The Decay of Lying – Oscar Wilde

Dang, this is a great essay. If you only know it from the famous “Life imitates Art” bit out of context, you’re missing out on a world of goodness. There’s a million quotable parts. Here’s a few…

I first got sucked in with this (tongue-in-cheek?) bit on Nature.

If Nature had been comfortable, mankind would never have invented architecture, and I prefer houses to the open air. In a house we all feel of the proper proportions. 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.

I wonder about this one:

The more abstract, the more ideal an art is, the more it reveals to us the temper of its age. If we wish to understand a nation by means of its art, let us look at its architecture or its music.

On the change from old-school fiction vs. fiction in Wilde’s time, when novels were really taking off. Still true today?

The ancient historians gave us delightful fiction in the form of fact; the modern novelist presents us with dull facts under the guise of fiction.

And finally to that “Life imitates Art” thing.

Things are because we see them, and what we see, and how we see it, depends on the Arts that have influenced us. To look at a thing is very different from seeing a thing. One does not see anything until one sees its beauty. Then, and then only, does it come into existence. At present, people see fogs, not because there are fogs, but because poets and painters have taught them the mysterious loveliness of such effects.

Along the same lines…

A great artist invents a type, and Life tries to copy it, to reproduce it in a popular form, like an enterprising publisher.

We see lilypads and think of Monet, we see Western landscapes as perfect replicas of an Ansel Adams, we experience love through filters we borrowed from Romeo & Juliet or Casablanca. Reminds me of a bit I quoted from The Age of the Infovore, when Tyler Cowen acknowledges that many of his dreams, fantasies, experiences are borrowed:

I treasure those thoughts and feelings so much but in reality I pull a lot of them from a social context and I pull them from points that are socially salient. That means I pull them from celebrities, from ads, from popular culture, and most generally from ideas that are easy to communicate and disseminate to large numbers of people. We all dream in pop culture language to some degree.

The Decay of Lying – Oscar Wilde