In "The Decay of Lying," Vivian deplores nature for its "lack of design, her curious crudities, her extraordinary monotony, her absolutely unfinished condition" and for not furnishing the egotism "which is so necessary to a proper sense of human dignity." Above all, nature hinders man's creative nature:

If we take Nature to mean natural simple instinct as opposed to self-conscious culture, the work produced under this influence is always old-fashioned, antiquated, and out of date. One touch of Nature may make the whole world kin, but two touches of Nature will destroy any work of Art. If, on the other band, we regard Nature as the collection of phenomena external to man, people only discover in her what they bring to her. She has no suggestions of her own.

Vivian's argument seems absurd; how can nature impair the creativity of its creation? Yet this — as well as the presentation of a typical vice, egoism, as a virtue — exemplifies Wilde's skillful liar who "can make the worse appear the better cause." Vivian's controversial discourse persuades and entertains the reader, just as a good liar should:

For the aim of the liar is simply to charm, to delight, to give pleasure. He is the very basis of civilised society, and without him a dinner party, even at the mansions of the great, is as dull as a lecture at the Royal Society.

In contrast, authors such as Dickens who write with a social agenda remove a work from "the proper sphere of art" by focusing on a perceived reality in nature rather than art itself (which is the most real). According to Vivian, they may "try to improve the conditions of the race by means of good air, free sunlight, wholesome water, and hideous bare buildings for the better housing of the lower orders. But these things merely produce health, they do not produce beauty." Once again, Wilde's character creates a stir by challenging accepted notions.

Questions

1. Do Vivian's exaggerated statements function chiefly as a rhetorical tool? At what point does one draw the line between Vivian's character and Wilde's opinions? In real life, did Wilde value authentic art over shelter and food?

2. Wilde states that the popular painters of his time "are doomed to absolute oblivion. They never paint what they see. They paint what the public sees, and the public never sees anything." "The true decadence" of England occurs when "Life gets the upper hand" in such a way. Wilde used this logic in his 1891 essay "The Soul of Man Under Socialism," writing, "an artist in England gains something by being attacked. His individuality is intensified. He becomes more completely himself" (23). In arguing that the public does not readily accept the most authentic artists, did Wilde aim to praise and defend himself? Though, considering Wilde fashioned "The Decay of Lying" to persuade the public of his ideas, doesn't the essay inherently please public opinion?

3. Wilde borrows the central argument of "The Decay of Lying" — "l'art pour l'art" — among other concepts introduced by writers such as Pater and Gautier. In general, did contemporary critics consider Wilde's beliefs very original — or did they find both his adaptation and outright rejection of others' ideas unexceptional? For example, G.R. Carpenter's "Three Critics: Howells, Moore, and Wilde," an 1891 article in The Andover Review, describes Wilde's essay as "half Platonic, half after Renan" as well as "astonishing and almost revolting." Carpenter furthermore finds Wilde's refusal to agree with public opinion ineffective: "His first object is to bewilder. What he states is the exact opposite of the accepted truth. One's eyes grow large with wonder, or one smiles with an easy contempt and declines to give further time to the discussion of a thesis so ridiculous." Did other critics voice Carpenter's opinion? Even so, did Wilde aim for this type of reaction — which, following his own logic, opportunely renders him a "true" artist?

4. Wilde labeled Swinburne "a braggart in matters of vice, who had done everything he could to convince his fellow citizens of his homosexuality and bestiality without being in the slightest degree a homosexual or a bestializer" ("A Swinburne Biography). How do Swinburne and Wilde each convey contempt for public opinion in their works? Do they share similar lying techniques? For example, in Swineburne's "Laus Veneris, Tannhauser makes "the worse appear the better cause" by providing a sympathetic presentation of his sinful love and corresponding fall from grace:

And I forgot fear and all weary things,
All ended prayers and perished thanksgivings,
Feeling her face with all her eager hair
Cleave to me, clinging as a fire that clings

To the body and to the raiment, burning them;
As after death I know that such-like flame
Shall cleave to me for ever; yea, what care,
Albeit I burn then, having felt the same?

Ah love, there is no better life than this;
To have known love, how bitter a thing it is,
And afterward be cast out of God's sight

References

Carpenter, G.R. "Three Critics: Howells, Moore, and Wilde" The Andover Review (1891). Google Books. 22 April 2009.

Wilde, Oscar. "The Soul of Man Under Socialism." Google Books. 22 April 2009.


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Last modified 23 April 2009