What you seek is nowhere; but turn yourself away, and the object of your love will be no more. That which you behold is but the shadow of a reflected form and has no substance of its own. With you it comes, with you it gostays, and it will go with you. (Ovid, Metamorphoses 3.433)
The beautiful Narcissus was divinely punished for his exceptionally cruel despisal of those who fell in love with him. He was thus caused, by the gods, to fall in love with his own reflection in a pool. Unable to obtain the object of his love and not being able to break away from the beauty of his own reflection, Narcissus pined away alongside the pool and, succumbing to his sorrow, finally perished.
Myths are allegorical representations of ancient society. Much like fairytales and folklore, myths served to maintain models for behaviour as well as social structures and institutions. The myth of Narcissus teaches society of the dangers of self-love, which leads to sorrow and even death – literal and figurative. This is certainly the case for Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, who sells his soul in payment for the preservation of his youth and beauty. Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray can be considered a modern myth – a cautionary tale of supernatural horror, similar to the legends of old. The author’s biting wit allows for an acute social commentary on the plague of narcissism that has laid claim to soul of society.
At the outset of the novel, Dorian Gray is a tabula rasa. The young man’s encounter with artist Basil Hallward and socialite Lord Henry signifies the launch of his descent into a life of debauchery and hedonism. When confronted with his own beauty through the eyes of the two men, Gray is loath to part with it and he thus wishes to remain as untainted and lovely as the masterpiece that Hallward has painted of him. He wishes that the portrait could age in his stead. A supernatural force grants his wish, and Gray’s sins and age are manifested in his portrait. He is free to live a life of decadence and immorality without paying the physical cost. He is immortal. Gray’s initial vulnerability makes him excellent clay for Lord Henry’s willing hands. Lord Henry moulds and manipulates Dorian Gray with ideas of pleasure-seeking and hedonism by maintaining that intense experience is the key to true beauty, even when the experience itself is something sordid, ugly, or grotesque. Gray’s life is punctuated by momentary happiness but it is fraught with pain and anxiety, much like Narcissus.
In an ode to the life of Dorian Gray, society has spawned what is known as ‘Dorian Gray Syndrome’ (DGS), which “denotes a cultural and societal phenomenon characterised by an excessive preoccupation with the individual’s own appearance accompanied by difficulties coping with the aging process and with the requirements of maturation. Sufferers of Dorian Gray Syndrome are heavy users of cosmetic medical procedures and products in an attempt to preserve their youth”. The terrifying Madame Zhou, from Gregory David Roberts’ autobiographical novel Shantaram, is a prime example of someone affected with DGS. The Bombay brothel owner, who is deeply feared by all who know her, never reveals her physical identity and speaks from behind a screen. Her signature is a photograph that displays a youthful image of unchanging beauty. The mystery surrounding Madame Zhou is described by an acquaintance in Shantaram: “I’ve spoken to her, through the screen. I think she’s so incredibly, psychopathically vain that she, she sort of hates herself for getting older. I think she can’t bear to be less than perfect. A lot of people say she was beautiful. Really, you’d be surprised. A lot of people say that. In her photo she hasn’t aged past twenty-seven or thirty. There aren’t any lines or wrinkles. There’s no shadows under the eyes. Every black hair is in its place. I think she’s so in love with her own beauty, she’ll never let anyone see her as she really is. I think she’s…it’s like she’s mad with love for herself. I think that even if she lives to be ninety, those monthly photos will still show that same thirty-year-old blank” (Gregory David Roberts, Shantaram Ch. 13)
The desire of society to remain forever youthful is by no means a modern concept. It is deep-rooted in ancient philosophy and practice, and this is perhaps the reason that self-love is so utterly crippling. Narcissism has had centuries of practice and it seems to have finally gripped society by the throat and is squeezing out every last breath of life. The ethereal eternal fountain of youth has been replaced with Botox, anti-ageing pills and creams, and plastic surgery – some costly but more convenient options to the time consuming hunt for that ever-elusive elixir of life. Oscar Wilde’s Lord Henry personifies modern society – a predator in the guise of an ally that lurks in the background eagerly awaiting its chance to distort the moral fibre of weak and insecure minds. There exists the idea that, like Dorian Gray, we are blank slates awaiting the infiltration of ideas that will manipulate our decisions and actions. In an age when few people are inclined to take responsibility for their own actions, it is easiest to jump on the band-wagon and blame the media. A media industry created by society for society – “Of the people, by the people, for the people”, in the wise words of Abraham Lincoln. Tangible irony. We are caught in a self-created and self-propagated web of inescapable narcissism. And yet the futility of it all seems, conveniently, to elude us – after years of obsession and time-consuming beautification processes, we get old and die. Life is spent trying to curb the inevitability of old age, instead of being lived. Dorian Gray’s attempts to “cure the soul by means of the senses, and the senses by means of the soul” (Oscar Wilde, The picture of Dorian Gray Ch. 16) are unsuccessful. When faced with the portrait of his soul, Gray beholds that “in the eyes there was a look of cunning, and in the mouth the curved wrinkle of the hypocrite”, and he stabs the picture, in a bid to destroy it. In so doing, he ends his own life. Gray’s soul is united with his body. He becomes the disfigured image in the painting and when his death is discovered, the portrait is found unharmed, showing Dorian Gray as a beautiful young man, and on the floor is the body of an old man, wrinkled and disfigured, with a knife plunged into his heart.
Narcissism is understood to be compensation for poor self-esteem – an explanation that renders the likes DGS acceptable. Perhaps this is a desperate attempt by society to understand a behaviour that is inherently part of human nature and thus cannot be explained. And yet social behaviour indicates that society is consumed by a culture of self-loathing. Self-loathing ignites the desire for perfection and this, in turn, results in narcissism. Yet there is a distinction between the narcissism associated with DGS and the self-respect which denotes a healthy self-love. The ability to love oneself is a sign of self-respect as well as the admission that life is precious, and it is necessary in order to love others. If one is void of love, “blank” like Madame Zhou, how can one love another? In a world where so many are desperate for love, for generosity of spirit, there are so few who are able to give it. American screen writer and independent film director Todd Solondz says “Narcissism and self-deception are survival mechanisms without which many of us might just jump off a bridge”. This, in itself, is a narcissistic view, albeit true. In this dog-eat-dog world, society teaches us to look out for ourselves. And so we have developed self-preservation tactics, which exclude the unconditional and selfless nature of love, and embrace narcissistic values at the expense of other people.
Therefore, in a world monopolised by narcissism “If this girl can give a soul to those who have lived without one, if she can create the sense of beauty in people whose lives have been sordid and ugly, if she can strip them of their selfishness and lend them tears for sorrows that are not their own, she is worthy of all your adoration, worthy of the adoration of the world.” (Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray Ch. 7)