“The Decay of Lying” is one of my favorite works we have read so far. Not just for the style and sparkling wit which make an extreme and questionably tenable philosophy of art seem transcendently beautiful, but also because on almost every page I saw Wilde expressing a natural and logical outcome of the argument I am posing in my honors thesis, which is an exciting kind of validation. Although his aesthetic philosophy seems quintessentially decadent and draws on romantic ideas about the primacy of imagination, the ideas promulgated in seventeenth and eighteenth century empiricist philosophy create the scaffolding which support Vivian’s entire aesthetic project. (Although I don’t believe “The Decay of Lying” is ironic, I will avoid attributing Vivian’s position to Wilde, given that there is a clear warning in the text itself not to ascribe the views of a character to the author.)
Vivian has a unique position on the London fogs. “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 they were. But no one saw them. They did not exist until Art had invented them” (1086). At first gloss, this assertion makes no sense. Is there fog or not? How can Nature be “our creation”? What is the difference between looking at something and seeing it? These questions and quandaries are the direct outcome of the early modern revival of skepticism, when philosophers Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes questioned, undermined, and eventually demolished the edifice of medieval Scholasticism and replaced it with two new systematic philosophies. Descartes promoted rationalism, which is inimical to imagination and largely irrelevant to this discussion. Bacon, on the other hand, established the philosophical school of empiricism, which holds that all human ideas are the product of sensory experience. But if we accept that the senses are the ultimate source of all knowledge, we create a slew of other issues, mostly related to the translation of sensation into perception into thought and the possibility of abstractions and relations. Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, George Berkeley, and David Hume, the classic British empiricists, each resolve these thorny theoretical problems by expanding the power of the imagination. Hobbes has the imagination organize sensation into perception, recall memories, formulate abstract ideas, and permit association and pre-rational mental discourse, as well as making sense and imagination absolute whereas reason and science are fallible. The more thought something requires, the further removed it is from material reality. Locke absolutely denies that we have any access whatsoever, through any faculty, rational or otherwise, to the true nature of things beyond the way they appear to our imaginations. Berkeley goes even further and claims we do not even perceive real material appearances, but only our own ideas, which are products of the imagination. Hume says even seemingly true relations–such as resemblance and cause and effect–are products of the imagination.
By the 1740s, the empiricists have wholly subordinated the material world to the world of our own mental construction. Our only connection to “reality” is through sensation, everything else is our imagination interpreting sensation and filling in the gaps. Light enters our pupils when we look at something, but what we see is entirely dependent upon our own minds. Hence the fog. Not just Nature but the world is our own creation, and sometimes we have no awareness of something because our imaginations are interpreting the sense-data in a different way. We don’t know how to see the fog until some quirky artist sees it in a different light and shows us a new, lovely, impressionistic way we can interpret the condensation and coal dust.
Vivian says that no great artist “ever sees things as they really are. If he did he would cease to be an artist” (1088). But from the perspective of these empiricists, no one can ever see anything as it really is. For an artist to try is as futile as for the average person. Here is where the developments of the Romantic era intervene, elevating the artist as one who has particular facility with or insight into this almost divinely creative power of the empiricist imagination. But it is the very philosophers who are seeking after dull, dreary facts who create the faculty which allows the existence of Vivian’s extreme aesthetics, and I find that entirely delightful. –LN