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Aestheticism, Homoeroticism, and Christian Guilt in The Picture of Dorian Gray

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 29, Number 2, October 2005
pp. 286-304 | 10.1353/phl.2005.0018

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Aestheticism, Homoeroticism, and Christian Guilt in The Picture of Dorian Gray

Since the advent of the poststructuralist revolution some thirty years ago, interpretive literary criticism has suppressed two concepts that had informed virtually all previous literary thinking: (1) the idea of the author as an individual person and an originating source for literary meaning, and (2) the idea of "human nature" as the represented subject and common frame of reference for literary depictions. Under the tutelage of Barthes, Derrida, and Foucault, literary critics learned to speak of authors, characters, settings, and plots not as individuals situated in a natural world but as discursive formations constituted by the circulation of linguistic, cultural, and ideological energies. In the three decades during which poststructuralism has dominated academic literary study, a different kind of revolution—evolutionary, Darwinian, and naturalistic—has been transforming the social sciences. Sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, Darwinian anthropology, behavioral ecology, cognitive archaeology, and behavioral genetics do not all agree with one another in every respect, but they are all nonetheless aspects or phases of a common research program. The central working hypothesis in this program is that the human species, like all other species, has evolved in an adaptive relation to its environment and that as a consequence it has a distinct, genetically transmitted, species-typical set of characteristics—anatomical, physiological, hormonal, neurological, and behavioral. That set of characteristics is what in common language is meant by "human nature." Literature has always given us subjectively evocative depictions of human nature, and Darwinian social science is now giving us a more comprehensive and scientifically precise account of it. The sense of [End Page 286] individual agency is one crucial aspect of human nature, and that aspect is now being explored in complementary ways by personality psychology and by cognitive neuroscience.1

Over the past decade or so, a scattered handful of literary scholars has broken away from the dominant poststructuralist paradigm and has sought to make use of the new scientific information on human nature.2 The simplest and most obvious way to use this information is to examine the behavior depicted in literary texts and to correlate that behavior with "human universals," that is, with forms of behavior that appear in every known culture and that thus appear to be embedded in the nature of the species. Seeking depictions of universals has produced valuable results for literary study, but this first move in Darwinian criticism does not exhaust the range of possibility in the analysis of literary meaning. Human nature is complex and sometimes divided against itself; individuals vary, and some variations depart from species-typical patterns, even in the most adaptively crucial aspects of survival and reproduction. Moreover, literary meaning involves more than the represented subject matter. Authors imbue texts with meanings and affects peculiar to themselves; authors engage in communicative transactions with audiences; and texts have formal and aesthetic properties that are not reducible to represented subject matter. All of these aspects of the total literary situation are part of literary meaning, and all of them can and should fall within the range of analysis available to Darwinian literary study.3

Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray offers two special challenges to Darwinian criticism. First, the novel is saturated with homoerotic sexual feeling, and it thus defies any simple reading in terms of behavior oriented to reproductive success. Second, the central conflicts in the novel involve two competing visions of human nature, and in their conceptual structure neither of those visions corresponds very closely to the quasi-Darwinian conceptual structure implicit in most realist and naturalist fiction. One vision derives from the aestheticist doctrines of Walter Pater, and the other from a traditional Christian conception of the soul. Pater's ideas about human motives and the human moral character are at variance both with Christianity and with Darwinism. Christianity and Darwinism share certain concepts of the human moral and social character, but they couch those concepts in different idioms, and they would invoke wholly different causal explanations for how human nature came to be the way it is. Wilde does not develop his themes in Darwinian terms, but the novel can still be read [End Page...