On the character’s resistance to the author: a note on Wilde’s The Decay of Lying

I was talking with a friend the other day and she told me that she couldn’t stand Zola. Zola, she said, is boring.

I’m not a young pup. I’m not wet behind the ears, at least in the Zola department. I’ve heard the boring accusation before. I, on the other hand, find Zola amazingly not boring. For one thing, his scenes are developed in an amazing prehension of an art and technique that haven’t been invented yet: film. In the nineteenth century, the novel is close to theater – just as the novel is close to film in the twentieth century – because, for one thing, theater is where the writer could grow rich. Just as with film. We have forgotten the theater scene of the 19th century because we don’t, in the Anglophone world, retain much from it, until its end, with Wilde and Shaw. But that was the world in which the demimonde and the monde overlapped. It was from theater and opera, as well as from serialized novels, that popular culture absorbed, into its folklore, the “higher” culture.

There’s a long story about Zola. I think my friend is echoing Oscar Wilde – whose own ideas about Zola were unfolded in The Decay of Lying, from 1889, which consisted of a dialogue between Cyril and Vivian. Cyril is given the earnest lines, like the cutout in a Socratic dialogue, and Vivian is given the witty and visionary ones. The theme of the dialogue attaches, at points, to the very old theme of mimesis in art. Is an art to be judged on how well it copies reality? And what would it mean for a fiction to copy reality? Vivian explores the problems of mimesis from an angle taken from everyday life: the lie. The lie, after all, is a lie insofar as it doesn’t copy reality. However, it works as a lie insofar as it seems to copy reality. Thus, in the successful lie there must reside some special genius, and for that genius to work, we must look at another standard than that of truth or falsity. We must shift to the field defined by intensity: 

“One of the chief causes that can be assigned for the curiously commonplace character of most of the literature of our age is undoubtedly the decay of Lying as an art, a science, and a social pleasure. The ancient historians gave us delightful fiction in the form of fact; the modem novelist presents us with dull facts under the guise of fiction.”

There is one modern novelist whose dull facts particularly get under Vivian’s skin: Zola. At first glance, one would have thought that Zola would be on Vivian’s side, or at least on Wilde’s side. Zola was, after all, a scandal and a stumbling block to Victorian proprieties. Since Wilde aspired to be a scandal himself, one looks for some solidarity. Instead, Vivian remarks: 

“M. Zola, true to the lofty principle that he lays down in one of his pronunciamientos on literature, “L’homme de genie 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! He is not without power. Indeed at times, as in Germinal, 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 perfectly 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 L’Assommoir, Nana and Pot-Bouille? Nothing. Mr. Ruskin once described the characters in George Eliot’s novels as being like the sweepings of a Pentonville omnibus, 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.” 

This rings changes on an old trick in the game of scandal – one trumps the shock of scandal by being resolutely unshocked. In this way, one denies the initial, visceral moment that scandal depends on. The double movement of Vivian’s rhetoric conforms to an old routine: first comes the denigration of the shocked. Thus Zola’s work exposes the Tartuffe, and by implication the Tartuffe are the shocked. Second comes the denigration of the shock. Zola’s characters are dreary in their vices and their virtues. It is dreariness, not purity, that we must judge by. Wrenching the standard by which the copy is judged from the frame defined by veracity to the frame defined by intensity, Vivian finds a new angle from which to disarm Zola’s shock. Since one end of the mimetic spectrum is about sexual arousal, a continually deferred moment that defines art against its erotic use, its pornographic potential, this is a particularly good routine to top Zola. And once Zola is separated from his shock, we see — or Vivian sees — that he is without interest. 

To Vivian’s remarks, Cyril responds by noting that that Vivian’s two favorite novelists Meredith and Balzac, have reputations for being realists. 

Vivian replies by making two epigrams. About Meredith he says,

“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 it is about Balzac that the more famous phrases are leveled.

“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 Rubempre. 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.”

At the beginning of this I attributed the scorn for Zola to Oscar Wilde, but I ought, at this point, to throw some deconstructive shade. My attribution depends on collapsing the distinction between Wilde and Vivian. That Wilde put these remarks in the mouth of a character who is defending a thesis before another character is obliterated in the rush to make these Wilde’s remarks – a rush that is not repeated in, say, making Cyril’s remarks Wilde’s remarks. A philosopher might say that we know, intuitively, that Vivian represents Wilde and Cyril doesn’t. But a philosopher who had read The Importance of Being Earnest would be wise to treat the theme of pseudonyms with some respect. After all the play revolves around Jack Worthing’s habit of assuming the name Earnest in the city and Jack in the country. This becomes evident when Algernon – who we also instinctively identify with Wilde because his opinions are like those of Vivian, who we have assumed represents Wilde – finds Earnest’s cigarette case with a note addressed to Jack: 

Algernon. … Besides, your name isn’t Jack at all; it is Ernest.

Jack. It isn’t Ernest; it’s Jack.

Algernon. You have always told me it was Ernest. I have introduced you to every one as Ernest. You answer to the name of Ernest. You look as if your name was Ernest. You are the most earnest-looking person I ever saw in my life. It is perfectly absurd your saying that your name isn’t Ernest. It’s on your cards. Here is one of them. [Taking it from case.] ‘Mr. Ernest Worthing, B. 4, The Albany.’ I’ll keep this as a proof that your name is Ernest if ever you attempt to deny it to me, or to Gwendolen, or to any one else.
[Puts the card in his pocket.]

Jack. Well, my name is Ernest in town and Jack in the country, and the cigarette case was given to me in the country.”

Bertrand Russell’s example for the description theory of names, you’ll remember, was the identity between Walter Scott and the Author of Waverly – an identity that could not substitute in all instances. If Russell had wanted to, he could have used the Importance of Being Earnest as the artistic working out of the consequences of his theory. Pity he didn’t. In any case, the deconstructive point is that the chain of instinct that leads us to believe that Vivian is Wilde depends upon substitutions that themselves depend upon our instinct that Wilde is Vivian. So note, before we set off on our chase, that the conditions of the hunt are dodgy to begin with.

 To match the philosopher’s intuition with my own – I don’t think Vivian quite represents the whole of Oscar Wilde’s feeling about Zola. Did he really think that novels representing the obscure, the laundrywoman or the actress/tart, were about people whose lives were absolutely without interest? What would that mean? Surely the Wildian intent is to put interest into the mode of approach of the artist. If Zola’s people are uninteresting, Zola has failed to make them interesting – he has not chosen the wrong people.

Wilde’s critics have noticed that Wilde, inveterate borrower, definitely borrowed from Nana when writing Dorian Gray. And that the terms that Wilde uses to contrast Zola to Balzac are scarfed from Swinburne. In this atmosphere of surreptitious exchanges, surely the meaning of the real and the counterfeit are both – and here, Wilde is surely right – built on conventions. Here, I think, Wilde, under some guise, could reflect on why Lucien de Rubempre accrues such meaning. It seems that, at a certain point, the personage, the bits of text that make up the person, detach themselves. It is at that moment of detachment that Zola, as a theorist and moralist, fails his inventions. He fails by adapting them to the inexorability of his moral viewpoint. They exemplify instead of signify. In that moment, you can feel the struggle of the personage against the maker. This isn’t uncommon, I think, among male novelists, whose ability to endow female characters with that detached interest is so often walked back by them – the retreat to exemplarity – and so often creates a comedy, as the novelist tries to cut down a character whose resistance to the novelist is actually a hallmark of the novelist’s art. Nana, Anna Karina, or, closer to our day, Angela Gruner in Mr. Sammler’s planet – the best thing about Mr. Sammler’s Planet. When, in the close of the book, Sammler and his male friends condemn her, it is impossible not to think of Susanna and the Elders – puritanical and prurient old men gathered around some life force they can neither possess nor understand.

Wilde should have understood this, but Wilde, however he launched himself into the modern, still retained some very old English English traits.

I am a translator, author and editor living in Paris. I finished a novel in March, and am busy trying to find an agent. In the meantime, I thought I'd like to start a magazine. Willett's is meant to be a venue for the review of books, personal reflections, and political bitching - and everything else.
About Roger 30 Articles
I am a translator, author and editor living in Paris. I finished a novel in March, and am busy trying to find an agent. In the meantime, I thought I'd like to start a magazine. Willett's is meant to be a venue for the review of books, personal reflections, and political bitching - and everything else.

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