” (41) it is unclear how to understand “things are because we see them.” Traditionally perception is conceived as a passive process: we open our eyes and receive input from the world. Kant suggests that perhaps it is not so passive: we “organize” the world into temporal and spatial dimensions, attribute cause and effect, etc. But what Wilde suggests here is even more radical. The “things are because” suggests a causal relationship, such that what we see exists as an effect of seeing. It would be as if looking “paints” the world. But this is completely absurd. Onto what would seeing “paint” the world? and, even weirder, notice that it wouldnt be that seeing paints the world so that we could then look at what was painted. Rather, it would be that seeing is painting, so that we always see and paint simultaneously, always just “creating” whatever we see, under the influence of the arts.
I pause a moment to consider this claim because there is a popular related claim: our beliefs determine what we see, hear, etc. If you believe that Mary is beautiful, then you “see her differently,” you do not see the same thing that Marys detractors do when they look at her. Wilde could claim this commonplace view as supporting his thesis as follows. When we look at nature, our experience of it is “mediated” by our past experiences of landscape paintings, poetic descriptions of snowy forests, etc. Having come to believe that these works of art are faithful representations of the world, we expect to see them when we look upon landscapes, snowy forests, etc. And since our beliefs determine what we see, we see what has already been art. And so nature, so far as we can see it, imitates art.
But it isnt at all true that what we believe determines what we see. There is an elegant proof. Consider the Mueller-Lyer illusion:
The top line appears to be smaller than the bottom line. Now obscure the “arrowheads” of the top line and the “forked branches” of the bottom line, and, if necessary, use a ruler to convince yourself that these two lines are in fact of equal length. You can also draw them anew for yourself or switch the “arrowheads” and “forked branches” from line to line, if youre especially skeptical. Once youre convinced, look again at the illusion in its original form. The top line still looks shorter. The crucial thing to notice is that no matter how thoroughly you convince yourself that the lines are of equal length, you cannot get yourself to see it that way. Our visual perception is definitely not determined by what we believe. And so the natural questions that one would put to Wildes claim that nature imitates art are appropriate. What art does a black hole imitate? A newly discovered species? The cut on my leg, even? How could nature imitate art, if not by the delusion of those of us who contemplate both?
These objections are hardly insightful. It is difficult to believe that a man of Wildes publicly-declared genius would have failed to notice them. We are compelled, then, to consider the possibility that he had a more subtle view or that his truly held view is somewhat elusive.
Wilde does not say himself that life imitates are more than art imitates life; he has a character say it. Moreover, this same character advocates lying as an artistic form, and so it is plausible that not even all of what Vivian says is what Vivian believes. Vivian may not even believe that life imitates art. but, even more to the point, its doubtful that Wilde believes what Vivian says. Vivian warns us against taking Shakespeares characters to represent Shakespeare:
My dear fellow, whatever you may say, it is merely a dramatic utterance, and no more represents Shakespeares real views upon Art than the speeches of Iago represent his real views upon morals. (30)
And the same warning would presumably apply to our interpretation of Wilde. We may then question whether Wildes character represents Wildes real view.
And here we find ourselves in an interesting interpretive situation. The Decay of Lying is presumably a work of art: it seems fatuous to ask whether Cyril and Vivian ever had this conversation. It is thus subject to the same standards as those Vivian advocates within the work. That is, if it meets the standards that Vivian champions, then it should exaggerate the truth of life. And if it exaggerates the truth, it may also exaggerate Wildes own convictions regarding art and life; with the result that perhaps Wilde does not believe that life imitates art more often than art imitates life.
But if the Decay of Lying fails to meet Vivians standards, then it would still seem that Wildes convictions regarding art are not Vivians. For if they were, then Wilde would have thought this very work to be poor, for its unimaginative imitation of life. “All bad art comes from returning to Life and Nature.” (54) and if this were so, we should wonder why Wilde ever made it public. So it is dubious, then, that Decay of Lying imitates life; and so perhaps it has no burden of truly reflecting Wildes views on art and life. It would then seem that in either case, we have only weak reasons, if any, to believe that Wilde shares Vivians ideas about aesthetics.
Taking some liberties, we can sharpen the edge on these claims. Take the following proposition, a, to be a work of art, in this case an utterance made by Oscar Wilde.
(a) Life imitates art; art does not imitate life.
If the second clause of a is true, then a itself is not an imitation of life. If “life” includes Wilde and his beliefs, then a entails that Wilde does not believe a. On the contrary, if the first clause is to be believed, then it is only after a has been uttered that anyone living would believe it. And so we may conclude that if Wilde does believe a, this is came to be so only after Wilde uttered it; i.e. It came to be only after Wilde wrote the Decay of Lying.
What would have been the point, then, of writing a work in which the thesis that life imitates art more than art imitates life is defended at length? The answer is to be found in Vivians defense of lying: for its tragic beauty. Vivian tells us that “Art is not simple truth but complex beauty.” (23) if this is Wildes art, then we should not take to speak a simple truth, we should ask what is beautiful about it. Here, two things caught my notice.
First, perhaps it would be a beautiful universe in which life imitates art. Perhaps we can take Wildes suggestion this way, then: insofar as art is “really a form of exaggeration,” would the world in which Vivians claim holds true be a beautiful one? When she describes sunsets and French fields that resemble works of art, it does seem as though this would indeed be a world with beautiful things to see. In addition, Vivians ecstatic description toward the conclusion of a world in which hippogriffs and other mythic creatures roam also suggests a place that would be wonderful to see, though perhaps unsafe to inhabit.
I stumble even on this point, though. For this world seems internally unstable. How did the first thing come about? If the rule is exceptionless — if all natural and living things are imitations of art, then the very first thing should have been a work of artbut by whom? So, presumably, then the rule does admit of exceptions. The world is simply one in which the myth of Pygmalion very often (more often than art imitates life) plays out; putting aside these, it is much like our world of physical laws, molecular structures, and fairly well-understood forces. But then, still, I wonder about destructive art: when shall we meet “Death, the destroyer of worlds” from the Bhagavad Gita?
Second, given such a world, the common tendency to imitate uninspired art would be tragic. It is already fairly depressing to hear a great many people recite catchphrases from cliched sitcoms or to recognize in an acquaintances personality the shallow impersonation of a pop star. If this were depressing only for its artistic feebleness, it would be all the more depressing in a world where creativity could be imitated by nature. In such a world, the failure to speak and act in “authentic” or novel ways would be worse than uninteresting and somewhat irritating; it would be a repeated waste.