The following dialogue adds another fascinating insight to Lord Henry’s character in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. The last time, we explored Henry’s pleasure of influencing and misleading people. This week we broaden our image of Henry by looking at his enlightening views on humanity and science. The following excerpt is a particular standout not just because it’s funny and witty as hell, but because it is self-contained in the sense that Wilde provides an astute and engaging post mortem of the conversation and what gives Lord Henry his appeal. Clearly many of the guests are incensed by his selfishness, but he is so witty and bashful that they are charmed in spite of themselves:
To set the scene Lord Henry goes to dine at the home of his aunt, Lady Agatha, where several of London’s elite upper class—Dorian included—have gathered. Lord Henry scandalizes the group by going on at length about the virtues of hedonism and selfishness and mocking his aunt’s philanthropic efforts. “I can sympathize with everything,” he remarks at one point, “except suffering.”
Lord Henry laughed. ‘I don’t desire to change anything in England except the weather,’ he answered. ‘I am quite content with philosophical contemplation. But, as the nineteenth century has gone bankrupt through an overexpediture of sympathy, I would suggest that we should appeal to science to put us straight. The advantage of the emotions is that they lead us astray, and the advantage of science is that it is not emotional.’
‘But we have such grave responsibilities,’ ventured Mrs Vandeleur timidly,’
‘Terribly grave’ echoed Lady Agatha.
Lord Henry looked over at Mr Erskine. ‘Humanity takes itself too seriously. It is the world’s original sin. If this caveman had known how to laugh, history would have been very different’.
‘You are really very comforting.’ warbled the duchess. ‘I have always felt rather guilty when I came to see your dear aunt, for I take no interest at all in the East End. For the future I shall be able to look her in the face without a blush’.
‘A blush is very becoming, Duchess.’ remarked Lord Henry.
‘Only when one is young.’ she answered. ‘When an old woman like myself blushes, it is a very bad sign. Ah! Lord Henry, I wish you would tell me how to become young again.’
He thought for a moment. ‘Can you remember any great error that you committed in your early days, Duchess?’ he asked looking at her across the table.
‘A great many I fear,’ she cried.
‘Then commit them over again.’ he said gravely. ‘To get back one’s youth, one merely has to repeat one’s follies.’
‘A delightful theory!’ she exclaimed. ‘I must put it into practice.’
‘Yes,’ he continued, ‘that is one of the great secrets of life. Nowadays most people die of a sort of creeping common sense, and discover when it is too late that the only things one never regrets are one’s mistakes.’
A laugh ran around the table.
He played with the idea and grew wilful; tossed it into the air and transformed it; let it escape and recaptured it: made it iridescent with fancy and winged it with paradox. The praise of folly, as he went on, soared into a philosophy, and philosophy herself became young, and catching the made music of pleasure, wearing, one might fancy, her wine stained robe and wreath of ivor, danced fancy like a Bacchante over the hills of life, and and mocked the slow Silenus for being sober. ….It was an extraordinary improvisation. He felt the eyes of Dorian Gray fixed on him, and the consciousness that amongst his audience there was one temperament he wished to fascinate seemed to give his wit keenness and lend colour to his imagination. He was brilliant, fantastic, irresponsible. He charmed his listeners out of themselves, and they followed his pipe, laughing.