In Wilde’s “The Decay of Lying: An observation,” I was particularly struck by some important statements of Vivian as regard Art, Nature, and Life. If one may say, Vivian is clearly ‘against nature.’ Somehow, Vivian is a lookalike of des Esseintes. For example, Vivian confesses he belongs to a club called “The Tired Hedonists,” which reminds me of des Esseintes who is a disillusioned hedonist as well.
For Vivian, life and nature are not perfect: indeed if they were perfect, why would human have invented the Arts? Moreover according to Vivian a natural landscape is never entirely perfect, nature is not perfectly comfortable either. That is why, Vivian says, one has invented, respectively, the visual arts and architecture. “The infinite variety of Nature is a pure myth,” Vivian says. The infinite is to be found in the imagination, or fancy, of those who look at her. On that account, I would add here that one has invented poetry and myth in order to overcome the imperfectness and the finiteness of language. By rendering language transcendental by means of powerful aesthetic and visual imagery, the signifier may exceed its signified becoming therefore, so to speak, hyperbolic and infinite (Can Flaubert’s “La Tentation de Saint Antoine”and its terrorizing visions be a fair example of that?)
But Vivian goes even further: “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life.” Therefor, in this view, which echoes Plato and Aristotle’s Mimesis, it is rather the Nature that imitates the Art, and not the other way round. This is from this philosophical axiom that Vivian infers that, basically, one has to lie, to be deceptive, and to wear masks (to transfigure?) in order to speak out the truth, which definitely looks like an immoral statement. Yet, a des Esseintes or a Vivian is merely seeking for the Good and the Beautiful, isn’t it?
This raises the great “problem of decadence” as Nietzsche puts it ‘with tact’ in the preface of “The Case of Wagner: A Musician’s Problem”(1888): “My greatest preoccupation hitherto has been the problem of decadence, and I had reasons for this. […] If one has trained one’s eye to detect the symptoms of decline, one also understands morality, — one understands what lies concealed beneath its holiest names and tables of values: e.g., impoverished life, the will to nonentity, great exhaustion. Morality denies life…” Decadence is associated with a decline of moral, ethic, and sexual traditions, which echoes a sort of disenchantment (Le mal du Siècle). The decadent aesthetic leads ultimately to a denial of both life and nature. In return, the decadents opt for a luxurious self-indulgence, as it is clear with ‘conceptual personae’ such as des Esseintes, Lord Henri, or Vivian, namely, a bunch of disillusioned dandies. Finally, those dandies are seeking for “the Art,” whatever that is. “She [the Art] is a veil, rather than a mirror,” says enigmatically Vivian. Here of course the veil denotes the old conception of the truth as Aletheia (ἀλήθεια; ‘the state of not being hidden’) wherein the true becomes a “lifting of the veil,” namely a dubious epiphany (or ecstasy) in which the pre-interpreted and structured background of meaning discloses itself to the contemplative aesthete. – R.C.