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The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde

Ward, Lock, and Company, April, 1891
(first appeared in appeared in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine on June 20, 1890)

It’s gaper’s block at the grocery store checkout. The endless fascination emanates from a new series of ghoulish “before & after” photos. As if by osmosis, we too become zombies, fixated on the skeletor remains of Michael Jackson’s nose. We thumb through the pages and see more facial erasures and “enhancements.” We scream with delight, pointing to the fat, fatter, and fattest lips of Meg Ryan, Joan Rivers, and Melanie Griffith. What would it cost to transform our own weak jaw line into that of the square, Sexiest Man of the Year sturdiness of George Clooney? And while we’re at it, what would it cost to chisel out a cleft for good measure?

We wonder how empty the lives of the newly disfigured must be to actually fork over the big bucks to deface themselves in this way. Ultimately, the motivation is pretty transparent though: to spit in the face of time and take a dip into the fountain of youth. It’s a mix of vanity, insecurity, addiction, and obsession. But perhaps the strongest motivation of all is born out of fear. Whereas growing old is inevitable and universal, losing hold of the possession of beauty is not. Such a fate is preserved for the seemingly lucky ones.

The ugly and the stupid have the best of it in this world. They can sit at their ease and gape at the play.

To possess beauty is to possess the inevitability of losing said beauty. The possibility of outrunning inevitability becomes a mystical, powerful fantasy that weighs heavy on the soul of the possessed, creating an inescapable booby trap of fear. Ironically, the fantasy of preservation leads to a path of destruction that can come in many flavors. With its intoxicating sales pitch of beauty and immortality, dying young can be the escape hatch for many. Problem solved. Others prefer to be around to witness the spoils of their victory, thus turning to plastic surgery, thinking that touch-ups here and there won’t be as drastically damaging as the visual aids that make their way to tabloid exposés.

How sad it is! I shall grow old, and horrid, and dreadful. But this picture will remain always young. It will never be older than this particular day of June … If it was only the other way! If it was I who were to be always young, and the picture that were to grow old! For this—for this—I would give everything! Yes, there is nothing in the whole world I would not give.

It’s buyer beware.