In Wilde's "The Decay of Lying," his character Vivian makes a case for life imitating art rather than art imitating life, claiming that "Life is Art's best, Art's only pupil." Vivian expresses a strong distaste for modern, realist art, which in his mind sets a bad example for life to follow, a departure from "the dignify of Pheidias as well as the grace of Praxiteles." Vivian sums up,
All that I desire to point out is the general principle that Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life, and I feel sure that if you think seriously about it you will find that it is true. Life holds the mirror up to Art, and either reproduces some strange type imagined by painter or sculptor, or realises in fact what has been dreamed in fiction. Scientifically speaking, the basis of life - the energy of life, as Aristotle would call it — is simply the desire for expression, and Art is always presenting various forms [40/41] through which this expression can be attained. Life seizes on them and uses them, even if they be to her own hurt. Young men have committed suicide because Rolla did so, have died by their own hand because by his own hand Werther died. Think of what we owe to the imitation of Christ, of what we owe to the imitation of Cæsar.
Not content to state that people imitate art in their lives, Vivian goes on to describe how even nature imitates art. "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?" he asks. Although this seems a strange proposition at first, Vivian goes on to explain that while nature itself does not imitate art, humans' perception of nature, which in the end proves most important, reacts strongly to art. "For what is Nature? Nature is no great mother who has borne us. She is our creation. It is in our brain that he 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," he notes.
Describing a few other ways in which life imitates art, Vivian concludes, "Art never expresses anything but itself." This, he explains, not only gives art its glory over life, but also makes up part of doctrine of the aesthetics. Indeed, at the very end of "The Decay of Lying," both characters come to accept the believes of the aesthetics, and as they step out into the evening, Vivian, stating her point one last time, closes with, "At twilight nature becomes a wonderfully suggestive effect, and is not without loveliness, though perhaps its chief use is to illustrate quotations from the poets."
1. Amongst other things, Vivian describes the dangers of youngsters imitating the stories they read:
The most obvious and the vulgarest form in which this is shown is in the case of [34/35] the silly boys who, after reading the adventures of Jack Sheppard or Dick Turpin, pillage the stalls of unfortunate apple-women, break into sweet-shops at night, and alarm old gentlemen who are returning home from the city by leaping out on them in suburban lanes, with black masks and unloaded revolvers.
The United States Surgeon General apparently agrees completely with Wilde:
A substantial body of research now indicates that exposure to media violence increases children's physically and verbally aggressive behavior in the short term (within hours to days of exposure). Media violence also increases aggressive attitudes and emotions, which are theoretically linked to aggressive and violent behavior. Findings from a smaller body of longitudinal studies suggest a small but statistically significant impact on aggression over many years.
How relevant do Vivian's claims prove in today's world? Does Vivian's explanation of the effect seem accurate?
2. Vivian argues for the use of lying as a tool for the imagination to create a more beautiful world than that in which we live. How does this conception of deception compare to that Beerbohm presents in The "Pervasion of Rouge," where he argues,
And, truly, of all the good things that will happen with the full revival of cosmetics, one of the best is that surface will finally be severed from soul. That damnable confusion will be solved by the extinguishing of a prejudice which, as I suggest, itself created. [116/117] Too long has the face been degraded from its rank as a thing of beauty to a mere vulgar index of character or emotion...And the use of cosmetics, the masking of the face, will change this. We shall gaze at a woman merely because she is beautiful, not stare into her face anxiously, as into the face of a barometer.
How do the two authors expect readers to react to their essays?
3. What about Wilde's style conveys to the reader his intention in writing "The Decay of Lying"? Do the characters present Wilde's actual point of view?
4. After Romanticism, which reveled in the natural as a response to the growing coldness of the industrial world, what movement or various factors brought on aestheticism? Why did people shift towards a spiritual detachment from beauty? How were the Aesthetes received by most Victorians?
"Youth Violence: A Report of the Surgeon General," Appendix 4-B, http://www.surgeongeneral.gov/library/youthviolence/chapter4/appendix4bsec3.html 23 April 2009.
Last modified 23 April 2009