scar Wilde uses satirical dialogue to convey his views on art, nature, and lying in his own conception of aesthetic theory. "The Decay of Lying" sets a scene between two characters, Vivian and Cyril (named, not so incidentally, after Wilde's two sons). Yet Vivian, the character through whom Wilde chooses to illuminate his ideas, is by far the more ridiculous of the two. Cyril opens the dialogue by inviting Vivian to "enjoy Nature" with him. Vivian replies with indignation: "Enjoy Nature! I am glad to say that I have entirely lost that faculty." Thus, an innocent invitation launches Vivian into a verbose and often ludicrous indictment of realism, with occasional interjections of Victorian shock from Cyril. In one diatribe, Vivian evokes the power of architecture over Nature, then swiftly moves through his argument to conclude that Nature is the enemy of the human mind.

CYRIL (coming in through the open window from the terrace). My dear Vivian, don't coop yourself up all day in the library. It is a perfectly lovely afternoon. The air is exquisite. There is a mist upon the woods, like the purple bloom upon a plum. Let us go and lie on the grass and smoke cigarettes and enjoy Nature.

VIVIAN. Enjoy Nature! I am glad to say that I have entirely lost that faculty. People tell us that Art makes us love Nature more than we loved her before; that it reveals her secrets to us; and that after a careful study of Corot and Constable we see things in her that had escaped our observation. My own experience is that the more we study Art, the less we care for Nature. What Art really reveals to us is Nature's lack of design, her curious crudities, her extraordinary monotony, her absolutely unfinished condition. Nature has good intentions, of course, but, as Aristotle once said, she cannot carry them out. When I look at a landscape I [3/4] our spirited protest, our gallant attempt to teach Nature her proper place. As for the infinite variety of Nature, that is a pure myth. It is not to be found in Nature himself. It resides in the imagination, or fancy, or cultivated blindness of the man who looks at her.

Cyril again attempts to lure Vivian outdoors, which invites yet another wave of criticism. This time, Vivian evokes the power of architecture over Nature, then swiftly moves through her argument to conclude that Nature is the enemy of the human mind.

CYRIL. Well, you need not look at the landscape. You can lie on the grass and smoke and talk.

VIVIAN. But Nature is so uncomfortable. Grass is hard and lumpy and damp, and full of dreadful black insects. Why, even Morris's poorest workman could make you a more comfortable seat than the whole of Nature can. Nature pales before the furniture of 'the street which from Oxford has borrowed its name,' as the poet you love so much once vilely phrased it. I don't complain. If Nature had been comfortable, mankind would never have invented architecture, and I prefer houses to the open air. In a house we all feel of the proper proportions. Everything is subordinated to us, fashioned for our use and our pleasure. Egotism itself, which is so necessary to a proper sense of human dignity, is entirely the result of indoor life. Out of doors one becomes abstract and [4/5] the park here, I always feel that I am no more to her than the cattle that browse on the slope, or the burdock that blooms in the ditch. Nothing is more evident than that Nature hates Mind. Thinking is the most unhealthy thing in the world, and people die of it just as they die of any other disease. Fortunately, in England at any rate, thought is not catching. Our splendid physique as a people is entirely due to our national stupidity. I only hope we shall be able to keep this great historic bulwark of our happiness for In any years to come; but I am afraid that we are. beginning to be overeducated; at least everybody who is incapable of learning has taken to teaching — that is really what our enthusiasm for education has come to. In the meantime, you had better go back to your wearisome uncomfortable Nature, and leave me to correct my proofs. [5/6]

Vivian is a ridiculous character who manages feats of logistic maneuvering: a discussion of architecture leads to egotism, then, as Vivian compares himself to "the cattle that browse on the slope," the national stupidity of England and an indictment of education. Although the reader is wary of believing his reasoning, he is inclined to follow it. The absurd in Vivian creates a character who is compellingly entertaining — like listening to an airheaded politician run for office. For, as Vivian states, "Who wants to be consistent?"

Questions

1. Throughout the dialogue, Vivian's friend Cyril becomes a source of questioning and at some points, even a voice of reason to counter a ridiculous argument. What purpose does this dialogue serve in executing Wilde's argument? How does it differ from a monologue from an equally ludicrous narrator, like the one found in Swift's "A Modest Proposal"?

2. Later in the dialogue Vivian reveals himself quite knowledgeable about art and literature. Does this serve to lend him unintended credibility? Does he in fact fall prey to his own accusations of politicians, who "never rise beyond the level of misrepresentation, and actually condescend to prove, to discuss, to argue"?

3. Thomas Carlyle writes, "We remove mountains, and make seas our smooth highways; nothing can resist us. We war with rude Nature; and, by our resistless engines, come off always victorious, and loaded with spoils." How do to the two discussions compare stylistically, and is one more successful than the other?


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Last modified 10 March 2011