chapter  3
15 Pages

THEORY INTO PRACTICE: DORIAN GRAY AND SALOME

Susan Sontag's 1964 essay 'Notes on Camp' and its companion 'On Style'- published a year later-remain among the best brief introductions to Wilde's work. For Sontag, Camp is a precise mode of aestheticism, one which sees the world 'not in terms of beauty, but in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization'. While she says that, ultimately, Camp is not the most satisfying kind of art and regards it as apolitical, she nevertheless mounts an acute and staunch defence of its frivolousness, its theatricality and its resolute undermining of habitually ethical valuations of art and people: 'Camp is a solvent of morality. It neutralizes moral indignation, sponsors playfulness' .1 Central to this defence is her refusal of the 'violent hierarchy' of the aesthetic and the ethical. She says in 'On Style' that the problem of art versus morality is a pseudo-problem: 'The distinction itself is a trap; its continued plausibility rests on not putting the ethical into question, but only the aesthetic'? Sontag traces this distinction back to Plato, and in denying it she is aware that she is presenting an oblique challenge to some of the basic metaphysical assumptions of Western thought. Wilde's defence of The Picture of Dorian Graythat 'tale spawned from the leprous literature of the French Decadents'3 - similarly deconstructs the opposition between ethics and aesthetics, is entirely consistent with his theoretical construction of style as the dominant aesthetic category, and has radical implications for the ways we read his novel.