Intentions by Oscar Wilde

October 1, 2009

IntentionsIntentions is a groudbreaking work of criticism, in four parts, by the inimitable Oscar Wilde. I will begin by suggesting you seek this out and read it. The book is important; Oscar Wilde is a genius. Throughout each of the four parts, Wilde advocates for originality. For Wilde, all virtues are subservient to Art.

The first part, “The Decay of Lying”, consists of a dialogue between Cyril and Vivian that takes place in “the Libarary of a country house in Nottinghamshire.” The dialogue begins with Cyril walking into the library and encouraging Vivian to go outside:

Let us go and lie on the grass and smoke cigarettes and enjoy Nature.

VIVIAN: Enjoy Nature! I am glad to say that I have entirely lost that faculty…My own experience 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 unfinished 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….

CYRIL: Well, you need not look at the landscape. You can lie on the grass and smoke and talk.

VIVIAN: But Nature is so uncomfortable. Grass is hard and lumpy and damp, and full of dreadful black insects….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. And then Nature is so indifferent, so unappreciative.

The temptation here is to continue quoting, if not from here, then another substantial quote when Vivian introduces his forthcoming article entitled “The Decay of Lying”. For instance, when Cyril suggests that politicians surely have kept up the habit of lying, Vivian replies:

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 disdain of proof of any kind!

Lawyers and journalists are rejected as adequate keepers of the torch of lying and Vivian moves on to make his point about lying in art. Cyril asks Vivian to read his article. Vivian obliges. The article is both uproariously funny, as I hope the above has suggested, and brilliantly insightful. It is not always easy to determine which views Oscar holds and which he is lampooning, but Vivian’s lines always contain barbs:

M. Zola…is determined to show that, if he has not got genius, he can at least be dull.

Ah! Meredith! Who can define him?…As a writer he has mastered everything except language: as a novelist he can do everything, except tell a story: as an artist he is everything except articulate…..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.

The wit continues to sparkle throughout. Simply for the laughs, this is a worthwhile read. In addition, the essay acts as a valuable provacateur regarding the place and function of art. Vivian concludes:

Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of Art.

The next section is a biography of a forger and murderer. Again, Wilde displays both humor and depth. Among other things, Wilde examines the intersections of criminality and art. On one side, he suggests that criminality may, itself, be a form of art. Taking another, more direct angle, he has his fictional biographer write:

The fact of a man being a poisoner is nothing against his prose.

Again, the inimitable quotes are thick throughout. The thoughts on art and literature are, to understate, edifying.

The third and fourth sections are a continuation of the brilliance.

In “The Critic as Artist: With Some Remarks on the Importance of Doing Nothing”, Wilde offers another dialogue, this time between Ernest and Gilbert, which also takes place in the library of a house, this time “in Piccadilly, overlooking the Green Park.” Oscar’s rhetorical blade is as sharp as ever. The quotables are ubiquitous and the ideas provoking. Throughout, there are hints that Gilbert is merely playing with the audience. This fits with the overall theme of the work.

The final section, “The Truth of Masks – A Note on Illusion”, ostensibly addresses the importance of dress in the production of Shakespearean works. Oscar argues that attention to costuming details is essential to properly staging Shakespeare’s plays. However, this piece continues to advance the ideas put forward in the other three works. The concluding lines fairly sum up the entire work:

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.