Saturday, December 23, 2006


On the plane trip from New Haven to Seattle (or rather, Hartford to Chicago to Seattle), I read Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray for the first time. Dorian Gray, in addition to meeting both qualifiers I set up in the last post--engrossing ideas, beautiful language--forges an interesting relation to The Elementary Particles, written almost exactly a century later. In the web of readings I posited last week, this fiber of connectivity would be the shared trope of the libertine.

In Houellebecq’s novel, Bruno, his middle-aged, modern incarnation of the figure (oh, how far we have fallen from Wilde’s aesthete and Donne’s wordsmith to Houellebecq’s paunchy, sex-obsessed loser) is only able to self-actualize by transcending materialism; Bruno's bildungsroman is structured as a romance narrative, albeit one that is enabled in strip clubs and orgies.

Nearly a century earlier, Dorian’s (Bruno's philandering forerunner) acquisition of subjecthood—his progression from a flat, impressionable pretty boy into a nuanced character—proceeds in the opposite manner; Dorian strives to dwell in materialism rather than rise above it—to supplant his awareness of his metaphysical decay with an attempt at a fully sensory existence.

He felt keenly conscious of how barren all intellectual speculation is when separated from action and experiment. He knew that the senses, no less than the soul, have their spiritual mysteries to reveal (106-7).

From Wilde to Houellebecq, then, we see the evolution of the modern libertine. But both authors are situated at different intellectual moments; for Dorian, the material can never truly escape the metaphysical, even if it is painted over, tucked away in the attic, and obscured behind a sumptuous tapestry. For the 21st century degenerate, however, materialism is both totalizing and meaningless; while his wish to fully reduce everything to its elementary particles (Lord Henry's assertion that "life is a question of nerves, and fibers" 171) has been achieved by science, he is inexorably aware of the limitations of corporeal pleasure (in Houellebecq's novel, violence is the next frontier beyond sexual bounds, but this too is marked off).

What does the libertine do, then, when both the sensual and metaphorical worlds are bounded from each other—when sexuality loses its significance, and meaning is impossible to attain elsewhere? Materialists of both centuries are confounded by the impossibility, and by the same fear:
'Death is the only thing that ever terrifies me. I hate it.'
'Why?' said the younger man, wearily.
'Because,' said Lord Henry passing beneath his nostrils the gilt trellis of an open vinaigrette box, 'one can survive everything nowadays except that.' (168)

1 comment:

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