this intense relationship, possibly slept together – we would never know of course, there was no evidence, except that we know from the guilt later that Gray suffered, that something occurred of which he was deeply ashamed and found deeply disturbing. Now, why did it end? We’ll get to that after ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’. It certainly ended partly over this book, ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’, and the effect on John Gray was lifelong and extraordinary.

So I’m quite sure if you look – you’ve all ready Dorian Gray or some of you have read Dorian Gray? Yes, well I’m going to tell you a bit about what I see in Dorian Gray when I read it. Dorian Gray has the status of myth, one of the reasons is on book of the year, it’s that the myth is stronger than the story itself, it’s an urban myth, it’s the myth we live by isn’t it? Eternal youth. Death is an option, right. No-one is old anymore, you can’t grow old, you’re not allowed to grow old, you have to be young forever and you can create an image which will outlast you even if you do grow old, right, through art and the fable of that picture I think is stronger than the actual book. Many people know about Dorian Gray who have never read it, you know, because they know the essential myth structure of a man creating an image which keeps him internally young only it’s not clear which is the image, you know, and then when he tries to destroy the image he destroys himself. And this fable is a triumph of the image over actuality and it concentrates the modern desire. When you look modernity, particularly in America, what does it mean? It means youth, age is not; believe me, once you’re a middle class woman you become invisible in the West. I’ve taught in China so I know the difference, you know. I know that age can be honoured, you know. You have to be beautiful. I was reading in the Sunday Times Style magazine a story of a woman British woman who looked quite pretty to me and slightly plump who went to New York city in her mid 20s and was told she couldn’t live in New York, she couldn’t work in New York as a PR person unless she transformed herself. That meant a decade of having her jaw realigned and braces and implants, right, because she had British teeth, that wouldn’t do, and going down from a size 12 to a size 0, right. And she had to be perfect they said, when she said well, you know, I’m a good friend, I’m a good person they said forget friendship this is all about competition, right. So this is what the PR world is like and of course finally immortality, right. Go to California no-one believes they’re going to die in California, right. In the end, of course, what happens is that Gray stabs the picture that he himself ends up with the knife because to try to kill, to become immortal, to kill the image is to kill himself. But this is the essence of celebrity culture. I don’t know about you but about 10 years ago I figured out the formula of Hello magazine which is celebrate the wedding of these great two movie stars and then watch it disintegrate, watch the marriage disintegrate. We take pleasure in both, right. And build up Britney Spears who was nothing, you know, a very fat adolescent and then tear her apart when she shows she’s an adult fat adolescent, you know, and is probably on drugs as well, you know. We love this because it gives us power and this is what celebrity culture is, power to the people and it’s all building – and that’s the essence of Dorian Gray is the power we give to an image and the way it destroys us. But it also, of course, destroyed Wilde and it destroyed Gray so let’s look at it.

When it was published as you know, I’m sure you know, it was a scandal, it was what the French call a success through scandal, right. That you can’t be a success unless you have, and this is because in the Victorian times people believed that books could poison you. We think this is funny, you know, we can barely get people to buy and read books these days but so powerful was the written word in the 1890s that there is this whole myth of the fatal or the poisonous book. You pick up this book, you read it, your life is changed and, God knows, if it’s a French novel it could be a change for the worst, you could learn about sex for instance if you’re a young girl. So routinely the yellow covered French novels were snatched from the hands of young girls. This of course was the basis of censorship in Ireland right through the ‘70s here. I remember coming to Ireland and finding a heavily censored world. It’s also the basis of course of the American fear that if you borrow books from the American public libraries they might have germs in them, you know. It might spread disease. This is the kind of other popular version of this. And you remember in the middle of Dorian Gray that Lord Henry Wotton gives Dorian Gray a poisonous book which transforms his life forever, that’s never identified, there are a lot of guesses as to what it is. But of course what happened here is the reviewer seized on Dorian Gray as exactly that book which would poison you, which would be fatal, which was corrupting, Satanic. And so it was seen as a book which was corrupting and it was actually flying in the face of the keeper of moral standards who at this point in the British public was personified as someone called Mrs Grundy. Have any of you heard about Mrs Grundy? Mrs Grundy is an extremely ugly woman in late middle age with an umbrella who is there to beat the sense into anyone who gets on the wrong side of strict Victorian moral standards, right. Lady Bracknell is a kind of comic version if you want of Mrs Grundy. But listen to the reviews and maybe you can pick up what Mrs Grundy objected to in Oscar Wilde, even the few favourable reviews of Dorian Gray said the characters were abnormal. Well we don’t like abnormal, do we? But ‘The Athenaeum’, which was very respected, said it was unmanly. Now this is real threat in the 1890s where the manliness of the British male was already under some suspicion particularly through the Aesthetic Movement but if you need a large amount of cannon fodder for your various colonial wars, which culminate of course in First World War, you need manly men who will do their duty and Mrs Grundy is a personification of duty, to be manly and to be obedient. And then they said it was sickening, again, vicious and tedious. I don’t get the tedious but I guess there was too much talk in it. ‘St. James Gazette’ said it was mawkish and nauseous, again it made the British public sick, tedious and stupid – well stupid is the last thing I’d call it but they wanted to dismiss it, that’s clear. ‘The Daily Chronicle’ is one of my favourite. It’s all, they said, dullness and dirt – particularly dirt – spawned from the leprous literature of the French decadence, a poisonous book, moral and spiritual putrification – that is decay. Now one of the things the British Empire really figured was decay. It began with Gibbon’s ‘Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire’, they know that empires don’t last forever. The saw their old queen growing older and indeed she died just after the turn of the century. They feared for the Empire, the wondered how they could hold it together particularly with these guys prancing around in velvet. How could we get them to fight, right? So we have a have a confrontation with the moral standards of the day but of course it is Mrs Grundy’s shock that guarantees the book’s success. You can’t shock the bourgeoisie if they’re not shockable. We’ve almost got to that stage in our society now. The ho-hum videos about dogs being tortured to death, what next? People eating their babies, yeah, yeah, you know, (laughs) but if you have strict moral standards you’re going to have a reaction. And this is a contemporary cartoon of Wilde now grown fat as he was beginning to grow in 1891 presenting Dorian Gray to Mrs Grundy and her shock, oh my dear, I couldn’t read that, oh go away you nasty man, right. She hasn’t got her umbrella out yet.

So what happened with John Gray? He was caught between the book and his relationship with Wilde. We must never forget in celebrity culture the crucial role of media and particularly gossip. Tabloid gossip is the best and gossip columnists but also Twitter, you know, Facebook, blogging. Here was ‘The Star’ in 1892 that said John Gray is just about to publish his first book of poetry I believe he’s the original Dorian of the book of the same name. Gray threatened to sue and they backed down. It’s interesting. He was called Dorian by all his circle and by Wilde himself. We know this because it’s annotated in many autobiographies of the time. And he published in 1893 his first book of Decadent Verse. Now decadent essentially means French my friends, French. It didn’t actually have a lot of sex or violence in it, in fact it had very little immorality it was about princesses and blooming cherries and, you know, and myths and so forth. I guess the barber, in which you have a barber who murders one of his clients, is about as decadent as you get. Now this book was to be subsidised by Wilde but before, in 1892, Gray wrote to Wilde and had him withdraw the subsidy and he got other sources and then, as soon as it was published, John Gray began to buy up this book. It was a limited edition of 150 copies, I think there are about 15 or 20 copies I know of in the world today. Gray bought up and began to destroy this book because he was afraid the book would destroy him and he spent the rest of his life trying to escape the infamy of being identified with Dorian beginning in 1892.

Now ‘Silverpoints’ is the name of this book. About half of it translations from contemporary French poets who were very avant garde and therefore of course suspect. Mallarmé, I’ve already said. Rimbaud, who was extraordinary if you can understand him and Verlaine who was a Catholic poet, very Catholic, usually repenting of some unknown sin. His unknown sin, of course, was a violent – and it was violent – sexual relationship with Rimbaud who was his protégé. But here is ‘Silverpoints’ with a binding by those great artists Shannon and Ricketts, it was actually by Ricketts, of these wonderful falling leaves against the wave pattern, tooled in gold on a green background. Green was considered the colour of decadence. The green carnation, remember? And there’s the interior with large margin. Here is a poem by Verlaine, “Spleen” – this one. And a poem by Mallarmé, “Les Fleurs”, on flowers – how decadent can you get? But men writing about flowers, you know, the title is suspect. And anyway with large margins. Of course it was Levinson, the witty friend of Oscar Wilde said, well you publish a book and you even do better, publish a book that’s all margin with beautiful unwritten thoughts and have it designed by Ricketts on the front.

Now escaping Dorian Gray took Gray the rest of his life. He broke with Wilde in 1892. We’re quite sure why he broke with wild in 1892 because this is the moment in which Oscar Wilde who had met Alfred, Lord Douglas, a year before was seen everywhere with him, arm in arm, dining together and had moved out of the family hotel into a hotel with Douglas. So he had gone, he had come out of the closet if you want and Gray took fright at that point. But Gray fled to another relationship with one of Wilde’s enemies called Andre Raffalovich, a Russian Jew whose family had moved to Paris and was indecently wealthy and had then gone to Oxford and was also a poet who I believe also was seduced by Wilde but then broke up with him – they had a lot in common. Now this story becomes pretty crazy at this point. Both Raffalovich who is a Russian Jew, speaking French, going to Oxford and then becoming a socialite in the 1880s London and John Gray, born a Methodist from working class London become Roman Catholics. Now that’s about as startling as Princess Diana becoming a Roman Catholic, you know, if you want to be mainstream British you didn’t go Roman Catholic, you know. But it was allied with decadence and their Frenchness but also their acute sense of sin and evil, you know, which doesn’t really exist in Anglicanism in the same vivid way it does in Roman Catholicism, I can assure you of that. So, and then it went so far as in 1898 John Gray went to Scots College Rome and became a Roman Catholic priest. Why? Because he and Andre both realised they were inverti. Raffalovich became a kind of popular – he styled himself as Dr. – a popular theorist about homosexuality, the topic was just beginning to rise in the mid 1895 and he wrote a wrote a treatise on what he called unisexuality, being a one sex or one sex relationships. And they both realised they were homosexual but Raffalovich’s theory was you’re either born homosexual or you choose to be a homosexual, that’s probably quite correct. And he realised that if you’re – he said if you choose to be a homosexual then you are committing a sin but if you are born a homosexual and can’t do anything about it what you do is you pledge to be celibate and the easiest way to be celibate is to become a Roman Catholic priest as we all know. In fact Raffalovich wanted to become a Roman Catholic priest but his health wasn’t good so he and Gray also became Third Order Dominicans which you can also can take vows of chastity by the way. So, there you have both he and Andre are going around London meanwhile Wilde has been tried in 1895, convicted and sent to prison. Now here is a picture of Andre Raffalovich a very idealist picture. Andre was extraordinarily ugly. (Laughter) He was so ugly but he was also extraordinarily rich so if you were painting him, you know, you would make sure that he looked – but he was a dandy as you can see, but someone said he was actually not really technically gloriously ugly he was very, very, very plain. He would have preferred to be gloriously ugly; he was simply plain. He was so ugly his mother rejected him as a baby and wouldn’t have anything to do with him. She was of course French and Russian-Jewish so, but anyway they had a life-long I can only call it relationship, affair – whatever. It began clearly as a sexual affair and then became chaste and it was a very devoted relationship – I must say I have great respect for them both, a very devoted relationship. They called each other brother, they looked after each other, to the extent that when John Gray became a priest he was sent up – here he is in this, just a couple of years before he died he became a Canon, he was quite a distinguished priest. He was recognised by the church as such and he lived from 1901 until his death in 1934, that’s 33 years, as a Roman Catholic priest in Edinburgh which of course is paranoid about Catholics. He had a very hard time there establishing his church and looking after his parish. This is the first place he was assigned which was a very rough neighbourhood indeed called The Cowgate, it’s where the poor Irish lived, the poor labourers who worked in the Scottish port, the Edinburgh Port Of Leith and he’d walk these streets. He was welcomed everywhere he would go at any time of the day or night, he was very much. I must say having read about him, met some of his parishioners before they died and read his letters, his accounts, my respect for him grew because this was a dandy thrown into the slums. A man who valued immaculate style, having to wade through literally gutters full of sewage to get to his parishioners. And there’s a description from some of his parishioners, really frightening. He set up a school for the poorest children but after 4 years it broke him, his health disintegrated and at that point in 1904 Raffalovich said – he was still living in London – you cannot live alone. So he moved up to a very elegant place in Morningside, the most fashionable neighbourhood still in Edinburgh, full of large Victorian houses – sort of the Aylesbury Road/Shrewsbury Road area of Edinburgh – and, Raffalovich still being rich, built John Gray a church designed controversially by an Anglican. Well John Gray said – there was a great sectarian divide in Edinburgh – I don’t see how architecture can be Anglican or Catholic. This is modelled on an early Italian church, very beautiful, in Trastevere – it is an extraordinarily beautiful church. And then there is a priest’s house incorporated in it here, this little part, there’s an exquisite priest’s house with latticed windows where Gray lived. You might say he recreated his world there because he used to make up his sheets, for instance, in black linen to remind himself – it’s partly dandiacal, a matter of style, it’s partly to remind himself as a priest he would die, that this was his coffin. But he had wonderful etchings here, he invited his artist friends to decorate the church and he knew some of the best artisans and artists in England and in Europe and it is still a magnificent church although devastated after the changes of Vatican II.

Now there he is, as I say, haunted. Yet he wrote, as I said, he spent his life trying to escape from the rumours of being Dorian, he was haunted by him and how do I know this? Well first of all when you see the way he lived he was very circumspect, he did associate with very few people from his London past, it was a complete break. He also was haunted by a deep sense of guilt, which he said would never wash and he also believed after the 1890s he was dead. Now a part of that as you can claim is he died to this world becoming a priest but he also wrote a very strange novella, highly weird, called Park in 1932 and published it in supplements in Dominican magazine and then as a novel and it is republished. And it begins with – the first sentence is I walked on in the conviction that I had died and the rest of the novel is about him entering this other life, this other world, which is a London to a thousand years hence in which he believed the black people would take over the world, the white people were a decadent race, they lived underground in the old Tube stations and the blacks who were mannerly had taken over and they were a whole order of peace. But still that sense of having died and never having been born and he destroyed systematically his books and letters that he found from this period so it was very hard to reconstruct his life as you imagine and I’m not sure he would thank me for reviving his reputation and he devoted his life to good works in order to become himself.

So Dorian Gray – also I’m going to finish now very shortly because I would like to ask for question – also inscribed Wilde’s own faith. As you possibly know the book figured largely in Wilde’s trials, he was constantly on the defence, lines were quoted, the relationship between Lord Henry Wotton and Dorian Gray was once again turned back at him in the trial and he actually wrote a kind of prediction of what would happen to him. Wilde identified with all the pictures and they were, this became an autobiographical novel. He said of course Basil is what I think I am Lord Henry, what the world thinks me, that is an aristocratic dandy and Dorian what I would like to be and it played a crucial role in his trial and his conviction. And as it turned out, as Wilde predicted, that he was destroyed by creating his own image. So the two stories mirror each other and show maybe a less celebratory view of Wilde because this man underwent great suffering and was destroyed well before his time. He outlived himself as a writer, he never wrote anything really of significance after ‘Reading Gaol’, which of course he wrote in prison. So I want to ask finally is the dandy alive today? Of course! This is the cover of the New Yorker magazine, I was talking about going to New York, right, February in 2007, not that far ago. Infamy is still fame, if you want to be famous my friends do as Madonna did, publish a book called ‘Sex’. It was just when the censorship laws were lifted here, it was very funny – I forget the year, I think it was 1982 and this book came out in Eason’s and people were absolutely apoplectic (laughs), they’d go and say this book, Sex, we don’t have sex in Ireland, you know. This was an era some of you may remember. Michael Jackson, I’ve already mentioned, but you know now the necessary ingredients, they’re all there in Wilde’s career – mass media, consumer society, image creation through spectacle and gossip. So I will leave you this and I want to thank you for your attention. I’m sure you will want to discuss some of these things. Are their questions on the discussion? Thank you. [clapping]

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