What You Do When No One’s Watching And The Picture Of Dorian Gray


All of us have been reading a lot. After Dave and I got back from Africa, Dave decided he wanted to bag a few classics. I went through what I had in Chicago and tried to give him anything that was remotely classical. I barely had anything, definitely nothing pre-1920. I found a Hemingway book off the shelf, a Kerouac book, and books I mostly tried to sell to Dave as “future classics,” like Jon Krakauer and Dave Eggers. I even gave him a Klosterman.

My feelings about the classics may or may not seem controversial, but I think there is a good chance that in 100 years, they’ll be proven correct. Basically, I view the classics (I’m talking old school classics, particularly British Literature like Dickens, Moby Dick, Madame Bovary, Jane Austen, Edith Wharton, other books I was forced to read in 10th grade) relative to their contemporaries, much like I view professional athletes in the early days compared to players now. I think modern literature is better than classical literature in almost every possible way. Modern literature is more imaginative, creative, emotive, lyrical, pleasurable, intellectual and introspective than the classics are. I’m not saying the classics weren’t good for their time, and I understand that Eggers couldn’t exist without Dickens the same way Dwayne Wade couldn’t exist without Bob Cousy. I’m just saying that I’m pretty sure the score of a 40-minute one-on-one game between Dwayne Wade and Bob Cousy would be 112-9, in Wade’s favor.

Everything I claimed before about the shortcomings of classical literature can pretty much be applied to Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. From a “did I enjoy reading this standpoint,” PODG was only slightly better than Crime and Punishment and 300x better than the Return of the Native. It is a 400-page book with four plot points. However, it’s notable because it does feature the single most compelling book premise I’ve ever come across in literature and the ideas that it raises fascinate me. Simply put, The Picture of Dorian Gray is a book about morality — specifically, the price of moral transgressions when no one is looking.

A quick plot summary: In PODG, Dorian is this young, handsome, “literally” perfect looking boy. This fellow named Basil paints a portrait of him. The painting itself is somehow magically possessed and from the moment it is completed, Dorian no longer ages and instead all signs of aging, sadness, psychological scarring, guilt, what have you, show up on the painting instead of on Dorian. Meanwhile, some other dude whose name I can’t remember “corrupts” Dorian by convincing him that life is fleeting and the only thing worth pursuing is sensory satisfaction. This turns Dorian into a womanizing asshole for the next 40-odd years. But again, Dorian’s appearance never ages. Instead, the painting changes, grows old, ugly and wicked looking — a reflection of Dorian sins. He does some more fucked up shit, details of which I will reveal (scandalizing high society dimes, murder, patronizing opium dens) and the painting just gets uglier, more evil, etc. I won’t spoil the ending (although if you’ve seen League of Extraordinary Gentleman, Sean Connery already has), but it’s predictable, appropriate, and poetic.

There are two things that this story makes me think a lot about. The first is this concept of un-policed morality and the way I’ve dealt with it. The second is the relationship between morality and appearance. They’re related concepts, but only as they pertain to a singular individual, so I’m going to vaguely tie them together through my discussion of my own moral shortcomings, the only ones I know decently well.

I think and talk with friends about the concept of un-policed morality all the time. This is because I have no religion and sometimes I have to explain to others why I don’t kill, loot and rape people despite that I don’t have a moral code I can physically hold in my hands and read. When I talk about un-policed morality, I mean small, effectively trivial ethical dilemmas that we experience where the only moral judgment made is by oneself. There are no other consequences to experience (i.e. disappointment from a respected friend) or fear (getting caught in the act and going to detention). Let me give you four examples:

  1. A US news world report with an interesting headline about Adderall use in US universities has ended up in your mailbox. The address is clearly marked for a house three doors down. Do you keep it?
  2. You have a girlfriend/significant other at home. You’re on a business trip in Mexico and a girl comes on to you at the hotel bar. You’re not with anyone who knows you and you don’t know this girl. What do you do? How far do you let this play out?
  3. For my medical student friends: you’re pre-rounding and it’s a few days into the service so you’re fairly comfortable and you barely give a fuck anyway. How often do you actually break out the stethoscope to listen to the heart during your pre-rounds?
  4. The tab for the table with a large group is being squared away. You haven’t paid yet. Your friend tabs the bill and the cash already in the pot and says we need $13. Your meal is $16 so you know someone else has overpaid. How much trouble do you go through to make it right?

Un-policed morality is interesting because in my opinion, it’s the only true form of morality, and even though no one will ever know what we chose but ourselves, I think it affects us more than public moral experiences. Allow me to elaborate.

As far as I can tell, there are two distinct parts to self-policed “morality.” The first is how we POLICE ourselves. The second is how we PUNISH ourselves. I like to further simplify each of these two concepts into a bimodal rating: soft vs. tough. Are you a tough cop or are you a little slow to put on the handcuffs? And are you a tough judge or do you let yourself off with just a slap on the wrist? When I think about the Punnett square combination of those four answers, I find the two answers that are incongruous (tough cop/soft judge or soft cop/tough judge) to be the only combinations that are especially compelling to think about. I find the latter combo (soft cop/tough judge) especially compelling because that’s what I am, and it seems to explain a lot of the misery in this world.

How do I know I’m a soft cop? Maybe the best way to explain it is this: I’ve done some fucked up, universally reprimandable, despicable things in my life — and I’ve done some of them twice. But I also think I’m a tough judge. I can’t help it, but those little un-policed transgressions don’t go unnoticed. Sometimes I get in horrible self-loathing moods where I literally feel disgusted by my own existence. Other times, I feel like I do stupid, bad things to justify the guilt I want to feel (the obvious benefit of some therapy is not lost on me as I write this, but the etiology of these feelings gets away from the discussion. I’ll sign up for therapy tomorrow). Worse, I don’t feel like my moral fibers have necessarily strengthened that much in response to my own moral judgment. Unlike TV’s Law and Order, my legal system doesn’t seem to involve a lot of conversation between my district attorney and my cops. When it comes to morality, the person I most resemble in this world is a remorseful heroin addict.

I think I try to wear the scars — the shame of immorality — on my sleeve, like it’s a hipster pin that says “I heart Moral Self-Awareness.” I want you to know that I know it’s there so that I don’t have to bear all the shame alone, like Dorian. Dorian crumbles at the end because his crimes — though hidden from the world — are unshared, and in his soul they flicker like fireflies, giving him moments of peace, but eventually, there are just too many to ignore and his soul glows relentlessly with shame and misery. This is why you shouldn’t do (too many) bad things. And this is probably why you know some bad things your friends have done.

There’s also this weird cultural thing, something that probably didn’t exist before Rock n’ Roll and probably doesn’t exist in China or Syria. It’s arguably more moral to be immoral and then to talk openly about your remorse than to be moral from the start. And while it doesn’t actually make you more moral, it does make you more interesting/ cool/ attractive in many social circles. Part of this is because people who are “tough cops” are often viewed as kind of stiff statues, as people who haven’t really probed or explored the basis of their own dogma. We’re basically saying that engaging the moral dilemma honestly and thoughtfully — regardless of what you end up choosing — is more important than the choice itself and certainly more desirable than avoiding the thought exercise of the dilemma through reliance on any kind of “blind-rule” — personal, societal, religious or otherwise. As an atheist, I am all about this. But I’m vaguely uncomfortable with it as well. I’m not sure if I still believe in the validity of finding comfort in sharing guilt. And of late, I just feel more defined by the ultimate choice I make than the choosing process.

In PODG, the painting artificially and completely separates the experience that Dorian has with moral depravity and the experience that other people have with him. Theoretically, when one of Dorian’s female victims first met him, they saw a perfectly innocent, untarnished, honest face. When I imagine that encounter, I feel very bad for these fictional women.

There is this Talking Heads song that I love. It’s called “Seen and Not Seen.” I had only heard it once and it was enough to make it my favorite song for about a month. Check out the lyrics:

He would see faces in movies, on TV, in magazines, and in books… He thought that some of these faces might be right for him… And through the years, by keeping an ideal facial structure fixed in his mind… Or somewhere in the back of his mind… That he might, by force of will, cause his face to approach those of his ideal… The change would be very subtle… It might take 10 years or so…. Gradually his face would change its shape… A more hooked nose… Wider, thinner lips… Beady eyes… A larger forehead

He imagined that this was an ability he shared with most other people… They had also molded their faces according to some ideal… Maybe they imagined that their new face would better suit their personality… Or maybe they imagined that their personality would be forced to change to fit the new appearance… This is why first impressions are often correct… Although some people might have made mistakes… They may have arrived at an appearance that bears no relationship to them… They may have picked an ideal appearance based on some childish whim, or momentary impulse… some may have gotten halfway there, and then changed their minds

He wonders if he too might have made a similar mistake

I like this song because it’s something I often think about: this idea that there is relationship between who we are and the way we physically look. What’s often debated is what direction this relationship runs. I hate to use a vulgar example, but we all know the ugly fat girl in high school who had that “fucking bitch” personality. We all assumed she was a bitch because she was spiteful and insecure because she was fat and ugly in the most superficial environment most of us will ever know. This is the “what we look like makes us who we are” argument. It’s a pretty compelling argument because it perfectly explains the “why does that hot girl have no sense of humor” paradox. Because of what we look like, people interface and interact with us in certain ways and this molds our personality and perspective of the world.

David Byrne of Talking Heads and Wilde in their works allude to the opposite effect: who we are determines what we look like. Byrne’s song actually argues a much more complicated logic — that what we WANT to look like determines what we ACTUALLY look like that then determines what we ARE like, and this process sometimes goes horribly wrong. I think I know what he’s talking about, but I’m not ready to go there yet. Whether or not the cause and effect relationship determined by the fat girl example is true, I think the reverse relationship as presented by Dorian Gray is also true, and ultimately, one of the ways un-policed morality shapes us. Picture someone you know who is just a really good person. Picture one of those tough cops. There is an earnest-ness to the way they look. Maybe it’s not physically built into their bone and soft tissue structure, but in the way they smile, the way they speak, the way they stand next to you, the cadence of their eye contact. All the components are intangible, but the effect is real. When two people talk, both unconsciously leak honesty via their appearance and both unconsciously soak in the effects. This is why Dorian’s women presumably never stood a chance, and that’s why I feel bad for them. Dorian exudes the innocence of a naïve young 19-year-old, and so these women have no indication that it might be a bad idea to sleep with him.

When I was in middle-school, I used to do this thing where I laughed and smiled uncontrollably. People told me that I laughed like a girl. I hated that I laughed so much because I thought it made me a dork. I used to concentrate on “acting hard” and not laughing because I thought it might make me cool. I couldn’t control the unabashed happiness pouring out of me and in retrospect only my own young insecurity made me see this in a negative light. These days, sometimes when I meet people who I want to have good relations with (people interviewing me for jobs, doctors grading me, attractive girls, friends of friends), I force smiles because I’m told my smile makes me look better. I’m consciously trying to exude the innocence I used to have, to use that to put the people I meet at ease. I am trying to be Dorian Gray. Sometimes it works. But sometimes, I meet someone who keeps it too real, someone who sees right through me and I can’t help but to cower with embarrassment and internalized shame. It’s those moments that remind me that what I do when no one is looking is changing me, changing the way I speak, listen, examine and react to those around me. These changes happen insidiously, and because they are experienced in a completely disconnected fashion from their causes, there is the potential to learn nothing from the experience.

There’s also a contradiction here, that I am only now absorbing. To those who don’t know me, I try to be Dorian Gray — innocent, and good appearing. To those who know me, I instead to try to be overtly honest by wearing morality like a badge, talking loosely and openly about things I regret, ways I could be better. Maybe this is why I feel I am morally stunted at times. Both processes are meant to hide and not to change who I am.

The flip-side to this discussion is the idea of what happens to you when you do something good that no one will ever know about. As hard as immorality is to think about, I think this is even more difficult. Is a good deed cheapened if you later tell someone about it? Is it cheapened if you really badly want to tell someone about it, but don’t? I don’t know the answers to those questions, but I want to say the answer to both questions is “probably.” But I do think that just like telling someone about a bad thing you did takes away some of the guilt, not telling someone about a good thing you did lets you keep more of that goodness for yourself and lets you put currency towards softening your moral essence. The absence of the consequences of “good” is perhaps the book’s greatest shortcoming. In the end, Dorian Gray was victim to an unfairly written plot device. His picture works only in one direction, able to only show the blemishes, the faults, the evil, and selfishness of aging and none of the positive marks of wisdom. People who met Dorian couldn’t see his wickedness, but Dorian looked at his painting and couldn’t see any goodness. I haven’t decided what I see yet in my own moral portrait, but I figure I just need to look more often.

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