By personifying two dueling parodies into that of two characters, Vivian and Cyril, Oscar Wilde blatantly argues for the existence of an interdependent relationship between three aspects that, in his words, define society. In an attempt to define and criticize the parasitic relationship between Art and Life, Wilde addresses the moral obligation to truth as society main flaw, the creation of Art as the true source of originality and the indistinguishable impact of Art upon Life itself.
Wilde manipulates the tension between Vivian and Cyril to intentionally place the reader within a structured verbal debate addressing the proposed argument within “The Decay of Lying.” Not only does the personification of these disparate ideas allow Wilde to solidify the validity of his argument through its defense against a critical counterargument, but it also allows the information to be more competently digested, examined, and tentatively accepted by the reader.
Using the character of Vivian as a vehicle, Wilde states that Art and lying are so indeterminably intertwined within society that “if something cannot be done to check, or at least to modify our monstrous worship of facts, Art will become sterile, and beauty will pass away from the land.” Vivian’s prose states that this demise can be attributed to the obvious conjunction between that of an artist and that of a liar. He claims that “just as the more material arts of painting and sculpture have their subtle secrets of form and colour, their craft-mysteries, their deliberate artistic methods”, so too does the liar. Both exist within, and depend on, the realm of “natural exaggeration” or “imagination” to come to fruition.
VIVIAN. Lying and poetry are arts — arts, as Plato saw, not unconnected with each other and they require the most careful study, the most disinterested devotion. Indeed, they have their technique, just as the more material arts of painting and sculpture have, their subtle secrets of form and colour, their craft-mysteries, their deliberate artistic methods. As one knows the poet by his fine music, so one can recognize the liar by his rich rhythmic utterance, and in neither case will the casual inspiration of the moment suffice. Here, as elsewhere, practice must precede perfection. But in modern days while the fashion of writing poetry has become far too common, and should, if possible, be discouraged, the fashion of lying has almost fallen into disrepute. Many a young man starts in life with a natural gift for exaggeration which, if nurtured in congenial and sympathetic surroundings, or by the imitation of the best models, [9/10] might grow into something really great and wonderful. But, as a rule, he comes to nothing. He either falls into careless habits of accuracy --
CYRIL. My dear fellow!
VIVIAN. Please don't interrupt in the middle of a sentence. "He either falls into careless habits of accuracy, or takes to frequenting the society of the aged and the well-informed. Both things are equally fatal to his imagination, as indeed they would be fatal to the imagination of anybody, and in a short time he develops a morbid and unhealthy faculty of truth-telling, begins to verify all statements made in his presence, has no hesitation in contradicting people who are much younger than himself, and often ends by writing novels which are so lifelike that no one can possibly believe in their probability. This is no isolated instance that we are giving. It is simply one example out of many; and if something cannot be done to check, or at least to modify our monstrous worship of facts, Art will become sterile, and beauty will pass away from, the land.
Wilde presents a simple solution to this death of imagination, arguing in Vivian’s prose that the only way to reverse how “the fashion of lying has almost fallen into disrepute” and thus preserve the fertility of art and the existence of beauty, lies in not only the embracement of lying, but the cultivation of it as a vital endeavor. Vivian describes this “return to [societies] lost leader, the cultured and fascinating liar,” as a natural process that will occur when civilization can no longer endure being “bored”, “tired”, and “corroborated” by the constraints of truth.
That some change will take place before [28/29] this century has drawn to its close we have no doubt whatsoever. Bored by the tedious and improving conversation of those who have neither the wit to exaggerate nor the genius to romance, tired of the intelligent person whose reminiscences are always based upon memory, whose statements are invariably limited by probability, and who is at any time liable to be corroborated by the merest Philistine who happens to be present, Society sooner or later must return to its lost leader, the cultured and fascinating liar...
Nor will he be welcomed by society alone. Art, breaking from the prison-house of realism, will run to greet him, and will kiss his false, beautiful lips, knowing that he alone is in possession of the great secret of all her manifestations, the secret that Truth is entirely and absolutely a matter of style; while Life — poor, probable, uninteresting human life — tired of repeating herself for the benefit of Mr. Herbert Spencer, scientific historians, and the compilers of statistics in general, will follow meekly after him, and try to reproduce, in her own simple and untutored way, some of the marvels of which he talks.
Wilde argues directly through Vivian’s voice that only when the liar, by societal demands, “[breaks] from the prison-house of realism” will Art “run to greet him, and will kiss his false, beautiful lips, knowing that he alone is in possession of the great secret of all her manifestations.” Precisely at that moment, Life will once again look to Art for its manifestation and “try to reproduce, in her own simple and untutored way, some of the marvels of which [the liar] talks.”
1. When comparing Ruskin’s view of architecture, to that of Wilde’s, do you think their arguments juxtapose one another? If so, why?
“The Decay of Lying” by Wilde:
If Nature had been comfortable, mankind would never have invented architecture, and I prefer houses to the open air. In a house we all feel of the proper proportions. Everything is subordinated to us, fashioned for our use and our pleasure. Egotism itself, which is so necessary to a proper sense of human dignity, is entirely the result of indoor life. Out of doors one becomes abstract and [4/5] the park here, I always feel that I am no more to her than the cattle that browse on the slope, or the burdock that blooms in the ditch.
“The Lamp of Memory” by Ruskin:
It is as the centralisation and protectress of this sacred influence, that Architecture is to be regarded by us with the most serious thought. We may live without her, and worship without her, but we cannot remember without her. How cold is all history, how lifeless all imagery, compared to that which the living nation writes, and the uncorrupted marble bears! how many pages of doubtful record might we not often spare, for a few stones left one upon another! The ambition of the old Babel builders was well directed for this world:8 there are but two strong conquerors of the forgetfulness of men, Poetry and Architecture; and the latter in some sort includes the former, and is mightier in its reality: it is well to have, not only what men have thought and felt, but what their hands have handled, and their strength wrought, and their eyes beheld, all the days of their life.”
2. Why does Wilde proves the validity of the statement “Life is Art’s Best, Art’s only pupil” through Vivian’s prose? Or does he undermine it with Cyril’s criticism?
3. Why do you think Wilde chose to present the topic in dialogue form between Vivian and Cyril as opposed to solely publishing the character of Vivian’s piece “The Decay of Lying”?
4. How can we compare Wilde’s emphasis on lying to perpetuate beauty to Beerbohm’s principle outlined in “A Defiance of Cosmetics”? Are both proponents for “lying” in order to preserve the perpetuation of beauty? Or do they attack contrary principles of “Beauty”?
Last modified 8 March 2011