The Portrait of Dorian Gray
One of the most terrifying works of art ever conceived in the mind of a man and executed by the skill of his hand, is the 7-foot tall painting of Dorian Gray by the 20th-century artist Ivan Albright. This monstrosity hangs in the halls of the Chicago Art Institute, and one could say that anyone who can withstand looking at it for longer than a few minutes might rightly be suspected of either having a mental disorder or some serious moral defect. For to gaze too long upon Albright’s “masterpiece,” is quite literally to gaze at an image of human corruption and decay that, in an extraordinary arrangement of matter and form, embodies what could be best described in theological terms as “sin.”
And it was for this very purpose that the artist, Albright, was commissioned. Albright, who learned his macabre talent for portraying human flesh sketching battle-inflicted wounds in France during World War I, created the portrait for a 1945 film version of Oscar Wilde’s modern novel about the inner corruption of man, The Picture of Dorian Gray. In his story about the handsome youth who makes a devil’s pact, allowing him to pursue without regret his every lustful and wicked desire, Wilde captured in words (as Albright did in image) a vivid reminder of an uncomfortable biblical truth. That truth is the reality of human depravity and the corrosive effects of sin.
An Encounter with Evil: Sex Traffic in The Heart of Bavaria
Of course, no one looks like Albright’s painting of Dorian Gray. The evil that resides in human beings usually doesn’t show its full face to us. Nevertheless, sometimes it is revealed to us. Sometimes we actually encounter it, in the flesh.
Years ago, as a much younger and more sinful man myself, I lived in Munich, Germany–the romantic heart of Bavaria. My roommate was a journalist working in television for one of the major news networks in the country, RTL. One day my friend was approached by a male prostitute who worked the Munich Hauptbahnhof (Central Station) underground. Anyone who knows Europe, knows that some of the vilest acts are centered around the major train stations of Europe’s most illustrious cities. Certainly, some are better than others, but when I lived in Germany, many of the Hauptbahnhöfe were absolute cesspools, especially the cavernous underground rail systems (die U-Bahne).
This male prostitute, call him Carlos, had apparently had enough of seeing minors sexually trafficked. His conscience stung him. He had experienced one too many children being molested. He wanted to help. Carlos decided to start a non-profit, and then sought out journalists who would help expose this horrid underworld of the otherwise quaint Alpine capital. What lie underneath the famed Marienplatz with its romantic Glockenspiel was in fact quite foul; and few knew of its foulness, American tourist and Münchener alike. As in Wilde’s novel, the outward presentation of the famed city covered up the corruption that permeated its soul.
Eventually, Carlos found my roommate. Let’s call him Thomas. They set up a sting operation in Carlos’ apartment, just a few minutes walk from our own. They outfitted it with secret microphones and hidden cameras. The idea was simple: entrap predators and expose the city’s crimes (they were not law enforcement, so the only goal was to expose the truth, not convict anyone of crime; that would hopefully follow).
For two weeks Carlos put out an ad in an underground newspaper, pretending he was holding captive a 14-year old boy named Stephan, with whom anyone with the right amount of money (old German Marks, or the newly installed Euro, it didn’t matter) could do whatever he wanted. After two weeks, Thomas came back to our “WG” (flat in Germany) one afternoon and divulged to me much of what they had uncovered. At the time, I was still enrolled at University, and my dissertation topic (which I never finished) was on the concept of evil in post-WWII German literature—not a pleasant or uplifting topic, to be sure.
My roommate, however, challenged me that day (I paraphrase and translate from memory what was spoken in German): “Why don’t you come and see what we are doing? We are catching so many people, several every day. It is incredible! You wouldn’t believe the kinds of people who are coming: young, old, couples, men and women.” Apparently the “sting” operation was working, quite well even.
But I hesitated. Did I really want to see this? After some inner wrestling, I decided that I had to see if my theorizing about evil was anywhere near the concrete reality of it. I told my friend I would go the next day, and the next day came, and I went.
For several hours we sat in the back bedroom (where the mythical “Stephan” was supposed to be waiting, handcuffed to the bed and ready to be used for someone’s pleasure). In reality it was Thomas, his cameraman, and sound man who were set up in the bedroom. Carlos waited in the living room with the hidden cameras and microphones to receive calls from potential customers who had seen the fake ad. He also had a dozen or so video cassettes, all blank, but sporting provocative titles written on the side.
The idea was to offer the fake porn tapes first, make a monetary exchange, then ask the customer if they wanted to proceed into the back room to be with the fake “Stephan.” Thomas and his team could not see the video of the camera. Live stream technology was not available to them at that time, and their cameras weren’t so sophisticated. So they only had real-time audio. If the customer bought the tapes and agreed to go back to the bedroom to fulfill his carnal desires, Carlos would say a code word letting us know to spring the trap and come into the living room, with cameras, lights, and a microphone—like a crack news team covering a breaking story.
Thomas gave me an extra headset as we heard the doorbell ring. The first, and for that day, only customer had arrived. I began to listen in on the conversation. As the negotiations unfolded, my heart beat quickened and I began to sweat. Carlos managed to get the customer to buy some videos, 500 German Marks, a pretty penny for child porn. The next step would be to see if the man (from the audio it was clearly a male voice) wanted to go in and be with Stephan. But first Carlos had to lure out from the customer what kinds of things the man wanted to do with (to!) the boy. We needed to record his innermost fantasies on tape to prove intent.
How I wish I had not heard such things.
My muscles tensed as I listened to this voice in the other room agree to all kinds of lurid tortures. Various objects were mentioned. Decency will not allow me to say more. To reference Conrad, it was too dark altogether. My mind raced and my moral compass split into two distinct directions: fury, and fear. One part felt more than justified rushing into the room and pounding that evil thing into submission with brute force–for in my mind it could not have been a man, but only a monster. The other just wanted to run away, and not be near such creatures. Like a child, I did not want to see what was in the closet. Yet before I could know which impulse was right, the code word was given. My friend, Thomas, and his team gave a quick “auf geht’s” as they rapidly deployed into the living room, camera light glaring and microphone at the ready. I followed in tow.
Before entering the room that day I had never felt evil before, at least not demonic evil. Of such things I had only read in books or maybe heard about at Mass (although even that was quite rare). Everything changed that dismal afternoon in Munich though. On this day I would come to know that the spiritual realm was as real as the desk in front of me right now; more real, in fact.
Still, if I thought I would burst into that room and see Beelzebub himself, red horns, hoofs and fangs, I was wrong. What sat before me was nothing of the sort, at least, not externally. There before us sat a pitiful old man, probably in his late 60’s, perhaps someone’s grandfather, nervously smoking a cigarette (Marlboro Red, if I recall correctly). The man looked strangely innocent, almost fragile. Looking up from his cigarette like a deer in the headlights, he did not grasp what was happening for several minutes.
What an unassuming and non-threatening little man he seemed to be. Had my ears deceived me? Could such a simple looking creature really be a molester of children?
But my ears were not deceived. This was a vile thing before me, because what I saw and felt did not match up. The outward appearance was overwhelmed by some stronger force. Had I known the Bible well at that time, I might have thought of the Gerasene demoniac. For here was a man desirous, absolutely intent, on torturing a child that day.
After Thomas asked a long, awkward series of questions, lasting a few minutes but feeling like an hour, the man finally caught on to what was happening. He stated he now felt uncomfortable and wanted to leave. Again, being only journalists and not policemen, my friend and his team made the way clear for him to go. Carlos returned the money for the tapes and, as this little man absconded from the scene. I was the last one he passed on the way out the door.
Was it real? Had I really just seen evil in the flesh?
But, this real life drama was not over yet. I don’t know how much time passed, but several minutes at least. Thomas and Carlos and the team were already reviewing the video footage and the audio. They seemed so professional about it to me. How could one speak about video quality and sound fidelity after something like that!? But, then again, they had been doing this for several weeks now and this was not even the worst of what they had seen. Perhaps they were already inured to the evil. Of course, Carlos must have been to some degree inoculated as well. The man had seen so much in his own life. Even if now, there seemed to be an awakening of his own soul.
But, in the middle of this “tidying up” and evaluation, it came. A knock at the door. We all looked at each other, bewildered. No one else was expected today. Who could it be? Perhaps it was the police? Maybe they heard about the exposé and wanted to shut it down. Perhaps one of the past “victims” had claimed that there were some journalists conducting an illegal entrapments? But, it wasn’t the authorities. It was the same man. The same, rotten, vile, pitiful old man.
“Can I still buy the videos?”
We all stood shocked.
What Kind of Creatures Are We?
I did not become a Christian that day, although I should have. Still the reality of evil was shown to me, in all its banality (to reference Arendt), on that day. Nothing, not prison, not public exposure, no worldly loss was going to stop that man from getting what it wanted. The only thing that did stop him, was that it was not real, but only a ruse. He simply did not care about those things, he wanted what he wanted, just like Dorian Gray. So art and reality did match up, and this would not be the only time in my life when I would see the two harmonize in living color, although it was one of the most memorable.
The exposé eventually aired on RTL a few weeks later. I didn’t go back to the apartment with Thomas or his team any more. I was satisfied to watch their finish product on the TV. How much effect it had on sex trafficking operations in Munich I never really found out. Around the same time as the report aired, however, Carlos called me (he had gotten my number from Thomas), asking if I could help him translate some documents. I was working part-time as a business translator at a local Siemens office in those days. I agreed to help.
Carlos came to my apartment and told me more about his plan to create a Verein (in German, an “association” or “legal entity”) aimed at increasing awareness of child trafficking. I did what I could to help him and translated some of his work into English. We met once or twice, and then I never saw him again. I sometimes wish I had found out more about him. After all, here was someone selling his body for sex, yet whose conscience had been awakened to an even greater evil within an evil. Was this a new beginning for him, a journey out of the dark ether of the German undergrounds and into the light?
God only knows, but I hope so.
In Wilde’s story, the portrait of Dorian Gray makes visible Dorian’s growing inner corruption, while Dorian’s outward appearance stays uncorrupted.The horror of what he has become inside remains obscured to the outside world. At least, that is, until he plunges a knife into the painting itself; reversing the process and killing himself.
C.S. Lewis reflected on the ontology of sin in his most memorable sermon, The Weight of Glory, when he said:
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.
My own conversion would come years later while in the military. My encounter that day led me only so far as to realize that everything is not always as it seems, and that the reality of good and evil was substantial, not metaphorical. It did raise in me the question, however, of “What kind of creatures are we?” My answer now would echo Lewis’ then: there really are gods and goddesses among us, some brilliant like angels, others dark like nightmares. Only time will tell who is what.