In his dialogue "The Decay of Lying," Oscar Wilde frames his argument in favor of the resurrection of the art of lying in the character of Vivian. In the passage below, Vivian describes the essential role of Art, the ultimate liar, in creating the Life we see around us, arguing that "one does not see anything until one sees its beauty." Wilde toys with the relationship between nature and its representation by using Art itself — that is, the fictional character of Vivian — to present this argument, and in the passage below Wilde subtly places Vivian himself in the roles of both Art and Life. As an ostensibly realistic figure modeled after the average intellectual, Vivian, in discussing his perceptions of London fogs and "white quivering sunlight," plays the role of Life by reacting to Art just as he claims that all Life does: his impressions of the natural world come from what he has experienced in the artificial medium of Art. However, as Wilde's own creation, Vivian also acts as a form of the Art of which he speaks, and his own argument dictates that he must participate in the artistic creation of Life itself.
Where, if not from the Impressionists, do we get those wonderful brown fogs that come creeping down our streets, blurring the gas-lamps and changing the houses into monstrous shadows? To whom, if not to them and their master, do we owe the lovely silver mists that brood over our river, and turn to faint forms of fading grace curved bridge and swaying barge? The extraordinary change that has taken place in the climate of London during the last ten years is entirely due to a particular school of Art. You smile. Consider the matter from a scientific or a metaphysical [41/42] point of view, and you will find that I am right. For what is Nature? Nature is no great mother who has borne us. She is our creation. It is in our brain that she quickens to life. 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. Now, it must be admitted, fogs are carried to excess. They have become the mere mannerism of a clique, and the exaggerated realism of their method gives dull people bronchitis. Where the cultured catch an effect, the uncultured catch cold. And so, let us be humane, and invite Art to turn her wonderful eyes elsewhere. She has done so already, indeed. That white quivering sunlight that one sees now in France, with its strange blotches of mauve, and its restless violet shadows, is her latest fancy, and, on the whole, [42/43] Nature reproduces it quite admirably. Where she used to give us Corots and Daubignys, she gives us now exquisite Monets and entrancing Pisaros. Indeed there are moments, rare, it is true, but still to be observed from time to time, when Nature becomes absolutely modern.
By writing such a discourse from the perspective of a fictional character, Wilde skillfully exposes the complex relationship between Art and Life. The single character of Vivian, as he fills the roles of both participants, represents the dependence of Art on Life and vice versa, and reveals to readers the essential inextricability of "the telling of beautiful untrue things" (page 15) from our perception of the world around us.
1. Wilde, through Vivian, directly contradicts the common notion of Mother Nature, saying that "Nature is no great mother who has born us. She is our creation." Does such a radical departure from common thought alienate readers, or is it likely to draw them into the author's ideas?
2. Why does Wilde choose to capitalize Art and Life throughout? How does this choice relate to the characterization of the two entities and their encapsulation within Vivian? Grammatical conventions of their respective eras aside, how might Wilde's capitalization choices differ from those of Johnson, Carlyle, or Ruskin?
3. In Vivian's voice, Wilde writes that "There may have been fogs for centuries in London. I dare say there were." Why does the author add this personal qualification of the former statement? How do such examples of first-person narration in this passage compare to similar narration in the works of Didion or Wolfe?
4. Why does Wilde mention the names of specific painters toward the end of this passage? Do these examples simply support nature's adaptation to the art of the times, or do they have a further effect on readers and their interpretation of Wilde's argument?
Last modified 24 October 2007