n his satirical essay, “The Decay of Lying,” Oscar Wilde argues that modern British society suffers from decadence, because the sages of this time do not think imaginatively when they create literary or visual art. The realist sage produces such “dullness” (p. 5), because he associates his art with the constraining subjects and practices of reality. In order to revive society, the process of art creation must change, and a new type of sage must take over. To instill vitality into his art, he must separate his work from reality completely. He must lie. Here, Wilde introduces a new sage, an aesthetic late-nineteenth-century version of the sage, who will rescue contemporary society from its own decadence precisely because he will not accurately depict reality in his art, but will convey imagination, all that is not reality, in his art.

This new aesthetic sage, “the cultured and fascinating liar” (p. 6. replaces the realist sage, “neither the wit to exaggerate nor the genius to romance” (p. 6), and has society, “breaking from the prison-house of realism, will run to greet him, and will kiss his false, beautiful lips” (p. 6). Thus, Wilde pits aestheticism and realism against each other when he claims that the former decays society, and the latter will lead society to redemption.

Throughout the essay, Wilde describes the realists with a satirical, derogatory tone: “as for that great and daily increasing school of novelists for whom the sun always rises in the East-End, the only thing that can be said about them is that they find life crude, and leave it raw” (p. 4). On the other hand, he uses a more serious and respectful tone to describe aestheticism:

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.

Though Wilde basis his essay upon the antithetical approaches to art of aestheticism and realism, here he accidentally (or perhaps satirically) shows that realist, specifically Ruskinian, principles create the foundation for aestheticism. The idea that “things are because we see them, and what we see, and how we see it, depends on the Arts that have influenced us” (p. 6) comes from Ruskin’s semiotic theory of representation, by which Ruskin introduced the concept that most of our ideas of the visual world come from representations and not from what we see actually see—that is, we look at the natural world but we do not see it until art shows it to us.

In his attempt to dismiss realism for aestheticism, Wilde exposes that realist thought provides the foundation for aestheticism. Though Wilde argues that, “as a method, realism is a complete failure,” [p. 39] ” we see here that his argument relies upon it. The two schools do not oppose each other, as he might have liked, but in fact, one relies upon the other, and the new aesthetic stage would not have his tools without the realist sage. Thus, Wilde’s satirical style simultaneously mocks the realist sages, but also exposes the fact that the foundation of aestheticism, as he describes it, is born out of a realist principle.

Questions

1. Wilde threads paradox throughout the essay for the sake of satire. Does this take away from his introduction of aestheticism? Furthermore, do the paradoxes fall into any pattern, or does Wilde plant them in the piece at random?

2. Does the scripted style of this piece function in Wilde’s favor? Does the lopsidedness of the argument convey underlying messages about the essay as a whole, or who each character represents?

3. In his essay “A Modest Proposal,” Jonathan Swift similarly calls attention to the decadence of his society. He also offers solutions in a satirical style. However, Swift does not employ nearly the amount of paradox that Wilde does. Can we make an argument that Swift’s work is a result of Wilde’s? Furthermore, which technique more effectively communicates its satire: Swift’s direct style or Wilde’s paradoxical one?

4. Can we make an argument that Wilde’s choice to name and analyze numerous writers, painters, and members of intellectuals influenced Didion’s choice to use analysis and description of personal experiences to record the cultural time period of those persons in The White Album?

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Last modified 8 March 2011