Should art imitate life, or should life imitate art? This is the question that Oscar Wilde attempts to tame in his essay "The Decay of Lying." His essay is written in the form of a dialogue between two men, Cyril and Vivian, in which Vivian discusses his beliefs about the loss of imagination in the world and in the arts.
Wilde's essay begins simply with Cyril asking the cynical Vivian if he would like to sit outside and enjoy nature. Vivian's answer is quite unexpected and it takes him seventeen pages to fully explain to Cyril why he certainly does not and cannot want to sit out side. He protests that nature is uncomfortable and the antithesis of art and imagination, claiming that most modern literature and culture have been ruined by man's pursuit of nature and her unfaltering vow to uphold absolute reality.
Vivian reminisces about finer times in the arts, when "lying" and imagination were seen as beauty and creativity:
Take the case of the English drama. At first in the hands of the monks Dramatic Art was abstract, decorative and mythological. Then she enlisted Life in her service, and using some of life's external forms, she created an entirely new race of beings, whose sorrows were more terrible than any sorrow man has ever felt, whose joys were keener than lover's joys, who had the rage of the Titans and the calm of the gods, who had monstrous and marvellous sins, monstrous and marvellous virtues. To them she gave a language different from that of actual use, a language full of resonant music and sweet rhythm, made stately by solemn cadence, or made delicate by fanciful rhyme, jeweled with wonderful words, and enriched with lofty diction. She clothed her children in strange raiment and gave them masks, and at her bidding the antique world rose from its marble tomb. A new Cæsar stalked through the streets of risen Rome, and with purple sail. and flute-led oars another Cleopatra passed up the river to Antioch. Old myth and legend and dream took shape and substance. History was entirely re-written, and there was hardly one of the dramatists who did not recognize that the object of Art is not simple truth but complex beauty. In this they were perfectly right. 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.
Wilde explores many remarkable ideas about the role and existence of imagination in society and art, yet he leaves us with many more questions. Through the guise of the morose and intrepid Vivian he challenges us to probe our own beliefs regarding the value of truth, lying, and literature.
1. Although we can not truly know if Vivian represented Wilde's own beliefs, he does argue that "as long as something 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." As a sage writer, and a writer of non-fiction is Wilde stating that he does not view his own writings as art?
2. Wilde uses the term "lying" to mean imagination and expounds upon the virtues of "the cultured and fascinating liar." As "lying" is viewed as something quite immoral and shameful, does Wilde's use of this terminology to mean something admirable take away from the clarity of his argument ?
3. As an aside, in the middle of his essay, Wilde begins to discuss the realism of many modern characters in plays and states that "they would pass unnoticed in a third-class railway carriage." What does it really take to be an epic character? With an interesting plot, and skilled prose could we all be Jay Gatsby's or Anna Kareninans?
Last modified 16 October 2003