1889 | London

Life Imitates Life

Oscar Wilde loves a fib.

Vivian: What we have to do, what at any rate it is our duty to do, is to revive this old art of lying. Much, of course, may be done, in the way of educating the public, by amateurs in the domestic circle, at literary lunches, and at afternoon teas. But this is merely the light and graceful side of lying, such as was probably heard at Cretan dinner parties. There are many other forms.

Lying for the sake of gaining some immediate personal advantage, for instance—lying with a moral purpose, as it is usually called—though of late it has been rather looked down upon, was extremely popular with the antique world. Athena laughs when Odysseus tells her “his words of sly devising,” as Mr. William Morris phrases it, and the glory of mendacity illumines the pale brow of the stainless hero of Euripidean tragedy, and sets among the noble women of the past the young bride of one of Horace’s most exquisite odes. Later on, what at first had been merely a natural instinct was elevated into a self-conscious science. Elaborate rules were laid down for the guidance of mankind, and an important school of literature grew up round the subject. Indeed, when one remembers the excellent philosophical treatise of Francisco Sanchez on the whole question, one cannot help regretting that no one has ever thought of publishing a cheap and condensed edition of the works of that great casuist. A short primer, “When to Lie and How,” if brought out in an attractive and not too expensive a form, would, no doubt, command a large sale, and would prove of real practical service to many earnest and deep-thinking people. Lying for the sake of the improvement of the young, which is the basis of home education, still lingers among us, and its advantages are so admirably set forth in the early books of Plato’s Republic that it is unnecessary to dwell upon them here. It is a mode of lying for which all good mothers have peculiar capabilities, but it is capable of still further development, and has been sadly overlooked by the school board. Lying for the sake of a monthly salary is, of course, well known in Fleet Street, and the profession of a political leader writer is not without its advantages. But it is said to be a somewhat dull occupation, and it certainly does not lead to much beyond a kind of ostentatious obscurity. The only form of lying that is absolutely beyond reproach is lying for its own sake, and the highest development of this is lying in art. Just as those who do not love Plato more than truth cannot pass beyond the threshold of the Academe, so those who do not love beauty more than truth never know the inmost shrine of art. The solid, stolid British intellect lies in the desert sands like the Sphinx in Flaubert’s marvelous tale, and fantasy, La Chimère, dances around it, and calls to it with her false, flute-toned voice. It may not hear her now, but surely some day, when we are all bored to death with the commonplace character of modern fiction, it will hearken to her and try to borrow her wings.

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. 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. 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. But before this comes to pass, we must cultivate the lost art of lying.

Lot and His Daughters, by Jan Metsys, 1563.

Lot and His Daughters, by Jan Metsys, 1563. 

Cyril: Then we must certainly cultivate it at once. But in order to avoid making any error, I want you to tell me briefly the doctrines of the new aesthetics.

Vivian: Briefly, then, they are these. Art never expresses anything but itself. It has an independent life, just as thought has, and develops purely on its own lines. It is not necessarily realistic in an age of realism, nor spiritual in an age of faith. So far from being the creation of its time, it is usually in direct opposition to it, and the only history that it preserves for us is the history of its own progress. Sometimes it returns upon its footsteps, and revives some antique form, as happened in the archaistic movement of late Greek art, and in the Pre-Raphaelite movement of our own day. At other times it entirely anticipates its age, and produces in one century work that it takes another century to understand, to appreciate, and to enjoy. In no case does it reproduce its age. To pass from the art of a time to the time itself is the great mistake that all historians commit.

The second doctrine is this. All bad art comes from returning to life and nature, and elevating them into ideals. Life and nature may sometimes be used as a part of art’s rough material, but before they are of any real service to art they must be translated into artistic conventions. The moment art surrenders its imaginative medium it surrenders everything. As a method, realism is a complete failure, and the two things that every artist should avoid are modernity of form and modernity of subject matter. 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. It is, to have the pleasure of quoting myself, exactly because Hecuba is nothing to us that her sorrows are so suitable a motive for a tragedy. Besides, it is only the modern that ever becomes old-fashioned. Émile Zola sits down to give us a picture of the Second Empire. Who cares for the Second Empire now? It is out of date. Life goes faster than realism, but romanticism is always in front of life.

Grow your tree of falsehood from a small grain of truth.

—Czeslaw Milosz, 1946

The third doctrine is that life imitates art far more than art imitates life. This results not merely from life’s imitative instinct, but from the fact that the self-conscious aim of life is to find expression, and that art offers it certain beautiful forms through which it may realize that energy. It is a theory that has never been put forward before, but it is extremely fruitful, and throws an entirely new light upon the history of art.

It follows, as a corollary from this, that external nature also imitates art. The only effects that she can show us are effects that we have already seen through poetry, or in paintings. This is the secret of nature’s charm, as well as the explanation of nature’s weakness.

The final revelation is that lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of art. But of this I think I have spoken at sufficient length. And now let us go out on the terrace, where “droops the milk-white peacock like a ghost,” while the evening star “washes the dusk with silver.” At twilight nature becomes a wonderfully suggestive effect, and is not without loveliness, though perhaps its chief use is to illustrate quotations from the poets. Come! We have talked long enough.


Oscar Wilde

From “The Decay of Lying.” A fixture at London society parties even though he had published (at his own expense) only one volume of poetry, Wilde arrived in the U.S. in 1882 for a lecture tour—arranged by the producer of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience, which featured an aesthete resembling Wilde—and he traveled some fifteen thousand miles, delivered nearly 150 talks, and met Walt Whitman, Henry James, and Ulysses S. Grant. Wilde published his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, in 1891. Convicted on charges of gross indecency in 1895, Wilde was sentenced to two years of servitude with hard labor.