Tag Archives: wilde

The Decay of Lying

“Even Mr. Robert Louis Stevenson, that delightful master of delicate and fanciful prose, is tainted with this modern vice, for we know positively no other name for it. There is such a thing as robbing a story of its reality by trying to make it too true, and The Black Arrow is so inartistic as not to contain a single anachronism to boast of, while the transformation of Dr. Jekyll reads dangerously like an experiment out of the Lancet”

“But his work is entirely wrong from beginning to end, and wrong not on the ground of morals, but on the ground of art. From any ethical standpoint it is just what it should be. The author is perfectly truthful, and describes things exactly as they happen. What more can any moralist desire?”

“It is a humiliating confession, but we are all of us made out of the same stuff. In Falstaff there is something of Hamlet, in Hamlet there is not a little of Falstaff. The fat knight has his moods of melancholy, and the young prince his moments of coarse humour. Where we differ from each other is purely in accidentals: in dress, manner, tone of voice, religious opinions, personal appearance, tricks of habit and the like. The more one analyses people, the more all reasons for analysis disappear. Sooner or later one comes to that dreadful universal thing called human nature”

“Believe me, my dear Cyril, modernity of form and modernity of subject-matter are entirely and absolutely wrong. We have mistaken the common livery of the age for the vesture of the Muses, and spend our days in the sordid streets and hideous suburbs of our vile cities when we should be out on the hillside with Apollo. Certainly we are a degraded race, and have sold our birthright for a mess of facts.”

“No doubt there will always be critics who, like a certain writer in the Saturday Review, will gravely censure the teller of fairy tales for his defective knowledge of natural history, who will measure imaginative work by their own lack of any imaginative faculty, and will hold up their ink-stained hands in horror if some honest gentleman, who has never been farther than the yew-trees of his own garden, pens a fascinating book of travels like Sir John Mandeville, or, like great Raleigh, writes a whole history of the world, without knowing anything whatsoever about the past.”

“I don’t think so. After all, what the imitative arts really give us are merely the various styles of particular artists, or of certain schools of artists. Surely you don’t imagine that the people of the Middle Ages bore any resemblance at all to the figures on medieval stained glass, or in medieval stone and wood carving, or on medieval metal-work, or tapestries, or illuminated MSS. They were probably very ordinary-looking people, with nothing grotesque, or remarkable, or fantastic in their appearance. The Middle Ages, as we know them in art, are simply a definite form of style, and there is no reason at all why an artist with this style should not be produced in the nineteenth century. No great artist ever sees things as they really are. If he did, he would cease to be an artist. Take an example from our own day. I know that you are fond of Japanese things. Now, do you really imagine that the Japanese people, as they are presented to us in art, have any existence? If you do, you have never understood Japanese art.”

Oscar Wilde, “The Decay of Lying” in Intentions (New York: Brentano’s, 1905), [10, 13, 15, 19, 29, 46].
This piece really resonated with me for a lot of reasons, particularly because of this thread (which I’ve sampled with a few quotations) that Wilde explored throughout the middle portion of the piece. It totally formalized the reason behind some of my current artistic interests – specifically, rap music (even more specifically, Kanye West, both for his music (even even more specifically, sorry, his most recent albums: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Yeezus) and for his larger-than-life persona) and Japanese repro clothing. I’m endlessly fascinated with invented realities and forged nostalgia.




American Truth Limiting Our Imagination

“The crude commercialism of America, its materializing spirit, its indifference to the poetical side of things, and its lack of imagination and of high unattainable ideals, are entirely due to that country having adopted for its national hero a man, who according to his own confession, was incapable of telling a lie, and it is not too much to say that the story of George W. Washington and the cherry-tree has done more harm, and in a shorter space of time, than any other moral tale in the whole of literature.”

Wilde, Oscar. “The Decay of Lying.” In Intentions. London: James McIlvaine, 1891. Cambridge: Chadwyck-Healey, 1999. Page 27.

The conversation between Englishmen shifted to our many American faults (they’re still bitter about the whole colony thing) when Vivian read this passage of his article. The morality that comes along with idolizing a man who cannot lie is said to shape our American society. The duality of the ideas of a “lack of imagination”, and “high unattainable ideals” is interesting in this excerpt because in order to dream up these unreachable ideals, one would need to think outside the box, thus showing a clear and present representation of imagination.

Fictional Characters

“The only real people are the people who never existed, and if a novelist is base enough to go to life for his personages he should at least pretend that they are creations, and not boast of them as copies.  The justification of a character in a novel is not that other persons are what they are, but that the author is what he is.  Otherwise the novel is not a work of art.”

-from page 14 of The Decay of Lying by Oscar Wilde, edition published in 1905 by Brentano’s in New York.  Retrieved from digital copy at: https://archive.org/details/intentionsdecayo00wild

I think it’s impossible for a fictional character to truly be a “copy”, even when inspired by a real person.  The best it can be is a representation of how the author imagines that person, or a lie.  The character is still a person who never existed.

The Decay of Lying

Wilde, The Decay of Lying  http://www.online-literature.com/wilde/1307/

“CYRIL. Whom do you mean by ‘the elect’?
VIVIAN. Oh, The Tired Hedonists, of course. It is a club to which
I belong. We are supposed to wear faded roses in our button-holes
when we meet, …

CYRIL. Well, I should fancy you are all a good deal bored with
each other.
VIVIAN. We are. This is one of the objects of the club.”

This reminds me of high school and of people being together with other people they neither like nor dislike just for the sake of being together. Just with the word “tired” in her club name, everything else Vivian explains or speaks of after makes her seem jaded and pompous. I can literally hear her dramatic and “wistful” sigh.







High and Low Lies

They never rise beyond the level of misrepresentation, and actually condescend to prove, to discuss, to argue. How different from the temper of the true liar, with his frank, fearless statements, his superb irresponsibility, his healthy, natural disdain of proof of any kind! After all, what is a fine lie? Simply that which is its own evidence. If a man is sufficiently unimaginative to produce evidence in support of a lie, he might just as well speak the truth at once.”

Oscar Wilde. “The Decay of Lying” in Intentions (London James R. Osgood McIlvaine & Co., 1889) 6

This is interesting to me because it calls out the difference between what Wilde was discussing, important lies, and the base lies of politics.

lying as an art form

One of the chief causes that can be assigned for the curiously commonplace character of most of the literature of our age is undoubtedly the decay of Lying as an art, a science, and a social pleasure” 

Vivian starts the discussion by expressing her feelings on how nature is flawed and mundane. She then leads into a discussion where she relates lies to works of art in that the observer can be captivated if done artfully. The “decay of lying” that she refers to in the quote can serve to say that she is seeing less originality and art in her time. Rather, things seem to be ordinary and mundane to Vivian. It is interesting for Vivian to refer to lying as a “social pleasure” because it reveals an uncommon viewpoint of the act of lying. Usually, people view lying as something horrible, but Vivian discusses lying as something that keeps variety in society adds interest as well as makes interesting people.

Imagination and Lying

“The moment Art surrenders it’s imaginative medium, it surrenders everything.  As a method Realism is a complete failure, and the two things that every artist should avoid are modern it of form and modernity of subjectmatter.  To us, who live in the nineteenth century, any century is a suitable subject for art except our own.  The only beautiful things are the things that do not concern us.”

Wilde, Oscar. “The Decay of Lying.” archive.org/stream/intentionsdecayo00wild. April 2008. September 2014.

This passage stuck out because, throughout much of this passage, I found Vivian annoying until the connection is made that imagination and lying are synonymous.  Art is a product of human imagination and it takes some truth bending to accomplish that.

Art vs. Nature

“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.”

Oscar Wilde The Decay of Lying in Intentions. , London, Methuen & Co. (1913) page 2

The argument that art would not occur if humans were one with nature is pretty insightful. Art is an occurrence due to our dissatisfaction with nature and our ability to act upon that.

What makes a character fictional or not?

“In literature we require distinction, charm, beauty, and imaginative power. We don’t want to be harrowed and disgusted with an account of the doings of the lower orders…The only real people are the people who never existed, and if a novelist is base enough to go to life for his personages he should at least pretend that they are creations, and not boast of them as copies. The justification of a character in a novel is not that other persons are what they are, but that the author is what he is. Otherwise the novel is not a work of art.”

Oscar Wilde, The Decay of Lying. http://literature.proquest.com.proxy.libraries.rutgers.edu/searchFulltext.do?id=Z000731336&divLevel=0&area=prose&DurUrl=Yes&forward=textsFT&queryType=findWork

Here, the character Vivian explains how the “real people” (or characters) in novels are simply based on imagination. However, if the novelist decides to involve a person whom he or she knows within their text, they must “pretend” they are not real, or pretend they are “creations,” since if they include a real person, the novel would not be considered fiction — which, in this case, would not be considered “a work of art.”