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The Decay Of Lying: An Observation – Oscar Wilde

A dialogue.
Persons: Cyril and Vivian. Scene: the Library of a country house in Nottinghamshire.

CYRIL (coming in through the open window from the terrace). My dear Vivian, don’t coop yourself up all day in the library. It is a perfectly lovely afternoon. The air is exquisite. There is a mist upon the woods, like the purple bloom upon a plum. Let us go and lie on the grass and smoke cigarettes and enjoy Nature.

VIVIAN. Enjoy Nature! I am glad to say that I have entirely lost that faculty. People tell us that Art makes us love Nature more than we loved her before; that it reveals her secrets to us; and that after a careful study of Corot and Constable we see things in her that had escaped our observation. 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. Nature has good intentions, of course, but, as Aristotle once said, she cannot carry them out. When I look at a landscape I cannot help seeing all its defects. It is fortunate for us, however, that Nature is so imperfect, as otherwise we should have no art at all. Art is our spirited protest, our gallant attempt to teach Nature her proper place. As for the infinite variety of Nature, that is a pure myth. It is not to be found in Nature herself. It resides in the imagination, or fancy, or cultivated blindness of the man who looks at her.

CYRIL. Well, you need not look at the landscape. You can lie on the grass and smoke and talk.

VIVIAN. But Nature is so uncomfortable. Grass is hard and lumpy and damp, and full of dreadful black insects. Why, even Morris’s poorest workman could make you a more comfortable seat than the whole of Nature can. Nature pales before the furniture of ‘the street which from Oxford has borrowed its name,’ as the poet you love so much once vilely phrased it. I don’t complain. If Nature had been comfortable, mankind would never have invented architecture, and I prefer houses to the open air. In a house we all feel of the proper proportions. Everything is subordinated to us, fashioned for our use and our pleasure. Egotism itself, which is so necessary to a proper sense of human dignity, is entirely the result of indoor life. Out of doors one becomes abstract and impersonal. One’s individuality absolutely leaves one. And then Nature is so indifferent, so unappreciative. Whenever I am walking in the park here, I always feel that I am no more to her than the
cattle that browse on the slope, or the burdock that blooms in the ditch. Nothing is more evident than that Nature hates Mind.
Thinking is the most unhealthy thing in the world, and people die of it just as they die of any other disease. Fortunately, in England at any rate, thought is not catching. Our splendid physique as a people is entirely due to our national stupidity. I only hope we shall be able to keep this great historic bulwark of our happiness for many years to come; but I am afraid that we are beginning to be over-educated; at least everybody who is incapable
of learning has taken to teaching–that is really what our enthusiasm for education has come to. In the meantime, you had better go back to your wearisome uncomfortable Nature, and leave me to correct my proofs.

CYRIL. Writing an article! That is not very consistent after what
you have just said.

VIVIAN. Who wants to be consistent? The dullard and the
doctrinaire, the tedious people who carry out their principles to
the bitter end of action, to the reductio ad absurdum of practice.
Not I. Like Emerson, I write over the door of my library the word
‘Whim.’ Besides, my article is really a most salutary and valuable
warning. If it is attended to, there may be a new Renaissance of

CYRIL. What is the subject?

VIVIAN. I intend to call it ‘The Decay of Lying: A Protest.’

CYRIL. Lying! I should have thought that our politicians kept up
that habit.

VIVIAN. I assure you that they do not. They never rise beyond the
level of misrepresentation, and actually condescend to prove, to
discuss, to argue. How different from the temper of the true liar,
with his frank, fearless statements, his superb irresponsibility,
his healthy, natural disdain of proof of any kind! After all, what
is a fine lie? Simply that which is its own evidence. If a man is
sufficiently unimaginative to produce evidence in support of a lie,
he might just as well speak the truth at once. No, the politicians
won’t do. Something may, perhaps, be urged on behalf of the Bar.
The mantle of the Sophist has fallen on its members. Their feigned
ardours and unreal rhetoric are delightful. They can make the
worse appear the better cause, as though they were fresh from
Leontine schools, and have been known to wrest from reluctant
juries triumphant verdicts of acquittal for their clients, even
when those clients, as often happens, were clearly and
unmistakeably innocent. But they are briefed by the prosaic, and
are not ashamed to appeal to precedent. In spite of their
endeavours, the truth will out. Newspapers, even, have
degenerated. They may now be absolutely relied upon. One feels it
as one wades through their columns. It is always the unreadable
that occurs. I am afraid that there is not much to be said in
favour of either the lawyer or the journalist. Besides, what I am
pleading for is Lying in art. Shall I read you what I have
written? It might do you a great deal of good.

CYRIL. Certainly, if you give me a cigarette. Thanks. By the
way, what magazine do you intend it for?

VIVIAN. For the Retrospective Review. I think I told you that the
elect had revived it.

CYRIL. Whom do you mean by ‘the elect’?

VIVIAN. Oh, The Tired Hedonists, of course. It is a club to which
I belong. We are supposed to wear faded roses in our button-holes
when we meet, and to have a sort of cult for Domitian. I am afraid
you are not eligible. You are too fond of simple pleasures.

CYRIL. I should be black-balled on the ground of animal spirits, I

VIVIAN. Probably. Besides, you are a little too old. We don’t
admit anybody who is of the usual age.

CYRIL. Well, I should fancy you are all a good deal bored with
each other.

VIVIAN. We are. This is one of the objects of the club. Now, if
you promise not to interrupt too often, I will read you my article.

CYRIL. You will find me all attention.

VIVIAN (reading in a very clear, musical voice). THE DECAY OF
LYING: A PROTEST.–One of the chief causes that can be assigned
for the curiously commonplace character of most of the literature
of our age is undoubtedly the decay of Lying as an art, a science,
and a social pleasure. The ancient historians gave us delightful
fiction in the form of fact; the modem novelist presents us with
dull facts under the guise of fiction. The Blue-Book is rapidly
becoming his ideal both for method and manner. He has his tedious
document humain, his miserable little coin de la creation, into
which he peers with his microscope. He is to be found at the
Librairie Nationale, or at the British Museum, shamelessly reading
up his subject. He has not even the courage of other people’s
ideas, but insists on going directly to life for everything, and
ultimately, between encyclopaedias and personal experience, he
comes to the ground, having drawn his types from the family circle
or from the weekly washerwoman, and having acquired an amount of
useful information from which never, even in his most meditative
moments, can he thoroughly free himself.

‘The lose that results to literature in general from this false
ideal of our time can hardly be overestimated. People have a
careless way of talking about a “born liar,” just as they talk
about a “born poet.” But in both cases they are wrong. Lying and
poetry are arts–arts, as Pinto saw, not unconnected with each
other–and they require the most careful study, the most
disinterested devotion. Indeed, they have their technique, just as
the more material arts of painting and sculpture have, their subtle
secrets of form and colour, their craft-mysteries, their deliberate
artistic methods. As one knows the poet by his fine music, so one
can recognise the liar by his rich rhythmic utterance, and in
neither case will the casual inspiration of the moment suffice.
Here, as elsewhere, practice must, precede perfection. But in
modern days while the fashion of writing poetry has become far too
common, and should, if possible, be discouraged, the fashion of
lying has almost fallen into disrepute. Many a young man starts in
life with a natural gift for exaggeration which, if nurtured in
congenial and sympathetic surroundings, or by the imitation of the
best models, might grow into something really great and wonderful.
But, as a rule, he comes to nothing. He either falls into careless
habits of accuracy–‘

CYRIL. My dear fellow!

VIVIAN. Please don’t interrupt in the middle of a sentence. ‘He
either falls into careless habits of accuracy, or takes to
frequenting the society of the aged and the well-informed. Both
things are equally fatal to his imagination, as indeed they would
be fatal to the imagination of anybody, and in a short time he
develops a morbid and unhealthy faculty of truth-telling, begins to
verify all statements made in his presence, has no hesitation in
contradicting people who are much younger than himself, and often
ends by writing novels which are so lifelike that no one can
possibly believe in their probability. This is no isolated
instance that we are giving. It is simply one example out of many;
and if something cannot be done to check, or at least to modify,
our monstrous worship of facts, Art will become sterile, and beauty
will pass away from the land.

‘Even Mr. Robert Louis Stevenson, that delightful master of
delicate and fanciful prose, is tainted with this modern vice, for
we know positively no other name for it. There is such a thing as
robbing a story of its reality by trying to make it too true, and
The Black Arrow is so inartistic as not to contain a single
anachronism to boast of, while the transformation of Dr. Jekyll
reads dangerously like an experiment out of the Lancet. As for Mr.
Rider Haggard, who really has, or had once, the makings of a
perfectly magnificent liar, he is now so afraid of being suspected
of genius that when he does tell us anything marvellous, he feels
bound to invent a personal reminiscence, and to put it into a
footnote as a kind of cowardly corroboration. Nor are our other
novelists much better. Mr. Henry James writes fiction as if it
were a painful duty, and wastes upon mean motives and imperceptible
“points of view” his neat literary style, his felicitous phrases,
his swift and caustic satire. Mr. Hall Caine, it is true, aims at
the grandiose, but then he writes at the top of his voice. He is
so loud that one cannot bear what he says. 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. The horses of Mr. William Black’s phaeton do
not soar towards the sun. They merely frighten the sky at evening
into violent chromolithographic effects. On seeing them approach,
the peasants take refuge in dialect. Mrs. Oliphant prattles
pleasantly about curates, lawn-tennis parties, domesticity, and
other wearisome things. Mr. Marion Crawford has immolated himself
upon the altar of local colour. He is like the lady in the French
comedy who keeps talking about “le beau ciel d’Italie.” Besides,
he has fallen into the bad habit of uttering moral platitudes. He
is always telling us that to be good is to be good, and that to be
bad is to be wicked. At times he is almost edifying. Robert
Elsmere is of course a masterpiece–a masterpiece of the “genre
ennuyeux,” the one form of literature that the English people seems
thoroughly to enjoy. A thoughtful young friend of ours once told
us that it reminded him of the sort of conversation that goes on at
a meat tea in the house of a serious Nonconformist family, and we
can quite believe it. Indeed it is only in England that such a
book could be produced. England is the home of lost ideas. As for
that great and daily increasing school of novelists for whom the
sun always rises in the East-End, the only thing that can be said
about them is that they find life crude, and leave it raw.

‘In France, though nothing so deliberately tedious as Robert
Elsmere has been produced, things are not much better. M. Guy de
Maupassant, with his keen mordant irony and his hard vivid style,
strips life of the few poor rags that still cover her, and shows us
foul sore and festering wound. He writes lurid little tragedies in
which everybody is ridiculous; bitter comedies at which one cannot
laugh for very tears. M. Zola, true to the lofty principle that he
lays down in one of his pronunciamientos on literature, “L’homme de
genie n’a jamais d’esprit,” is determined to show that, if he has
not got genius, he can at least be dull. And how well he succeeds!
He is not without power. Indeed at times, as in Germinal, there is
something almost epic in his work. But his work is entirely wrong
from beginning to end, and wrong not on the ground of morals, but
on the ground of art. From any ethical standpoint it is just what
it should be. The author is perfectly truthful, and describes
things exactly as they happen. What more can any moralist desire?
We have no sympathy at all with the moral indignation of our time
against M. Zola. It is simply the indignation of Tartuffe on being
exposed. But from the standpoint of art, what can be said in
favour of the author of L’Assommoir, Nana and Pot-Bouille?
Nothing. Mr. Ruskin once described the characters in George
Eliot’s novels as being like the sweepings of a Pentonville
omnibus, but M. Zola’s characters are much worse. They have their
dreary vices, and their drearier virtues. The record of their
lives is absolutely without interest. Who cares what happens to
them? 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. M. Daudet is better.
He has wit, a light touch and an amusing style. But he has lately
committed literary suicide. Nobody can possibly care for Delobelle
with his “Il faut lutter pour l’art,” or for Valmajour with his
eternal refrain about the nightingale, or for the poet in Jack with
his “mots cruels,” now that we have learned from Vingt Ans de ma
Vie litteraire that these characters were taken directly from life.
To us they seem to have suddenly lost all their vitality, all the
few qualities they ever possessed. The only real people are the
people who never existed, and if a novelist is base enough to go to
life for his personages he should at least pretend that they are
creations, and not boast of them as copies. The justification of a
character in a novel is not that other persons are what they are,
but that the author is what he is. Otherwise the novel is not a
work of art. As for M. Paul Bourget, the master of the roman
psychologique, he commits the error of imagining that the men and
women of modern life are capable of being infinitely analysed for
an innumerable series of chapters. In point of fact what is
interesting about people in good society–and M. Bourget rarely
moves out of the Faubourg St. Germain, except to come to London,–
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. In Falstaff there is something of
Hamlet, in Hamlet there is not a little of Falstaff. The fat
knight has his moods of melancholy, and the young prince his
moments of coarse humour. Where we differ from each other is
purely in accidentals: in dress, manner, tone of voice, religious
opinions, personal appearance, tricks of habit and the like. The
more one analyses people, the more all reasons for analysis
disappear. Sooner or later one comes to that dreadful universal
thing called human nature. Indeed, as any one who has ever worked
among the poor knows only too well, the brotherhood of man is no
mere poet’s dream, it is a most depressing and humiliating reality;
and if a writer insists upon analysing the upper classes, he might
just as well write of match-girls and costermongers at once.’
However, my dear Cyril, I will not detain you any further just
here. I quite admit that modern novels have many good points. All
I insist on is that, as a class, they are quite unreadable.

CYRIL. That is certainly a very grave qualification, but I must
say that I think you are rather unfair in some of your strictures.
I like The Deemster, and The Daughter of Heth, and Le Disciple, and
Mr. Isaacs, and as for Robert Elsmere, I am quite devoted to it.
Not that I can look upon it as a serious work. As a statement of
the problems that confront the earnest Christian it is ridiculous
and antiquated. It is simply Arnold’s Literature and Dogma with
the literature left out. It is as much behind the age as Paley’s
Evidences, or Colenso’s method of Biblical exegesis. Nor could
anything be less impressive than the unfortunate hero gravely
heralding a dawn that rose long ago, and so completely missing its
true significance that he proposes to carry on the business of the
old firm under the new name. On the other hand, it contains
several clever caricatures, and a heap of delightful quotations,
and Green’s philosophy very pleasantly sugars the somewhat bitter
pill of the author’s fiction. I also cannot help expressing my
surprise that you have said nothing about the two novelists whom
you are always reading, Balzac and George Meredith. Surely they
are realists, both of them?

VIVIAN. Ah! Meredith! Who can define him? His style is chaos
illumined by flashes of lightning. As a writer he has mastered
everything except language: as a novelist he can do everything,
except tell a story: as an artist he is everything except
articulate. Somebody in Shakespeare–Touchstone, I think–talks
about a man who is always breaking his shins over his own wit, and
it seems to me that this might serve as the basis for a criticism
of Meredith’s method. But whatever he is, he is not a realist. Or
rather I would say that he is a child of realism who is not on
speaking terms with his father. By deliberate choice he has made
himself a romanticist. He has refused to bow the knee to Baal, and
after all, even if the man’s fine spirit did not revolt against the
noisy assertions of realism, his style would be quite sufficient of
itself to keep life at a respectful distance. By its means he has
planted round his garden a hedge full of thorns, and red with
wonderful roses. As for Balzac, he was a most remarkable
combination of the artistic temperament with the scientific spirit.
The latter he bequeathed to his disciples. The former was entirely
his own. 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. ‘All
Balzac’s characters;’ said Baudelaire, ‘are gifted with the same
ardour of life that animated himself. All his fictions are as
deeply coloured as dreams. Each mind is a weapon loaded to the
muzzle with will. The very scullions have genius.’ A steady
course of Balzac reduces our living friends to shadows, and our
acquaintances to the shadows of shades. His characters have a kind
of fervent fiery-coloured existence. They dominate us, and defy
scepticism. One of the greatest tragedies of my life is the death
of Lucien de Rubempre. It is a grief from which I have never been
able completely to rid myself. It haunts me in my moments of
pleasure. I remember it when I laugh. But Balzac is no more a
realist than Holbein was. He created life, he did not copy it. I
admit, however, that he set far too high a value on modernity of
form, and that, consequently, there is no book of his that, as an
artistic masterpiece, can rank with Salammbo or Esmond, or The
Cloister and the Hearth, or the Vicomte de Bragelonne.

CYRIL. Do you object to modernity of form, then?

VIVIAN. Yes. It is a huge price to pay for a very poor result.
Pure modernity of form is always somewhat vulgarising. It cannot
help being so. The public imagine that, because they are
interested in their immediate surroundings, Art should be
interested in them also, and should take them as her subject-
matter. But the mere fact that they are interested in these things
makes them unsuitable subjects for Art. The only beautiful things,
as somebody once said, are the things that do not concern us. As
long as a thing is useful or necessary to us, or affects us in any
way, either for pain or for pleasure, or appeals strongly to our
sympathies, or is a vital part of the environment in which we live,
it is outside the proper sphere of art. To art’s subject-matter we
should be more or less indifferent. We should, at any rate, have
no preferences, no prejudices, no partisan feeling of any kind. It
is exactly because Hecuba is nothing to us that her sorrows are
such an admirable motive for a tragedy. I do not know anything in
the whole history of literature sadder than the artistic career of
Charles Reade. He wrote one beautiful book, The Cloister and the
Hearth, a book as much above Romola as Romola is above Daniel
Deronda, and wasted the rest of his life in a foolish attempt to be
modern, to draw public attention to the state of our convict
prisons, and the management of our private lunatic asylums.
Charles Dickens was depressing enough in all conscience when he
tried to arouse our sympathy for the victims of the poor-law
administration; but Charles Reade, an artist, a scholar, a man with
a true sense of beauty, raging and roaring over the abuses of
contemporary life like a common pamphleteer or a sensational
journalist, is really a sight for the angels to weep over. Believe
me, my dear Cyril, modernity of form and modernity of subject-
matter are entirely and absolutely wrong. We have mistaken the
common livery of the age for the vesture of the Muses, and spend
our days in the sordid streets and hideous suburbs of our vile
cities when we should be out on the hillside with Apollo.
Certainly we are a degraded race, and have sold our birthright for
a mess of facts.

CYRIL. There is something in what you say, and there is no doubt
that whatever amusement we may find in reading a purely model
novel, we have rarely any artistic pleasure in re-reading it. And
this is perhaps the best rough test of what is literature and what
is not. If one cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again,
there is no use reading it at all. But what do you say about the
return to Life and Nature? This is the panacea that is always
being recommended to us.

VIVIAN. I will read you what I say on that subject. The passage
comes later on in the article, but I may as well give it to you

‘The popular cry of our time is “Let us return to Life and Nature;
they will recreate Art for us, and send the red blood coursing
through her veins; they will shoe her feet with swiftness and make
her hand strong.” But, alas! we are mistaken in our amiable and
well-meaning efforts. 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.’

CYRIL. What do you mean by saying that Nature is always behind the

VIVIAN. Well, perhaps that is rather cryptic. What I mean is
this. 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. One touch of
Nature may make the whole world kin, but two touches of Nature will
destroy any work of Art. 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. Wordsworth went to the lakes, but he was never a lake
poet. He found in stones the sermons he had already hidden there.
He went moralising about the district, but his good work was
produced when he returned, not to Nature but to poetry. Poetry
gave him ‘Laodamia,’ and the fine sonnets, and the great Ode, such
as it is. Nature gave him ‘Martha Ray’ and ‘Peter Bell,’ and the
address to Mr. Wilkinson’s spade.

CYRIL. I think that view might be questioned. I am rather
inclined to believe in ‘the impulse from a vernal wood,’ though of
course the artistic value of such an impulse depends entirely on
the kind of temperament that receives it, so that the return to
Nature would come to mean simply the advance to a great
personality. You would agree with that, I fancy. However, proceed
with your article.

VIVIAN (reading). ‘Art begins with abstract decoration, with
purely imaginative and pleasurable work dealing with what is unreal
and non-existent. This is the first stage. Then Life becomes
fascinated with 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, and keeps between
herself and reality the impenetrable barrier of beautiful style, of
decorative or ideal treatment. The third stage is when Life gets
the upper hand, and drives Art out into the wilderness. That is
the true decadence, and it is from this that we are now suffering.

‘Take the case of the English drama. At first in the hands of the
monks Dramatic Art was abstract, decorative and mythological. Then
she enlisted Life in her service, and using some of life’s external
forms, she created an entirely new race of beings, whose sorrows
were more terrible than any sorrow man has ever felt, whose joys
were keener than lover’s joys, who had the rage of the Titans and
the calm of the gods, who had monstrous and marvellous sins,
monstrous and marvellous virtues. To them she gave a language
different from that of actual use, a language full of resonant
music and sweet rhythm, made stately by solemn cadence, or made
delicate by fanciful rhyme, jewelled with wonderful words, and
enriched with lofty diction. She clothed her children in strange
raiment and gave them masks, and at her bidding the antique world
rose from its marble tomb. A new Caesar stalked through the
streets of risen Rome, and with purple sail and flute-led oars
another Cleopatra passed up the river to Antioch. Old myth and
legend and dream took shape and substance. History was entirely
re-written, and there was hardly one of the dramatists who did not
recognise that the object of Art is not simple truth but complex
beauty. In this they were perfectly right. Art itself is really a
form of exaggeration; and selection, which is the very spirit of
art, is nothing more than an intensified mode of over-emphasis.

‘But Life soon shattered the perfection of the form. Even in
Shakespeare we can see the beginning of the end. It shows itself
by the gradual breaking-up of the blank-verse in the later plays,
by the predominance given to prose, and by the over-importance
assigned to characterisation. The passages in Shakespeare–and
they are many–where the language is uncouth, vulgar, exaggerated,
fantastic, obscene even, are entirely due to Life calling for an
echo of her own voice, and rejecting the intervention of beautiful
style, through which alone should life be suffered to find
expression. 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. Goethe says, somewhere –

In der Beschrankung zeigt Fsich erst der Meister,

“It is in working within limits that the master reveals himself,”
and the limitation, the very condition of any art is style.
However, we need not linger any longer over Shakespeare’s realism.
The Tempest is the most perfect of palinodes. All that we desired
to point out was, that the magnificent work of the Elizabethan and
Jacobean artists contained within itself the seeds of its own
dissolution, and that, if it drew some of its strength from using
life as rough material, it drew all its weakness from using life as
an artistic method. As the inevitable result of this substitution
of an imitative for a creative medium, this surrender of an
imaginative form, we have the modern English melodrama. The
characters in these plays talk on the stage exactly as they would
talk off it; they have neither aspirations nor aspirates; they are
taken directly from life and reproduce its vulgarity down to the
smallest detail; they present the gait, manner, costume and accent
of real people; they would pass unnoticed in a third-class railway
carriage. And yet how wearisome the plays are! They do not
succeed in producing even that impression of reality at which they
aim, and which is their only reason for existing. As a method,
realism is a complete failure.

‘What is true about the drama and the novel is no less true about
those arts that we call the decorative arts. The whole history of
these arts in Europe is the record of the struggle between
Orientalism, with its frank rejection of imitation, its love of
artistic convention, its dislike to the actual representation of
any object in Nature, and our own imitative spirit. Wherever the
former has been paramount, as in Byzantium, Sicily and Spain, by
actual contact, or in the rest of Europe by the influence of the
Crusades, we have had beautiful and imaginative work in which the
visible things of life are transmuted into artistic conventions,
and the things that Life has not are invented and fashioned for her
delight. But wherever we have returned to Life and Nature, our
work has always become vulgar, common and uninteresting. Modern
tapestry, with its aerial effects, its elaborate perspective, its
broad expanses of waste sky, its faithful and laborious realism,
has no beauty whatsoever. The pictorial glass of Germany is
absolutely detestable. We are beginning to weave possible carpets
in England, but only because we have returned to the method and
spirit of the East. Our rugs and carpets of twenty years ago, with
their solemn depressing truths, their inane worship of Nature,
their sordid reproductions of visible objects, have become, even to
the Philistine, a source of laughter. A cultured Mahomedan once
remarked to us, “You Christians are so occupied in misinterpreting
the fourth commandment that you have never thought of making an
artistic application of the second.” He was perfectly right, and
the whole truth of the matter is this: The proper school to learn
art in is not Life but Art.’

And now let me read you a passage which seems to me to settle the
question very completely.

‘It was not always thus. We need not say anything about the poets,
for they, with the unfortunate exception of Mr. Wordsworth, have
been really faithful to their high mission, and are universally
recognised as being absolutely unreliable. But in the works of
Herodotus, who, in spite of the shallow and ungenerous attempts of
modem sciolists to verify his history, may justly be called the
“Father of Lies”; in the published speeches of Cicero and the
biographies of Suetonius; in Tacitus at his best; in Pliny’s
Natural History; in Hanno’s Periplus; in all the early chronicles;
in the Lives of the Saints; in Froissart and Sir Thomas Malory; in
the travels of Marco Polo; in Olaus Magnus, and Aldrovandus, and
Conrad Lycosthenes, with his magnificent Prodigiorum et Ostentorum
Chronicon; in the autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini; in the
memoirs of Casanova; in Defoe’s History of the Plague; in Boswell’s
Life of Johnson; in Napoleon’s despatches, and in the works of our
own Carlyle, whose French Revolution is one of the most fascinating
historical novels ever written, facts are either kept in their
proper subordinate position, or else entirely excluded on the
general ground of dulness. Now, everything is changed. Facts are
not merely finding a footing-place in history, but they are
usurping the domain of Fancy, and have invaded the kingdom of
Romance. Their chilling touch is over everything. They are
vulgarising mankind. The crude commercialism of America, its
materialising spirit, its indifference to the poetical side of
things, and its lack of imagination and of high unattainable
ideals, are entirely due to that country having adopted for its
national hero a man who, according to his own confession, was
incapable of telling a lie, and it is not too much to say that the
story of George Washington and the cherry-tree has done more harm,
and in a shorter space of time, than any other moral tale in the
whole of literature.’

CYRIL. My dear boy!

VIVIAN. I assure you it is the case, and the amusing part of the
whole thing is that the story of the cherry-tree is an absolute
myth. However, you must not think that I am too despondent about
the artistic future either of America or of our own country.
Listen to this:-

‘That some change will take place before this century has drawn to
its close we have no doubt whatsoever. Bored by the tedious and
improving conversation of those who have neither the wit to
exaggerate nor the genius to romance, tired of the intelligent
person whose reminiscences are always based upon memory, whose
statements are invariably limited by probability, and who is at any
time liable to be corroborated by the merest Philistine who happens
to be present, Society sooner or later must return to its lost
leader, the cultured and fascinating liar. Who he was who first,
without ever having gone out to the rude chase, told the wandering
cavemen at sunset how he had dragged the Megatherium from the
purple darkness of its jasper cave, or slain the Mammoth in single
combat and brought back its gilded tusks, we cannot tell, and not
one of our modern anthropologists, for all their much-boasted
science, has had the ordinary courage to tell us. Whatever was his
name or race, he certainly was the true founder of social
intercourse. For the aim of the liar is simply to charm, to
delight, to give pleasure. He is the very basis of civilised
society, and without him a dinner-party, even at the mansions of
the great, is as dull as a lecture at the Royal Society, or a
debate at the Incorporated Authors, or one of Mr. Burnand’s
farcical comedies.

‘Nor will he be welcomed by society alone. Art, breaking from the
prison-house of realism, will run to greet him, and will kiss his
false, beautiful lips, knowing that he alone is in possession of
the great secret of all her manifestations, the secret that Truth
is entirely and absolutely a matter of style; while Life–poor,
probable, uninteresting human life–tired of repeating herself for
the benefit of Mr. Herbert Spencer, scientific historians, and the
compilers of statistics in general, will follow meekly after him,
and try to reproduce, in her own simple and untutored way, some of
the marvels of which he talks.

‘No doubt there will always be critics who, like a certain writer
in the Saturday Review, will gravely censure the teller of fairy
tales for his defective knowledge of natural history, who will
measure imaginative work by their own lack of any imaginative
faculty, and will hold up their ink-stained hands in horror if some
honest gentleman, who has never been farther than the yew-trees of
his own garden, pens a fascinating book of travels like Sir John
Mandeville, or, like great Raleigh, writes a whole history of the
world, without knowing anything whatsoever about the past. To
excuse themselves they will try and shelter under the shield of him
who made Prospero the magician, and gave him Caliban and Ariel as
his servants, who heard the Tritons blowing their horns round the
coral reefs of the Enchanted Isle, and the fairies singing to each
other in a wood near Athens, who led the phantom kings in dim
procession across the misty Scottish heath, and hid Hecate in a
cave with the weird sisters. They will call upon Shakespeare–they
always do–and will quote that hackneyed passage forgetting that
this unfortunate aphorism about Art holding the mirror up to
Nature, is deliberately said by Hamlet in order to convince the
bystanders of his absolute insanity in all art-matters.’

CYRIL. Ahem! Another cigarette, please.

VIVIAN. My dear fellow, whatever you may say, it is merely a
dramatic utterance, and no more represents Shakespeare’s real views
upon art than the speeches of Iago represent his real views upon
morals. But let me get to the end of the passage:

‘Art finds her 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 that no woodland possesses. She makes and
unmakes many worlds, and 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 existence
are but unfinished copies. Nature has, in her eyes, no laws, no
uniformity. She can work miracles at her will, and when she calls
monsters from the deep they come. She can bid the almond-tree
blossom in winter, and send the snow upon the ripe cornfield. At
her word the frost lays its silver finger on the burning mouth of
June, and the winged lions creep out from the hollows of the Lydian
hills. The dryads peer from the thicket as she passes by, and the
brown fauns smile strangely at her when she comes near them. She
has hawk-faced gods that worship her, and the centaurs gallop at
her side.’

CYRIL. I like that. I can see it. Is that the end?

VIVIAN. No. There is one more passage, but it is purely
practical. It simply suggests some methods by which we could
revive this lost art of Lying.

CYRIL. Well, before you read it to me, I should like to ask you a
question. What do you mean by saying that life, ‘poor, probable,
uninteresting human life,’ will try to reproduce the marvels of
art? I can quite understand your objection to art being treated as
a mirror. You think it would reduce genius to the position of a
cracked looking-glass. But you don’t mean to say that you
seriously believe that Life imitates Art, that Life in fact is the
mirror, and Art the reality?

VIVIAN. Certainly I do. 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. We have all seen in
our own day in England how a certain curious and fascinating type
of beauty, invented and emphasised by two imaginative painters, has
so influenced Life that whenever one goes to a private view or to
an artistic salon one sees, here the mystic eyes of Rossetti’s
dream, the long ivory throat, the strange square-cut jaw, the
loosened shadowy hair that he so ardently loved, there the sweet
maidenhood of ‘The Golden Stair,’ the blossom-like mouth and weary
loveliness of the ‘Laus Amoris,’ the passion-pale face of
Andromeda, the thin hands and lithe beauty of the Vivian in
‘Merlin’s Dream.’ And it has always been so. A great artist
invents a type, and Life tries to copy it, to reproduce it in a
popular form, like an enterprising publisher. Neither Holbein nor
Vandyck found in England what they have given us. They brought
their types with them, and Life with her keen imitative faculty set
herself to supply the master with models. The Greeks, with their
quick artistic instinct, understood this, and set in the bride’s
chamber the statue of Hermes or of Apollo, that she might bear
children as lovely as the works of art that she looked at in her
rapture or her pain. They knew that Life gains from art not merely
spirituality, depth of thought and feeling, soul-turmoil or soul-
peace, but that she can form herself on the very lines and colours
of art, and can reproduce the dignity of Pheidias as well as the
grace of Praxiteles. Hence came their objection to realism. They
disliked it on purely social grounds. They felt that it inevitably
makes people ugly, and they were perfectly right. We try to
improve the conditions of the race by means of good air, free
sunlight, wholesome water, and hideous bare buildings for the
better housing of the lower orders. But these things merely
produce health, they do not produce beauty. For this, Art is
required, and the true disciples of the great artist are not his
studio-imitators, but those who become like his works of art, be
they plastic as in Greek days, or pictorial as in modern times; in
a word, Life is Art’s best, Art’s only pupil.

As it is with the visible arts, so it is with literature. The most
obvious and the vulgarest form in which this is shown is in the
case of the silly boys who, after reading the adventures of Jack
Sheppard or Dick Turpin, pillage the stalls of unfortunate apple-
women, break into sweet-shops at night, and alarm old gentlemen who
are returning home from the city by leaping out on them in suburban
lanes, with black masks and unloaded revolvers. This interesting
phenomenon, which always occurs after the appearance of a new
edition of either of the books I have alluded to, is usually
attributed to the influence of literature on the imagination. But
this is a mistake. The imagination is essentially creative, and
always seeks for a new form. The boy-burglar is simply the
inevitable result of life’s imitative instinct. He is Fact,
occupied as Fact usually is, with trying to reproduce Fiction, and
what we see in him is repeated on an extended scale throughout the
whole of life. Schopenhauer has analysed the pessimism that
characterises modern thought, but Hamlet invented it. The world
has become sad because a puppet was once melancholy. The Nihilist,
that strange martyr who has no faith, who goes to the stake without
enthusiasm, and dies for what he does not believe in, is a purely
literary product. He was invented by Tourgenieff, and completed by
Dostoieffski. Robespierre came out of the pages of Rousseau as
surely as the People’s Palace rose out of the debris of a novel.
Literature always anticipates life. It does not copy it, but
moulds it to its purpose. The nineteenth century, as we know it,
is largely an invention of Balzac. Our Luciens de Rubempre, our
Rastignacs, and De Marsays made their first appearance on the stage
of the Comedie Humaine. We are merely carrying out, with footnotes
and unnecessary additions, the whim or fancy or creative vision of
a great novelist. I once asked a lady, who knew Thackeray
intimately, whether he had had any model for Becky Sharp. She told
me that Becky was an invention, but that the idea of the character
had been partly suggested by a governess who lived in the
neighbourhood of Kensington Square, and was the companion of a very
selfish and rich old woman. I inquired what became of the
governess, and she replied that, oddly enough, some years after the
appearance of Vanity Fair, she ran away with the nephew of the lady
with whom she was living, and for a short time made a great splash
in society, quite in Mrs. Rawdon Crawley’s style, and entirely by
Mrs. Rawdon Crawley’s methods. Ultimately she came to grief,
disappeared to the Continent, and used to be occasionally seen at
Monte Carlo and other gambling places. The noble gentleman from
whom the same great sentimentalist drew Colonel Newcome died, a few
months after The Newcomer had reached a fourth edition, with the
word ‘Adsum’ on his lips. Shortly after Mr. Stevenson published
his curious psychological story of transformation, a friend of
mine, called Mr. Hyde, was in the north of London, and being
anxious to get to a railway station, took what he thought would be
a short cut, lost his way, and found himself in a network of mean,
evil-looking streets. Feeling rather nervous he began to walk
extremely fast, when suddenly out of an archway ran a child right
between his legs. It fell on the pavement, he tripped over it, and
trampled upon it. Being of course very much frightened and a
little hurt, it began to scream, and in a few seconds the whole
street was full of rough people who came pouring out of the houses
like ants. They surrounded him, and asked him his name. He was
just about to give it when he suddenly remembered the opening
incident in Mr. Stevenson’s story. He was so filled with horror at
having realised in his own person that terrible and well-written
scene, and at having done accidentally, though in fact, what the
Mr. Hyde of fiction had done with deliberate intent, that he ran
away as hard as he could go. He was, however, very closely
followed, and finally he took refuge in a surgery, the door of
which happened to be open, where he explained to a young assistant,
who happened to be there, exactly what had occurred. The
humanitarian crowd were induced to go away on his giving them a
small sum of money, and as soon as the coast was clear he left. As
he passed out, the name on the brass door-plate of the surgery
caught his eye. It was ‘Jekyll.’ At least it should have been.

Here the imitation, as far as it went, was of course accidental.
In the following case the imitation was self-conscious. In the
year 1879, just after I had left Oxford, I met at a reception at
the house of one of the Foreign Ministers a woman of very curious
exotic beauty. We became great friends, and were constantly
together. And yet what interested me most in her was not her
beauty, but her character, her entire vagueness of character. She
seemed to have no personality at all, but simply the possibility of
many types. Sometimes she would give herself up entirely to art,
turn her drawing-room into a studio, and spend two or three days a
week at picture galleries or museums. Then she would take to
attending race-meetings, wear the most horsey clothes, and talk
about nothing but betting. She abandoned religion for mesmerism,
mesmerism for politics, and politics for the melodramatic
excitements of philanthropy. In fact, she was a kind of Proteus,
and as much a failure in all her transformations as was that
wondrous sea-god when Odysseus laid hold of him. One day a serial
began in one of the French magazines. At that time I used to read
serial stories, and I well remember the shock of surprise I felt
when I came to the description of the heroine. She was so like my
friend that I brought her the magazine, and she recognised herself
in it immediately, and seemed fascinated by the resemblance. I
should tell you, by the way, that the story was translated from
some dead Russian writer, so that the author had not taken his type
from my friend. Well, to put the matter briefly, some months
afterwards I was in Venice, and finding the magazine in the
reading-room of the hotel, I took it up casually to see what had
become of the heroine. It was a most piteous tale, as the girl had
ended by running away with a man absolutely inferior to her, not
merely in social station, but in character and intellect also. I
wrote to my friend that evening about my views on John Bellini, and
the admirable ices at Florian’s, and the artistic value of
gondolas, but added a postscript to the effect that her double in
the story had behaved in a very silly manner. I don’t know why I
added that, but I remember I had a sort of dread over me that she
might do the same thing. Before my letter had reached her, she had
run away with a man who deserted her in six months. I saw her in
1884 in Paris, where she was living with her mother, and I asked
her whether the story had had anything to do with her action. She
told me that she had felt an absolutely irresistible impulse to
follow the heroine step by step in her strange and fatal progress,
and that it was with a feeling of real terror that she had looked
forward to the last few chapters of the story. When they appeared,
it seemed to her that she was compelled to reproduce them in life,
and she did so. It was a most clear example of this imitative
instinct of which I was speaking, and an extremely tragic one.

However, I do not wish to dwell any further upon individual
instances. Personal experience is a most vicious and limited
circle. All that I desire to point out is the general principle
that Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life, and I feel
sure that if you think seriously about it you will find that it is
true. Life holds the mirror up to Art, and either reproduces some
strange type imagined by painter or sculptor, or realises in fact
what has been dreamed in fiction. 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.
Young men have committed suicide because Rolla did so, have died by
their own hand because by his own hand Werther died. Think of what
we owe to the imitation of Christ, of what we owe to the imitation
of Caesar.

CYRIL. The theory is certainly a very curious one, but to make it
complete you must show that Nature, no less than Life, is an
imitation of Art. Are you prepared to prove that?

VIVIAN. My dear fellow, I am prepared to prove anything.

CYRIL. Nature follows the landscape painter, then, and takes her
effects from him?

VIVIAN. Certainly. Where, if not from the Impressionists, do we
get those wonderful brown fogs that come creeping down our streets,
blurring the gas-lamps and changing the houses into monstrous
shadows? To whom, if not to them and their master, do we owe the
lovely silver mists that brood over our river, and turn to faint
forms of fading grace curved bridge and swaying barge? The
extraordinary change that has taken place in the climate of London
during the last ten years is entirely due to a particular school of
Art. You smile. Consider the matter from a scientific or a
metaphysical point of view, and you will find that I am right. For
what is Nature? Nature is no great mother who has borne us. She
is our creation. It is in our brain that she quickens to life.
Things are because we see them, and what we see, and how we see it,
depends on the Arts that have influenced us. To look at a thing is
very different from seeing a thing. One does not see anything
until one sees its beauty. Then, and then only, does it come into
existence. At present, people see fogs, not because there are
fogs, but because poets and painters have taught them the
mysterious loveliness of such effects. There may have been fogs
for centuries in London. I dare say there were. But no one saw
them, and so we do not know anything about them. They did not
exist till Art had invented them. Now, it must be admitted, fogs
are carried to excess. They have become the mere mannerism of a
clique, and the exaggerated realism of their method gives dull
people bronchitis. Where the cultured catch an effect, the
uncultured catch cold. And so, let us be humane, and invite Art to
turn her wonderful eyes elsewhere. She has done so already,
indeed. That white quivering sunlight that one sees now in France,
with its strange blotches of mauve, and its restless violet
shadows, is her latest fancy, and, on the whole, Nature reproduces
it quite admirably. Where she used to give us Corots and
Daubignys, she gives us now exquisite Monets and entrancing
Pissaros. Indeed there are moments, rare, it is true, but still to
be observed from time to time, when Nature becomes absolutely
modern. Of course she is not always to be relied upon. The fact
is that she is in this unfortunate position. Art creates an
incomparable and unique effect, and, having done so, passes on to
other things. Nature, upon the other hand, forgetting that
imitation can be made the sincerest form of insult, keeps on
repeating this effect until we all become absolutely wearied of it.
Nobody of any real culture, for instance, ever talks nowadays about
the beauty of a sunset. Sunsets are quite old-fashioned. They
belong to the time when Turner was the last note in art. To admire
them is a distinct sign of provincialism of temperament. Upon the
other hand they go on. Yesterday evening Mrs. Arundel insisted on
my going to the window, and looking at the glorious sky, as she
called it. Of course I had to look at it. She is one of those
absurdly pretty Philistines to whom one can deny nothing. And what
was it? It was simply a very second-rate Turner, a Turner of a bad
period, with all the painter’s worst faults exaggerated and over-
emphasised. Of course, I am quite ready to admit that Life very
often commits the same error. She produces her false Renes and her
sham Vautrins, just as Nature gives us, on one day a doubtful Cuyp,
and on another a more than questionable Rousseau. Still, Nature
irritates one more when she does things of that kind. It seems so
stupid, so obvious, so unnecessary. A false Vautrin might be
delightful. A doubtful Cuyp is unbearable. However, I don’t want
to be too hard on Nature. I wish the Channel, especially at
Hastings, did not look quite so often like a Henry Moore, grey
pearl with yellow lights, but then, when Art is more varied, Nature
will, no doubt, be more varied also. That she imitates Art, I
don’t think even her worst enemy would deny now. It is the one
thing that keeps her in touch with civilised man. But have I
proved my theory to your satisfaction?

CYRIL. You have proved it to my dissatisfaction, which is better.
But even admitting this strange imitative instinct in Life and
Nature, surely you would acknowledge that Art expresses the temper
of its age, the spirit of its time, the moral and social conditions
that surround it, and under whose influence it is produced.

VIVIAN. Certainly not! Art never expresses anything but itself.
This is the principle of my new aesthetics; and it is this, more
than that vital connection between form and substance, on which Mr.
Pater dwells, that makes music the type of all the arts. Of
course, nations and individuals, with that healthy natural vanity
which is the secret of existence, are always under the impression
that it is of them that the Muses are talking, always trying to
find in the calm dignity of imaginative art some mirror of their
own turbid passions, always forgetting that the singer of life is
not Apollo but Marsyas. Remote from reality, and with her eyes
turned away from the shadows of the cave, Art reveals her own
perfection, and the wondering crowd that watches the opening of the
marvellous, many-petalled rose fancies that it is its own history
that is being told to it, its own spirit that is finding expression
in a new form. But it is not so. 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.

Even those who hold that Art is representative of time and place
and people cannot help admitting that the more imitative an art is,
the less it represents to us the spirit of its age. The evil faces
of the Roman emperors look out at us from the foul porphyry and
spotted jasper in which the realistic artists of the day delighted
to work, and we fancy that in those cruel lips and heavy sensual
jaws we can find the secret of the ruin of the Empire. But it was
not so. The vices of Tiberius could not destroy that supreme
civilisation, any more than the virtues of the Antonines could save
it. It fell for other, for less interesting reasons. The sibyls
and prophets of the Sistine may indeed serve to interpret for some
that new birth of the emancipated spirit that we call the
Renaissance; but what do the drunken boors and bawling peasants of
Dutch art tell us about the great soul of Holland? The more
abstract, the more ideal an art is, the more it reveals to us the
temper of its age. If we wish to understand a nation by means of
its art, let us look at its architecture or its music.

CYRIL. I quite agree with you there. The spirit of an age may be
best expressed in the abstract ideal arts, for the spirit itself is
abstract and ideal. Upon the other hand, for the visible aspect of
an age, for its look, as the phrase goes, we must of course go to
the arts of imitation.

VIVIAN. I don’t think so. After all, what the imitative arts
really give us are merely the various styles of particular artists,
or of certain schools of artists. Surely you don’t imagine that
the people of the Middle Ages bore any resemblance at all to the
figures on mediaeval stained glass, or in mediaeval stone and wood
carving, or on mediaeval metal-work, or tapestries, or illuminated
MSS. They were probably very ordinary-looking people, with nothing
grotesque, or remarkable, or fantastic in their appearance. The
Middle Ages, as we know them in art, are simply a definite form of
style, and there is no reason at all why an artist with this style
should not be produced in the nineteenth century. No great artist
ever sees things as they really are. If he did, he would cease to
be an artist. Take an example from our own day. I know that you
are fond of Japanese things. Now, do you really imagine that the
Japanese people, as they are presented to us in art, have any
existence? If you do, you have never understood Japanese art at
all. The Japanese people are the deliberate self-conscious
creation of certain individual artists. If you set a picture by
Hokusai, or Hokkei, or any of the great native painters, beside a
real Japanese gentleman or lady, you will see that there is not the
slightest resemblance between them. The actual people who live in
Japan are not unlike the general run of English people; that is to
say, they are extremely commonplace, and have nothing curious or
extraordinary about them. In fact the whole of Japan is a pure
invention. There is no such country, there are no such people.
One of our most charming painters went recently to the Land of the
Chrysanthemum in the foolish hope of seeing the Japanese. All he
saw, all he had the chance of painting, were a few lanterns and
some fans. He was quite unable to discover the inhabitants, as his
delightful exhibition at Messrs. Dowdeswell’s Gallery showed only
too well. He did not know that the Japanese people are, as I have
said, simply a mode of style, an exquisite fancy of art. And so,
if you desire to see a Japanese effect, you will not behave like a
tourist and go to Tokio. On the contrary, you will stay at home
and steep yourself in the work of certain Japanese artists, and
then, when you have absorbed the spirit of their style, and caught
their imaginative manner of vision, you will go some afternoon and
sit in the Park or stroll down Piccadilly, and if you cannot see an
absolutely Japanese effect there, you will not see it anywhere.
Or, to return again to the past, take as another instance the
ancient Greeks. Do you think that Greek art ever tells us what the
Greek people were like? Do you believe that the Athenian women
were like the stately dignified figures of the Parthenon frieze, or
like those marvellous goddesses who sat in the triangular pediments
of the same building? If you judge from the art, they certainly
were so. But read an authority, like Aristophanes, for instance.
You will find that the Athenian ladies laced tightly, wore high-
heeled shoes, dyed their hair yellow, painted and rouged their
faces, and were exactly like any silly fashionable or fallen
creature of our own day. The fact is that we look back on the ages
entirely through the medium of art, and art, very fortunately, has
never once told us the truth.

CYRIL. But modern portraits by English painters, what of them?
Surely they are like the people they pretend to represent?

VIVIAN. Quite so. They are so like them that a hundred years from
now no one will believe in them. The only portraits in which one
believes are portraits where there is very little of the sitter,
and a very great deal of the artist. Holbein’s drawings of the men
and women of his time impress us with a sense of their absolute
reality. But this is simply because Holbein compelled life to
accept his conditions, to restrain itself within his limitations,
to reproduce his type, and to appear as he wished it to appear. It
is style that makes us believe in a thing–nothing but style. Most
of our modern portrait painters are doomed to absolute oblivion.
They never paint what they see. They paint what the public sees,
and the public never sees anything.

CYRIL. Well, after that I think I should like to hear the end of
your article.

VIVIAN. With pleasure. Whether it will do any good I really
cannot say. Ours is certainly the dullest and most prosaic century
possible. Why, even Sleep has played us false, and has closed up
the gates of ivory, and opened the gates of horn. The dreams of
the great middle classes of this country, as recorded in Mr.
Myers’s two bulky volumes on the subject, and in the Transactions
of the Psychical Society, are the most depressing things that I
have ever read. There is not even a fine nightmare among them.
They are commonplace, sordid and tedious. As for the Church, I
cannot conceive anything better for the culture of a country than
the presence in it of a body of men whose duty it is to believe in
the supernatural, to perform daily miracles, and to keep alive that
mythopoeic faculty which is so essential for the imagination. But
in the English Church a man succeeds, not through his capacity for
belief, but through his capacity for disbelief. Ours is the only
Church where the sceptic stands at the altar, and where St. Thomas
is regarded as the ideal apostle. Many a worthy clergyman, who
passes his life in admirable works of kindly charity, lives and
dies unnoticed and unknown; but it is sufficient for some shallow
uneducated passman out of either University to get up in his pulpit
and express his doubts about Noah’s ark, or Balaam’s ass, or Jonah
and the whale, for half of London to flock to hear him, and to sit
open-mouthed in rapt admiration at his superb intellect. The
growth of common sense in the English Church is a thing very much
to be regretted. It is really a degrading concession to a low form
of realism. It is silly, too. It springs from an entire ignorance
of psychology. Man can believe the impossible, but man can never
believe the improbable. However, I must read the end of my

‘What we have to do, what at any rate it is our duty to do, is to
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
Euripidean 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 mankind, 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 ever thought of publishing a cheap
and condensed edition of the works of that 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 of real practical service to many earnest and deep-
thinking people. Lying for the sake of the 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 upon 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 a kind of
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. Just as those who do not love Plato more than Truth cannot
pass beyond the threshold of the Academe, so those who do not love
Beauty more than Truth never know the inmost shrine of Art. The
solid stolid British intellect lies in the desert sands like the
Sphinx in Flaubert’s marvellous tale, and fantasy, La Chimere,
dances round it, and calls to it with her false, flute-toned voice.
It may not hear her now, but surely some day, when we are all bored
to death with the commonplace character of modern fiction, it will
hearken to her and try to borrow her wings.

‘And when that day dawns, or sunset reddens, how joyous we shall
all be! Facts will be regarded as discreditable, Truth will be
found mourning over her fetters, and Romance, with her temper of
wonder, will return to the land. The very aspect of the world will
change to our startled eyes. Out of the sea will rise Behemoth and
Leviathan, and sail round the high-pooped galleys, as they do on
the delightful maps of those ages when books on geography were
actually readable. Dragons will wander about the waste places, and
the phoenix will soar from her nest of fire into the air. We shall
lay our hands upon the basilisk, and see the jewel in the toad’s
head. Champing his gilded oats, the Hippogriff will stand in our
stalls, and over our heads will float the Blue Bird singing of
beautiful and impossible things, of things that are lovely and that
never happen, of things that are not and that should be. But
before this comes to pass we must cultivate the lost art of Lying.’

CYRIL. Then we must entirely cultivate it at once. But in order
to avoid making any error I want you to tell me briefly the
doctrines of the new aesthetics.

VIVIAN. Briefly, then, they are these. Art never expresses
anything but itself. It has an independent life, just as Thought
has, and develops purely on its own lines. It is not necessarily
realistic in an age of realism, nor spiritual in an age of faith.
So far from being the creation of its time, it is usually in direct
opposition to it, and the only history that it preserves for us is
the history of its own progress. Sometimes it returns upon its
footsteps, and revives some antique form, as happened in the
archaistic movement of late Greek Art, and in the pre-Raphaelite
movement of our own day. At other times it entirely anticipates
its age, and produces in one century work that it takes another
century to understand, to appreciate and to enjoy. In no case does
it reproduce its age. To pass from the art of a time to the time
itself is the great mistake that all historians commit.

The second doctrine is this. All bad art comes from returning to
Life and Nature, and elevating them into ideals. Life and Nature
may sometimes be used as part of Art’s rough material, but before
they are of any real service to art they must be translated into
artistic conventions. The moment Art surrenders its imaginative
medium it surrenders everything. As a method Realism is a complete
failure, and the two things that every artist should avoid are
modernity of form and modernity of subject-matter. To us, who live
in the nineteenth century, any century is a suitable subject for
art except our own. The only beautiful things are the things that
do not concern us. It is, to have the pleasure of quoting myself,
exactly because Hecuba is nothing to us that her sorrows are so
suitable a motive for a tragedy. Besides, it is only the modern
that ever becomes old-fashioned. M. Zola sits down to give us a
picture of the Second Empire. Who cares for the Second Empire now?
It is out of date. Life goes faster than Realism, but Romanticism
is always in front of Life.

The third doctrine is that Life imitates Art far more than Art
imitates Life. This results not merely from Life’s imitative
instinct, but from the fact that the self-conscious aim of Life is
to find expression, and that Art offers it certain beautiful forms
through which it may realise that energy. It is a theory that has
never been put forward before, but it is extremely fruitful, and
throws an entirely new light upon the history of Art.

It follows, as a corollary from this, that external Nature also
imitates Art. The only effects that she can show us are effects
that we have already seen through poetry, or in paintings. This is
the secret of Nature’s charm, as well as the explanation of
Nature’s weakness.

The final revelation is that Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue
things, is the proper aim of Art. But of this I think I have
spoken at sufficient length. And now let us go out on the terrace,
where ‘droops the milk-white peacock like a ghost,’ while the
evening star ‘washes the dusk with silver.’ At twilight nature
becomes a wonderfully suggestive effect, and is not without
loveliness, though perhaps its chief use is to illustrate
quotations from the poets. Come! We have talked long enough.

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Tramite il gruppo civico Cambiare partecipo ad un progetto di rinnovamento della classe politica di Ferentino. Con questo sito internet cerco di informare e creare una discussione trasparente circa le scelte operate dall'amministrazione comunale.   Lavoro in architettura e restauro, progettando e realizzando ambienti, strutture, arredi ed oggetti tramite la mia azienda, Fornaci Giorgi, che produce pavimenti, rivestimenti ed elementi architettonici in cotto fatto a mano.   Mi interesso di arti visive, interfacce uomo macchina, applicazioni internet. Ho il pollice verde ed amo mia moglie Domitilla e nostra figlia Charlotte.   In passato ho collaborato con Wikipedia, Ubuntu, Live Performers Meeting, Il Cartello per la promozione e diffusione delle arti, Greenpeace, Festival Arrivano i Corti, Il Giardino delle Rose Blu, Il Gabbiano.

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