Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

Oscar Wilde and the Art/Work of Atoms

Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

Oscar Wilde and the Art/Work of Atoms

Article excerpt

In 1808, in A New System of Chemical Philosophy, John Dalton wrote,

    There are three distinctions in the kinds of bodies, or three
   which have more especially claimed the attention of philosophical
   chemists; namely, those which are marked by the terms elastic
, liquids
, and solids
. A very famous instance is
   exhibited to us in water, of a body, which, in certain circumstances,
   capable of assuming all the three states.... These observations have
   tacitly led to the conclusion which seems universally adopted, that
   bodies of sensible magnitude, whether liquid or solid, are
constituted of
   a vast number of extremely small particles, or atoms of matter bound
   together by a force of attraction, which is more or less powerful
   according to circumstances, and which as it endeavours to prevent
   separation, is very properly called in that view, attraction of
; but as it collects them from a dispersed state (as from
   steam into water) it is called attraction of aggregation
, or more
   simply affinity
.... It is not my design to call in question this
   conclusion, which appears completely satisfactory; but to shew that
   have hitherto made no use of it, and that the consequence of the
   has been a very obscure view of chemical agency, which is daily
   more so in proportion to the new lights attempted to be thrown upon

Nearly a century later, in 1891, Oscar Wilde wrote in The Picture of Dorian Gray,

    As he often remembered afterwards and always with no small wonder,
   found himself at first gazing at the portrait with a feeling of
   scientific interest. That such a change should have taken place was
   incredible to him. And yet it was a fact. Was there some subtle
   between the chemical atoms that shaped themselves into form and
colour on
   the canvas and the soul that was within him? Could it be that what
   soul thought, they realized?--that what it dreamed, they made true?
Or was
   there some other more terrible reason? He shuddered, and felt afraid,
   going back to the couch, lay there, gazing at the picture in sickened
   horror. (124) 

And some pages later, returning to the twin issues of science and affinity, Dorian asks:

    Might there not be some curious scientific reason for it all? If
   could exercise its influence upon a living organism, might not
   exercise an influence upon dead and inorganic things? Nay, without
   or conscious desire, might not things external to ourselves vibrate
   unison with our moods and passions, atom calling to atom in secret
love or
   strange affinity? (136) 

What are we to make of the affinities between John Dalton's atomic theory and its language and Wilde's description of the forces of attraction and repulsion, the "strange affinity," animating Dorian Gray's reaction and response to his portrait? How, if at all, are they associated with one another? Are their similarities simply coincidental, the effect of something in the historical air of the time? Or might each in some way illuminate the other?

The question of historical connections is tricky, especially with a writer like Wilde who consistently complicates matters of influence, allowing books and portraits and other material objects to influence people and history as much as other people do. Averse to unidirectional, simplistic causal relationships, Wilde instead dramatizes the dynamic relations between things, be they the atoms in the above quote "calling" to one another or the "[moods] of the mind" and their "[counterparts] in the sensuous life," the "true relations" of which Dorian Gray "[sets] himself to discover" (165). In the context of a different Victorian writer, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in Touching Feeling muses on the association between the cluster of periperformatives around the Dombey marriage in Dombey and Son and chattel slavery. …

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