When Cyril asks Vivian to explain why George Meredith, a supposed realist, escapes Vivian's critique of realism, Vivian delivers an eloquent defense of Meredith as a romanticist. At the end of Vivian's long paragraph, the reader is inclined to believe him, even though his arguments are not arguments at all but metaphors peppered with Wildean epigrams:
"Ah! Meredith! Who can define him? His style is chaos illuminated by flashes of lightning. As a writer he has mastered everything except language: as a novelist he can do everything except tell a story . . . Somebody in Shakespeare — Touchstone [from Shakespeare's As You Like It], I think — talks about a man who is always breaking shins over his own wit, and it seems to me that this might serve as the basis for a criticism of Meredith's method. But whatever he is, he is not a realist. Or rather I would say that he is a child of realism who is not on speaking terms with his father." [p. 5]
First, a metaphor (chaos and lightning), then an epigram (the cute paradoxes about writer and novelist), rounded off with a combination of both (the joke about child and father). In the middle is a reference, though a vague one — "Touchstone, I think." Nowhere does Vivian furnish a substantive proof of Meredith's romanticism.
1. When, if ever, would it be appropriate for a wisdom-speaker to use a metaphor in place of content-based proof? Do we forgive Ruskin, for example, his more poetic arguments?
2. "Touchstone, I think," and later "Goethe says, somewhere" are tip-offs of a satire, but throughout "Decay of Lying" Wilde cites and quotes other sources with seeming earnestness. Is he indicting or embracing the wisdom-speaker art of quoting and over-quoting?
3. The reader who is first swayed by Wilde's crafty sequence of gimmicks then takes a closer look might wonder whether he can trust a single idea expressed in this long essay. "The Decay of Lying" probably contains a few views that Wilde sincerely believed. If this is the case, why does Wilde continually ask us to disbelieve him?
Last modified 7 April 2005