Dorian Gray and the Ethics of Subjectivity


I wish we could meet to talk over the many prisons of life—prisons of stone, prisons of passion, prisons of intellect, prisons of morality, and the rest. All limitations, external or internal, are prison-walls, and life is a limitation.

Oscar Wilde, February 1898.


Of all the metaphysical prejudices that litter the history of Western philosophy, the idea of the self as substance behind appearance, formed early in life and waiting for some kind of discovery or liberation is probably the oldest and the most tenacious. And according to Nietzsche and Wilde, it is also the greatest crime against humanity, this denial of the self as a possible work of art. Against this tradition, Nietzsche developed the radical challenge of a non-substantive account of the self as a convergence of relations of will to power. For Nietzsche, even the God-hypothesis has greater legitimacy than the postulation of the existence of a peculiar entity entirely distinct from the human body. It sufficiently problematical to justify a prudent philosophical suspension, for the substantiality and ‘unity’ of this supposed entity is linked with the idea that it is essentially immutable and thus ahistorical. This means that a kind of entity is implied that does not become what it is through some contingent developmental process. In other words, the human subject is viewed as a given entity incapable of growth, change and development. This is the kind of imaginative fiction that bespeaks a deep-set resentment against the world, its change and all its contradictions, and it had to be abandoned at once in favour of the freedom of a performative account of identity.

            What makes matters even worse is that that this subject has been constructed for utilitarian reasons, and not for nobler aesthetic ones. The construction of the accountable self of modernity has of course an aesthetic dimension, but it is teleological (i.e. with a very definite aim in mind), an aim which does not have the attainment of a rich, playful and multidimensional subject in self in mind. Rather, as we shall see below, the construction of the modern subject allowed for easy subjugation to the various discourses of control that sprang up during the modern period. The modern subject is a denial of the plethora of possibilities that lie beyond the humanist construction ‘man’.

            Following an entirely different route, Oscar Wilde set himself against this limiting construct by developing developed what may, after Foucault, be called a kind of transgressive aesthetics, and the development of an aestheticized self that is fluid, playful, mercurial and multi-dimensional. An aesthetics of existence, with recourse neither to universal rules nor to knowledge, offered an alternative to the modernist epistemes with their insistence on relating ethical problems and self-government with economics and scientific truth. Michel Foucault describes Wilde’s French equivalent, Baudelaire and his modernist ethos as ‘a mode of relationship that has to be established with oneself’ involving ‘the asceticism of the dandy who makes of his body, his behaviour, his feelings and passions, his very existence, a work of art…. Modernity compels him to face the task of producing himself’.[1] This also serves as a perfect description of the man who described one’s first duty in life to be as artificial as possible, and urged the dour Victorians to be a work of art.

There is a strong link between the notion of truth as something to be ‘discovered’ and the self as a stable object. Taking his cue from none other than Rousseau, his intellectual arch-enemy, Nietzsche writes that it was very important social groups at the dawn of what we call today ‘mankind’, that their members did not keep secrets from one another. The social obligation to show ‘by clear and constant signs’ who one is, so that one can be held accountable for one’s actions: ‘Man himself must first of all be have become calculable, regular, necessary, even in his own image of himself (GM, 137). The self was thus born in the hope of achieving transparency. Nietzsche considers this impossible: for if this were a plausible demand, ‘you must consider yourself knowable, you may not be concealed from yourself, you may not believe that you change. Thus, the demand for truthfulness presupposes the knowability and stability of the person. In fact, it is the object of education to create in the herd member a definite faith concerning human nature: it first invents the faith, and then demands ‘truthfulness’ (WP, 277). If this prejudice is ever to be overcome, it is necessary for man to face up to the fact that he will never find that elusive inner core of stability, and that he is forever to remain a stranger, even to himself.

We are unknown to ourselves, we men of knowledge and with good reason: We have never sought ourselves—how could it ever happen that we should find ourselves? (GM, 1).

It is impossible to locate the ‘bottom’ of subjectivity, for like so many other metaphysical constructions, it has its origin in language. Nietzsche contends that our habit of believing in a ‘solid’ self is the consequence of what he calls a ‘grammatical habit’ or grammatical ‘custom’, and that the strength of this belief is due only to the ‘seduction of language’ and the metaphysical prejudices petrified in it which conceives of all effects as conditioned by something that causes effects, something that has come to be called a ‘subject’ (GM, I: 13). The post-Cartesian habit of thinking that ‘when there is thought, there has to be something that thinks’, is far from being as automatic as it seems. Rather, it is a reflection of a ‘grammatical custom that adds a doer to every deed’ (WP, 484). Nietzsche states:

            It thinks; but that this ‘it’ is precisely the famous old ‘ego’ is …precisely the famous old ‘ego’ is… only a superstition…and assuredly not an immediate certainty… Even the ‘it’ contains an interpretation of the process, and does not belong to the process itself. One infers here to the grammatical habit: ‘thinking is an activity; every activity requires an agent; consequently—(BGE, 17).

If the subject came to being through language, it can become undone through language. Against the rigid tradition of subjectivity, Wilde and Nietzsche advance a self that is by no means a stable unity, but a continuous movement away from any fixed determinants, and should rather be seen as a site of playing forces or elements. This means that the self has to have some form: even if only in the narrative constructed by stringing together a series of poses. If the first requirement of realizing this is the disengagement of subjectivity, the second is the necessity of a moment of appropriation that contains the Dionysian forces at work and save the self from being consumed by excess. This is of course what would eventually happen to Dorian Gray:

He used to wonder at the shallow psychology of those who conceive the Ego of man as a thing simple, permanent, reliable and of one essence. To him, man was a being with myriad lives and myriad sensations, a complex multiform creature that bore within itself strange legacies of thought and passion, and whose very flesh was tainted with the monstrous maladies of the dead.

Dorian Gray’s tragedy is that in trying to escape the rigid constrictions of subjectivity, he allowed his identity to disintegrate completely, like music that disintegrates into mere sound. According to Declan Kiberd, ‘Wilde was the first major artist to discredit the Romantic ideal of sincerity and to replace it with the darker imperative of authenticity: he saw that in being true to a single self, he was false to half a dozen other selves’.[2] Wilde anticipated what would become during the twentieth century almost a philosophical industry: the attempt to undo, undermine and deconstruct the stable and transparent self.

            That Oscar Wilde should have resorted to theatrical metaphor in order to resist the straightjacket of subjectivity, should not, I think, surprise the reader. That Nietzsche did the same, is perhaps slightly more unexpected, although there is a growing scholarship focusing on Nietzsche’s use and abuse of the mask.

            Nietzsche’s employment of the mask can perhaps be best explored though the enigmatic injunction ‘to become what one is’. This command appears in several forms throughout Nietzsche’s career. It first makes its appearance in one of Nietzsche’s early texts, Schopenhauer as Educator, the third Untimely Meditation of 1874. Nietzsche says in this text: ‘those who do not wish to belong to the masses need only to cease to take themselves easily; let them follow their conscience, which calls to them: ‘Be yourself! All that you are now thinking, desiring, is not yourself’ (SE, I). Later, in The Gay Science, the injunction is repeated in a more concise version: ‘what does your conscience say? You must become who you are (GS, 270). In the same text, a bit further on, Nietzsche explicitly contrasts those who are willing to take up the challenge and become who they are with those who are concerned with ‘moral values’ (GS, 335). Such an important idea has of course to be put in the mouth of Nietzsche’s ultimate mask, the poet-prophet Zarathustra, who says that he ‘once counselled himself, not for nothing: ‘Become who you are!’ (Z, IV, I). The phrase appears like a golden thread throughout the Nietzschean oeuvre. Its aim is to transform the idea that the self is ‘like this or that’ into the joyful acceptance that it cannot be found unless it is created. The individuals who desire to ‘become who they are’ are the ones are willing to see the self no longer as entity, but as a site of anarchic forces waiting to be mastered and formed into something beautiful. These are the human beings of the future, ‘human beings who are new, unique, incomparable, who give themselves laws, who create themselves’ (GS, 335, my italics). The phrase becomes less paradoxical when it is not seen through a teleological lens; i. e. the subject is not to become something different to what he is at present. Rather, Nietzsche is urging his readers to actualize all the capacities for which they might be suited. Because the human being so complex, these potentialities are in principle inexhaustible. Like a text that has to be interpreted, the self is ‘bottomless’, as generous as a text that always allows for yet another different interpretation. The possibilities of one situated self far exceeds what can be done during man’s limited lifespan.

            The ethics of self-construction is the theme of Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Zarathustra and his followers are constantly depicted as ‘creators’, and it is in this book that Nietzsche’s most misunderstood figure, namely the Übermensch, is introduced. This term is shorthand for all that has been discussed so far and what is yet to follow. The term Übermench operates in Nietzsche’s text not as the name of a particular being called ‘X’, but rather as an idealized conglomeration of forces that Nietzsche calls ‘an achievement’. This implies a process rather than a goal. I suggest that we follow Alan D. Schrift’s example and construct ‘becoming-Übermensch as a compound verb indicating an assemblage. That we should focus upon the process of assemblage as a creative process, the managing of a series of ‘faces’, masks or identities, rather than to hypostatize the endpoint, cannot be emphasized enough. Becoming-Übermensch means to accumulate strength and to exert influence beyond authoritarian imposition. In other words, becoming-Übermensch is a becoming-artist: someone who is always shaping and re-configuring himself into something else. There is something decidedly protean about the Übermensch. He is always slipping into a new role, always donning a mask, always slipping beyond the clutches of subjectivity.

[1] Foucault, M. ‘On the Genealogy of Ethics’ In: The Foucault Reader. Rabinow, P. (ed.) New York: Pantheon 1984, p.18.

[2] Kiberd, D. ‘Oscar Wilde and the resurgence of lying’. In the Cambridge Companion to Oscar Wilde. Raby, (ed.) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000, p. 167.


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