Alhough in "The Decay of Lying" Oscar Wilde separates himself from earlier sages in his opening through his flippant tone and liberal use of satire, Cyril and Vivian's initial exchange serves much the same purpose as any of Ruskin's or Carlyle's better known introductions. Cyril and Vivian open as two dueling parodies of real opposing viewpoints. The effect is to have the reader dismiss both characters as foolish caricatures. Cyril remains a lightweight, but Vivian's argument develops into a surprisingly sincere call for a rebellion against realism through the revival of imagination. Wilde has found a new twist on an old technique — bring the reader's guard down by discrediting the speaker, then bring out the real argument when it is no longer expected. Nobody takes a clown seriously, so an ordinarily skeptical reader might be willing to hear an argument from Vivian where he would dismiss the same idea from Wilde. Consider Carlyle's criticism of prophets before making his own predictions in "Signs of the Times," or Ruskin's dismissal of architectural criticism before doing just that. A little selfdeprecating humor goes a long way.
CYRIL (coming in through the open window from the terrace). My dear Vivian, don't coop yourself up all day in the library. It is a perfectly lovely afternoon. The air is exquisite. There is a mist upon the woods, like the purple bloom upon a plum. Let us go and lie on the grass and smoke cigarettes and enjoy Nature.
VIVIAN. Enjoy Nature! I am glad to say that I have entirely lost that faculty. People ten us that Art makes us love Nature more than we loved her before; that it reveals her secrets to us; and that after a careful study of Corot and Constable we see things in her that had escaped our observation. My own experience is that the more we study Art, the less we care for Nature. What Art really reveals to us is Nature's lack of design, her curious crudities, her extraordinary monotony, her absolutely unfinished condition. Nature has good intentions, of course, but, as Aristotle once said, she cannot carry them out. When I look at a landscape 1 [3/4] our spirited protest, our gallant attempt to teach Nature her proper place. As for the infinite variety of Nature, that is a pure myth. It is not to be found in Nature herself It resides "in the imagination, or fancy, or cultivated blindness of the man who looks at her.
At the same time, the dialogue device becomes more of a burden on Wilde's piece after the opening. He seems to tire of it as well, as Cyril does little more than narrate after opening the essay.
1. Is Wilde's combination of the techniques of satirists and sages really an advancement, or just muddling the two into an ineffective mess?
2. What effect on Wilde's argument does putting his words in Vivian's mouth have?
3. Why does he insist on continuing with Cyril long after he has outlived his usefulness?
Last modified 17 March 2002