Thursday, January 3, 2013

the forgetting of Gray and Myshkin

I don't think that Faustian knowing really counts as knowing (or rather that the artistic description of it is as valuable as the artistic description of actual knowing). That the separate inventories of Dorian's possessions and obsessions--perfumes, instruments, jewels, embroideries, and ecclesiastical vestments--in Wilde's novel are devoid of spiritual content is surely the point of the excessively descriptive Chapter XI. They are, the narrator says, merely the "means of forgetfulness, modes by which [Dorian] could escape, for a season, from . . . the terrible portrait" (102). But of course they are also the trappings of Lord Henry's "new Hedonism," the proper hoard for the "marvelous type" (23)--"the type of everything that is wonderful and fascinating in life" (121)--who he sculpted out of the "merely visible presence" that had such a profound effect on Basil Hallward. Recall Dorian's way of listening to Lord Henry at their first meeting:
Dorian Gray listened, open-eyed and wondering. The spray of lilac fell from his hand upon the gravel. A furry bee came and buzzed round it for a moment. Then it began to scramble all over the oval stellated globe of the tiny blossoms. He watched it with that strange interest in trivial things that we try to develop when things of high import make us afraid, or when we are stirred by some new emotion for which we cannot find expression, or when some thought that terrifies us lays sudden siege to the brain and calls on us to yield. (17) [Aside: a furry bee? That makes me laugh for some reason.]
The forgetfulness is there already in the beginning. And it is a real thing in this first instance. The reality of the other forgetting, the one having to do with the portrait, is entirely dependent on this first manifestation of man's chosen oblivion to that which is "of high import." Wilde apparently said (according to Wikipedia) that "in every first novel the hero is the author as Christ or Faust." It is interesting to contrast the knowing/forgetting of the hero of Wilde's Faustian novel--one in which something supernatural actually occurs--with that of Dostoevsky's apparent Christ-figure in The Idiot, in which the closest thing we get to supernatural content is the description of an epileptic experience. In commentary on the novel Myshkin is usually cast as an obviously impossible, if beautiful, type--at the very least some sort of essential failure (the question is only whether the failure lies in Myshkin or Dostoevsky). According to Ivanov, for example, Myshkin is
the type of a spirituality that descends, that seeks the Earth: rather a spirit that seeks the flesh than a man who rises to the . . . [The] preponderance of the Platonic anamnesis over the sense of reality is just what makes him at once a fool and a wise seer among men.
But isn't it really Dorian's knowing that is categorically different from our own? To reject the actuality of Myshkin's knowing is to also reject the knowing of Zosima, Markel*, Kirilov**, and Shatov***; it is to reject as phenomenologically impossible any vision (actual seeing) of the good. On the other hand, to accept Dorian's sort of knowing as actual is to assume that it has actually gone beyond that "strange interest in trivial things" into a sort of immortal curiosity borne out of a secret knowledge of his permanent youth. Wilde's novel is a fable.

* "Don't cry, mother," he would answer, "life is paradise, and we are all in paradise, but we won't see it, if we would, we should have heaven on earth the next day."

** "Is it the same wife who was in Switzerland? That's a good thing. And your running in like this, that's a good thing too."

*** "There is something generous even in these people," Shatov reflected, as he set off to Lyamshin's. "The convictions and the man are two very different things, very likely I've been very unfair to them!... We are all to blame, we are all to blame... and if only all were convinced of it!"

P.S. Of course the Faustian type is not employed in fiction as if the knowledge attained by that type is attainable by any one person in one lifetime. So the first sentence of this post is probably pointless. Faustian knowledge is actual knowledge (of the methods of science, for example, or of the history of jewelry), but my point is that Faustian knowledge rests on the confidence gained via a supernatural pact.


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