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The Zen of Cynicism

Scratch a cynic, they say, find a romantic. The implication being that beneath every barbed comment, every unflinching or unsentimental judgment, there is a wounded idealist rationalizing his own alienation by blaming the imperfect world. Secretly, though, it is suggested, the cynic entertains visions of togetherness, accord, virtue, etc.—yearns for them, in fact—and it is only by comparison to this paradisiacal vision that his actual environment suffers.


First of all, that’s a convenient way of dismissing what is likely valid, even occasionally important, criticism. (Anybody remember Bill Maher?) It’s not all just transference or projection or sour grapes or childish defense mechanism. See, the tricky thing about cynical statements is that they’re almost always mostly true. If you don’t believe me, or just think me misanthropic, reread The Picture of Dorian Gray and pay particular attention to the statements of Lord Henry Wotton.

You cannot argue with Lord Harry, the cynic’s cynic: Common sense, he points out, is the “inherited stupidity of the race.”

“Every effect that one produces gives one an enemy,” he observes. “To be popular, one must be a mediocrity.”

“For all sins, as theologians weary not of reminding us, are sins of disobedience,” he explains, languidly over dinner. “When that high spirit, that morning star of evil, fell from heaven, it was as a rebel that he fell.”

Which is not to say that Lord Harry is entirely without an ethos: “I admit that I think it is better to be beautiful than to be good,” he says. “But on the other hand, no one is more ready than I am to acknowledge that it is better to be good than to be ugly.”

Note Harry’s bow to beauty—that is, human beauty. He is no misanthrope. No 19th-century Unabomber in lemon-yellow kid gloves and velvet doublet. He takes pleasure in company, in the observation of human behavior. He is an aficionado of error and excess, a connoisseur of foible.

And in that spirit, it must be said, a great lover of his own wit.

“You would sacrifice anybody, Harry, for the sake of an epigram,” Dorian says to Harry.

“The world goes to the altar of its own accord,” Harry responds.

Lord Harry provides color commentary, as it were, to the inexorable march of the world to its unforeseen end. He observes the present, in great detail, and draws his conclusions—which often are less than sunny, true, but what close observer of human behavior who values human beauty could fail to notice the disconnect? (How often do you behave beautifully, for example?)

Lord Harry’s fascination with that which is before him—in all its unseemliness, its indecorousness, its pettiness—is not belied by his sometimes astringent characterizations of it. He is never bored or exhausted by the life he observes: “The only horrible thing in the world is ennui, Dorian,” he cautions. “That is the one sin for which there is no forgiveness.”

He is never bored by his present, nor has he any concern for the future, no need to reform or to curry favor, to hedge against tomorrow: “Good resolutions are useless attempts to interfere with scientific law,” he says. “Their origin is pure vanity. Their result is absolutely nil. They give us, now and then, some of those luxurious sterile emotions that have a certain charm for the weak. That is all that can be said for them. They are simply cheques that men draw on a bank where they have no account.”

Vanity, vanity—all is vanity. Illusion fostered by desire. Desire for status, reputation, power, love. Desire, which is hinged to the future by definition. If there is no future, there is no desire, if there is no desire, there is no striving, if there is no striving, there can be no obstacles, if there are no obstacles, there is no suffering. And if there is no suffering, we are free to eat when hungry and then—as the Buddhists advise—to wash our bowl. Simple, even if the bowl is Wedgwood and the crystal Baccarat.

Lord Harry (“Prince Paradox,” as Dorian labeled him), maintained a great love for his present, and all its imperfections. In fact, for its imperfections. He loved ruse and artifice and craft and guile and passion and all the essential machinery of society—because it gave him something to meditate upon, to diagnose and to transform by wit.

Remember it was Dorian Gray, the golden boy who hid his stained soul in a secret room to better maintain illusion and appease vanity, upon whom fate (or, at least, Oscar Wilde) delivered the verdict. Dorian who—with his self- indulgence and his dependence upon others for validation—was, whatever else, no cynic. Dorian was a believer, an optimist—as all criminals and sinners must be. He hoped for the success of his deception, he hoped for the reformation of his character, he hoped for forgiveness, he hoped an idealized self could gain the power to live independent of its actions and their consequences. A romantic and foolish desire, to be forever young and beautiful, untouched by time and immune to experience.

To be always happy.

To which the Zen cynic responds wisely, unromantically, “Always! That is a dreadful word. It makes me shudder when I hear it. Women are so fond of using it. They spoil every romance by trying to make it last for ever. It is a meaningless word, too. The only difference between a caprice and a life-long passion is that the caprice lasts a little longer.”

—John Rodat 

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