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The Decay of Lying: A Close Reading of Oscar Wilde

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Natasha Randhawa

on 25 March 2014

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Transcript of The Decay of Lying: A Close Reading of Oscar Wilde

The Decay of Lying:

A Close Reading of Oscar Wilde

ABOUT OSCAR
He lived to the age of 46, and died of meningitis
spot the
"i think god, in creating man, somewhat overestimated his ability."
"We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars."
"people know the price of everything and the value of nothing."
1854-1900
critical reception
difference?
‘Our splendid physique as a people is entirely due to our national stupidity. I only hope we shall be able to keep this great historic bulwark of our happiness for in any years to come’ Vivian. The Decay of Lyin
g
There is an obvious likeness between Vivian and Wilde

characters
‘English common sense is an inherited stupidity of fathers’ Oscar Wilde
The battle between Romanticism and Realism which takes place in the text is symbolised in the power struggle between the friends
Vivian speaks in strong statements, assumes control

‘Come! We have talked long enough’

main arguments
As Vivian states there are 4 main arguments to the piece which are provided

1. Art never expresses anything but itself
2. Bad art is a result of taking Life and Nature and elevating them into ideals
3. Life imitates Art much more than Art imitates Life
4. Lying, the telling of beautiful untruthful things, is the aim of Art

1. Art never expresses anything but itself
Linked to vanity of individuals and nations
‘always under the impression that it is of them that the Muses are talking’

Spirit of Art is unrelated to individuals
‘The highest art rejects the burden of the human spirit’

Art stands alone
‘She is not symbolic of any age. It is the ages that are her symbols’

2. Bad art is a result of taking Life and Nature and elevating them into ideals
True beauty comes from things that do not concern us

‘the mere fact that they are interested in these things makes them unsuitable subjects for Art’

The true state should be indifference
When we focus upon Life and Nature the work suffers

‘work has always become vulgar, common and uninteresting’

3. Life imitates Art much more than Art imitates Life
Challenges the perception that Art is the reflection of the reality of Life

‘But you don’t mean to say that you seriously believe that Life imitates Art, that Life in fact is the mirror, and Art the reality’

‘Certainly I do’

Art is needed to produce beauty from Life; Life learns from Art not visa versa

‘Life is Art’s best, Art’s only pupil’

The basic human desire that we have is for expression; something that Art provides

4. Lying, the telling of beautiful untruthful things, is the aim of Art
Life imitates art more than art imitates life.
Wilde insinuates that Life is powerless in this dynamic.
The ‘beauty’ that we find from life comes as a result of Art otherwise it would not be there. Life reflects Art and its beauty. Wilde lays the blame of this at the feet of humankind.
Mankind has an intrinsic need to find expression and this expression is provided for us by Art therefore we are entirely in its favour.
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 tell 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 I [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.

CYRIL. Well, you need not look at the landscape. You can lie on the grass and smoke and talk.

VIVIAN. But Nature is so uncomfortable. Grass is hard and lumpy and damp, and full of dreadful black insects. Why, even Morris's poorest workman could make you a more comfortable seat than the whole of Nature can. Nature pales before the furniture of 'the street which from Oxford has borrowed its name,' as the poet you love so much once vilely phrased it. I don't complain. 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. Nothing is more evident than that Nature hates Mind. Thinking is the most unhealthy thing in the world, and people die of it just as they die of any other disease. Fortunately, in England at any rate, thought is not catching. Our splendid physique as a people is entirely due to our national stupidity. I only hope we shall be able to keep this great historic bulwark of our happiness for In any years to come; but I am afraid that we are. beginning to be overeducated; at least everybody who is incapable of learning has taken to teaching — that is really what our enthusiasm for education has come to. In the meantime, you had better go back to your wearisome uncomfortable Nature, and leave me to correct my proofs.
As a twenty-first-century reader of Wilde's "The Decay of Lying," I was not particularly struck by the originality of his ideas about art because much of the last century's literature has seemingly subscribed to that tired maxim: "Art for Art's sake". Putting Wilde's ideological assertions to one side, then, I was most struck by his uninspiring style and his intellectual insecurity. The dramatic dialogue that structures the essay is poorly constructed and executed, and, what is more, Wilde seems more concerned with dropping names than with clearly explaining his arguments. Wilde might counter that as an artist he is in the privileged position of not having to rationally argue his point because he is supposed to lie. This reasonable response, however, only puts more pressure on his style and his genius. Unfortunately, these qualities, which he praises highly in his work, seem absent in the work itself.

The stupidity of Wilde's dramatic dialogue and the banality of his wit is thoroughly apparent in the following passage:

Many a young man starts life with a natural gift for exaggeration which, if nurtured in congenial and sympathetic surroundings, or by the imitation of the best models, 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...

And on and on for 13 more pages. Wilde's only excuse for writing such a horrible passage, in light of the scathing remarks he makes against other authors, is that he is establishing an ironic distance between himself as author and his literary creations. I don't believe this to be the case, however, and even if it were Wilde needs a good spanking rather than our praise as a "literary genius". Does anyone find useful ideas in this essay? Does anyone find literary techniques that Wilde uses with more skill than other authors we have read? Is Wilde's style, contrary to my feelings, good? Does he use the dramatic dialogue with good effect?
Why Wilde is not a Genius

Jeffrey Fronza, English 171 (Sages and Satirists, 2002), Brown University
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