Wilde presents his essay on “The Decay of Lying” in a Socratic dialogue, with the characters of Vivian and Cyril having a conversation throughout. Vivian tells Cyril of an article he has been writing called “The Decay Of Lying: A Protest”. In the article, Vivian defends Aestheticism and “Art for Art’s sake”, a theory which embraces the four following doctrines: Art never expresses anything but itself, all bad art comes from returning to Life and Nature, and elevating them into ideals, life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life, and lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of Art.
Despite the clear humor that is meant to transpire in this piece, the reader cannot but take Oscar Wilde seriously, as it is an example of the art he proclaims; throughout the near entirety of his works, his ironic “lies” (as he defines the word) depict his argument through their rhetoric, that is, their substance or message, but also through their form. Indeed, one could argue that the rigid dialogue, which is an attempt to mimic the speech of every day life, is much less thrilling than many of the other literary forms, such as the novel : so why does Wilde choose it? It is a disingenuous attempt to mimic real life, as the “dialogue” is but an artifice to give voice to Vivian’s argument, and construct a scene which makes it seem like his arguments are winning his friend Cyril over. In reality, however, Cyril has around 70 lines out of the 21 pages that compose the essay, and although he has a few longer passages in which Wilde attempts to yield to the opposition, Cyril’s lines can be summarized, it seems, by a restricted number of categories. First, he asks a number of short, clarifying questions : “what is the subject?” or “lying! I should have thought that are politicians kept up that habit”, and “what magazine do you intend it for” or even “ whom do you mean by the elect?” He also has a series of short, allegedly scandalized interjections “My dear fellow!” and “My dear boy!” Finally, Cyril puts forth a number of noncommittal, seemingly listless, declarative sentences, which , upon closer analysis, bear the stamp of Wilde’s humor.
Indeed, while Vivian is completely transported by the topic that he is near-diatribing about, Cyril answers with a few tongue-in-cheek remarks. As Vivian declares that “the infinity of Nature is a complete myth” and that “it resides in the imagination, or fancy, or cultivated blindness of the man who looks at her”, Cyril replies “Well, you need not look at the landscape. You can lie on the grass and smoke and talk.” Cyril purposely misses the point of Vivian’s argument, and brings the dialogue back to a very prosaic, worldly level. As such, one might ask to what extent Cyril is not himself the best advocate of Wilde’s point : what if the true arguments, the beauty of literature, where Art really comes alive, is not in what is most evident and glaring at us, but rather in everything that is not what it appears to be. Cyril, who appears to be a boring, puppet-character in this dialogue, is actually just another instrument of Wilde’s wit.
Indeed, taking a closer look at Cyril’s replies, they seem to have much more to offer than what may transpire at first glance. He for example notes early on: “Writing an article! That is not very consistent with what you just said.” This may perhaps be an allusion to the form which Wilde espouses in order to put his argument forward, that is to say the dialogue, which we have previously argued to be quite unimaginative, and closer to human behavior than what Wilde’s argument would suggest he should have opted for. As such, Wilde not only brings forth his argument through the dialogue, but also anticipates criticism, answering to this through the rhetorical question “Who wants to be consistent? The dullard and the doctrinaire, the tedious people who carry out their principles to the bitter end(..)” In an ever-so Wilde-like manner, Wilde therefore embraces this more antiquated form ( the Socratic dialogue) in order to further his point, by showing his lack of rigidity and his versatility as a writer and thinker. One might even say that he is most true to himself where he seems to be another—because what is being “true” to himself is being one thing and its antithesis at the same time.
One could also argue that Wilde espouses the Socratic Dialogue not only to further his argument about imagination and versatility, but also because it was the form which Aristotle, whose arguments about mimesis he undermines throughout the essay, used. As such, it could be Wilde’s way of saying “if you are bored by this essay, blame him not me” or even “point proven. Dialogues are no fun.” The dialogue, which creates a dichotomy between the light-hearted, unconventional content and the rigid form, could be a way for Wilde to exacerbate the distinction between the two and therefore reinforce his point about the superiority of one over the other, in Artistic terms. The readers can therefore be convinced not only intellectually by the arguments, but also emotionally by the effect the writing has on them. Cyril for example tells Vivian “You will find me all attention.” However, the shortness of the sentence, as well as the authoritative period at the end of it, imply the opposite—Cyril seems to be saying “whatever you say.” He is rather more interested in sitting and smoking, than talking about such matters. As such, whereas Vivian could represent the intellectual argument in favor of lying and imagination, Cyril, with his facetiousness and desire to stray away from the rigidity of a serious dialogue, represents the emotional argument in favor of Wilde’s point. What is more, the very fact that he is smoking makes him an embodiment of inconsistency. Recalling the opening scene of Don Juan, where Sganarelle makes an elegy to tobacco, this substance can be seen as a symbol of everything transient, malleable, and even decadent. The smoke never has one shape or another, but rather is shaped and changed and altered with time. Cyril mentions it at the beginning of the dialogue, and then towards the middle of the dialogue, after one of Vivian’s page-long replies. All Cyril has to answer is “Ahem! Another cigarette, please.”
With this in mind, we can only wonder whether Cyril’s shift to agreeing with Vivian is a genuine one. However, this may be beyond the point: if he agrees, then the argument has been made, and the intellect has been won over. If he disagrees, and he is but faking to be won over, then the argument has no less been made : Cyril, who seems to represent the active side of the argument as opposed to the intellectual side, has taken one step ahead of Vivian, and put the argument into practice, by being disingenuous with his friend. As such, both Vivian (through his ironic, cynical arguments) and Cyril ( with his disingenuous, facetious character) have become vectors, champions of Wilde’s thought and argument.
We can therefore conclude by remarking that Wilde, through his ironic writings and ambiguous characters, was his own best example, valuing art above nature and lies above truth. Words (“so glad I’ve seen him” as opposed to “met” in The picture of Dorian Gray), sentences (“ Intellect is in itself a mode of exaggeration, and destroys the harmony of any face” The Picture of Dorian Gray), and even entire works (“Pen, Pencil, Poison”) remain entirely ambiguous as to whether Wilde was advancing them earnestly, or rather ironically to mean the very opposite of what he was saying. In this regard, we could say that his one consistency is his lack thereof.