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Oscar Wilde

Irish Writer

1854-1900


ESSAYS ON AESTHETICS

Narrated by William Dufris

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Life: The Fallacious Model

Art begins with abstract decoration, with purely imaginative and pleasurable work dealing with what is unreal and non-existent.  This is the first stage.  Then Life becomes fascinated with this new wonder, and asks to be admitted into the charmed circle.  Art takes life as part of her rough material, recreates it, and refashions it in fresh forms, is absolutely indifferent to fact, invents, imagines, dreams, and keeps between herself and reality the impenetrable barrier of beautiful style, of decorative or ideal treatment.  The third stage is when Life gets the upper hand, and drives Art out into the wilderness.  That is the true decadence, and it is from this that we are now suffering.

Take the case of the English drama.  At first in the hands of the monks Dramatic Art was abstract, decorative and mythological.  Then she enlisted Life in her service, and using some of life's external forms, she created an entirely new race of beings, whose sorrows were more terrible than any sorrow man has ever felt, whose joys were keener than lover's joys, who had the rage of the Titans and the calm of the gods, who had monstrous and marvellous sins, monstrous and marvellous virtues.  To them she gave a language different from that of actual use, a language full of resonant music and sweet rhythm, made stately by solemn cadence, or made delicate by fanciful rhyme, jewelled with wonderful words, and enriched with lofty diction.  She clothed her children in strange raiment and gave them masks, and at her bidding the antique world rose from its marble tomb.  A new Cæsar stalked through the streets of risen Rome, and with purple sail and flute-led oars another Cleopatra passed up the river to Antioch.  Old myth and legend and dream took shape and substance.  History was entirely re-written, and there was hardly one of the dramatists who did not recognise that the object of Art is not simple truth but complex beauty.  In this they were perfectly right.  Art itself is really a form of exaggeration; and selection, which is the very spirit of art, is nothing more than an intensified mode of over-emphasis.

But Life soon shattered the perfection of the form.  Even in Shakespeare we can see the beginning of the end.  It shows itself by the gradual breaking-up of the blank-verse in the later plays, by the predominance given to prose, and by the over-importance assigned to characterisation.  The passages in Shakespeare—and they are many—where the language is uncouth, vulgar, exaggerated, fantastic, obscene even, are entirely due to Life calling for an echo of her own voice, and rejecting the intervention of beautiful style, through which alone should life be suffered to find expression.  Shakespeare is not by any means a flawless artist.  He is too fond of going directly to life, and borrowing life's natural utterance.  He forgets that when Art surrenders her imaginative medium she surrenders everything.

The Two Supreme and Highest Arts

Life and Literature, life and the perfect expression of life.  The principles of the former, as laid down by the Greeks, we may not realise in an age so marred by false ideals as our own.  The principles of the latter, as they laid them down, are, in many cases, so subtle that we can hardly understand them.

Recognising that the most perfect art is that which most fully mirrors man in all his infinite variety, they elaborated the criticism of language, considered in the light of the mere material of that art, to a point to which we, with our accentual system of reasonable or emotional emphasis, can barely if at all attain; studying, for instance, the metrical movements of a prose as scientifically as a modern musician studies harmony and counterpoint, and, I need hardly say, with much keener æsthetic instinct.  In this they were right, as they were right in all things.  Since the introduction of printing, and the fatal development of the habit of reading amongst the middle and lower classes of this country, there has been a tendency in literature to appeal more and more to the eye, and less and less to the ear which is really the sense which, from the standpoint of pure art, it should seek to please, and by whose canons of pleasure it should abide always.

Even the work of Mr. Pater, who is, on the whole, the most perfect master of English prose now creating amongst us, is often far more like a piece of mosaic than a passage in music, and seems, here and there, to lack the true rhythmical life of words and the fine freedom and richness of effect that such rhythmical life produces.  We, in fact, have made writing a definite mode of composition, and have treated it as a form of elaborate design.  The Greeks, upon the other hand, regarded writing simply as a method of chronicling.  Their test was always the spoken word in its musical and metrical relations.

The voice was the medium, and the ear the critic.  I have sometimes thought that the story of Homer's blindness might be really an artistic myth, created in critical days, and serving to remind us, not merely that the great poet is always a seer, seeing less with the eyes of the body than he does with the eyes of the soul, but that he is a true singer also, building his song out of music, repeating each line over and over again to himself till he has caught the secret of its melody, chaunting in darkness the words that are winged with light.  Certainly, whether this be so or not, it was to his blindness, as an occasion, if not as a cause, that England's great poet owed much of the majestic movement and sonorous splendour of his later verse.  When Milton could no longer write he began to sing.

Sorrow Wears No Mask

Sorrow, being the supreme emotion of which man is capable, is at once the type and test of all great art.  What the artist is always looking for is the mode of existence in which soul and body are one and indivisible: in which the outward is expressive of the inward: in which form reveals.  Of such modes of existence there are not a few: youth and the arts preoccupied with youth may serve as a model for us at one moment: at another we may like to think that, in its subtlety and sensitiveness of impression, its suggestion of a spirit dwelling in external things and making its raiment of earth and air, of mist and city alike, and in its morbid sympathy of its moods, and tones, and colours, modern landscape art is realising for us pictorially what was realised in such plastic perfection by the Greeks.  Music, in which all subject is absorbed in expression and cannot be separated from it, is a complex example, and a flower or a child a simple example, of what I mean; but sorrow is the ultimate type both in life and art.

Behind joy and laughter there may be a temperament, coarse, hard and callous.  But behind sorrow there is always sorrow.  Pain, unlike pleasure, wears no mask.  Truth in art is not any correspondence between the essential idea and the accidental existence; it is not the resemblance of shape to shadow, or of the form mirrored in the crystal to the form itself; it is no echo coming from a hollow hill, any more than it is a silver well of water in the valley that shows the moon to the moon and Narcissus to Narcissus.  Truth in art is the unity of a thing with itself: the outward rendered expressive of the inward: the soul made incarnate: the body instinct with spirit.  For this reason there is no truth comparable to sorrow.  There are times when sorrow seems to me to be the only truth.  Other things may be illusions of the eye or the appetite, made to blind the one and cloy the other, but out of sorrow have the worlds been built, and at the birth of a child or a star there is pain.

More than this, there is about sorrow an intense, an extraordinary reality.  I have said of myself that I was one who stood in symbolic relations to the art and culture of my age.  There is not a single wretched man in this wretched place along with me who does not stand in symbolic relation to the very secret of life.  For the secret of life is suffering.  It is what is hidden behind everything.  When we begin to live, what is sweet is so sweet to us, and what is bitter so bitter, that we inevitably direct all our desires towards pleasures, and seek not merely for a 'month or twain to feed on honeycomb,' but for all our years to taste no other food, ignorant all the while that we may really be starving the soul.

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