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Wilde's "Trumpet Against the Gate of Dullness': 'The Decay of Lying' WILLIAM E. BUCKLER New York University IN "THE DECAY OF LYING," says Richard Ellmann, "Wilde discovered his own genius." Wilde's brilliant critical creation pinpoints an important concurrence in modern literary history, becoming "the locus classicus for the expression of the converging aesthetic ideas of writers everywhere," including Gautier and Mallarmé, Poe and Baudelaire , Verlaine and Whistler, Zola, Matthew Arnold, Taine, Proust, Whitman, Yeats, and Joyce.1 It is well said: "The Decay of Lying" was a turning-point in Wilde's literary career and in modern literature's efforts to define itself. Seen from this perspective, "the first and best" of all his dialogues, as Wilde himself called "The Decay of Lying,"2 is much more than an interesting new piece of aesthetic criticism and certainly something larger and more significant than an argument about the appropriate way to see art in its relation to nature and to life. It is proof of a new critical-creative presence in modern letters, a new outlook and personality for whom even some of the most respectable and widely held convictions about art in both its creative and its critical relationships are subject to serious challenge if not outright contradiction. Before "The Decay of Lying," Wilde had written only two— perhaps three3—relatively substantial critical essays, "The Rise of Historical Criticism" and "The Truth of Masks."4 The former was written while Wilde was still a student at Oxford and entered in the competition for the Chancellor's English Essay Prize. He did not win the prize or the fellowship he had hoped would come along with it, and the essay is, though rather ostentatiously "learned," neither imaginatively conceived nor clearly and spiritedly written.6 "The Truth of Masks," on the other hand, is a perfectly respectable essay in a more or less traditional critical mode on a subject requiring some refinement of discrimination among regular theatre-goers. Wilde takes the opportunity his subject provides to make some characteristic distinctions between art and life and between aesthetic effect and archaeological fact, and in the essay's final sentences he rather rises 311 ELT: Volume 33:3, 1990 above his subject and its earlier style to strike a note and a posture that are prophetic of things to come: Not that I agree with everything that I have said in this essay. There is much with which I entirely disagree. The essay simply represents an artistic standpoint, and in aesthetic criticism attitude is everything . For in art there is no such thing as a universal truth. A Truth in art is that whose contradictory is also true. And just as it is only in art-criticism, and through it, that we can apprehend the Platonic theory of ideas, so it is only in art-criticism, and through it, that we can realise Hegel's system of contraries. The truths of metaphysics are the truths of masks.6 A critical reader who quite justifiably feels that the essay's unity of effect has thus been thoroughly fractured may yet be intrigued by the show of a critical flair not in evidence before and may see in the assertion that "in art there is no such thing as a universal truth. A Truth in art is that whose contradictory is also true," the nucleus of both a new critical outlook and a new critical method.7 Still, except for its final turning, "The Truth of Masks" is critically sound rather than critically innovative. Subtitled "A Note on Illusion," the essay demonstrates quite convincingly Shakespeare's dependence on the authenticity of his actors' costumes "for his illusionist effects."8 "The Decay of Lying," however, represented the beginning of what was characteristic of Wilde's last and best period. His individuality had finally found the ideal literary mode through which to express itself. He was no Plato, nor was he meant to be, but at the dramatic distance of time and personality, he was a Platonist who believed in "a free sphere of ideal existences."9 He was deeply sympathetic to thought and relished and respected language as the most joyous creation of humanity, the...


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pp. 311-323
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