Oscar Wilde – “The Decay of Lying” (1891)

An essay on the relationship between art and nature, it is staged as a Socratic dialogue between the naive but curious Cyril and the dismissive, articulate, intelligent aesthete Vivian. Vivian believes that Art does not imitate Nature, but that Nature imitates Art:

Art is our spirited protest, our galant attempt to reach Nature her proper place. As for the infinite variety of nature, that is pure myth. It is not to be found in Nature herself. It resides in the imagination, or fancy, or cultivated blindness of the man who looks at her. (970)

He critiques the “realists” strain in modern literature (Zola, Eliot, everyone else) as being either non-art or a fasle romanticization of working class conditions. He therefore rejects what he calls “modernity of form” (976). He exclaims, “Certainly we are a degraded race, and have sold our birthright for a mess of facts” (977). His description of how Art incorporates nature is Adornian to the hilt:

Art begines with abstract decoration….Art [then] takes life as part of her rough material, recreates it, and refashions it in fresh forms, is absolutely indifferent to fact, invents, imagines, dreams, and keeps between herself and reality the impenetrable barrier of beautiful style…The third stage is when life gets the upperhand, and dries Art out into the wilderness. This is the true decadence, and it is from this that we are now suffering. (978)

This defense of beauty and of “decadence” more broadly can be related to Pater’s writings in Renaissance, as well as to, perhaps, Aurora Leigh’s stuff on life. Perhaps read Wilde as a response to that vitalist strain. At any rate, makes an interesting capstone text to a 19th century discussion of fact. Transitioning to the 20th-century, one could talk about “Ithaca” chapter in Joyce as yet another step, a fourth stage, in the play between nature and art.

This essay also has the reference to the “cracked lookingglass,” which Stephen will pick up in the beginning of Ulysses. Can connect to Sargasso Sea, perhaps, and to DeKoven’s work on mirrors and water.

The essay ends with four precepts:

  1. Art never expresses anything but itself
  2. All bad art comes from returning to Life and Nature
  3. Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life
  4. Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of art

It’s curious that the form of the essay loses it dialogic character and becomes a treatise of sorts. 

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