The Decay of Lying

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In his short essay, “The Decay of Lying,” Oscar Wilde’s medium fits his message; a controversial assertion is couched in unorthodox language. Wilde calls for a revitalization of society through Art and, more specifically, if slightly ironically, through lying. He is forced to employ an unconventional structure and style in dismissing most of the great writers of his time and in propounding Lying, “the telling of beautiful untrue things; the proper aim of Art” (87). Wilde cannot just argue for better writing and better Art, he must fashion it. Just as he uses Vivian and his own essays as examples of Art’s superiority over Nature and Life, Wilde defines himself as an artist and a work of art. “The Decay of Lying” is ironic and melancholic; it wittily dismisses the present and nostalgically recalls an idealized past. Wilde’s irony and his melancholy force us to pay attention to society’s failings, making us constantly rethink their norms as we try to unravel his point. For Wilde, the way we see defines the objects we observe just as the way we live actively shapes our thoughts on life. Wilde shapes the way we think by showing us how to see nature and demonstrates how to live by example. These implicit goals can be glimpsed in his dismissal of Nature:

For what is Nature? Nature is no great mother who has borne us. She is our creation. It is in our brain that she quickens to life. Things are because we see them, and what we see, and how we see it, depends on the Arts that have influenced us. To look at a thing is very different from seeing a thing. One does not see anything until one sees its beauty. Then, and then only, does it come into existence. (79)

With his Art and this piece leading us by example, Wilde is begging us to rediscover the artist in ourselves, to be more imaginative, more creative, more like him, and in doing so, to create Beauty. He is explaining and justifying himself just like Plato or Camus except that the “The Decay of Lying” is Art not argument, Poetry not prose. Wilde is an emotional, eccentric, hedonist artist instead of a rational, stoic, Platonic philosopher and there is much to learn from his style of writing as well as his substance.

Wilde takes a holistic approach to philosophical argument and, while this could be said of all good writers, it is particularly true of this dilettante who, in “The Decay of Lying,” is “creating an evocative piece of artistry” (Wright). This work in its entirety – its form, its examples, its very words – is an illustration of Art’s inimitability. It is not structured like a philosophical argument with key-hole, pro-con or any other such organization. Instead, it flows.

Vivian’s essay in particular is a rant more than a treatise and is itself a “beautiful untruth” (87). Wilde is lying to us and in doing so is offering the proofs for his ‘argument’: “After all, what is a fine lie? Simply that which is its own evidence” (59). Wilde does not just tell like an inept professor, making insipid, pedantic arguments, but instead shows, painting a chaotic picture. It is not simple to understand but neither are our dreams or our imaginations, in short it is not meant to be easy: “The object of Art is not simple truth but complex beauty” (68). The result draws us into something more interesting and meaningful as all Art should do. “The Decay of Lying,” taken as a whole, and even Wilde’s Self as seen through it, are examples reinforcing the importance, the superiority, of Art.

Here we, like Wilde, are speaking of Art in its broadest sense. Art is all that is the result of our imagination. Art is everything that is useless. In Wilde’s words: “The only beautiful things, as somebody once said, are the things that do not concern us. As long as a thing is useful or necessary to us…or is a vital part of the environment in which we live, it is outside the proper sphere of art” (66). Thus, the object of Wilde’s criticism is the unvarying emphasis our society puts on utility, on facts and on realism.

This is connected to his sense of nostalgia which forces him to recreate a make-believe time in the past when Art really was our foremost goal. In essence, Wilde wants us to return to a land crafted by our imaginations such as that depicted in the flowery, fantastic prose in the last speculative paragraph of Vivian’s essay:

Art…is a veil, rather than a mirror. She has flowers that no forests know of, birds that no woodland possesses. She makes and unmakes many worlds, and can draw the moon from heaven with a scarlet thread…Nature has, in her eyes, no laws, no uniformity. She can work miracles at her will, and when she calls monsters from the deep they come. (73)

Wilde is melancholic in his displeasure with his contemporaries and his descriptions of an otherworldly paradise. He anticipates the day when lies will prevail: “Out of the sea will rise Behemoth and Leviathan, and sail round the high-pooped galleys, as they do on the delightful maps of those ages when books on geography were actually readable.” (86) Wilde’s melancholy is like that of the Dadaist artists and poets; it is surreal.

Like T.S. Elliot’s “Wasteland” after WWI, he is bemoaning the decay of lying, the decay of art and society’s resulting deficit in meaningfulness. “If something cannot be done to check, or at least to modify, our monstrous worship of facts,” exclaims Wilde, “Art will become sterile, and beauty will pass away from the land.” (61) As the “Tired” Hedonist par excellence, Wilde is no longer satisfied with the realistic, factual products of his peers. Instead, Wilde is in love with the artist, unique; with her piercings and her rainbow Mohawk. Not the Brittany Spears-look-alike or the academic in his ivory tower. Wilde’s is a tower of Babel with a core of Art. Wilde would live in an imaginary space, occupied by those who celebrate – instead of denigrate – the passions. In his writing we see this land but for us to escape the world that depresses Wilde, to change our rational and real ways, we too must be creative, we too must lie.

A brief biography reveals the diverse social movements that have selected and elevated Wilde as their champion: “Attempts to appropriate or reinvent Wilde come in various shades of green, red, and pink: Wilde the Irish rebel, Wilde the subversive socialist, Wilde the gay martyr” (Wheatcroft). Yet the article concludes that he is none of these. Wilde self-consciously and intentionally defines himself as the artist, in his own terms, the “Tired Hedonist” (59). He is “writing to cultivate an unmistakable persona for himself” (Wright). In other words, Wilde is unique and insane not abstract, normal or rational. He has recreated himself as the champion of the Arts as proof that he believes in his theory of their supremacy.

To lie convincingly and to imagine persuasively we must believe that Beauty is actually more important than truth. “Just as those who do not love Plato more than Truth cannot pass beyond the threshold of the Academe,” Wilde explains, “so those who do not love Beauty more than Truth never know the inmost shrine of Art” (85). Wilde doesn’t want decadence or pop consumerism, nor Socrates in his ivory tower thinking about thinking and thinking (in the abstract). He wants us to (re)gain the meaning in our lives, in ourselves. And to do this, we have to be imaginative, we have to create, we have to lie.

Who better to model our lies after than Wilde himself? His writing – particularly his descriptions of Art and Lying – is both fantastic and beautiful. Here the most vivid examples of his imagination are let free (without allusions to others authors or nods to his contemporaries). The images Wilde depicts and the emotions he evokes are the raw material of dreams, or lies. He explains what will happen when lying prevails:

And when that day dawns, or sunset reddens, how joyous we shall all be! Facts will be regarded as discreditable, Truth will be found mourning over her fetters, and Romance, with her temper of wonder, will return to the land. The very aspect of the world will change to our startled eyes…Dragons will wander about the waste places, and the phoenix will soar from her nest of fire into the air. We shall lay our hands upon the basilisk, and see the jewel in the toad's head. Champing his gilded oats, the Hippogriff will stand in our stalls, and over our heads will float the Blue Bird singing of beautiful and impossible things, of things that are lovely and that never happen, of things that are not and that should be. (86-87)

This romantic fantasy exhibits the fanciful artistic beauty which Wilde argues has been lost. Moreover it is a Lie that exemplifies Wilde’s untruths throughout “The Decay of Lying” in its irony, melancholy and nostalgia.

Examining the above quote, and Vivian’s essay as a whole, under a lens shaped by the five doctrines of Wilde’s new aesthetics reveals a convincing interpretation of Wilde’s paper: “Art never expresses anything but itself” and Wilde is doing just that. He is expressing himself and is letting his art express, and act as evidence for, itself. Similarly, throughout Wilde bemoans the “bad art” of his contemporaries who “elevate [Life and Nature] into ideals” (86). We should aspire to create Art because Life simply imitates it as does Nature. Finally, “Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of Art” (87). It is also, significantly, Wilde’s aim and is the aim he recommends we, as artists take up.

Surmising Wilde’s method using the same lens, is similarly revealing: Frustrated with the art of his day, Wilde isolated those aspects of it which he disliked or which he thought were at the root of his contemporaries’ follies and determined his aesthetic doctrines in opposition to these faults. Because Wilde’s society was so completely obsessed with facts, truth and objectivity Wilde decided the best way to criticize it would be to advocate the opposite lies. Full of beautiful, artistic lies, but untruths nevertheless, Wilde’s piece self-consciously contrasts the writing of his contemporaries in its style, its form and its function. The result is a profound questioning of our system for ranking Art, Truth, Fact, Beauty, Life and Nature. Wilde is turning Hamlet’s mirror back on society and letting Art lead by example.

Wilde, Oscar. “The Decay of Lying.” Intentions. New York: Brentano's, 1905. (this edition unknown 57-87)

Wheatcroft, Geoffrey. “Not green, not red, not pink: Oscar Wilde cannot be simplified into an Irish rebel, a subversive socialist, or a gay martyr.” The Atlantic Monthly. v291 i4 May 2003.

Wright, Doug. “Wilde: ‘The Decay of Lying.’” Philosophy and Literature. University of Toronto, Toronto. 19 Jan. 2004.

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