Updated: Apr 10, 2021
The Picture of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde is a story about a young man whose beauty remains unaffected as his soul is placed in his portrait. Although Dorian remains beautiful, his constant seeking of social recognition, admiration, and approval, leads him to spiral into self hatred and internal conflict and torture. Soon, his narcissistic shell becomes his entire self, which becomes a suffering burden to maintain. Toward the end, Dorian says, "I wish I could love...But I seem to have lost the passion, and forgotten the desire. I am too much concentrated on myself. My own personality has become a burden to me. I want to escape, to go away, to forget" (p.211). This book was first published in 1891. Back then, it was an insightful study of narcissism and the impression management that goes with it, but now, it's not something we just talk and think about, it's actually happening. We are living in an Insta-age where our appearance is no longer a relatively small aspect of who we are, it's become nearly ALL of who we are. There are millions of people looking at themselves all day long, in the mirror, taking selfies, and managing their public selves nearly all of the time. What does this mean for our relationship with ourselves and with others and with our environment?
Are we even really relating to anything anymore? In this impression management era, people suddenly become non-persons and living things have become commodities. We view each other as social currency and adjust our behaviour accordingly. And so many suffer because of this and then we call it social anxiety or low self-esteem or depression. Sometimes the torturous pressure becomes too much and we wonder why people are killing themselves. In this social climate, it takes a lot of emotional resilience to view ourselves and others as persons and to not collapse into some sort of ethical corruption by setting aside our real values for social currency. All this talk about "authenticity" but I think it takes enormous strength and courage to have the personal integrity to be honest in a manner arisen from self knowledge and lived experience.
I think this quote from a passage in Graham Greene’s autobiography captures what it means to be a fully inhabited person; a value that we have lost, but deeply crave. It is a sketch of his friend Herbert Read:
Certainly my meeting with Herbert Read was an important event in my life. He was the most gentle man I have ever known, but it was a gentleness which had been tested in the worst experiences of his generation. The young officer, who gained the Military Cross and a DSO in action on the Western Front, had carried with him to all that mud and death Robert Bridges’s anthology The Spirit of Man, Plato’s Republic, and Don Quixote. Nothing had changed in him. It was the same man who twenty years later could come into a room full of people and you wouldn’t notice his coming—only you noticed that the whole atmosphere of a discussion had quietly changed. No one any longer would be talking for effect, and when you looked round for an explanation there he was—complete honesty, born of complete experience had entered the room and unobtrusively taken a chair (Greene, 1980, p. 39).
There is an enormous difference between doing good things and being of good character. And it is the latter that will transform our world.