Dorian Gray: Forever Young

5.7.2014

By Alex Panisch

Oscar Wilde's myth of eternal youth continues to appeal to 21st-century generation

Pictured: Reeve Carney plays Dorian Gray in Showtime's 'Penny Dreadful'

Pity poor Dorian Gray. His ultimately ruinous wish — to be eternally young — is born not out of a fear of death, but rather a love of life. Wilde’s tragic antihero, in striving to stimulate his senses to the utmost and take in all the beauty that the world had to offer, realized that the requirement paramount for living a life for the pursuit of pleasure was youth. Was he really so far off point?

We can try and tell ourselves that life begins at 30, but really you live most in your youth. Going out dancing till the wee small hours knowing with certainty that you can bounce back from the hangover; blowing an entire paycheck on a plane tickets and Coachella; eating an entire tray of brownies when you were baked without fear because your metabolism hasn’t snuffed it, good luck with all of that post-27.

It’s even sadder when we try and recapture or recreate these moments. We become the old guy at the club, the man dating a woman young enough to be his daughter, the woman who doesn’t realize that some garments have upper age limits. If we don’t become those people, we look upon them with that hat trick of emotions: judgment, pity, and embarrassment. It’s not that we can’t live life to the fullest as we age, it’s that responsibilities and social conventions temper our fun and keep us from living for pure sensual pleasure. Can we really blame Dorian Gray for wanting to keep the good times rolling forever?

As enticing as eternal youth may be, its implications are in fact the total upending of the foundation of humanity and thusly the source of our greatest fears. Most, if not all, human societies have built themselves on the bedrock notion that life flows in one direction: we are born, we live, we die. Furthermore, death’s door swings one way and once you go through there’s no going back. If nothing else, we cling to this as a universal absolute truth.

Thus the Dorians — and all those classic monsters of page, stage, and screen—scare us because their existence implies that our basic notion of life itself—that it is finite — is false. They: the undead, immortal, and reanimated, have bucked the system upon which we have clung to since before recorded history. Sure being young and beautiful while a painting of yourself grows decrepit sounds like a good deal, if you’re willing to accept that everything you ever knew about the human experience is wrong.

Tags: Television
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