Thoughts on Oscar Wilde’s “The Decay of Lying: An Observation” (1889). All pages according to the book, Theatre in Theory 1900 – 2000: An Anthology, edited by David Krasner (2008).
“People tell me that art makes us love Nature more than we loved her before; that it reveals her secrets to us…. 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…. It is fortunate for us that Nature is so imperfect, as otherwise we should have had no art at all.” (47)
“Art begins with abstract decoration…. then Life becomes fascinated by this new wonder, and asks to be admitted into the charmed circle. Art takes life as part of her rough material, recreates it, and refashions it in fresh forms, is absolutely indifferent to fact, invents, imagines, dreams….” (48)
“Art finds its 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. She has flowers that no forests know of, birds no woodland possesses. She makes and unmakes many worlds, can draw the moon from heaven with a scarlet thread. Hers are the forms more real than living man, and hers the great archetypes of which things that have the existence are but unfinished copies. Nature has, no laws, no uniformity.” (49)
“Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of Art.” (50)
At first I found Wilde’s writing so beautifully engaging. Then the more I thought about it, the more some phrases did not make sense to me: “What Art really reveals to us is Nature’s lack of design” and that “Nature has, no laws, no uniformity”. I find these words quite puzzling as to me, Nature is so wonderfully crafted. And who is to deny the reappearance of the fibonacci sequence in many of Nature’s form, ergo showing a sense of pattern, design and uniformity in some respects? ‘Nature’ in itself is a broad term, almost all encompassing as the physical world is made of the living animals, plants and beings as well.
I believe Wilde is trying to redefine our notion of reality. What if ‘reality’ was in fact our imagined world, as opposed to our perceived one? What if true perfection was all that we could imagine, and nothing that really exists? Art is not solely about finding a perfection Art can exist within, but rather by confronting the very idea of perfection. I find that when the world does offer a sense of uniformity, Art is our chance at escape. Art offers a means of rebellion. Perhaps the perfection to Art that Wilde contemplates, is the idea that Art exists both within and outside of Nature; for Art is perfect in its own right because at its core, it serves only as a means of representation. Can there ever be such a thing as a perfect representation? No, but neither does Nature for it presents us a representation of perfection. Both Nature and Art admit to their flaws, and neither exist without each other as there would be no Art without Nature, and no Nature to be fed by Art.
We merely exist
in a world
Lies that try
to keep us
And through this sanity
This insanity of conformity
not knowing what
But I beg you,
to tell me a story.
A story so that I
to all these
Maybe Wilde is right about Art when he says its aim is to tell beautiful untrue things. But not all Art has to be beautiful, and sometimes there is beauty that can be found in the Lie.