The Decay of Lying by Oscar Wilde
Author: Oscar Wilde
Genre: Non-fiction, Essay
“The Decay of Lying” is a thought-provoking essay by renowned Irish playwright, poet, and author Oscar Wilde, presented in the form of a dialogue between two characters, Vivian and Cyril. Written in 1889, it was published in a collection titled “Intentions” in 1891. The work is a spirited defense of the art of lying, particularly in the context of art and literature, and a critique of the dogged pursuit of objective truth and realism.
1. The Decay of Lying Introduction
“The Decay of Lying” pushes the notion that art should be autonomous and removed from strict adherence to reality. Wilde proposes that life imitates art more than art imitates life, a reversal of the conventional belief. Wilde critiques the then-popular movement of realism in literature, arguing that it reduces the quality of art. Instead, he champions the role of imagination and artifice in creating art. He celebrates the idea that art is most successful when it is least beholden to the strictures of verisimilitude.
The dialogue is replete with Wilde’s characteristic wit, paradoxes, and epigrams. As is common in much of his work, he employs humor and irony to underscore serious philosophical and aesthetic ideas. “The Decay of Lying” can be seen as a reflection of Wilde’s own aesthetic beliefs and is central to the aestheticism movement of the late 19th century, which advocated “art for art’s sake” and prioritized beauty and form over moral or political messages.
2. The Decay of Lying Summary
In this conversation between Cyril and Vivian, Vivian encourages Cyril to leave the library and enjoy the lovely afternoon outdoors. However, Vivian expresses his disillusionment with the idea of enjoying nature, arguing that the more people study art, the less they care for nature. He believes that art reveals the imperfections and lack of design in nature and that nature’s supposed infinite variety is a myth created by the imagination of those who look at it.
Cyril suggests they can still enjoy the outdoors by lying on the grass, smoking, and talking. Vivian, however, finds nature uncomfortable and prefers the comfort of indoor life, emphasizing the egotism and human dignity that come with it. He even suggests that thinking is an unhealthy activity and that the English people’s national stupidity contributes to their splendid physique.
Their conversation then shifts to the topic of art and lying. Vivian is writing an article titled “The Decay of Lying: A Protest” and believes that lying in art is essential. He criticizes modern literature for its obsession with facts and realism, arguing that modern novelists have lost the art of lying creatively. He suggests that art should be a realm of imagination and beauty, not just a reflection of mundane reality.
Cyril challenges some of Vivian’s critiques, mentioning authors like George Meredith and Balzac as examples of realists in literature. Vivian concedes that these authors were masters of their craft but argues that pure modernity of form in art can be vulgarizing and that true beauty lies in things that do not directly concern us.
Vivian argues that life imitates art more than art imitates life. He starts by suggesting that literature should be enjoyable to read repeatedly, and this enjoyment is a measure of its artistic value. He questions the idea that returning to “Life and Nature” is a panacea for art, asserting that Nature doesn’t offer originality but merely reflects what individuals bring to it. He uses Wordsworth as an example of how Nature doesn’t create art, but the artist uses Nature for inspiration.
Vivian then delves into the historical progression of art, stating that art begins with abstract decoration and imaginative work and later incorporates elements of life, creating new forms and ignoring reality in favor of beautiful style. He mentions that life eventually takes over, leading to artistic decadence. He provides examples from the English drama to illustrate this shift.
The conversation then turns to the role of lying in art. Vivian suggests that lying is a fundamental aspect of art, and he anticipates a return to the “cultured and fascinating liar” as a societal figure. He argues that truth is a matter of style and that life imitates art in many ways, citing examples of people emulating characters from literature or history.
Vivian also notes that artists often create new types and characters that life later imitates. He mentions instances where individuals tried to replicate fictional characters, leading to unforeseen consequences. He concludes by emphasizing that the desire for expression is at the core of life, and art provides various forms through which life can express itself, ultimately influencing how we live and perceive the world.
Vivian argues that art has a profound influence on how people perceive the world. He asserts that Nature imitates art more than art imitates Nature, suggesting that the way people see and interpret the world is often shaped by the artistic representations they encounter. He provides examples of how artistic movements like Impressionism have influenced people’s perceptions of natural phenomena, such as fog and sunlight.
Vivian also challenges the idea that art should express the spirit of its age or the moral and social conditions of its time. He believes that true art is self-contained and does not necessarily reflect the external world or the society in which it is created. He argues that art should not be limited by realism or social relevance.
Furthermore, Vivian suggests that lying, or the creation of beautiful unrealities, is the ultimate aim of art. He believes that art should transport people to a realm of imagination and fantasy, where reality is transformed into something more beautiful and captivating.
Cyril counters some of Vivian’s arguments, suggesting that art can indeed be influenced by the spirit of its age and the conditions of society. He agrees that art can be abstract and ideal but believes that imitative arts, which captures the visual aspect of a particular time and place, also have their value.
In the end, Vivian proposes that the lost art of lying, the creation of beautiful and imaginative untruths, should be cultivated to revitalize the world of art. He envisions a future where art, by defying reality and embracing fantasy, can bring wonder and beauty back into a mundane world.
Overall, this dialogue explores the complex relationship between art, reality, and imagination, with Vivian advocating for the primacy of artistic creativity and the transformative power of art in shaping human perception and experience.
Interested in exploring Oscar Wilde’s insightful essay, “The Decay of Lying”? You can dive into the full version of “The Decay of Lying” online. Discover Wilde’s eloquent exploration of the relationship between art and life