Editorial / June 2014 (Issue 24)


A Touch of Cruelty In The Mouth

Looking at old photos leads me to believe that the body evolves.
—Edouard Levé

I love to recall my dreams, no matter what is in them.
—ibid.

Of course, telling someone your insult is like telling someone your dream; the specific emotional core of it cannot be communicated...
—Sheila Heti

 

The golden boy Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde's memorable creation, continues to capture our imagination, as seen in his most recent representation in Showtime's Penny Dreadful. Who doesn't want to stay delicate, young and exquisite? Skin flawless, teeth intact, hair shiny. In fact, our modern beauty industry relies on nothing but this overblown desire to slow down the clock. I am sure many of us, while reading Wilde's story or watching an adaptation, have imagined, even if only very briefly, what it might be like to be Dorian.

For a large part of the story, Dorian's physical appearance is unaffected by the passage of time, while his painted double, hidden in the attic, ages, withers and becomes loathsome and unrecognisable. That face on the canvas evolves with the sordid force of life, as it absorbs the negative energy of its original. This all begins with "the touch of cruelty in the mouth":

He had uttered a mad wish that he himself might remain young, and the portrait grow old; that his own beauty might be untarnished, and the face on the canvas bear the burden of his passions and his sins; that the painted image might be seared with the lines of suffering and thought, and that he might keep all the delicate bloom and loveliness of his then just conscious boyhood. Surely his wish had not been fulfilled? Such things were impossible. It seemed monstrous even to think of them. And, yet, there was the picture before him, with the touch of cruelty in the mouth.

The cruelty here is Dorian's, conferred to his pictorial likeness. But cruelty is an inherent element of every portrait or photograph of a human subject. The American comedian Mitch Hedberg, whom I admire a great deal, sums it up wisely and poignantly: "Every picture is of you when you were younger." Everything that bears a reproduction of your image, then, is an inevitably cruel reminder that nothing good lasts, that you will grow old. Very old if you are lucky. Or unlucky.

At some point, you will envy your younger self, sitting awkwardly on an uncomfortable rug, drinking a cheap red wine as you and your friends couldn't afford anything good, or wearing an embarrassingly slutty dress, silver and black, with no cleavage showing, for you had none (you still have none) or grinning so goddamned happily for something so life-defining then and so insignificant now that you don't remember what it was that sparked that bright smile or even who else you were with at the time. You grow old ... you grow old ... You shall wear the bottoms of your trousers rolled. 

It is perhaps disingenuous of me to complain about ageing, for I am still regularly asked if I am a student due to my small size and unaggressive chest. But all the above acts as an introduction to a vivid dream that I had one night some weeks ago. I am one of those people who remember their dreams quite well and that particularly dream, I remember intensely. 

In the dream, I am in my old family home in Tuen Mun with my parents and two younger sisters. It is a small flat, with two small bedrooms, and, at night, we turn the small wooden sofa in the small living room into a small bed, which I sleep on with one of my sisters (everything was small in my past, nothing is grand in my present). My mother must have turned off the lights, and I, without much thought, reach for a torch that gives out enough light that familiar household objects cast strange, enlarged and dreamy shadows on the wall, which is by day covered with crayon marks, traces of my sisters' creative vandalism. 

In the dream, I am looking at an older picture of my parents, my sisters and me sitting on a leather sofa so worn that it had been replaced by the wooden one. My mother is holding Ying on her lap, and my father has Ching on his. I stand in the middle. Squeezed in the middle. No one is holding me. I am too old.

The next moment in the dream, I am my current age again and frantically looking for that picture. When I find it, I see that Ying is no longer sitting on my mother's lap and Ching is no longer on my father's. They are grown-ups in the picture, and they stand next to my parents. I stand as before. I too am grown-up. My parents are eighteen years older, but on our faces we have the same expressions as before. My parents: reservedly proud of having three healthy and moderately intelligent daughters. My sisters: clueless. Me: clueless.

It dawns on me, in the dream, that all our images grow with us, age with us, probably die with us. Whatever our present age, we are now the same age in past photographs. It has become impossible to recover photos of ourselves at a younger age—our Facebook accounts automatically update; in our photo albums we are no longer babies, but our current selves trapped in the faded photos of bygone days. We are all Dorian Grays without the benefits: our pictorial selves age but so do we.

In my dream, no one could remember exactly what others looked like in the past. No one could boast, "Look at this. I was once considered a beauty." When I woke up, I instantly went on Facebook to check if my profile pictures were unaltered. They were. Thank goodness I had taken these photographs when I was younger, easier, more carefree. And better still, I remain that way in them, even though the flesh-and-blood me moves on, marching towards decay and death. Which is the way it should be, and I am glad.

Image

... likeness, once caught, carries the mystery of a Being.
—John Berger

Tammy Ho Lai-Ming / Co-editor
Cha
29 June, 2014
 
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