Throughout this semester, we’ve discussed how Oscar Wilde attempted to live as art through the way he presented himself, from the way he dressed to the way he spoke. Wilde’s modus operandi of living as art is extremely apparent through the way he behaved during his first trial in Gross Indecency. Throughout the first trial, Oscar Wilde behaves in his typical Oscar Wilde fashion: as the most intelligent and witty person in the room. It’s almost as if Wilde believed that just based on the virtue of being clever he could get out of any trouble.
Wilde living as art and entertainment is most plainly exhibited when he is examined by Edward Carson. Carson brings up excerpts of Wilde’s letters and works to prove that Wilde has had relations with men, making Queensberry’s claim fact as opposed to libel. However, for every excerpt that Carson brings up, Wilde only has a witticism to say in response. When Carson reads out Wilde’s romantic letter to Bosie, Wilde responds that the letter is art and is therefore meant to include beautiful phrases. Only an artist such as Wilde could have written that letter. Carson replies, “‘Your slim gilt soul walks between passion and poetry.’ Is that a beautiful phrase?” (35). Wilde only responds with, “Not as you read it, Mr. Carson. You read it very badly” (35). Wilde has enough confidence in this trial to directly insult the lawyer examining him. It’s as if he believes this trial is just another stage to entertain his audience and that he won’t face consequences as long as he’s entertaining.
Wilde getting questioned about his work is where he triumphs in this trial. Here, he proclaims that no art is moral or immoral, it is only well or poorly written. He also claims, “I rarely think that anything I write is true” (39). He reiterates the ideas we have read in other works of his, and through this, he makes a convincing case that nothing he has written can really be used against him. This part of the trial reminded me a lot of “The Decay of Lying” where Wilde makes a case that lying is essential to being entertaining. That’s what this part of the trial is: a string of entertaining lies.
However, where Wilde falters is when the questioning moves away from his works and towards his relationships with young men. He can’t make up pretty lies when the evidence is staring him in the face. He’s forced to give up this libel suit when the young men that Wilde has had relations with are threatened to be brought in. Being art wasn’t enough to save Wilde in the end.
While reading The Importance of Being Earnest, I noticed a lot of connections between this work and “The Decay of Lying.” At the beginning of Act 1, Algernon says, “The truth is rarely pure and never simple. Modern life would be very tedious if it were either, and modern literature a complete impossibility!” (362). This reminded me a lot of how in “The Decay of Lying,” Vivian states that modern literature is worse off because people don’t make up entertaining lies anymore and that they were too adherent to realism. Throughout Wilde’s works, an ongoing theme is that it’s a good thing to lie as long as it’s entertaining.
In the first half of this play, Algernon and Jack lie constantly for their own personal gain and amusement. They both made up people in order to go into the country or into town, and even when Jack decides to stop using Earnest as an excuse to go into the city, he decides the best way to get rid of Earnest is to kill him off instead of going clean. Both characters adhere to Wilde’s philosophy about lying.
However, Wilde seems to contradict his philosophy about lying by introducing consequences to Jack’s actions. When Jack’s lie is found out by Algernon, Algernon goes out into the country pretending to be Earnest, which complicates the situation. Although I haven’t finished the play yet, I predict that Algernon’s and Jack’s lies will implode, they’ll get in trouble for what they’ve done, and they’ll learn “the importance of being earnest,” as the title suggests. Perhaps the reason why Wilde seems to be contradicting himself by introducing consequences is because Algernon and Jack lied for their own personal gain and not just to be entertaining. (Although their lies are very entertaining for us as readers.) Or maybe it’s simply Wilde contradicting his own ideas because he always contradicts himself. But just like telling the truth, consistency is boring, and it’s better to be inconsistent and entertaining than boring.
One of the questions we asked about “The Decay of Lying” was: Why did Wilde choose to use the word lying? Vivian found no value in Nature having anything to do with Art, but found that Art’s real aim was to lie. Why was this?
I think this relates to the ongoing conversation we have been having about the aspects of mystery and curiosity that enveloped Wilde. Lying is mysterious. It’s not straight-forward. It piques curiosity. And of course it is fun.
Lying is something to do. Not only does it prevent boredom, but it contributes to Wilde’s dedication to creation at the hands of the artist. A good lie is personal, it is nurtured and shaped by the teller. And if it is successful, a lie is entertaining. It is the same as a great story.
At first when I read that the aim of Art was lying, it didn’t make sense to me. But, the more I think about what lying really means, the more I see how Wilde loved and appreciated a good lie. My favorite thing about lying that relates to Wilde is that lying can be pointless. Lying for no reason, only for entertainment, even if just for one’s self. That makes me think of “art for art’s sake.” There is no reason, you simply lie to make something, to create. And like art, it can turn out good or bad.
I think this also relates to “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime.” The reason the party was thrown in the first place was out of Lady Windermere’s boredom, and her boredom contributed her to bringing Mr. Podgers as entertainment. His form of entertainment was lying, and he could do it well. The lie he created was so effective that it was the catalyst for the creation of the rest of the entire story.
It also made me think of the ideas of freedom that we discussed with the imagery of birds in “The Happy Prince.” What if, since Wilde couldn’t be straightforward about his personal identity most of the time, lying was his form of freedom? As we have speculated about in class, I believe that Wilde wore a mask a lot of the time to prevent having to explain things about himself that he didn’t want to. The truth would, and did, take away his literal freedom. So, lying could’ve been a way for him to have the freedom to construct and live in the world the way he wanted to.