decorated initial 'T't stake in these readings is the way the scene of sympathy is also — and always — a scene of cultural identification, in which the spectator's identity is inseparable from an imagining of the other's place; at stake as well is the way in which, when individual and cultural identity collapse into one another, the other with whom one sympathizes may turn out to be-as is the case, dramatically, in Dorian Gray — one's self. A character who enacts the scene of sympathy within himself — indeed, of whom it might be said that he sympathizes only with himself — Dorian Gray both reinforces and extends the implications of the scene of sympathy as I have described it so far.

Dorian Gray's scene of sympathy inheres in the contrast between the hero's idealized body and his fantasy of that same body's degradation, and in the way the novel positions these as alternative images of cultural possibility. The contrast between the beautiful Dorian and his hideous picture recapitulates the scene of sympathy with which this book began: Dorian's picture is a fantasy in which moral decline rationalizes economic anxiety, marking a safe distance between the subject who might fall and the one who already has. In this case, the identity — defining other — who is, of course, Dorian himself — is manifestly both cultural fantasy and self-projection, a simultaneous internalization and anatomy of the scene Victorian fiction and Victorian culture located on the streets.

The constellation of emotions Dorian's scene evokes — the tension between fascination, repulsion, and attraction, for instance, in his relation to the picture — recalls other, earlier versions of the scene of sympathy and the recurrent questions that surround it. With whom, for example (or as whom) is the sympathetic spectator identified? What are the implications of self-picturing — the replacement of the self with a picture? Why is identity figured as an economic configuration, an exchange between images of degradation and ideality? Foregrounding these questions, the novels also revises them. Attributing moral significance to the blots and marks the picture accumulates, Dorian Gray makes of a paradigmatic aesthetic difference — the difference between beauty and ugliness-a paradigmatic cultural drama that, I wish to argue, finds its echo in contemporary formulations of cultural and political identity. The difference between Dorian's original wish and his memory of it, f or instance — the difference between the impulsive expression of a desire not to age and a moral narrative about sin and retribution — encapsulates the transformation of experience into narrative that, as we have just seen in Daniel Deronda, characterizes the formation of cultural narratives. The drama Wilde's novel makes out of the difference between beauty and ugliness-for example, the danger of discovery, the obsessive checking and rechecking of the picture, and the adventures in "low life" whose meaning Dorian confirms on the surface of the portrait as soon as he lives them suggests the formation of cultural identity as a moralization or rationalization of aesthetic choices whose meaning might be revealed in, or might just as well be hidden by, the face one chooses. Dorian Gray's scene of sympathy suggestively figures, in several ways and with relevance to several different discourses, the aesthetic dimension of modern and contemporary identities.

Neither person nor, exactly, character, Dorian is, the novel tells us, a type: the "visible symbol" of the age. And, it has followed, the novel's critics have taken Dorian — and Wilde himself — to be preeminent figures for and prefigurations of aesthetic culture and modern male homosexual identity. But what happens at the intersection of character and cultural embodiment: what does it mean, as Walter Benn Michaels asks, to imagine a culture "in the form of a person"?

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, historians and theorists of sexuality agree, the shaping activities of medicine and the law codified a variety of activities and modes of being into an identity. In the formulations of some recent critics, what happened is that at the end of the century homosexual persons, and homosexual culture, became visible. (158-161)

For the difference between beauty and ugliness per se participates in the underlying binarism of certain modern cultural narratives of identity, narratives that depend less on specific details of identity than on the positive or negative valuation of identities: the positing of desire or its absence. Such narratives, that is, resolve what might be a multiplicity of identities into a choice between identities, in the form of a difference between self and other. And this difference, I wish to argue, in turn reflects the condition of belonging or not belonging to a group. Embodying the imaginative possibilities of the scene of sympathy as I have described it, for instance, the contrast between beautiful and ugly images of Dorian Gray reproduces the aesthetics of contemporary identity politics, in which identity takes shape as the difference between negative and positive cultural projections. Identity politics attempts to bestow value on identities the dominant culture d evalues: it attempts to transform ugliness (a particular identity as perceived by the dominant culture) into beauty (that same identity, as projected in response by the group so named), and its mechanism is the transformative power of the idea-and image-of the group. In the "identity" of identity politics, the individual and the group function as reflexes and projections of each other-mutually constitutive images — with the group functioning as the engine of the desire for identity, the body out of which individual bodies are made. Indeed, it is because of the similarity between the ideologically constructed identities of the late nineteenth century, the image making of identity politics, and Dorian Gray's figuration of identity as an interplay between valued and devalued images of the self that, in Wilde's novel, "we may catch the early strains of an identity politics whose anthem will eventually become loud enough to make itself heard even on Saint Patrick's Day." Even as the novel refers to a specific politics, however, the aesthetic form by means of which that politics is represented-its reliance on an idealized image of masculine identity-makes the character Dorian Gray widely available for identification: for, at the very least, "literary" sympathy.

My argument thus situates Dorian Gray in the context of late-nineteenth-century ideologies that may be viewed as precursors of a modern symbolic politics of identity: ideologies in which the individual is with increasing frequency imagined as a member of a group. (pp. 166-168)

Related Materials


Jaffe, Audrey. Scenes of Sympathy: Identity and Representation in Victorian Fiction. London and Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000.

Last modified 5 December 2004

Last modified 8 June 2007