Zen of Cynicism
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
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.”
effect that one produces gives one an enemy,” he observes.
“To be popular, one must be a mediocrity.”
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
would sacrifice anybody, Harry, for the sake of an epigram,”
Dorian says to Harry.
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
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.”