The Face Of My Soul: Pondering the Picture of Dorian Gray

“Sin is a thing that writes itself across a man’s face. It cannot be concealed.”

Oscar Wilde

 

“Beauty? Let me tell you something- being thought of as a ‘beautiful woman’ has spared me nothing in life. No heartache. No trouble. Love has been difficult. Beauty is essentially meaningless and it is always transitory.”

Halle Berry

 

One of the reasons we read literature is because it asks us to grapple with the hard questions of life. It suffuses us in difficult subject matter. In “The Picture of Dorian Gray”, Oscar Wilde asks us to reflect upon art, Oscar Wildebeauty, influence and sin. Wilde is part poet, part wit, and part philosopher. His writing is lyrical. It is a thing of beauty in itself. I would come to certain sentences and write “wonderful” or “beautiful” in the margin. Here are a couple that I admired: “She was a curious woman, whose dresses always looked as if they had been designed in a rage and put on in a tempest.” And: “He was trying to gather up the scarlet threads of life, and to weave them into a pattern; to find his way through the sanguine labyrinth of passion through which he was wandering.”

The story revolves around three main characters. An artist, named Basil Hallward, a young man named Dorian Gray, and the aristocratic Lord Henry. The story begins by a visit from Lord Henry to his friend Hallward. They are discussing the full length portrait Hallward has just painted of a young man of extraordinary beauty, Dorian Gray. Lord Henry admires the work as the best Hallward has ever done. During this visit Hallward confesses to Lord Henry that he will never exhibit Dorian’s painting because he has “shown in it the secret of my own soul.” He then describes to Lord Henry the fact that in first meeting Dorian Gray he felt afraid because he felt he had met someone “whose personality was so fascinating that, if I allowed it to do so, it would absorb my whole nature, my whole soul, my very art itself.”

Of course Lord Henry wishes to meet this young man who has so fascinated his friend. Hallward says, “Dorian Gray is to me simply a motive in art. You might see nothing in him. I see everything in him.” It is as if Basil Hallward has found the perfect muse for his art. A young man who exemplifies a beauty and naivete that is unspoiled by the world and that inspires Hallward and gives a transcendence to his art. Hallward essentially admits, though not in explicit terms,that he “worships” Dorian Gray. He tells Lord Henry how he has flattered Dorian dreadfully. Yet he also admits that Dorian can be “horribly thoughtless” and “seem to take a real delight in giving me pain.” He says further, “Then I feel Harry (Lord Henry) that I have given away my whole soul to someone who treats it as if it were a flower to put in his coat, a bit of decoration to charm his vanity, an ornament for a summer’s day.”

Lord Henry is now very curious to meet this young man Dorian Gray whom Hallward is so taken with. Hallward strenuously objects. He says to Lord Henry slowly and painfully “I don’t want you to meet him………..He has a simple and a beautiful nature……Don’t spoil him. Don’t try to influence him. Your influence would be bad. The world is wide, and has many marvellous people in it. Don’t take away from me the one person who gives to my art whatever charm it possesses; my life as an artist depends on him.” Lord Henry feels he is talking nonsense. In walks Dorian Gray. Lord Henry gives his initial impression of Gray: “Yes , he was certainly wonderfully handsome with his finely curved scarlet lips, his frank blue eyes, his crisp gold hair. There was something in his face that made one trust him at once.” Dorian is almost immediately fascinated by Lord Henry. Basil warns Dorian not to listen to him. He says, “Don’t pay any attention to what Lord Henry says. He has a very bad influence over all his friends, with the single exception of myself.”

The Picture of Dorian GrayDorian is intrigued. He says to Lord Henry, “Have you really a very bad influence, Lord Henry? As bad as Basil says?” Lord Henry replies, “There is no such thing as a good influence, Mr. Gray. All influence is immoral…….because to influence a person is to give him one’s own soul. He does not think his natural thoughts or burn with his natural passions. His virtues are not real to him. His sins, if there are such things as sins, are borrowed. He becomes an echo of someone else’s music, an actor of a part that has not been written for him.” Then he explains to Dorian his philosophy of life, “The aim of life is self-development. To realise one’s nature perfectly – that is what each of us is here for. People are afraid of themselves, nowadays. They have forgotten the highest of all duties, the duty that one owes to oneself.” He goes on to further expound his philosophy. “I believe that if one man were to live out his life fully and completely, were to give form to every feeling, expression, to every thought, reality to every dream – I believe that the world would gain such a fresh impulse of joy that we would forget all the maladies………the only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.”

Just as Dorian has become indispensable to his artist friend Hallward, dominating him with his personality, so Lord Henry will become to Dorian. Dorian comments about Lord Henry’s views: “The few words that Basil’s friend had said to him – words spoken by chance, no doubt, and with willful paradox in them – had touched some secret chord that had never been touched before, but that he felt was now vibrating and throbbing to curious pulses.” At one point Lord Henry comes outside to find Dorian drinking in the fragrance of a lilac bloom. “You are quite right to do that,” he tells him. “Nothing can cure the soul but the senses, just as nothing can cure the senses but he soul.” Dorian draws back. He is afraid of Lord Henry. Dorian says, “Why had it been left to a stranger to reveal him to himself? He had known Basil Hallword for months, but the friendship between them had never altered him. Suddenly there had come someone across his life who seemed to have disclosed to him life’s mystery. And yet what was there to be afraid of? It was absurd to be frightened.”

Lord Henry warns Dorian he should take care not to become burned by the sun. “What should it matter?”cries Dorian. “It should matter everything to you, Mr. Gray. You have the most marvellous youth, and youth is the one thing worth having. Now wherever you go, you charm the world. Will it always be so? ……….You have only a few years in which to live really, perfectly, and fully. When your youth goes, your beauty will go with it, and then you will suddenly discover that there are no triumphs left for you, or you have to content yourself with mean triumphs that the memory of your past will make more bitter than defeats. Every month as it wanes brings you nearer to something dreadful. Time is jealous of you, and wars against your lilies and roses……..Live the wonderful life that is in you. Let nothing be lost upon you. Be always searching for new sensations. Be afraid of nothing…….a new Hedonism. That is what our century wants.”

It is as this point in the story that the artist finishes his picture and turns it for Dorian to inspect. Wilde writes, “when he saw it he drew back, and his cheeks flushed for a moment with pleasure. A look of joy came into The Picture of Dorian Grayhis eyes, as if he had recognised himself for the first time…..The sense of his own beauty came on him like a revelation. He had never felt it before. “How said it is,” he remarks, “I shall grow old, and horrible, and dreadful. But this picture will remain always young. It will never be older that this particular day of June…….If it were only the other way around! If it were I who would always be young, and the picture was to grow old! For that I would give everything! Yes, there is nothing in the whole world I would not give! I would give my soul for that!” Lord Henry makes some comment here about how that Basil would not like that very much. That this would be “hard on his work.” Here Dorian turns on Hallward angrily, “I believe you would Basil. You like your art better than you like your friends. I am no more to you that a green bronze figure. Hardly as much I dare say!…….How long will you like me? Till I have my first wrinkle I suppose. I know now that when one loses one’s good looks, whatever they may be, one loses everything. Your picture has taught me that. Lord Henry Wotton is perfectly right. Youth is the only thing worth having.”

Dorian soon comes to Lord Henry and tells him he is in love and engaged to be married to a poor young actress named Sybil Vane. Dorian himself is of a more respectable class and is privately wealthy. Lord Henry, being the disillusioned man that he is, instructs Dorian on love. He tells him, “Never marry at all. Men marry because they are tired, women because they are curious; both are disappointed…….When one is in love, one always begins by deceiving oneself, one always ends by deceiving others. That is what the world calls romance.” Dorian persists in his declarations of love for Sybil. He invites both Basil and Lord Henry to see her perform. Her perfomance is a disaster.

It turns out that since she has fallen in love with Dorian, she now sees acting as a fraud. The stage was where she once “lived her life.” She can no longer do so she tells Dorian because real life and real love now mean more to her than acting. Dorian is disillusioned both by her performance in front of his friends and in her new philosophy of life. In the same way he accused Basil Hallward of being more interested in his art, Dorian seems to have been more interested in the actress Sybil Vane, than the real person Sybil Vane. He says to her after the performance, “You have thrown it all away. You are shallow and stupid! How mad I was to love you! What a fool I have been. You are nothing to me now. I will never see you again. I will never think of you. I will never mention your name……How little you know of love, if you say it mars your art! Without your art you are nothing.”

When Dorian comes home that night, as he enters his residence his eye falls upon the painting that Basil had painted of him. Wilde tells us, “He started back as if in surprise. Then he went on into his own room, looking somewhat puzzled……Finally he came back over to the picture and examined it. In the dim arrested light that struggled through the cream colored silk blinds, the face appeared to him to be a little changed. The expression looked different. One would have said that there was a touch of cruelty in the mouth. It was certainly strange….Cruelty! Had he been cruel? It was the girl’s fault not his. He had dreamed of her as a great artist, had given his love to her because he had thought her great. Then she had disappointed him. She had been shallow and unworthy. And, yet, a feeling of infinite regret came over him as he thought of her lying at his feet sobbing like a little child. He remembered with what callousness he had watched her. Why had he been made like that? Why had such a soul been given to him?……But the picture! What was he to say of that? It held the secret of his life and told his story. It had taught him to love his own beauty. Would it teach him to loathe his own soul? Would he ever look at it again?……….It had altered already, and would alter more. It’s gold would wither into gray. Its red and white roses would die. For every sin that he committed a stain would fleck and wreck its fairness. But he would not sin.” Dorian decides he will make amends. He will go to Sybil Vane and try to love her again.

In the morning Lord Henry comes to tell him of Sybil Vane’s suicide. Dorian wonders why he cannot feel this tragedy as much as he wants to. He knows it does not affect him as it should and that he does not feel wounded. He wonders if “life has still in store for me anything as marvellous.” Lord Henry assures him, “Life has everything in store for you, Dorian. There is nothing that you, with your extraordinary good looks, will not be able to do.” “But suppose I become haggard, old and wrinkled? What then?” Dorian asks. “Ah then,” says Lord Henry, “then my dear Dorian, you would have to fight for you victories. As it is, they are brought to you.” Instead of mourning Sybil’s death, Dorian and Lord Henry go to the Opera later that evening.

From now on, morning by morning Dorian sits before his portrait, “wondering at it’s beauty, almost enamoured of it. Was it to become a monstous and loathesome thing, to be hidden away in a locked room, to be shut out from sunlight that had so often touched to brighter gold the waving wonder of his hair? The pity of it! The pity of it!” He wonders at the prayer that he uttered and how it has come true. Yet he decides, “If the picture was to alter, it was to alter. That was all. Why inquire too closely into it? For there would be a real pleasure in watching it. He would be able to follow his mind into secret places. This portrait would be to him the most magical of mirrors. As it had revealed to him his own body, so it would reveal to him his own soul.”

At first Dorian places his painting behind a screen to hide it from view. But when Basil comes to visit and requests to exhibit it, Dorian decides the portrait must “be hidden away at all costs.” Paranioia grips him. He places a rich purple cover over the picture and has it moved upstairs to an empty room which he now keeps locked. “Yes that would serve to wrap the dreadful thing,” Dorian notes to himself. “What the worm was to the corpse, his sins would be to the painted image on the canvas. They would mar its beauty, and eat away its grace. They would defile it, and make it shameful. And yet the thing would live on. It would always be alive………His own soul was looking out to him from the canvas and calling him to judgement…..How ugly it all was! And how horribly real ugliness made things!”

Around this time Lord Henry gives Dorian a book. It is a poisonous book that fills Dorian’s mind with poisonous thoughts. He begins to sink down into a life of sordidness and sin. “Yet the wonderful beauty that so fascinated others……never seemed to leave him. Even those who heard the most evil things against him, and from time to time strange rumors about his mode of life crept through London and became the chatter of the clubs, could not believe anything to his dishonour when they saw him.” Yet privately the portrait kept changing. Dorian describes it: “Looking now at the evil and ageing face on the canvas, and now at the fair young face that laughed back at him (in the mirror he held)…..the very sharpness of the contrast used to quicken his sense of pleasure………He would examine with minute care, and sometimes with a monstrous and terrible delight, the hideous lines that seared the wrinkling forehead, or crawled around the heavy sensual mouth, wondering sometimes which were the more horrible, the signs of sin or the signs of age…..he would think of the ruin he had brought upon his soul.”

Then it came to pass that he could hardly be separated from the picture at all. Now Dorian was so afraid someone would see his secret he had elaborate bars placed upon the door. “It was still true”, Dorian notes, “that under all the foulness and ugliness of the face, the portrait still preserved its marked likeness to himself.” Though he lived his life in wanton luxury and gorgeous splendour, it was said that “there were not a few who distrusted him.” Women who had wildly adored him, were said to “grow pallid with shame or horror when Dorian entered the room.” Wilde notes, “It was remarked that some of those who had been most intimate with him, after a time, appeared to shun him.” Yet, these whispered scandals only seemed to increase for many his “strange and dangerous charm.”

The Picture of Dorian GrayFinally his good friend Basil Hallward comes to confront Dorian on these terrible rumors he is hearing about him. He asks him how come so many young men who have associated with Dorian have now come to ruin? He says to Dorian, “You don’t want people to talk about you as something vile and degraded. Of course you have your position and wealth, but position and wealth are not everything. Mind you I don’t believe these rumors at all. At least I can’t believe them when I see you. Sin is a thing that writes itself across a man’s face. It cannot be concealed.” He wonders aloud if he really knows Dorian. But Basil decries, “Before I could answer that, I should have to see your soul.” At this, with a bitter laugh of mockery, Dorian decides to show him the portrait. “You shall see it yourself tonight!” he cries.

After Dorian tears the curtain from the portrait, “an exclamation of horror broke from the painter’s lips as he saw in the dim light the hideous face on the canvas grinning at him. There was something in the expression that filled him with loathing and disgust. Good heavens! It was Dorian Gray’s own face that he was looking at! The horror, whatever it was, had not entirely spoiled that marvellous beauty……His own picture! What did it mean? Why had it altered? He turned and looked at Dorian with the eyes of a sick man.” Dorian reminds Basil of the prayer he had uttered about his own portrait and how it has come true. The portrait changes, while his beauty remains unaltered. Basil says to him, “I worshipped you too much. We are both punished.” He urges Dorian to pray for repentance. “It is too late,” replies Dorian. “Don’t say that”, says Basil. “You have done enough evil. Don’t you see that accursed thing leering at us?” At this Dorian glances at the picture and a feeling of hatred for Basil comes over him. In a fit of rage he murders the artist who had painted the “face of his soul.” Aferwords Dorian is able to go and sleep peacefully.

Yet, Basil’s murder will haunt Dorian for the rest of his life. The portrait now shows blood dripping from one of Dorian’s hands. He ends up enlisting the help of one of the young men he has ruined to help him get rid of the body. The man is unwilling to help him, but Dorian threatens to expose a secret he knows about him, so the man is forced to participate in the cover up of the murder. Later this man commits suicide. Still Dorian is unable to find respite from the guilt, even though he tries to “cure the soul by the senses” by going to “the opium dens.” In the end, unable to live with himself or the mirror of his soul, Dorian attempts to destroy the painting itself. He stabs it repeatedly with a knife. When the servants enter the room they find hanging upon the wall “a splendid portrait of their master as they had last seen him, in all the wonder of his exquisite youth and beauty. Lying on the floor was a dead man, in evening dress, with a knife in his heart. He was withered, wrinkled and loathesome of visage. It is said that “It was not till they examined his rings, that they recognised who it was.”

Dorian Gray is a story for our times. It is a beautifully crafted and well thought out piece of literature. Wilde definitely displays his brilliance here. He asks us to consider many things: Influence, beauty, art and sin. Let’s look at the first of these which is influence. Wilde himself influences us with the idea that “all influence is immoral.” Certainly we see here the intersection of two powerful influences on the young life of Dorian Gray. Influences that once set in motion, will ultimately destroy him. I don’t agree with Wilde that all influence is immoral. Nor do I agree that to influence is to simply make someone a parrot of oneself. What I think Wilde does show well with his inimitable genious is the power of influence. The first influence on Dorian is Basil Hallward. Through Basil’s flattery and ultimately his exquisite portait, Dorian becomes self aware of his beauty. No sooner is he exposed to this fragile gift God has bestowed upon him than it is stolen away by the cynicism of Lord Henry. Lord Henry has experienced much of life and has found it disappointing. Lord Henry is not wrong to say that youth will fade. Yet what he introduces into Dorian’s life is much more. He exposes him to fatalism. He tells him in essence to have the courage to live out every hedonistic desire he has because once youth is gone, there will be nothing more for Dorian to live for. The combination of the influence of these two men place Dorian’s life on a tragic trajectory. Hallward has given him a permanent memorial to the fleeting gift of beauty. Lord Henry has already taken away his hope that life can have any meaning. This is a challenge for us. Do we influence people for good or evil? Do we bring hope, life and meaning to their lives? Or do we bring death and despair?

Lord Henry’s philosophy is nothing new. In the New Testament the Apostle Paul talks to two groups of philosophers in Athens – the Stoics and the Epicureans. The Epicurean’s believed that “seeking happiness or pleasure” was the primary goal of life. The Stoics placed reason and thinking about feeling. They tried to live in harmony with natue and reason, suppressing their desire for pleasure. Lord Henry is an Epicurean and so are many, many people today. Their philosophy could be summed up, “eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die.” This philosophy ultimately leads people to despair as they ruin their lives by indulgent pleasures. There is little thought or focus on love for one’s neighbor. There certainly is no understanding of God or view of eternity in place. I think Oscar Wilde is really putting forth his own views in the voice of Lord Henry.

Both Lord Henry and Basil Hallward reduce Dorian to something less than he really is. By worshipping Dorian, Basil reduces him to an object. Dorian objects to this by telling Basil “he cares more for his art than for him. Dorian in turn does the same thing to Sybil Vane. Dorian worships Sybil and so reduces her as well. Just as Dorian worried that Basil would not be interested in him if his beauty faded, so Dorian lost interested in Sybil when she failed him as an actress. This exemplifies that all idolatry leads to disillusionment. Lord Henry reduces Dorian as well. He expresses the idea that Dorian’s life will only be meaningful while he is beautiful. Once his beauty is gone, so also his life will be gone. Thus Dorian’s prayer to keep his outer beauty at the expense of his soul. The conclusion of the story shows us the wisdom of Christ’s words: “What good is it if a man gains the whole world and yet forfeits his soul?” Though he had everything the world says is important: wealth, beauty, position, ultimately it is meaningless because of the corruption of his soul. A double life gets extremely heavy to bear.

Wilde asks us to ponder both the meaning of art and of beauty in this story. Lord Henry tells Dorian that “beauty is a form of genius – is higher indeed than genius because it needs no explanantion……it has divine right of sovereignty. It makes princes of those who have it.” In the preface of the story Oscar Wilde writes a number of philosophical statements. He begins with: “The artist is the creator of beautiful things.” He ends with “All art is quite useless.” One could say that this sums up Wilde’s philosophy of life. God is in fact an artist. He is a creator of beautiful things. One of the things he created was human beings, some of whom are very beautiful indeed. Yet without a knowledge of his creator, man does sink down into meaninglessness. It is only with the understanding that he is a created being, made in the image of God and designed to have a relationship with his Creator, does man gain meaning. Without this understanding, beautiful people become as useless as beautiful art.

We live in an age where beauty reigns supreme. There is hardly a woman in America who feels she “measure up” or is “good enough” when it comes to meeting the beauty standards women are supposed to live up to. We are bombarded constantly with images of beautiful people in movies and magazines. We spend billions annually on consmetic surgery, cosmetics and other things to enhance our outward facade. Yet we spend little time and energy on the development of our souls. Wilde challenges us to consider the things we automatically attribute to beautiful people. As Lord Henry tells Dorian, “ Now you do not have to fight for your victories, they come to you.” So many things are just handed to beautiful people aren’t they? We automatically assume they are trustworthy, smart, successful, talented, popular. We really do fall at their feet and worship them. We have a hard time believing they could be corrupt. We think it is not possible that they could be evil. Yet we see this is exactly what Dorian was. Wilde is challenging us to confront our stereotypes of beauty.

And what of art? Is it meaningless? I don’t believe it is. Oscar Wilde’s story in itself is a thing of art. It is well crafted and beautifully written. We learn a lot from it, not only about Wilde, but about ourselves. A great artist ultimately reflects and point to the greatest of all artists, which is God himself. Not all art helps us to see God. Not all art is good. Some of it is pure rubbish. Good art always transcends. Every piece of music that Bach wrote was written ‘solo de gloria’, to the glory of God. His music stands the test of time as great art because it lifts our eyes to the heavenlies. Wilde’s art stands the test of time as great literature, because it makes us ponder the great questions of life.

Where Wilde really excels in this story is in his depiction of sin. In describing the altered portrait that Basil Hallward sees Wilde says “the leprosies of sin were slowly eating the thing away. The rotting of a corpse in a watery grave was not so fearful.” It’s interesting to think of sin like leprosy. Sin is not a disease, but it functions a lot like a disease. It slowly wears away at the inner life of a person, just as Dorian’s portrait altered over time. Leprosy is a disease which damages the nerve endings in the skin. So the person who has leprosy may put his hand in the fire and not realize he has been burned. So sin has the same effect on a man. It hardens his heart so that each time he commits that sin, he becomes a little more callous to it until he can no longer even feel sorrow for committing it. This callousness of heart is a far worse condition than leprosy. It is interesting that the first change in the portrait is reflected in the mouth. A touch of cruelty in the mouth.

The book of James says, “the tongue is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” He says that “It is set on fire by hell itself and it sets the whole course of a man’s life on fire.” (James 3:6) Dorian Gray’s words were so cruel to his fiancee that she took her own life. The same day he learned of her death, he went to the Opera that evening. Even at that young age Dorian was cruel without remorse. Worse yet is enjoying cruelty. Basil Hallward noted Dorian’s tendency to “take a real delight in giving me pain.” In the end Dorian sinks from sadistic cruelty down to hatred and murder, though in fact he murdered from the beginning with his tongue. The man Dorian enlisted to help him get rid of Basil’s body tells Dorian, “You have gone from corruption to corruption, and now you have culminated in a crime.”

How does one know exactly that they are in the presence of an evil person? Certainly Dorian’s image made it hard for anyone to believe that he could be capable of hideous things. We all know people like that don’t we? There are many people who hide behind facades of good while carrying out terrible crimes. We just can’t believe the “nice, little old man” could be a sexual predator, or the hockey coach could be beating his wife at night, or that the mother who sings and plays her trumpet in the choir could be a stalker. How can these things be possible? Double lives are more than possible. They are very probable. Eventually Dorian’s reputation cannot be contained. I find it the most interesting that it was the people who knew him the most intimately who eventually shunned him. This is a lesson about evil one needs to note. One cannot always tell at first if they are in the presence of an evil person, but over time they cannot hide their nature completely. There is a natural revulsion we feel in the presence of evil. Sometimes we only become aware of that revulsion slowly. That is a lesson to be noted.

The Picture of Dorian Gray was Oscar Wilde’s only novel. It may as well have been his autobiography. Wilde lived his life much in the vein of Lord Henry’s philosophy. Married with two children, he lived lavishly and Oscar Wildedressed like a dandy. He was known for his acerbic wit and was a brilliant conversationalist. At the height of his fame as a playwright he was engaging in a homosexual affair with a young man named Lord Alfred Douglas. He ended up suing the father of his lover, the Marquess of Queensbury for libel. That ended up backfiring on him. The trial unearthed evidence to support Queensbury’s charges. Though Wilde dropped the charges, he ended up being arrested and after several more trials he was charged with gross indecency with other men. This resulted in him being sentenced to two years hard labor in prison. After his release he travelled to France. Destitute, he died in Paris at the age of forty-six.

How is it that a successful man of such intellect, talent and brilliance could have come to such a terrible end? Wilde himself admitted in his poem “De Profundis, “I must say to myself that I ruined myself, and that nobody great or small, can be ruined except by his own hand.” He also wrote: “The Gods had given me almost everything. But I let myself be lured into long spells of senselessness and sensual ease. I amused myself with being a Flaneur, a dandy, a man of fashion. I surrounded myself with the smaller natures and the meaner minds. I became the spendthrift of my own genius, and to waste an eternal youth gave me a curious joy. Tired of being on the heights, I deliberately went to the depths in search for new sensation.

What the paradox was to me in the sphere of thought, perversity became to me in the sphere of passion. Desire, at the end, was a malady or a madness, or both. I grew careless in the lives of others. I took pleasure where it pleased me, and passed on. I forgot that every little action of the common day makes or unmakes character, and that therefore what one has done in the secret chamber one has some day to cry aloud on the housetop. I ceased to be lord over myself. I was no longer the captain of my soul, and did not know it. I allowed pleasure to dominate me. I ended in horrible disgrace. There is only one thing for me now, absolute humility.”

Wilde exemplifies many things in this statement. One is that the problem of pursuing pleasure as the end goal of life, is that it eventually bores you. Eventually in order to find stimulation, one must descend into perversity. Lord Henry belied this sort of cynicism. He had “been there, done that, tried everything” and was essentially bored. Wilde is like so many men of genius who reach the heights: they begin to believe the laws that apply to ordinary men do not apply to them. In his arrogance Wilde thought to defend himself against sins he had actually committed. It is so ironic that he could write lucidly about the end of a life of sensual ease and sordid pleasure for Dorian Gray, but could not see that end for himself.

He like Dorian, surrounded himself with men of poor company. Did he really believe he could outrun such influence? That he could outwit the effect of sin? Pride always makes one believe one can accomplish impossible feats. In the end all that he felt that was left for him to embrace was humility. De Profundis is essentially a treatise on suffering. I understand most sharply when he said he could “not bear his sufferings to be without meaning.” That truly is the one thing about suffering which is essential. It must have meaning, or it is unbearable. My only wish is that Wilde’s suffering could have led him to more than humility. My greatest desire for him is that it could have led him to God.
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Reflections On “Losing It” A Memoir by Valerie Bertinelli

“Alcohol makes you feel better and then makes you feel worse and then remorselessly very bad indeed, but then alcohol will make you feel better again. It is the cure for the dog that bit you, and how easily you forget it is also the dog.”

Roger Ebert

Ever since Valerie Bertinelli wrote her memoir “Losing It- And Gaining My Life Back One Pound At A Time” I have wanted to read it. Valerie Bertinelli Author of Losing It

Finally, my opportunity came. I found the book at the Goodwill and grabbed it up for a dollar.

In high school I became a huge Van Halen fan. I was particularly fond of Eddie Van Halen thinking he was very cute. I remember going to see them in concert in Charleston, West Virginia. It was a blast. I was closest to the side of the stage Eddie was on. I was thrilled! He was indeed very cute and had a very nice smile. He also smoked like a fiend. He had a cigarette lit and positioned in his fret the whole time he was playing. Sammy Hagar was now the lead singer. I remember him running around high above on the catwalks and leaning out over them perilously, to my distress. He was a great showman, but he scared the heck out of me.

So I have to admit my interest in reading the book was primarily: What was it LIKE to be married to EDDIE VAN HALEN? I came away feeling respect for Bertinelli, thinking I could easily be her friend, and really rooting for her happiness. What was it really like to be married to Eddie Van Halen? Primarily hell. That is what it is like to be married to any addict.

In Cornelius Plantinga’s book, “Not The Way It Is Supposed To Be: A Breviary Of Sin” he talks about the relationship of sin and addiction. He defines addiction as “A complex, progressive, injurious, and often disabling attachment to a substance (alcohol, heroin, barbituates) or behavior (sex, work, gambling) in which a person compulsively seeks a change of mood.” He points out that “what drives addiction is longing….. a longing of the heart.”

He explains, “Addicts long for wholeness, for fulfillment, for the final good that believers call God. Like all idolatries, addiction taps this vital spiritual force and draws off its energies to objects and processes that drain the addict instead of filling him.

Accordingly the addict longs not for God but for transcendence, not for joy, but only for pleasure- and sometimes escape from pain.”

However as he soberly enjoins: “No matter how they start, addictions eventually center in distress and in the self-defeating choice of an agent to relieve the distress. In fact, trying to cure the distress with the same thing that caused it is typically the mechanism that closes the gap on the addict- a trap that might be baited on anything from whiskey to wool.” This fact is cleverly illustrated in the above quote from Roger Ebert, who himself was an alcoholic.

In truth Eddie Van Halen was an addict from the day Bertinelli met him.

Eddie Van HalenIt took her twenty years to come to grip with this fact and to divorce him. One really agonizes with her about this in reading the book. It makes you realize just how terrible it is to marry someone who is already in the grip of addiction.

It was clear that she really loved him and truly tried to save him, despite making her own mistakes in the marriage. At first she admits that she partied with him, and that was a way to be a part of his world. But this lifestyle got old and hard to maintain. So she pursued her acting career and he immersed himself in creating music and drinking and doing drugs.

Despite the birth of their child, Ed was not able to pull himself out of his living hell. Plantiga notes: “An addict makes and repeatedly breaks contracts with himself; who finds his longings narrowing and hardening into an obsession with things he knows will devastate his work, self-respect, relationships and bank account and who yet seeks compulsively to satisfy those longings; who thus finds his will split between wanting to banish an addictive substance from the earth and wanting to protect his private cache of it; whose addiction, as it moves through mild and moderate stages, first enthralls him in one sense of the word and then in the other-an addict like this often comes to believe that his “struggle is not against enemies of flesh and blood, but against……spiritual forces of evil.” (Ephesians 6:12)

He points out that the “Big Book” of Alcoholic Anonymous says “addiction is cunning, baffling, powerful and patient.” These words could describe the devil himself.

He offers the human being a powerful substitute for God, an idol called “addiction.” This substitute provides immediate pleasure. One does not have to wait for heaven, nor restrain the senses, nor worry about morality. Just take the drink, sniff the coke, smoke the weed and you are in paradise now.

At first it seems like a good trade, until you get hooked. Then you just live for the next time you can get drunk or high. You lose all for the addiction and you don’t even care. You become a shell of yourself. You live in your own isolated living hell, just you and the addiction. It must be so very terrible.

You can just look in the book and see the photos of Eddie as a young man and then when he is older. He looks horrible. The effects of the alcohol and drugs have ravaged him.

For Bertinelli the straw that broke the camel’s back was when Ed refused to quit smoking after getting tongue cancer and having a portion of his tongue removed. She finally admitted to herself then that he was not going to help himself. After finding cocaine in a wallet, she confronted him one last time before she left.

The book also chronicles her own battles with food addiction. In her efforts to cope with Ed and his addiction, she fought her own private hell with her weight. Being an actress only made that issue a million times harder as she had to constantly battle to slim down for roles.

One reads the book and gets the sense of two people who connected and were really wanting to reach out to the other, but the tragedy of addiction kept them apart. All sin isolates, but addiction isolates in a particularly pernicious and destructive way.

In the end Bertinelli won her own private battle and ended up losing fifty pounds and looking terrific. You feel thrilled for her as she loses the weight and ends up finding love too. Yet she still needs to find the ultimate fulfillment which is God himself. Until then, even these momentary victories will remain somewhat shallow.Addiction is the tragedy of idolatry carried to the extreme. When we try to put anything in the place of where the worship of God alone belongs, we come up empty and fall short. Our hearts were created to know Him and to worship Him. Until we acknowledge this we will always be digging empty wells and the buckets we pull up will run dry. They might provide some temporary pleasure, but when we put the bucket down the well again, it will bring up less water each time. So it is with sin.As C.S. Lewis says in the Screwtape Letters, “It is an ever increasing craving for an ever diminishing pleasure.” Sin does provide pleasure, but it is a counterfeit pleasure and each time we engage in it we will find it brings us less. To paraphrase Lewis, the devil cannot really offer any man a pleasure. He can only offer a man a perverted pleasure, one that leaves him more thirsty than he was before. Addiction is just the extreme form of this. Man has decided to turn to alcohol or drugs and make them the center of his life and worships them. At first they offer a return, but then he must have more and more to get the same effect. In the end the whole life withers and is consumed by the addiction.The vital energy needed to seek God is drained away. Could there be anything more tragic? Van Halen once wrote a song called “The Best Of Both Worlds.” In it Hagar sings,

“You don’t have to die and go to heaven
Or hang around to be born again,
Just tune in to what this place has to offer,
Because we may never be here again.
I want the best of both worlds,
And honey I know what it’s worth,
I want the best of both worlds,
A little heaven right here on earth.”

Every honest saint will tell you that this is not heaven and the pleasures this world offers pale in comparison to what heaven will be like. That’s the irony. To have the best of the next world you have to let go of the temporal pleasures that may be found here. As martyr Jim Elliot put it, ‘He is no fool, to give up what he cannot keep, to gain what he cannot lose.”

Christ said is another way, “What good is it for a man to gain the whole world yet forfeit his soul?” The truly wise live for eternity.

Get Low: A Look at Sin, Regret and Forgiveness

*Note: If you haven’t seen the movie and you want to, this post reveals the ending.

Anyone who tells you they have no regrets is a liar.

Anyone who says they are not lying about having no regrets, is a liar.

It’s impossible to live without regret. Those who think it is possible deceive themselves.The Mugshot in the movie Get Low

In the movie “Get Low”, starring Robert Duvall and Bill Murray, the themes of sin, regret and forgiveness are explored. When I picked up the DVD, the movie intrigued me because it was about a man, Felix Bush (Duvall’s character) who had lived as a hermit for forty years who wants to throw himself a “funeral party.” The idea is that he is a man about whom many stories have been told, most of them disreputable. He wants to invite people from all four local counties to “come and tell their stories” about him.

Enter Frank Quinn (Bill Murray’s character), who is the director of a local funeral home. Murray is a bit down and out because nobody in the town seems to want to die, so business is slow. When his assistant hears this reclusive old grouse wants to spend his cash on this party, Murray jumps on it. So the mug shot of the recluse is taken and the invitations sent out.

Felix Bush talks to his preacher friend in the movie Get LowMeanwhile the hermit goes to visit an elderly African American pastor. He wants him to come to the funeral party so he can tell the man’s true story, because the pastor is the only one he has confessed it to. The pastor at first refuses, but then he relents and comes. The big day arrives and the whole town has converged at the “funeral party.” Instead of telling their stories about him, the man tells his own story and sets the record straight about his life.

It turns out that for forty years Felix has been living in self-imposed isolation as “penance” for his sin, which he now confesses to. Forty years earlier he had been having an affair with a married woman. One night he went to see her and when she answered the door she was covered in blood. Her husband had been beating her. Felix went in to the house to intervene. A fight ensued. The husband sets fire to the house. Felix attempts to get the woman he loves out, but he is not able to save her. He is not even sure how he himself gets out.

Felix had also dated the sister of the woman he was having an affair with. She did not know about the affair all these years, and being in the crowd she learns for the first time how her sister died. The crowd listens in stunned silence and leaves quietly at the end. Now they know the real story behind this mysterious figure about whom so much has been told.

The movie rather poignantly portrays several things about sin. First it exemplifies the weight of guilt people carry for the sins they commit. Even if no one knows, they know somewhere deep in their hearts the wrongs they have committed and they carry this weight like a pack on their back. It also showed that the consequences of sin affect many people. Sin is like throwing a stone in a pond. The ripples move out in concentric circles. Yet even those who are farthest from the center are still impacted.

The whole town, to some degree, was affected by Felix’s sin. He was so “notorious” that many stories had spread about him, some of which were untrue. The movie illustrates that sin and its effects are like a prison. In Proverbs 5:22 It states: “The evil deeds of a wicked man ensnare him; the cords of his sin hold him fast. He will die for lack of discipline, led astray by his own great folly.” Felix’s self-imprisonment was a physical illustration of what was already a spiritual reality. The irony of sin is that it seems like freedom and instead is a prison. Another facet of sin that it exemplifies is that sin leads to alienation. Sin alienates us from others and even from ourselves. In the movie the man’s affair was an attempt to escape his isolation, but the sin brought further alienation for him and death for her.

Interestingly Felix Bush is not interested in receiving forgiveness. He says “People say I need to ask Jesus for forgiveness, but I ain’t never done nothin’ to Him.” He Felix Bush gets ready for a time of confession in the movie Get Lowfeels that he has “done his penance” by choosing to live in self-imposed isolation to atone for his sins. The preacher tells him, “You know it isn’t enough.” There is no remedy for guilt other than forgiveness and there is no true forgiveness found in penance. The only true forgiveness to be found is by believing that Christ died for your sins and accepting his death as payment for yours.

This is a position of humility because it recognizes that there is nothing one can do to “pay” for their own sins. We certainly do experience earthly consequences for our actions. Yet these are not “payment” for our sins. They are consequences. The man’s statement that he “never did nothin’ to Jesus” is an untruth. Scripture makes clear that all sin is primarily against God. King David in his famous Psalm of penitence says “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge.” (Psalm 51:4) Sin is betrayal. We betray the one we are to love the most. We put another God in His place and worship it. This is the breaking of the first commandment: Thou shalt have no other God before me.” No one on earth will be able to say to God “I never did anything against you personally.” We all owe a debt to God. That is a non-negotiable truth. The negotiable part is how we handle the debt.

Felix Bush was able to tell his story and share the regret he had bottled up. It shows him at his death walking toward a figure dressed in white, presumably the woman he had an affair with who has now “forgiven him” and they now will presumably be reconciled in the hereafter. In reality all he had done was share the regret of his story. He did not relieve his guilt, nor did he receive forgiveness, because he did not make peace with God to whom he owed the debt.

Ironically the movie is entitled “Get Low.” Obviously we “get low” when we are laid in the earth for the last time. Yet if this man had really “got low” and humbled himself before God and asked for forgiveness, he wouldn’t have needed the communal confession which did him little good. Maybe it’s a good reminder for us all. It’s high time to get low before we are brought low.