In his critical work Decadence Richard Gilman suggests that "Decadence has always been made to function as a presumed mode of behaviour or action that stands as evidence of a withdrawal from normality" (Gilman). Oscar Wilde's "The Decay of Lying" presents us with a particularly interesting example of a decadent work, especially when considered through Gilman's formulation. Unlike the work of artists such as Aubrey Beardsley, who often plays with the grotesque (see Carter) Wilde's critical and satirical writing in "The Decay of Lying" displays "evidence of a withdrawal from normality" in its efforts to portray art as somehow finer than reality by virtue of the fact that it is a region outside of and untainted by normality. Wilde uses Vivian to argue against the prevailing literary mode of realism and suggests for example that "M. Guy de Maupassant, with his keen mordant irony and his hard vivid style, strips life of the few poor rags that still cover her, and shows us the foul sore and festering wound."

Instead he suggests that "In point of fact what is interesting about people in good society [ . . . ] is the mask that each one of them wears, not the reality that lies behind the Mask." He suggests that art reveals to us the deficiencies of nature and perfects them, so that we might see nature better:

Things are because we see them, and what we see, and how we see it, depends on the Arts that have influenced us. To look at a thing is very different from seeing a thing. One does not see anything until one sees its beauty. Then, and then only, does it come into existence. At present, people see fogs, not because there are fogs, but because poets and painters have taught them the mysterious loveliness of such effects. There may have been fogs for centuries in London. I dare say there were. But no one saw them, and so we do not know anything about them. They did not exist till Art had invented them.

Such claims fly in the face of art such as Beardsley's, whose grotesqueries cannot easily be thought of as beautiful. According to Wilde's argument "One does not see anything until one sees its beauty." However, this complex statement is not meant as literally as Vivian sets it out "There may have been fogs for centuries in London. I dare say there were. But no one saw them, and so we do not know anything about them." Wilde is clearly adopting a satirical tone throughout this piece, and the difficulty arises in treading the fine line between satire and genuine art theory. A clue might be found in Vivian's statement that "Art itself is really a form of exaggeration; and selection, which is the very spirit of art, is nothing more than an intensified mode of over-emphasis." Exaggeration and over-emphasis are everywhere in this piece -- and so too are they found in much of the work of artists like Beardsley. However, Wilde often uses his exaggeration to create a rarified atmosphere, such as Cyril's initial invitation to Vivian to come outside: "It is a perfectly lovely afternoon. The air is exquisite. There is a mist upon the woods, like the purple bloom upon a plum." The afternoon is not simply lovely, but "perfectly lovely". The air is not just fine, it is "exquisite". And finally we have the dandified image of the mist being "like the purple bloom upon a plum". Perfection is ascribed to the commonplace, and in this lies the key to much of Wilde's argument.

Vivian urges that "Art finds her own perfection within, and not outside of, herself." More than this, he suggests that therefore we should have a detached attitude towards artistic productions in order fully to appreciate them:

The only beautiful things, as somebody once said, are the things that do not concern us. As long as a thing is useful or necessary to us, or affects us in any way, either for pain or for pleasure, or appeals strongly to our sympathies, or is a vital part of the environment in which we live, it is outside the proper sphere of art. To art's subject-matter we should be more or less indifferent. We should, at any rate, have no preferences, no prejudices, no partisan feeling of any kind. It is exactly because Hecuba is nothing to us that her sorrows are such an admirable motive for a tragedy

This attitude to art, to look at it as though it were some rarefied object towards which we have no particular emotion, seems to be at odds with Vivian's assertion that art is vital to how we see and interact with the real world around us. This tension in Wilde's argument can perhaps be put to fruitful use if we examine the following claim:

Things are because we see them, and what we see, and how we see it, depends on the Arts that have influenced us. To look at a thing is very different from seeing a thing. One does not see anything until one sees its beauty. Then, and then only, does it come into existence.

This claim stands in interesting relation to Ruskin's idea that artists need to look more closely at nature in order to copy it faithfully; that they need to recognise the unusual colours and unexpected qualities in, for example, water or clouds in order to paint them powerfully. It is not enough simply to paint what we think water is, we need to look at it anew in order to bring it vividly to life on canvas (hence Ruskin's admiration of Turner, for example). I suspect that Ruskin would agree wholeheartedly with Wilde's suggestion that "To look at a thing is very different from seeing a thing." Wilde suggests that how we see a thing is dependent on the arts that reveal that thing to us. This is an extension and a complication of the Ruskinian urge to look more closely at nature before representing it in art, and it demonstrates a keen interest in the way in which art and reality interlace -- an interest at odds with the apparent claim that art should be separate from life, and that this is where its true virtue lies. Such notes in Wilde's work encourage the reader to look beyond the bravura style and to examine some of the paradoxes more closely. Just as Ruskin would have us investigate both nature and the art that purports to represent it, so Wilde seeks to penetrate more deeply the relationship between art and reality, and the ways in which art can both transcend and engage with the real world -- and perhaps even help to create it. Rather than a choice between existence "out on the hillside with Apollo" or "in the sordid streets and hideous suburbs of our vile cities" perhaps, Wilde suggests, art can enter those "sordid streets" and, as with the Impressionist rendering of the London fog, enable us to see those streets anew.

Questions

How important is it that Wilde writes this piece as a scripted dialogue? Does it affect how we read the satire at work here?

What does Wilde mean when he says "the very condition of any art is style"? Does "style" help to achieve the remoteness he valorises in a work of art?

Is the remote point of view he urges in the Hecuba comparison essential to his idea that art should enable us to look again at the world? ("To look at a thing is very different from seeing a thing.") Is detachment necessary?

Do Wilde's more ironic touches (such as the Jekyll and Hyde comparison) undermine his more serious argument?
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Last modified 28 January 2008