Oscar Wilde.

Complete works of Oscar Wilde online

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Complete Works















THE TRUTH OF MASKS, , . . ,227



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 1 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 experi-
ence 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 un-
finished 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 had 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 land-
scape. You can lie on the grass and smoke and

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 com-
fortable 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 com-
fortable, mankind would never have invented
architecture, and I prefer houses to the open
air. In a house we all feel of the proper pro-
portions. 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 I 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
vali\^ble warning. If it is attended to, there
may be a new Renaissance of Art

Cybil. What is the subject ?

Vivian. I intend to call it « The Decay of
Lying : A Protest.'

Cykil. 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 dis-
dain 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 dehghtful.
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
tliat 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

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 suppose ?

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. That is one of the objects
of the club. Now, if you promise not to inter-
rupt 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
Uterature of our age is undoubtedly the decay
of Lying as an art, a science, and a social
pleasure. The ancient historians gave us de-
lightful fiction in the form of fact ; the modem
noveUst 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 every-
thing, and ultimately, between encyclopjedias
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 loss 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
Plato 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 dis-
couraged, 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 sur-
roundings, 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 1

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 weU-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 pres-
ence, 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 proba-
bility. 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 wUl become sterile, and beauty will pass
away from the land.

' Even ilr. Robert Louis Stevenson, that de-
lightful master of delicate and fanciful prose, is
tainted with this modem rice, for we know posi-
tively 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 foot-
note 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 impercept-
ible " 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 hear 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 weari-
some things. Mr. Marion Crawford has immo-
lated himself upon the altar of local colour. He
is like the lady in the French comedy who
keeps talking about " le beau ciel d'ltalie."
Besides, he has fallen into the bad habit of
uttering moral platitudes. He is always teUing
us that to be good is to be good, and that to be
bad is to be wicked. At times he is almost
edifjdng. Robert Elsmere is of course a master-
piece — 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 Nonconfor-
mist 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
noveUsts 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 Mau-
passant, 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 litera-
ture, " L'homme de g^nie 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 1 He is not without power. Indeed
at times, as in Germiyial, 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 per-
fectly 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 UAssom-
irwir. Nana and Pot-Boni/Iel Nothing. Mr.
Ruskin once described the characters in George
Eliot's novels as being like the sweepings of a
Pentonville onmibus, 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 " II faut
lutter pour I'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 Uttiraire
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 justifica-
tion 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 modem 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 stuiF. 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 dis-
appear. 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. 1 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 qualifi-
cation, 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 state-
ment 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 any-
thing be less impressive than the unfortunate
hero gravely heralding a dawn that rose long
ago, and so completely missing its true signifi-
cance 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. Ahl Meredith! Who can define
him ? His style is chaos illumined by flashes of
lightning. As a writer he has mastered every-


thing 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 him-
self 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 fuU of thorns, and red with
wonderful roses. As for Balzac, he was a most
remarkable combination of the artistic tempera-
ment 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 U Assommoir and Balzac's
Illusions Perdues is the difference between un-
imaginative 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
B 17


deeply coloured as dreams. Each mind is a
weapon loaded to the muzzle with wUL The
very scuUions 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 Rubemprd.
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, con-
sequently, there is no book of his that, as an
artistic masterpiece, can rank with Salammbd
or Esmond, or The Cloister and the Hearth, or
the Ficomte de Bragelonne.

Cykil. Do you object to modernity of form,

VrviAN. 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 sur-
roundings, 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 unsuit-
able 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 Uve, 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 hterature sadder than the artistic
career of Charles Reade. He wrote one beauti-
ful 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 depres-
sing 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 ApoUo. Certainly we
are a degraded race, and have sold our birth-
right 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 modem novel,
we have rarely any artistic pleasure in re-read-
ing 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 now : —

'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

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Online LibraryOscar WildeComplete works of Oscar Wilde → online text (page 1 of 18)