Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Those Deep Dark Secrets 2

In Chapter 20 of Oscar Wilde's wonderful novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, we read the thoughts of Dorian who had been granted the wish that he would remain ever youthful and handsome while the magical and mysterious portrait likeness painted of him should age terribly and gruesomely as he would wreak havoc on his world through many ghastly crimes, not the least of which was murder.  This man is going through mental turmoil because of this deep dark inner secret which is eating him away like a cancer.  In the first piece I quote below he realises that every crime should be punished, because in such punishment he would somehow get relief for and release from the misery of having to live with his dreadful secret.  In the second paragraph quoted immediately under this Dorian realises a deep inner need to confess his sins, also in such a way that he might experience release from his inner turmoil and torment.  Yet, he did not wish to hand himself up to the authorities.  He laughs at the very idea.  Then he begins to rationalise - sure no one would believe him anyway.  In fact they would all think that he had gone mad.  He is simply torn between giving himself up and admitting his crime on the one hand and living on with the turmoil and torment. Dorian is certainly no earnest or sincere penitent.  He still wishes to escape public shame.  Yet he is still deeply troubled as my bolded lines below express.

Ah! in what a monstrous moment of pride and passion he had prayed that the portrait should bear the burden of his days, and he keep the unsullied splendour of eternal youth! All his failure had been due to that. Better for him that each sin of his life had brought its sure swift penalty along with it. There was purification in punishment. Not "Forgive us our sins" but "Smite us for our iniquities" should be the prayer of man to a most just God...

There was blood on the painted feet, as though the thing had dripped--blood even on the hand that had not held the knife. Confess? Did it mean that he was to confess? To give himself up and be put to death? He laughed. He felt that the idea was monstrous. Besides, even if he did confess, who would believe him? There was no trace of the murdered man anywhere. Everything belonging to him had been destroyed. He himself had burned what had been below-stairs. The world would simply say that he was mad. They would shut him up if he persisted in his story. . . . Yet it was his duty to confess, to suffer public shame, and to make public atonement. There was a God who called upon men to tell their sins to earth as well as to heaven. Nothing that he could do would cleanse him till he had told his own sin. His sin? He shrugged his shoulders.

(I have taken these quotations from the on-line version of Wilde's wonderfully profound tale obtainable at this link here - Dorian )

Towards the end of this final chapter the thought occurs to him to use the very murder weapon to destroy his terrifyingly hideous and ugly portrait.  Wilde's precise and eloquent words are worth quoting once again:

He looked round and saw the knife that had stabbed Basil Hallward. He had cleaned it many times, till there was no stain left upon it. It was bright, and glistened. As it had killed the painter, so it would kill the painter's work, and all that that meant. It would kill the past, and when that was dead, he would be free. It would kill this monstrous soul-life, and without its hideous warnings, he would be at peace. He seized the thing, and stabbed the picture with it.

There was a cry heard, and a crash. The cry was so horrible in its agony that the frightened servants woke and crept out of their rooms. Two gentlemen, who were passing in the square below, stopped and looked up at the great house. They walked on till they met a policeman and brought him back. The man rang the bell several times, but there was no answer. Except for a light in one of the top windows, the house was all dark. After a time, he went away and stood in an adjoining portico and watched.

(Opus citatum at the link given above)

As I was writing yesterday's post I remembered Dorian's conflict over his terrible secret from studying this book at college in the late seventies of the last century with my former lecturer John Devitt, R.I.P.  I quote it because there are ghastly secrets which do eat away at our inner life as it were.  Such secrets do need to be expressed or even confessed and put to bed as it were in the clear light of day.  There are many soul-destroying secrets which many people carry about with them like child-abuse, various stigmas about having all the various mental illnesses from depression to schizophrenia to personality disorders.  The stigmas about mental illness are dying somewhat today, but I deliberately say somewhat because I know a several people, indeed several families who persist in denying that certain mental illnesses wrack the very structure of their families.  Yet they persist in covering up or ignoring the problem because of some hideous family lie which they tell each other in subtle and not so subtle ways.  What they consider their deep dark secret simply should not be told.  The tragedy here is that with help and counselling they would realise that many others suffer from these personally and socially debilitating illnesses; that there are many therapies which complement effective medication to keep the various mental illnesses in check; that once the perceived deep dark secret is given attention and recognition under the light of revelation this secret seems to melt away, its power released, to wither and die.

Admittedly, we all need to preserve some few secrets in our souls - otherwise we should be like T.S. Eliot's worm of a man called J. Alfred Prufrock:

And I have known the eyes already, known them all—
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,

And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
And how should I presume?

(Again T.S. Eliot's famous poem may be read here: Prufrock )

So we cannot with ease or nonchalance or flippancy spill the sacred nard of our very souls at the feet of any old person we meet.  To do so would be tantamount to subverting rather than enhancing and promoting the very growth of out inner being.  We must learn to discern those secrets which must be told from those which we can safely keep so that we can walk with our heads held high among our fellows. 

Above I have posted a picture of a very young Freud with his mother!

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