Oscar 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.