Oscar Wilde constructs a Socratic dialogue between two characters discussing realism vs. “art for art’s sake” in his essay “The Decay of Lying.” With the two speakers he creates, Wilde pushes both sides of the argument by overlaying this dialogue with a heavily satiric tone. Vivian, the more verbose of the two characters, forcefully asserts that beautiful art needs “lying.” Vivian says that realistic representations of nature in art and literature are boring and dull and would be greatly improved by liberties taken in painter/author enhancements and embellishments. The second character Cyril’s mainly functions as a foil to Vivian. As the essay picks up momentum, Cyril becomes rather quiet, only to interject with silly requests or questions, sometimes helping to move Vivian’s thoughts along though direct exposition. Wilde opens the scene without delay, delving directly in with Vivian’s first speech.
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 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.”
Together Cyril and Vivian depict Wilde’s contention with popular art critics that art is not simply for art’s sake. He proves this contention by writing a non-realistic, imaginative, absurdly fabricated conversation where readers can see both Vivian’s ludicrousness and Cyril’s frivolousness. He takes the stance of Vivian’s exalted lying artist and shows the reader that to take that much creative license in departing from nature does not produce the best result. Reciprocally, he also uses Cyril to depict the foolishness of an unquestioning audience.
1. Let’s say that Wilde is an artist embellishing his art, the essay, with untruths i.e. satire. Vivian says, “Art finds her own perfection within, and not outside of, herself. She is not to be judged by any external standard of resemblance. She is a veil, rather than a mirror.” How can Wilde’s embellishment through satire be considered a “veil”?
2. The pivotal point of Wilde’s essay is that the dialogue is a social commentary made through a conversation about art. Knowing this, one can wonder, how much of it is satire and how much is Wilde’s perspective on reality? Does this distinction exist? If so, are there points in the essay where we can see it?
3. Wilde brings together the two concepts of a sage and a satirist in this essay. Is his method effective? Ruskin primarily focuses as a sage writer in his engagement with a similar subject matter. Beyond this, how do the two differ? Can we say one was more successful?
4. How does the usage of the Socratic dialogue model affect the reader’s connection to it? In writing something akin to a play script, how does this allow for greater reader association?
Last modified 8 March 2011