It is unsurprising that Oscar Wilde favored aestheticism. A universal judgment of beauty indifferent to social and ethical conventions was an ideal potential for a closeted homosexual writer in late-nineteenth-century England. Aestheticism could serve as an artistic safe-haven for Wilde, freeing him momentarily from his unhappy marriage and sexual repression. It was also a new entrance point for the public to appreciate art, removed from preconceived notions of value. However, this aesthetic theory is Immanuel Kant's, published in 1790, almost one hundred years prior to Wilde's satirical critique 'The Decay of Lying' (1889). Kant's theory was not happily realized, as evidenced by Wilde's sharply wielded satirical perspective. His character Vivian's simultaneous espousal of aestheticism and lying exemplifies his own social cynicism:

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 fro, the land.

It is hard to trust a character who calls for more lying, but since the text is in dialogue rather than straightforward prose, Wilde simultaneously undermines and strengthens his characters' reliablity in witty, telling deception.

Discussion Questions

1. Vivian, in his article, writes: 'Art begins with abstract decoration with purely imaginative and pleasurable work dealing with what is unreal and non-existent.' How does the construction of this sentence serve to further abstract art?

2. Would the text be stronger or weaker if Cyril spoke more?

3. Vivian refers to numerous authors and philosophers, yet Wilde mentions Plato only once in an outrageous analogy, and he doesn't cite Kant whatsoever. Why not?

4. Vivian is often hypocritical, within his article and in his speech between reading, as shown above. Vivian justifies his hypocrisy, exclaiming, 'Who wants to be consistent?' Are Vivian's 'whims' foolhardy or profound? Do his inconsistencies leave the reader with a firm idea?

Last modified 24 October 2007