To invert is to subvert

image001Oscar Wilde was the master of the epigram, the biting riposte.  Though best known for his plays and novels, Wilde’s essays demonstrate some of his sharpest zingers.

“The Decay of Lying” is a perfect example. In this short, Platonic-style dialogue between two upper-class aesthetes of the late nineteenth-century English garden variety (picture Daniel Day Lewis in “A Room with a View”), Wilde pitches his own critical theory of Aestheticism, or “Art for Art’s Sake.” The brilliance comes from his adept twists of logic, the way he inverts accepted ideas in order to subvert them. Even his main argument that lying, really good lying, is the essence of art is a wonderful inversion of the notion then in vogue that art reveals truth.

Here are a few quotes that made me smile:

On England: “Our splendid physique as a people is entirely due to our national stupidity.”

On politicians’ lies: “If a man is sufficiently unimaginative to produce evidence in support of a lie, he might just as well speak the truth.”

On fiction: “The ancient historians gave us delightful fiction in the form of fact; the modern novelist presents us with dull facts in the guise of fiction.”

On a contemporary novelist (poor guy): “Mr. James Payn is an adept in the art of concealing what is not worth finding. He hunts down the obvious with the enthusiasm of a short-sighted detective. As one turns over the pages, the suspense of the author becomes almost unbearable.”

On the literary school of the day, Naturalism: “The difference between such a book as M. Zola’s L’Assommoir and Balzac’s Illusions Perdues is the difference between unimaginative realism and imaginative reality.”

At essence, Wilde argues that the imagination of the true liar trumps the bald truth: “For the aim of the liar is simply to charm, to delight, to give pleasure.” The sole purpose of art, he says, is the same. It’s an argument that has become somewhat dated, still it’s thought provoking, and it’s always entertaining to let the intrinsically subversive imagination of Wilde carry you along.

English: Oscar Wilde, photographic print on ca...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Filed under Quotes, Reviews

21 responses to “To invert is to subvert

  1. Oh, Oscar. He was a feisty one, wasn’t he? : )

  2. Great post, Tom.

    Like Wilde, I would choose Balzac over Zola any day of the week… I also agree with the great man that truth is the formal sense is quite secondary. For art to be extraordinary, I think the artist’s statement –whatever and however it is made– only has to be true at the moment it is formulated. In other words, I think great art is about conviction, rather than realism.

    • Hi Elettra,
      Yes, Wilde certainly preferred Balzac. He went on to quote Baudelaire: “All Balzac’s characters are gifted with the same ardor of life that animated himself.” I agree. He also said Balzac invented the nineteenth century as we know it. Meaning life imitates art.

      Glad to see your own project is advancing.


  3. The idea of fiction and making up a story as a form of lying is fascinating. I haven’t read his essays so thanks for leading me to them!

  4. Goya

    Hello, Tom. Vargas LLosa was the first author -I believe- in our time that talks about lying and fiction. To me is the same thing if we talk about creative aesthetic and imagination. Sometimes real, sometimes a mixture of pure creation and realism. Zola was a good author responding to his epoch and current literary trends. His is a mixture of scientific observation of reality. He followed a pattern.His books were very crude.Balzac was different. The problem is for me to talk about LYING as sinonimo of making up.

    • Hi Eu, Good point. Even though Wilde goes on to explain his meaning, I don’t really buy his assertion that the aim of lying is to charm and delight. The aim of lying is to deceive. But this manipulation of words and logic is what Wilde excelled at; he charms the reader. I think that skill is what made him so subversive.

  5. A master of words, he had the ability to charm and persuade.
    I enjoyed the quotes. A really interesting post, Tom.

  6. Love Wilde’s wit and ballsy attitude. He seems to be parsing fiction and lying through the lens of intent. For his time that is a good step forward. The psychological realm and all was cutting edge. As we have come to see language as unstable we might propose the truthful lie that intent is somewhat irrelevant since an unstable communication prevents clarity of outflow and clarity of interpretation, thus minimalizing intent and making all truth suspect and all lies potentially intended truths. From New Criticism forward, authorial intent took a back seat (but remains a consideration as all inclusive analysis should not exclude).

    • Actually, I think he was more interested in the perception of art than authorial intent. I think he might have fit in well with the Reader-Response or other post-modern schools. At one point he sounds like a disciple of Bishop Berkeley: “Things are because we see them, and what we see, and how we see it, depends on the arts that have influenced us.”

      Incidentally, in this same edition there is an interesting essay on criticism, which he maintains is an art form in itself: “To the critic the work of art is simply a suggestion for a new work of his own, that need not necessarily bear any obvious resemblance to the thing it criticizes.”

  7. Balzac and Zola, both authors I bought in the last year, and now elivated up the reading list, wilde was the riposte king in my view.

  8. I love the quote: “The ancient historians gave us delightful fiction in the form of fact; the modern novelist presents us with dull facts in the guise of fiction.”

    Makes me want to read something ancient today.

  9. Dear Tom Gething,

    Thanks again for liking my post. I’m glad you like them so frequently. Best wishes, Allen Starbuck

  10. Terrific post, Tom, with an insightful title.
    “..every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.”
    Oscar Wilde

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