Nothing Can Cure the Soul but the Senses

Ziko Petse

“Nothing can cure the soul but the senses, just as nothing can cure the senses but the soul” - Oscar Wilde


The Picture of Dorian Gray, an 18th century gothic and philosophical novel, depicts a youthful and naive Irishman, Dorian Gray, having his portrait painted. As the novel progresses, the painting starts to mirror Dorian Gray’s transgressions which he once disregarded prior to them being visualized on a canvas. As Dorian's transgressions become viler so too does the portrait. It then allows for Dorian to accept his immorality through an acquired sense of urgency to demolish the portrait, which I understand to be the representation of the system that Gray created; that of vanity and judgement of his inner circle. Rushed to abolish the monstrous portrait which he curated, he eventually kills Basil (the creator of the portrait) and himself; the sources of this grotesque image. Returning to its original state, the portrait provides a sense of relief to the reader as the death of the Gray and Basil births a harmonious portrait.


Though this DWEM (Dead White European Men) story might not resonate with you, I find it insightful in our quest for liberation (though not to be mistaken as a blueprint). Despite Oscar Wilde being a rampant classist, the raison d'être of the portrait serves to make Gray recognize his vileness and thus abolish his vanity and hostility which is ultimately a remnant of aristocracy. When we are constantly exposed to injustices we often become desensitized to their existence. Art in today’s social justice movements can therefore serve as a way to mirror society through another medium to which we are not desensitized; be it through visuals and/or music. I believe that the reason for society’s attraction to socio-political themes in art, as opposed to aestheticism, is in fact our love for aestheticism. You see, when socio-political injustices are artistically portrayed, it is intriguing because we want art to be pretty and in harmony. When we see the injustices that we have become so numb to on a street wall or on a music track it unfoggs the lenses of our consciousness which normalised the issue. I remember going on an excursion to Sci-Enza at the University of Pretoria whereby there was a maze composed of mirrors instead of walls. Through seeing myself in mirrors repeatedly with a perplexed expression trying to navigate my way out,  my urgency to escape the maze heightened. Likewise, the beauty of socio-political art is that it merely repeatedly reflects society’s unaesthetic traits in the hopes of us coming to our senses in recognizing the need for urgency to retain aestheticism. After all, Oscar Wilde said, “Nothing can cure the soul but the senses, just as nothing can cure the senses but the soul”


I am sure many of you are familiar with Johnny Miller’s drone image which depicts the socio-spatial inequalities and racial stratification of South Africa. This image, which I and many of you see every day, is one I admittedly have become so apathetic towards. It was only when it was reflected through the medium of photography that conversations started to arise, more specifically in the areas whereby so much privilege and wealth is held. Just like Dorian Gray, many South Africans committed the transgression of contributing (voluntarily or involuntarily) to these historical power dynamics. The image, which I believe is a form of socio-political art, merely replicated the monstrous society which those of economic privilege continue to curate through another medium; drone photography. Gray’s taste for aestheticism contributed to his rage at the monstrosity of the portrait. Likewise, our similarly aristocratic population only felt compelled to have conversations about the unequal distribution of power once the image portrayed the ‘unaesthetic’ traits of our country. The first step in mobilizing in support of a social justice issue is to recognize the unethicality of one’s practices. A tool that the privileged and powerful use to regulate the continuity of such systems of oppression is instilling a sense of apathy towards the issue and refusing to reimagine an alternative. Simply put, art is an interpretation of the world we live in, and we cannot expect for there to be change when those of power are deaf to the articulations of grass-root organizers, and hence the need for an interpreter (another medium) to reflect the monstrosity that has been created.


However, I find it unjust to frame art as a tool to wake up the privileged. This reinforces the notion of devoting one’s life towards those of authority. Not only do I believe that art can serve as a wake-up call to those of privilege and power to face their immorality, but it can also serve as a way for those that are oppressed to seek healing and meaning in their movement. In a society that fails to recognize the multifacetedness of our being, the act of witnessing or creating art is a reclamation of our humanity. Emily Esfahani Smith stipulates the four pillars of a meaningful life in her insightful Ted talk, “There’s more to life than being happy”, those being; belonging, purpose, storytelling and transcendence. Art can cover all four pillars of a meaningful life.  When I wear umbhaco yamaXhosa (traditional Xhosa attire), I become rooted in my belonging, in a lineage of warriors. When I recite Benedict Wallet Vilakazi’s poem,


Kuyin’ukwazi? (What is to know?)


Woza mfana wami (Follow me my son)


Ngikudons’indlebe: (Let me advise you:)


“Khuluma kancane ("less talk,)


Wenze kakhudlwana.” (more action.”)


my sense of purpose is rooted in my quest to use knowledge to empower myself and my community. When I rewrite my being through storytelling, I reclaim what is rightfully mine to tell. When I chant freedom songs at protests, I transcend into my divine being which is unmatched to the systems that people like myself fall victim to. Through art, we replicate, consolidate and defy.

Ziko is an 18-year-old student. Outside of Academia, she plays field hockey, does long-distance running & yoga, and reads classic European and modern African literature. She has a blog written in isiZulu in the hopes of making mental health resources more inclusive.