Category Archives: Week 6 Reviews: Wilde’s criticism in Intentions

Brainstorming Interpretation Questions for “Pen, Pencil and Poison” by Oscar Wilde


Today’s brainstorming is not about initial statements or opinions about the text we’ll be discussing, but instead about questions.  Please think of one or two excellent question(s) you think we should ask of this text today in order to investigate and discuss it as fully or deeply as possible.  Time: 2 minutes.

Here are the questions students came up with spontaneously, at the beginning of class: 

How does one classify this essay?  Is it biography? A form of creative nonfiction? How does Wainewright relate to Wilde? –KJO

Why did Oscar Wilde choose to write about this particular man, Thomas Wainewright?  -CAN

Why is the subtitle “Study in Green”? –IPN

Are Wilde’s appeals to “truth” in the essay meant to refer to an objective truth?  -MP

On what grounds can art be defined and judged?  -YG

Why does Wilde choose to write about Wainewright given that his literature alone is not worth remembering? –LN

Why is the biography of Wainewright, especially the discussion of his poisoning others, juxtaposed with his ideas about art and passages about art in this paper?  -ER

In what manner is Wainewright’s art affected by his dark past?  -?

Are the critic and description of works of art somehow similar to prose poetry? What about the art of poisons?  -RC

Why is it that Oscar Wilde puts poisoning or murder on the same artistic pedestal as writing or painting? –MCR

Why does Wilde leave the description of Wainewright’s crimes to the very end of the essay?  -LH

Why is the revelation of the poisoning so casually inserted and given little significance? –DF

What is the relationship between art and criminal activities, specifically, Wainewright’s criminal activities?  -MG

To what extent does Wilde believe the act of writing or or creating art is just as poisonous as the act of poisoning?  -JSW

Why construe this piece as a “memoir” that claims “facts” (p. 1106) rather than as a more overtly fictional work, as he did in “Decay of Lying”? –AA

What does Wilde mean when he suggests that the aim of art is to have “a style so gorgeous that it conceals its subject”?  -Alcibiades

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Life and Nature, Moral, and Art

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.


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Lady Gaga—A Wildean Exploration of Art, Artifice, and Existence

“When I look back on my life, it’s not that I don’t want to see things exactly as they happened; it’s just that I prefer to remember them in an artistic way. And truthfully, the lie of it all is much more honest, because I invented it.”

— Lady Gaga, “Marry the Night: The Prelude Pathetique”

Oscar Wilde’s essays “The Decay of Lying” and “Pen, Pencil, and Poison” suggest two important, related concepts: that art is artifice, and that art is existence. During the presentation on “Pen, Pencil, and Poison,” it was suggested that the essay functions as Wilde’s attempt to examine and embellish Wainewright’s life—it essentially serves as a model for artistic self-fashioning. As we discussed, it seems as this retroactive construction can operate on two levels. It can be used as a coping mechanism or as a true artistic expression. That does not mean that the two are mutually exclusive, of course, but there is a higher level motivation in the second iteration that is driven by the desire for conceptual holism. Artistic recreation should seek to acknowledge all parts of the self as necessary and beautiful.  In this post, I utilize Wilde’s method presented in “Pen, Pencil, and Poison” to examine Lady Gaga’s artistic self-fashioning.

It is easy to dismiss Lady Gaga as a meaningful study because of her inherent status as a pop star, but her statements and actions reveal themselves to be quite Wildean—and by extension, Nietzschean—in nature. In a turn perhaps borrowed directly from Wilde himself, Gaga proclaims, “Art is a lie.” Gaga recognizes the implicit deceit in art and uses that knowledge to manipulate the truth; she explains, “It’s not that I’ve been dishonest, it’s just that I loathe reality.” Through the posturing found in pieces like “Marry the Night,” we realize that she has transformed herself from a person into a living embodiment of art. She is no longer Stefani Germanotta, but Lady Gaga.

It is important to understand that there is no static image of Gaga; as she states, “The power of transformation is endless.” Like any artist, her work can be chronicled into periods distinguished by specific wigs, makeup, and costumes. Nonetheless, they are all immediately recognizable as “Gaga.” In a sense, there is a particular essence, a common thread, that runs through her art. This is evocative of Wilde’s suggestion that art acts as a “form” or “archetype” (1082). Gaga has transitioned from character to concept.


Gaga as “Jo Calderone,” “You & I” single cover

The idea of character, nevertheless, remains integral to Gaga’s image. In “The Decay of Lying,” Vivian argues, “The only real people are the ones who never existed” (1075).  Fictional characters are not constrained by reality; they can adapt and conform as they please, and their motivations arise from possibility, not necessity. This concept is most explicit in Lady Gaga’s music videos, which constitute the visual component of her art. Gaga performs as a myriad of characters, from a bandana-sporting chola Mary Magdalene in “Judas;” to a KGB sex slave in “Bad Romance;” to both a man, an alter-ego affectionately named Jo Calderone, and a mermaid in “You & I.” By embodying these different personas, she “makes and unmakes many worlds” (1082). Gaga is able to extort reality in favor of art.


Gaga, “Born This Way” single cover

This power, however, is not without problem. This is best exemplified by Gaga’s appearance in the “Born This Way” video. The song is an anthemic acceptance of all peoples, regardless of ethnicity, sexuality, or religion, yet in the video, Gaga appears as a gaunt shadow, features obscured by strange, angular prostheses. It is overwhelmingly evident that she was not “born this way,” but she posits this as a true representation of herself.

This reveals a particular tension between artifice and authenticity. Gaga asks us to suspend reality and believe the lie that she has created; she asserts, “It is my destiny to exist halfway between reality and fantasy at all times.”  We’re smart enough to know her constructions are fiction, and we may even call into question her motivations, yet we still accept them as part of Lady Gaga. Effectively, we cannot judge her by “any external standard” (1082). All iterations of Gaga are equally valid and essential to her existence. After all, she suggests, “I’ve reckoned that perhaps there is no…need to distinguish between artifice and consciousness.” While this quotation is startlingly reminiscent of Des Esseintes’s aesthetic attitude, it also intimates that there is no moral distinction between truth and fiction, art and life; they are one and the same.

While we may be hesitant to adopt Lady Gaga’s grandiose gesturing like we reject Wainewright’s murderous tendencies, they both serve as interesting case studies for exploring the relationship between art, artifice, and existence. They have become larger than life; they become the lie, and in that, they become beautiful.


Gaga quotations come from this op-ed found in V Magazine.

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The Philosophy of London Fogs

“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

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Form in “The Decay of Lying” and “Pen, Pencil and Poison”

Oscar Wilde’s “The Decay of Lying” and “Pen, Pencil and Poison” both serve as explanations of his views on art. “The Decay of Lying” takes the form of a more philosophical treatise, whereas “Pen, Pencil, and Poison” defies most characterizations of form. The form of both pieces allows Wilde to distance himself from his ideas about art.
“The Decay of Lying” takes the form of a philosophical, Socratic-like dialogue. Wilde does not appear as a character in the dialogue. Instead, he uses the names of his sons, Vivian and Cyril, who were too young at the time to have carried on the discussion written. Although this creates the potential for irony, it also distances Wilde from the conversation, though he remains a presence in the piece. The use of his sons’ names can also be interpreted as a regurgitation of ideas; they have absorbed Wilde’s ideas and can explain them point-by-point. The form of dialogue allows Wilde to express his ideas while exempting him from taking full credit for them.
Wilde’s piece “Pen, Pencil and Poison” unravels in a form difficult to categorize. Wilde uses Wainewright’s story to unveil his own views on art, weaving his life into an aesthetic treatise. The beginning of the piece appears to use the form of biography. As it progresses, however, Wilde contemplates the interplay of art and crime, beauty and the terrible (playing on Burke’s definition of the “sublime”). Wilde uses Wainewright to again hide behind another character or narrator to express his views. In doing so, Wainewright become a plot device rather than a three-dimensional character and historical figure.
Wilde uses “The Decay of Lying” and “Pen, Pencil and Poison” to express his views on art and aesthetic philosophy. By employing figures such as Vivan, Cyril, and Wainewright, Wilde deflects responsibility for his views on art. -KJO

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Crime and Culture in “Pen, Pencil and Poison”

Oscar Wilde’s biographical essay “Pen, Pencil and Poison” seemed, like often, to feature themes such as aestheticism, crime vs. culture, sin, and the creation of one’s self. However, what struck out to me most of all in this essay was the theme of crime vs. culture and the possible parallels that it could have had for Wilde on a personal level. Wainewright is a murderer, however, we as readers don’t really see the full extent of his criminal activities until the very end of the essay, something I’m sure was no accident on Wilde’s part. As always it is somewhat difficult to discern Wilde’s honest opinion, in this case that of Wainewright. That said, Wilde compares him to Charles Baudelaire, someone Wilde admired greatly, and describes the Wainewright as “this young dandy sought to be somebody, rather than to do something. He recognized that Life itself is an art and has its modes of style no less that the arts that seek to express it…in this artistic perception he was perfectly right”.

This shows that Wilde held at least some admiration and respect for Wainewright, which brings back the important theme here—we mustn’t forget that he was a murderer, not just any murderer, but a cunning, sarcastic one at that, and the contrast is definitely noteworthy. Wilde claimed that his criminal activities revealed the soul of his true artistry; society rejected and feared him. This perhaps alludes to a more personal aspect of the life of Wilde himself—sometimes society (culture) viewed Wilde’s activities as crime, when in fact he was harming no one and probably would not consider his actions to be criminal.  Obviously, there are some major differences between the two situations, but nonetheless it seemed to me that Wilde was making an important statement about a disconnect between what society and culture view as crime and what actually should be considered crime. -MG

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Inconsistency as Wilde’s One Consistency – On “ The Decay of Lying”

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.


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