In "The Decay of Lying," Wilde launches an attack on the rise of modernism in art through the character of Vivian. It is the plainness and "dull facts" of modern literature that Vivian sites in his argument against the modern novelist. Through the piece, a clear position is established in favor of the imagination over the dullness of realism in modern art. This position is complicated, however, by Vivian's primary explanation of his stance. In explaining why he does not want to venture outside, he says "In a house we all feel of the proper proportions. Everything is subordinated to us, fashioned for our use and pleasure." The concept of subordinating material possessions and defining oneself by reference to that which is man-made is a very high-modern one (it could even be argued to be postmodern in its reference to proportioning humans by their own architecture).
Vivian goes on to discuss the club which he is a member of and which heralds his artistic perspective. When Cyril says that he "should fancy you are all a good deal bored with eachother," Vivian responds that "That is one of the objects of the club." Here, it seems that Wilde is poking fun at high-modernism/postmodernism again, but by laying the fault on Vivian himself. The idea that the object of the club is to achieve boredom through the discussion of no new or original ideas is a theme which could be read as distinctly postmodern in it's constant self-referentiality. The members of the club are trapped within their modern critical perspective and cannot move beyond their unifying view.
Soon after this interchange, Vivian accuses Robert Louis Stevenson of being tainted "with this modern vice" because he "is so inartistic as not to contain a single anachronism" in his fiction. The irony in Vivian's protestation lies in the fact that anachronism is now coined as a prominent element of the postmodern — an inevitability of the "modern vice" he detests.
Vivian's argument against the rise of modernism in "The Decay of Lying" is in many ways reminiscent of a work of critical modern deconstruction. He even mentions that he is writing the article for the "revived" "Retrospective Review," clearly a critical publication (in this case, already twice removed). His breakdown of literary form, author by author, as well as the general structuring of critical analysis could be read as a very modern methodology. In short, the prose doesn't fit the argument.
What is at stake in Wilde's opposition of form and content?
Is Vivian's argument meant to be ironic at points in order to highlight the weakness of her stance, or is Wilde commenting on the ability of the modern to penetrate through everything — even those who oppose it?
Last modified 14 March 2002