The Decay of Lying…

Oscar Wilde, the late 19th century dandy whose pederastic penchant for Lord Alfred Douglas, et al, landed him in Pentonville Prison for crimes of indecency, is among the finest and most enduring masters of the English language. His sarcastic wit and ability to turn a phrase challenged and provoked the fading mores of Victorian society. We at Baptist Blogger have particularly enjoyed his novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, which tells the story of a man of eminent social graces whose youthfulness was betrayed by a hidden portrait kept safely in his attic. We also found his peninential epistle, De Profundis, to be one of the finest expositions of vice and virtue still in print.

We recently discovered his short essay The Decay of Lying, written as a dialogue between a man named Cyril and a woman named Vivian. In it, Wilde explores his thesis that art, in its purest form, is a fraudulent and whitewashed representation of the sick, tainted natural order where man and beast exist in tandem futility. Only the wisest and most observant sage is able to parse the difference between truth and falsehood, though his general benevolence overcomes his cynicism and forces him to anesthetize the already opiated masses with poetic deceit.

This, from the final discourse:

“What we have to do, what at any rate it is our duty to do, is 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 Euripedean 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 manking, and an important school of literature grew up round the subject. Indeed, when one remembers the excellent philosophical treatise of Sanchez on the whole question, one cannot help regretting that no one has every thought of publishing a cheap and condensed edition of the works of the 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 the real practical service to many earnest and deep-thinking people. Lying for the sake of improvement of the young, which is the basis of home education, still lingers amongst us, and its advantages are so admirably set forth in the early books of Plato’s Republic that it is unnecessary to dwell on 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 and 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, as we have already pointed out, lying in art.”

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