Wednesday, April 23, 2003

Weeks 13-14, Oscar Wilde

Notes on “The Decay Of Lying.”

In “The Decay Of Lying” as elsewhere, Wilde rejects the natural as a saving category. His argument is modern in its insistent un-romanticism, its absence of sentimental attachment to nature as the source of what is best about humanity. But then, Wilde is not a stuffy conservative–he favors personal expression and social change. His vehicle, however, is not nature; it is artifice, aestheticism in the Paterian sense in which art is a “disturbing and disintegrating force,” a phrase I borrow from Wilde himself. Art is a breaker-up of dull utilitarian and Tory ideology. Useless talk and behavior, and the inversion of social/sexual conventions, turn out to be highly charged in terms of their social and political implications. Wilde inflects Paterian aestheticism in that he tries to live this doctrine that promotes intense personal experience. Of course, brilliant though Wilde is and successful as he was in his social life and drama, the Paterian hurdle remains communication with others, or the lack thereof. How does aestheticism lead people to a more enlightened and tolerant community, more humane institutions, and so forth? Or is that charging art with too much to accomplish? Wilde popularizes his own elitist tastes, we might say, making a fashion of them, and he mocks the very people who laugh at his plays. The question is whether, as some contemporary critics assert, aestheticism merely encourages political apathy, or whether it could incite a desire for change.

As for the essay’s dialogue form, Vivian is the Socrates figure, even if Cyril isn’t exactly a yes-man whose role is to say, “why certainly, Socrates.”

35. “What art really reveals to us is nature’s lack of design…. Art is our spirited protest, our gallant attempt to teach Nature her proper place.” Nature is no model. Coleridge had written in “Dejection: an Ode” that “In our life alone does Nature live,” and Wilde gives us a decadent version of that statement. Nature is incomplete and gains completion only when we bring our interests and values to it. If, that is, we even find the project of completing nature worthwhile. Pater’s model of impressionistic success, as he sets it forth in his 1873 “Conclusion” to The Renaissance, counsels instead the endless enticements of suggestion over filling in the blank places of nature. I believe it’s fair to say Wilde follows him in that regard.

To elaborate on Wilde’s view of nature: Wilde would probably argue that in terms of animal nature, we are unnatural because we are self-conscious. Human nature differs markedly from animal nature, so that in anything but the most obvious things, we must discover and employ a language that responds to this distinction, be it a blessing or a curse. An author such as Dostoyevsky gives us a negative view of human eccentricity (his comical man versus mouse argument in Notes from Underground is a good instance), but Wilde, following the Symbolists and Pater, offers a more optimistic assessment of human potential: it is our nature to be artificial, to construct our own identity and world, and continually transform them. Art is the central means whereby we may do such things.

36. “Nature hates mind. Thinking is the most unhealthy thing in the world….” If it’s possible for a being to do things unnaturally, nothing that being does is simply “natural.” Beavers don’t hold conferences to argue about the merits of different kinds of dam-building. Or if this example seems too glib, we might still say that human activity can only be dealt with in a language that accommodates human sensibilities and priorities. Needed is mediation between the grand laws of physics and evolution and social conditions. Social science tries to mediate in this way, but of course art is another means. We need a world we can control to some degree, lest we be overwhelmed.

36. “How different [is the politician] from the temper of the true liar, with his frank, fearless statements, his superb irresponsibility, his healthy, natural disdain of proof of any kind!” Nietzsche would agree with this idea: in “On Truth and Lying in an Ultra-Moral Sense,” that author describes “truth” as a species of useful error. Lying is intuitive, multifarious, and liberating—something that rescues us from the prison-house of representation and from vulgar utilitarian notions about pleasure and reductive political demands for “truth.”

39. “I have no sympathy at all with the moral indignation of our time against M. Zola. It is simply the rage of Caliban on seeing his own face in a glass.” Realism, in Wilde’s view, simply reflects European societies’ ugliness back to them, and reaffirms life as it is. Whatever is, will stay that way if realist art has any say.

39. “M. Zola’s characters . . . have their dreary vices, and their drearier virtues. The record of their lives is absolutely without interest. . . . In literature we require distinction, charm, beauty, and imaginative power. We don’t want to be harrowed and disgusted with an account of the doings of the lower orders.” Wilde casts the French novelist Émile Zola’s naturalistic works as part of an uglification campaign, one that promotes satisfaction with a world made by and for brutes. Mere imitation of such a world doesn’t help us transform it; Zola’s kind of writing offers no vision of Utopia to guide our efforts. At base, Wilde sees literature as a vehicle for self-transcendence, both individual and collective. Realism and naturalism, by contrast, as Wilde wrote on page 38, both ”find life crude, and leave it raw.” This may all sound rather elitist, and to some extent it probably is; but we might also suggest that Wilde distrusts artists who bring us the “east end” raw because they might just be suggesting that there’s no need to change anything there: that is, it might be argued that realism and naturalism confound ugly reality with authenticity: the way things are with the way they ought to be. (One may wonder what Wilde and his fellow aesthetes would say of certain kinds of modern expression, such as rap and hip-hop—I mean the kind that its adherents justify on account of its propensity to “tell it like it is” for people caught in violent, poor neighborhoods in the big city. Fundamentally, Wilde questions “telling it like it is” when the way it is shouldn’t be that way.)

40-41. “As for Balzac, he was a most remarkable combination of the artistic temperament with the scientific spirit.” Wilde’s Balzac is more of an impressionist than a realist, so he garners praise.

39-40. [W]hat is interesting about people in good society . . . is the mask that each one of them wears, not the reality that lies behind the mask. It is a humiliating confession, but we are all of us made out of the same stuff…. Where we differ from each other is purely in accidentals…. Sooner or later one comes to that dreadful universal thing called human nature.” Wilde shows his disdain here for any theory or kind of art that would reduce us to our common humanity because that is exactly what we need to go beyond, not take satisfaction in.

41. “The only beautiful things, as somebody once said, are the things that do not concern us.” No doubt this eponymous “somebody” is none other than Immanuel Kant, who characterized aesthetic judgment as a matter of “dry liking” and as thoroughly “disinterested,” i.e. free of mere sensuous gratification or personal bias. Matthew Arnold borrowed the Kantian term “disinterestedness” and used it to carve out an autonomous sphere of operations for art and culture. Of course, as an artist and critic, Wilde does engage with commonly received ideas, if only to invert them or inflect them.

42. “Nature is always behind the age; and as for Life, she is the solvent that breaks up Art, the enemy that lays waste her house.” The modern world has left behind simple instinct, and modern life is destructive of art. So art must find its own way.

42. “If we take nature to mean natural simple instinct as opposed to self-conscious culture, the work produced under this influence is always old-fashioned, antiquated, and out of date. If, on the other hand, we regard nature as the collection of phenomena external to man, people only discover in her what they bring to her. She has no suggestions of her own.” Wilde declares outright that nature isn’t our source at all; mind is pre-eminent.

42-43. “’Art begins with abstract decoration . . . . This is the first stage. Then Life becomes fascinated with this new wonder, and asks to be admitted into the charmed circle. . . . The third stage is when Life gets the upper hand, and drives Art out into the wilderness. This is the decadence, and it is from this that we are now suffering.” Realism and science, then, are decadent, so an art that holds the mirror up to nature can’t change anything. Realism is the demand of a decadent society, one with an imitative and basely materialistic model of human nature: market society and the vulgar, selfish politics based upon it.

43. “[T]he object of art is not simple truth but complex beauty. . . . Art herself is simply a form of exaggeration; and selection, which is the very spirit of art, is nothing more than an intensified mode of over-emphasis.” Art, then, is complex, and a matter of exaggeration; this formulation resembles Pater’s privileging of intensity.

43. Shakespeare is not by any means a flawless artist. He is too fond of going directly to life, and borrowing life’s natural utterance. He forgets that when art surrenders her imaginative medium she surrenders everything.” I think Vivian is wrong on this point—I just don’t buy the argument that Shakespeare ever loses sight of his art’s demands, even when he’s using naturalistic dialect or dealing with “low” characters. There are legitimate criticisms to make of Shakespeare—his plots are sometimes rather loose, and he makes sloppy anachronistic references. These things may bother some play-goers, though on the whole they aren’t much trouble. But Vivian’s consideration isn’t apt, in my view, and it’s telling that Wilde offers no example of Shakespeare’s supposed shortcoming in the regard specified. What Vivian says about C19 drama makes more sense, I think: “The characters in these plays talk on the stage exactly as they would talk off it . . . they would pass unnoticed in a third-class railway carriage.” He is talking about English melodrama, of course. This sort of realism in drama, Vivian implies, tries to reproduce life itself or reduce it to stale fixities. The mind that demands this reduction from art is debased and might as well go directly to life itself. Still, it’s possible to credit the better kind of realism with making an effort to get people to see what they refuse to see in spite of its obviousness. Consider the modern example of photographic realism: taking pictures of war’s violence, or capturing on film the sufferings of poor Americans traveling west to escape the Dust Bowl during the 1930’s, might be said to do something more than just “copy” human suffering: you’d think it would be ridiculously obvious that war causes terrible human suffering, but governments that wage war today seem determined to give us mostly tolerable images of it, lest the effort lose our support.

44. “[T]he proper school to learn art in is not Life but Art.” Art, in Wilde’s view, is an autonomous undertaking and realm. But it’s also true that he has no trouble making the further case that its autonomy and integrity lead to effects beyond the realm of art; in this claim Wilde, for all his elitist posturing, is the true successor of the English and German Romantics.

45-6. “Who he was who first, without ever having gone out to the rude chase, told the wondering cave-men at sunset how he had dragged the Megatherium from the purple darkness of its jasper cave . . . we cannot tell. . . . [H]e was certainly the true founder of social intercourse.” “Lying” or fiction-making is the province of “style,” which for Wilde is truth’s proper sphere: “truth is entirely . . . a matter of style.” Truth and Nature—especially in their meanings according to modern scientific usage—are enlisted to justify an aggressively hostile campaign to declare the status quo correct; they are tools of bourgeois ideology and economic interests. For example, we might refer to Herbert Spencer’s naturalization-cum-legitimization of class inequality in First Principles: Miners in a given locality follow “the law of the direction of motion” down into unhealthy, dangerous holes wherein they labor to produce what everyone else needs. Wilde’s mention of Spencer in on page 46 is no accident.

46. “Art finds her own perfection within, and not outside, herself. She is not to be judged by any external standard of resemblance. She is a veil, rather than a mirror.” Wilde is by no means the only Victorian to appeal to our need for the mysterious—it is a mainstay of Carlyle’s post-Romantic prescription for a workable society. Wilde’s direction is Paterian: concealment is a vehicle of self-development, and personalities are enhanced and diversified from “behind the veil.”

47. “Paradox though it may seem—and paradoxes are always dangerous things—it is none the less true that life imitates art far more than art imitates life.” The function of art, in Vivian’s Wildean view (which enlists the Greeks’ concern for aesthetic experience), is to provide beautiful patterns for us to live by. If we insist on imitating life, we give up all hope of transforming it for the better. This belief is the source of Wilde’s overturning of Arnold’s great dictum about the critic’s task being “to see the object as in itself it really is.”

48. “The imagination is essentially creative and always seeks for a new form.” This remark is derived from basic philosophical idealism, which posits that the mind helps generate (or at least actively participates in the perpetuation of) what we call “reality.” Kant’s version of this claim is rather cautious, while claims made by Fichte, Schelling, and other German Idealists are bolder. Coleridge’s Idealism is of this latter sort. Wilde’s Vivian says further in speaking of Hamlet that “The world has become sad because a puppet was once melancholy.” That’s quite a claim, but it makes sense: no doubt art gives us some of our most memorable renderings of important attitudes, ideals, and events. The use to which those renderings are put is another matter, of course.

49. In the year 1879 . . . I met . . . a lady who interested me very much. . . . She seemed to have no personality at all, but simply the possibility of many types.” This emphasis on Protean capacity for change resembles Pater’s praise of the “quickened, multiplied consciousness” in his “Conclusion” to The Renaissance.

50. “Scientifically speaking, the basis of life—the energy of life, as Aristotle would call it—is simply the desire for expression, and art is always presenting various forms through which this expression can be attained. Life seizes on them and uses them, even if they be to her own hurt.” Aristotle’s formulation towards the beginning of The Poetics was that “we learn our earliest lessons from imitation” and that “to learn gives the liveliest pleasure.” Wilde replaces “learning” with “expression” as humanity’s prime directive. His doctrine of forms implies that multiplication of the self is the goal of life. This emphasis on self-diversification differentiates Wilde’s (and Pater’s) concept of the individual from that of the English Romantics, who stress the integral quality of the self, its wholeness.

51. “Art never expresses anything but itself.” Art is entirely self-referential. That’s the source of its great power. It resists dilution at the source by other areas of life, and therefore retains the power to transform them.

51. “The highest art rejects the burden of the human spirit, and gains more from a new medium or a fresh material than she does from any enthusiasm for art, or from any lofty passion, or from any great awakening of the human consciousness. She develops purely on her own lines. She is not symbolic of any age. It is the ages that are her symbols, her reflections, her echoes.” This is an extreme statement of aesthetic autonomy, and as such it derives from authors like Friedrich von Schiller, who counsels in his Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man that artists must withdraw from the immediate flow of life in order to preserve itself from corruption and mere political or social utility. In Wilde’s view, art rejects human burdens and is neither the bearer of ideology nor a vehicle for near-term social reform, or anything of the sort. It owes nothing to anybody. In this view he is affined with the Symbolist poets and theorists. Matthew Arnold is another inheritor of the post-Kantian notion of aesthetic autonomy, and we find many formulations of this interesting, if troubled, notion all through the Nineteenth Century and through the Twentieth. Keats’ mysterious tease the Grecian Urn, with its assertion that beauty is the only reality we can really count on, is one, and Yeats’ early poetry as well as some of his mature poems (“Sailing to Byzantium” and “Byzantium,” for example) play upon it.

53. “It is style that makes us believe in a thing—nothing but style. Most of our modern portrait painters never paint what they see. They paint what the public sees, and the public never sees anything.” As one of Wilde’s aphorisms has it, “Public opinion exists only where there are no ideas.” He consistently derides the public’s judgment as utterly devoid of wisdom or even competence. The artist’s task is certainly not to please the public or flatter its tastes—that is a recipe for disaster. Of course, it became increasingly difficult to make this claim with hope of success as the Nineteenth Century wore on: the great middle class has long had its own ideas about what it wants, and generally feels no need to ask literary or cultural elites for their definitive pronouncement in matters of taste or, indeed, in any other matters at all. This smugness is what John Stuart Mill laments about the middle class in On Liberty—he calls its results a “hostile and dreaded censorship” that threatens to snuff out the vitality of English intellectual life.

54. “The only form of lying that is absolutely beyond reproach is lying for its own sake, and the highest development of this is . . . lying in Art.” Wilde has been promoting “Art for Art’s Sake,” and, like other proponents of this doctrine, he insists that only by preserving its integrity can art preserve its potential to transform us. Like Matthew Arnold, who was accused of promoting a religion of culture, Wilde’s Vivian says art’s independence is the most promising thing about it. Art should be an untainted storehouse of new forms for imagination to work with. Kant had said that in making aesthetic judgments about beautiful things (in art or nature), we experience our freedom in a most pleasing way. Aestheticism is a bold extrapolation of this basic postulate of Kantian aesthetics.

55. First doctrine summary: “Art never expresses anything but itself. It has an independent life, just as Thought has, and develops purely on its own lines.” Art does not accommodate itself to our petty desires and beliefs. To approach art on its own terms is to keep open a space for the transformation of the human spirit.

55. “The second doctrine is this. All bad art comes from returning to life and nature, and elevating them into ideals.” Some critics would call this claim reification or even as fetishistic. Why should we grant that art is an autonomous, apolitical thing? Well, I suppose Wilde would say that it takes a power we can posit as above ourselves to draw humanity beyond what it presently is. Blake’s God, Arnold’s Culture, and the Artifice of the Symbolists and Wilde seem designed to serve as this “something beyond us.” In a sense, the process we are describing here is fetishistic: in social science, that term applies to the making of objects by human beings who then invest those objects with a power transcending mere humanity. A totem pole comes to represent “the dead ancestors” and is no longer “just a piece of nicely carved wood,” and so forth. That is what the Symbolist claims of the poem’s sacred Words, and what the aesthete or art-for-art’s-sake proponent urges us to believe about all fine art. We make something with our own minds and our own hands, and then we come to think that it has slipped beyond our own limitations, biases, and desires. I see the dangers in this process, but I also think we shouldn’t dismiss its value or condemn it out of hand.

55. “The third doctrine is that Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life.” With regard to Wilde’s expressive theory, what is expressed isn’t simply emotion; it isn’t (for the most part) what Wordsworth would call the “essential passions of the heart.” Wilde is instead a Paterian in matters pertaining to the self: we create our own nature. Life is mostly a matter of style (or rather a multiplicity of styles), and by style we live. This concept, like that of the Symbol in Coleridgean criticism, goes far beyond its usual rather limited meaning. Coleridge’s symbolic utterance isn’t a mere literary device (such as metaphor); it’s a mode of language all its own. So too does “style” take on broad significance in Wilde’s critical vocabulary. Wilde’s Oxford professor, Walter Pater, seems to have derived his ideals about the value of aesthetic experience in part from Wilhelm von Humboldt, who praised “freedom and variety of situations” as essential to humanity. But there’s an important difference between this philosophical progenitor and Wilde and Pater: for the former, human nature is treated as organic, while for the latter, it is synthetic, more an effect than an integral cause or foundation to which we may return. There is no return to an originary self; there are only styles, ways of perceiving and feeling and registering things, and the point is to get through as many of them as possible in the time given us. That is exactly what Pater advocates in his rather scandalous 1873 “Conclusion” to The Renaissance.

Finally, both Pater and Wilde tend to describe their aesthetic doctrines in terms of the ancient Greeks, whose courage in facing up to a harsh cosmos they admire, and whose openness to experience impresses them. Kant had encapsulated the Eighteenth Century’s Enlightenment ideals in the phrase “dare to know.” Pater seems to urge upon his readers the phrase “dare to know your own impressions,” to get clear about how they, as individuals, perceive worthwhile things, personalities, and events, and then to express that clarity as precisely as they can in their respective media, or in the way they live their lives as a whole. The questions that are bound to arise when we speak of aestheticism are simple to state but not so easy to answer satisfactorily: to whom, and to how many, were/are appeals to aesthetic experience made? To what extent can “art-for-art’s sake” resist modern life’s commodification and co-optation of its pure ideal? (We live in a society, after all, that turns yesterday’s revolutionary ideals into harmless Che Guevara tee-shirts.) To what extent does it amount to an all-but-permanent (and irresponsible) withdrawal from the rest of life? Wilde would probably insist in his defense that his ideas about the self-sufficiency of art and permeable, malleable nature of human beings cannot, ultimately, be considered in isolation from his strong belief in individual and social progress.

What I have been doing in these notes is partly to place Wilde in the tradition of Kantian and post-Kantian aesthetics: art is a realm wherein we experience our freedom and are transformed into something better than what we were. Culture indirectly shapes and improves human beings, rather than simply telling them they are fine as they are. I have also emphasized that Wilde’s views (at least insofar as we may take Vivian’s statements as fair approximations of what Wilde himself believed) respond to the ascendancy of the middle class: his aestheticism, his praise of “lying” and Protean self-transformation, his bent for unsettling people’s most dearly held convictions and notions—all these strategies bespeak a conception of art as a “disturbing and disintegrating force” in English life. He is more of an artistic anarchist than a late Romantic who would have us return to the supposed bedrock of our simple passions or to the verities of physical nature.


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