Re: Frye’s choice for “greatest English critic“:
I think Shelley would be a strong candidate for Frye’s “greatest English critic”–I’m thinking mainly about the Shelley that appears in The Critical Path. I was talking to Frye once about his affinities with Coleridge, and he said he wondered why nobody had ever remarked on his closeness to Shelley. But who knows? Maybe it’s the “divine Oscar,” as Bloom calls Wilde.
Michael Happy writes, “In Creation and Recreation Frye does Wilde the compliment he grants no one else, that I can recall: he adopts his critical outlook with little filtering or conditions. When I was an undergrad, I loved Wilde’s criticism, which I discovered all by myself and couldn’t get anyone else to read. When I finally read Creation and Recreation, I was delighted to discover that Frye had been there before me. But, then, that’s where he always is, isn’t he?”
Here are the passages in Creation and Recreation Happy was referring to, followed by other places in Frye’s writing where Wilde makes an appearance:
A year or so ago, after agreeing to help teach an undergraduate course in Shakespeare, I settled down to reread one of my favourite pieces of Shakespearean criticism, Oscar Wilde’s essay on “The Truth of Masks.” The essay, however, was one in a collected volume of Wilde’s critical essays, and I find it easy to get hooked on Wilde. His style often makes him sound dated, and yet he is consistently writing from a point of view at least half a century later than his actual time. He is one of our few genuinely prophetic writers, and, as with other prophets, everything he writes seems either to lead up to his tragic confrontation with society or reflect back on it. Partly because of this, he deliberately restricts his audience. He sets up a palisade of self-conscious and rather mechanical wit, which not merely infuriates those who have no idea what he is talking about but often puts off those who do. We may get so annoyed at his dandies waving their hands languidly at thick volumes labelled “Plato” or “Aristotle” that we may forget that Wilde could, and did, read Greek, and that his references to classical authors are usually quite precise. So before long I was back in the world of the essay called “The Decay of Lying,” now widely recognized to have said a great deal of what modern theories of criticism have been annotating in more garbled language ever since.
The main thesis of this essay is that man does not live directly and nakedly in nature like the animals, but within an envelope that he has constructed out of nature, the enve¬lope usually called culture or civilization. When Words¬worth urges his reader to leave his books, go outdoors, and let nature be his teacher, his “nature” is a north temperate zone nature which in nineteenth-century England had become, even in the Lake District, largely a human artefact. One can see the importance, for poets and others, of the remoteness and otherness of nature: the feeling that the eighteenth century expressed in the word “sublime” conveys to us that there is such a thing as creative alienation. The principle laid down by the Italian philosopher Vico of verum factum, that we understand only what we have made ourselves, needs to be refreshed sometimes by the contempla¬tion of something we did not make and do not understand. The difficulty with Wordsworth’s view is in the word “teacher.” A nature which was not primarily a human artefact could teach man nothing except that he was not it. We are taught by our own cultural conditioning, and by that alone.
We may see already that the word “creation” involves us in a state of mind that is closely parallel with certain types of paranoia, which may give us a clue to what Wilde means by “lying.” Our envelope, as I have called it, the cultural insulation that separates us from nature, is rather like (to use a figure that has haunted me from childhood) the window of a lit-up railway carriage at night. Most of the time it is a mirror of our own concerns, including our concern about nature. As a mirror, it fills us with the sense that the world is something which exists primarily in reference to us: it was created for us; we are the centre of it and the whole point of its existence. But occasionally the mirror turns into a real window, through which we can see only the vision of an indifferent nature that got along for untold aeons of time without us, seems to have produced us only by accident, and, if it were conscious, could only regret having done so. This vision propels us instantly into the opposite pole of paranoia, where we seem to be victims of a huge conspiracy, finding ourselves, through no will of our own, arbitrarily assigned to a dramatic role which we have been given no script to learn, in a state of what Heidegger calls “thrown¬ness.” ––from Creation and Recreation in Northrop Frye on Religion 36-7
There is a kind of painting known as trompe l’oeil, which endeavours to render pictorial objects so accurately that the viewer might be deceived into thinking that he was looking at the real thing. Trompe l’oeil is a quite legitimate form of painting, but the word “deceive” indicates the paradox in it. Returning to our figure again, when it comes to representing the outer world, no painting can compare with a window pane. This principle applies much more forcibly to literature, because there is no verbal equivalent of the window pane. Words can describe things only approximately: all they do with any real accuracy is hang together, in puns, metaphor, assonances, and the self-contained fictions of grammar and syntax.
All this is contained in Wilde’s conception of the creative arts as essentially forms of “lying,” or turning away from the external world. As long as we can keep telling one another that we see the same things “out there,” we feel that we have a basis for what we call truth and reality. When a work of literature is based on this kind of reality, however, it often tells us only what we no longer want to know. For this reason Wilde makes fun of the careful documentary realism of Zola and others which had such a vogue in his time, of Zola settling down to give us a definitive study of the Second Empire at the moment when the Second Empire had gone hopelessly out of date. But the attack on realism is a side-¬issue of a far more insidious disease of writing: the morbid lust for what Matthew Arnold calls seeing life steadily and seeing it whole. ––from Creation and Recreation in Northrop Frye on Religion 38-9
What Wilde calls realism, the attempt to base the arts on the recognizable, to find a common ground of reality with the audience, is, he suggests, a search for some kind of emotional reassurance. I hear an echo of this whenever I listen to complaints about the difficulty or obscurity of contemporary art, complaints which often take the form, “but I think a work of art ought to communicate something.” The function of the recognizable in the arts is not aesthetic but anaesthetic. A painter of cows in a field is bound to be addressing some people who want to be reminded of cows more than they want to see pictures. The cows function as a tranquillizer, so that the more genuinely attentive part of the viewer’s mind is released for pictorial experience. A painter may, however, get fed up with the compromise involved, as most painters today in fact have done, and say: to hell with the cows; look at the form and colour of the picture. If this is his attitude he is not withdrawing from “reality”: he is seeing more intensely by means of his medium. The recognizable as such is, in human terms, the non-creative; it is the disturbing insight into it that we associate with the word “creation.”
All this has become a commonplace in a time like ours when we are so much more heavily insulated against “nature” than we were even in Wilde’s time. A glance out of the win¬dow of an aeroplane, to the patterns of the landscape or city lights below, will tell us why this is the century of Kandin¬sky and not that of Constable or Ruysdael; more important, it will also tell us that space for us has become a set of co-ordinated points: we do not live in a centred space any more, but have to create our own centres. In “The Decay of Lying” Wilde is, verbally, defending the romantic against the realis¬tic, but these are only the terms of his age: the positive thing he is defending is not the romantic but the unmediated. His point is that what is called realism is not founded on nature or reality at all. We never see these things directly; we see them only through a prism of conventionalized common¬places, outworn formulas within the art itself, the fossilized forms of earlier attempts to escape from nature and reality. Only a distorted imagination that breaks away from all this and sees reality as a strange, wonderful, terrible, fantastic world is creative in the human sense of the term. ––from Creation and Recreation in Northrop Frye on Religion 40-1
I turn the pages of my Wilde book to the next essay, “The Critic as Artist,” and there I read near the beginning the wonderful passage about music:
After playing Chopin, I feel as if I had been weeping over sins that I had never committed, and mourning over tragedies that were not my own. Music always seems to me to produce that effect. It creates for one a past of which one has been ignorant, and fills one with a sense of sorrows that have been hidden from one’s tears. I can fancy a man who had led a perfectly commonplace life, hearing by chance some curious piece of music, and suddenly discovering that his soul, without his being conscious of it, had passed through terrible experiences, and known fearful joys, or wild romantic loves, or great renunciations.
First, of course, we cannot restrict the scope of this passage to music; it applies to all the arts, though it may well be true that music has some special mystery about its evocations. Second, we see that Wilde is postulating two levels of experi¬ence, in which one level is remembered and the other repressed, though he gives repression a very different context from Freud. ––from Creation and Recreation in Northrop Frye on Religion 41
This principle of the arts evoking the real and repressed past is familiar to us from Proust, whose narrator Marcel perceives the pattern of his own real past through an acci¬dental glimpse of it, so that he comes to the beginning of the imaginative vision of his life at the moment when his reader comes to the end of it. The implication is that what Marcel sees at the end of his experience is the possibility of looking at it in the way that the reader should have been looking at it all along. This opens up the issue of the creative reader and his role in literature, which is Wilde’s main concern in this essay, and to which I shall return in the last chapter. ––from Creation and Recreation in Northrop Frye on Religion 42
Wilde attempted to deal with this aspect of creation too, in his essay “The Soul of Man under Socialism.” He remarks there that “a map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing.” By “socialism,” however, Wilde means apparently only distributing wealth and opportunity more evenly, so that all people can become pure individualists, and hence, to some degree, artists. He says that in his ideal world the state is to produce the useful, and the individual or artist the beautiful. But beauty, like nature and reality, is merely another of those reassuring words indicating a good deal of ready-made social acceptance. Wilde is preoccupied in this essay by his contempt for censorship, and is optimistic that what he calls socialism would bring about the end of the tyranny of an ignorant and mischievous public opinion. This has not been our experience of socialism or any other system since Wilde’s time, and his prophetic vision in this essay seems to have gone out of focus. But, as usual, his sense of context is very accurate: he identifies the two aspects of our subject, the creation of a future society and the continuing of the creativity of the past in spite of the past. As he says: “the past is what man should not have been; the present is what man ought not to be; the future is what artists are.” ––from Creation and Recreation in Northrop Frye on Religion 44-5
It has puzzled many people that it is possible for someone, the commandant of a Nazi death camp, for example, to have a cultivated taste for the arts and still be what he is. It is possible because the response to the arts can also exist on an aesthetic level, of the sort indicated by Wilde’s term “beautiful,” where they are objects to be admired or valued or possessed. ––from Creation and Recreation in Northrop Frye on Religion 46
The status of the opening of Genesis as a factual historical record is no longer an issue for many of us, and to try to accept it as one is merely running scared. To go back to the argument of Oscar Wilde’s essay on “The Decay of Lying” discussed in the previous chapter, it is only when the creation story is considered factually false that it can be of any conceivable use to us. The hero of Eliot’s Family Reunion complains that his family understands “only events, not what has happened.” It is myth, and only myth, that tells us what has happened. ––from Creation and Recreation in Northrop Frye on Religion 52
In my first chapter I quoted a passage from Oscar Wilde’s essay “The Critic as Artist.” This essay builds up an argument that seems to make an exaggerated and quite unrealistic importance out of the reader of literature, the critic being the representative reader. He is paralleled with the artist in a way that seems to give him an equal share at least in what the artist is doing. Here again Wilde is writing from the point of view of a later generation. For many centuries the centre of gravity in literature was the hero, the man whose deeds the poet celebrated. As society slowly changed its shape, the hero modulated to the “character,” and in Wilde’s day it was still the creation of character, as one sees it so impressively in Shakespeare, Dickens, and Browning, that was the primary mark of poetic power. At the same time the Romantic movement had brought with it a shift of interest from the hero to the poet himself, as not merely the creator of the hero but as the person whose inner life was the real, as distinct from the projected, subject of the poem. There resulted an extraordinary mystique of creativity, in which the artist became somehow a unique if not actually superior species of human being, with qualities of prophet, genius, wise man, and social leader. Wilde realized that in a short time the centre of gravity in literature and critical theory would shift again, this time from the poet to the reader. The dividing line in English literature is probably Finnegans Wake, where it is so obvious that the reader has a heroic role to play. -––from Creation and Recreation in Northrop Frye on Religion 75
Oscar Wilde said that only an auctioneer could be equally appreciative of all kinds of art: he had of course the public critic in mind, but even the public critic’s job of getting the treasures of culture into the hands of the people who want them is largely an auctioneer’s job. And if this is true of him, it is a fortiori true of the scholarly critic. [“It is only an auctioneer who can equally and impartially admire all schools of art” (Oscar Wilde, “The Critic as Artist,” in Intentions [London: Methuen and Co., 1913], 189)] ––from Anatomy of Criticism 25.
The arrogance of Jonson and Congreve, the mocking of bourgeois sentiment in Goldsmith, the parody of melodramatic situations in Wilde and Shaw, belong to a consistent tradition. ––from Anatomy of Criticism 48.
I must expand the conception of dandyism as, essentially, a comic literary convention entering life around the second half of the 19th c. The dandy develops out of the Cléante type of comic moral norm, detached from what is seen as a crowd of preoccupied attached obsessed people, all facing in the same direction. The dandy is essentially conservative, because the facing-one-direction people make an assumption of progress, yet his impact is that of a devil’s advocate, reversing the melodramatic maxims in which society believes. Apart from the French developments, Oscar Wilde popularized the attitude, the progenitor of which in England is really Matthew Arnold, both in his life & in his comedies. An Ideal Husband has the dandy in one of his proper roles—that of gracioso-hero. His attitude is comic-existential, puncturing the balloons of false idealism. A Woman of No Importance has a far more brilliant dandy, but Wilde, partly through an effort to be “fair” to the other side, partly through a streak of masochism, & partly through sheer laziness, completely foozled the conclusion. ––from Notebooks for “Anatomy of Criticism“ 264–5
Myth is the essential form of Mill’s deductive withdrawal. Oscar Wilde’s remark [in “The Decay of Lying”] that life imitates literature is so far only an amusing paradox. Someday it will be the cornerstone of the humanities & social sciences alike. ––from Notebooks for “Anatomy of Criticism” 229
If we read an Elizabethan sonnet sequence without taking account of the conventional nature of every feature in it, including the poet’s protests that he is not following convention and is really in love with a real person, we shall merely substitute the wrong context for the right one. That is, the sonnet sequence will become a biographical allegory, as the sonnets of Shakespeare do when, with Oscar Wilde, we reach the conclusion that the profoundest understanding of these sonnets, the deepest appreciation of all their eloquence and passion and power, comes when we identify the “man in hue” of Sonnet 20 with an unknown Elizabethan pansy named Willie Hughes. ––from “The Road of Excess” in Northrop Frye on Milton and Blake 326
In his book Odysseus Ever Returning George Woodcock quotes a review by Oscar Wilde in which Wilde praises an American writer for being concerned with the literature he loves rather than the country in which he lives, adding “the Muses care so little for geography.” As usual, Wilde’s critical instinct is sound: a writer cannot try to be anything except a writer, and a poet must adhere to literature, which is where his technical equipment comes from, not to the false rhetoric of the factitious and the voulu. But the last comment seems to me dead wrong. No Muse can function outside human space and time, that is, outside geography and history. Wilde himself owed his whole being as a writer to the tiny area of Anglo Irish ascendancy which provided his own space and time. So while a Canadian writer may go anywhere and make any sort of statement about the place of Canada in his life, positive or negative, his formative environment and his ability as a writer will be interdependent, however different. ––from “Across the River and Out of the Trees” in Northrop Frye on Canada 552.
What I do think is that the text before us is something other than ourselves, that we have to struggle with it as Jacob did with the angel [Genesis 32:24–32], but that there is nothing to come up from behind, like the Prussian army at Waterloo, to assist us. The otherness is the text itself. However, we are not quite as much on our own as Jacob was: there are other critics, and we do become increasingly aware that a text is the focus of a community.
This does not mean that all critics are going to agree any better than before, but that in their disagreements an element that we may call the egocentric can get gradually diminished. It was Oscar Wilde who defined, in two almost unreasonably brilliant essays, the situation of criticism today. One was called “The Decay of Lying,” which attacked the view that literature gains dignity and validity from its reference to something beyond itself. The word “lying” calls attention to the fact that literature turns its back on all such reference. The other was called “The Critic as Artist,” which promoted the reader to a co-creator with the poet, completing the operation that the poet is compelled to leave half done. By a “critic” Wilde meant, I think, a serious and representative reader, who knows that his response is socially and culturally conditioned, but is none the less capable of weeding out of that response an egocentric element, such as, “I don’t like the way this poem ends because if I were writing it I wouldn’t end it that way.” I have always connected this egocentric element with the conception of the critic as judge or evaluator. It is a commonplace now that observation is affected by the observer, even in the most quantitative sciences, and the necessity for observing the observer is now fairly acute in literary criticism. What I think happens is a struggle for identity in the course of which the false subject or ego and the false object or the referential signified get thrown out together. ––from “The Double Mirror” in Northrop Frye on Religion 87
The traditional, common-sense view is that literature is an imitation of life, or reality, or nature, or whatever we may think of as outside it, and owes what truth it has to its relation to whatever is not literature. The reversed thesis of Oscar Wilde’s Decay of Lying, that life imitates literature, and is not real life unless it resembles a literary form, is more recent, but is something much more than just the clever paradox it seems to be. We notice, for example, that we are continually playing roles in society. We are reading by ourselves, let us say: a friend comes in to talk to us, and we instantly throw ourselves into the social role suggested by his presence. Or we decide to maintain a certain public attitude, say in politics, and find that everything we say, or even believe, is being carefully selected by ourselves to fit the role demanded by that attitude. ––from “On Teaching Literature” in Northrop Frye on Education 457
Many of my university friends are still in a stage I’m sure I’ve outgrown: a stage of violent attachment to art. This begins in an assumption of the moral duty of self-expression, an egocentric notion, much more the last infirmity of noble mind than love of fame is, which I am gradually shaking off. It’s connected too with a desire to perfect attachment by organizing the rhythms of attachment. A woman, married, can live this way, but a man who undertakes it has really had it, as he has to unite the feats of male & female organization. A man like Robert Finch must be very preoccupied with rhythms, & I don’t know why the strain hasn’t killed him! Pure laziness helped me past that stage. The life of Oscar Wilde seems to me an almost quixotically heroic saga of integrated rhythms, like John Milton’s father writing an In Nomine of 40 parts. The homosexual streak in him was perhaps at bottom—his bottom, not his lover’s—a hermaphroditic one, a desire for completeness. Whatever it was, calling him a pansy is like calling Mark Antony a pimp: true on one level of truth, but not a very interesting level. ––from Northrop Frye’s Notebooks and Lectures on the Bible and Other Religious Texts 63
Music, says Oscar Wilde, “creates for one a past of which one has been ignorant, and fills one with a sense of sorrows that have been hidden from one’s tears. I can fancy a man who had led a perfectly commonplace life, hearing by chance some curious piece of music, and suddenly discovering that his soul, without his being conscious of it, had passed through terrible experiences, and known fearful joys, or wild romantic loves, or great renunciations.” This seems to me a wonderful insight, with overtones that go far beyond music, true as I think it is of music. It verges close to my notion of myth as what really happened, as distinct from history, which is only what we’d have seen happening. ––from Northrop Frye’s Notebooks and Lectures on the Bible and Other Religious Texts 285
Winter’s Tale again: there’s nature and art, and nature seems to be linked to rebirth and the future, the rising younger generation getting its way in spite of senile opposition. The sheep-shearing festival and the dance of the twelve satyrs are central. Art seems to be linked to the reintegrating of the older generation (painting, sculpture, music and magic are all featured in the final scene, besides poetry), and to be concerned with the resurrection of the past. The basis here is that remark of Oscar Wilde quoted earlier [previous entry]. ––from Northrop Frye’s Notebooks and Lectures on the Bible and Other Religious Texts 303
BOGDAN: In Creation and Recreation, you quote Oscar Wilde on what it means to play Chopin as the recreation of “unlived experience, [NFR, 41].” How does that relate to emotional stability?
FRYE: Well, I suppose it’s a matter of recollection in tranquillity, as something that has been there for some time. That’s a very profound remark of Wilde’s, that music seems to recreate the experiences for you that you didn’t actually go through. ––from Interviews with Northrop Frye 779–800
I’ve probably got the point that in the Promethean set-up we often climb to the future, so that descent themes have to do with recovering the past. I sidled into this by way of William Morris and my “prerevolutionary” idea about the artist. Also that Oscar Wilde passage about music and the intensity of experience we have without knowing we have it, which makes, e.g., King Lear recognizable. ––from The Late Notebooks of Northrop Frye 1: 17
The penetration into holiness is connected with the possibility of understanding, say, the language of King Lear. As I’ve always maintained, something about such language is recognizable, something that in a sense we’ve said already in unknown areas of our experience. I’m still revolving around that remark that Oscar Wilde so casually threw out about the music of Chopin—and my own about Rilke in the Masseys. ––from The Late Notebooks of Northrop Frye 1:209
Literature begins in lying (Oscar Wilde): it proceeds from “you’re just making all this up” to “you’re (just) making this.” –– from The Late Notebooks of Northrop Frye 2:695
Urquhart of Cromarty, an ardent Royalist, is reputed to have laughed on King Charles’s Restoration until he burst himself and died. And anyone who has glanced at an old copy of Punch can see that their cartoons, with their enormous captions, elaborately festooned with garrulous explanations and parenthetic postscripts, are aimed at a John Bull or fox-hunting squire for whom a laugh was an exhausting indoor exercise. Such a fox-hunting squire might survive to hear himself described by Oscar Wilde as the unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable. There is an entirely different kind of laughter; not the forte of invective but the piano of irony, which, like the poisoned rings of the Renaissance, distils its venom in a friendly handshake, unnoticed by its bulky victim. ––from “The Nature of Satire” in “The Educated Imagination” and Other Writings on Critical Theory 48
The difference in level between shallow platitude and profound aphorism makes for a good deal of parody in this region of literature. Modern wit would be considerably impoverished if it did not have clichés and accepted ideas to make fun of or reverse. Any comedy of Oscar Wilde will furnish a gret number of such inverted clichés. ––from “The Well Tempered Critic (II)” in “The Educated Imagination” and Other Writings on Critical Theory 371–2
We know from the critical gossip surrounding T.S. Eliot’s The Confidential Clerk that its author was aware of its resemblance to Euripides’ Ion, and of the mythical patterns behind that play; we have no reason to suppose Oscar Wilde or W.S. Gilbert equally aware of similar resemblances in The Importance of Being Earnest or The Gondoliers. The resemblances are based on the structural principles of comedy, not on the author’s erudition. ––from “Myth and Poetry” in”The Critical Path” and Other Writings on Critical Theory 137–8
And even given Mr. Wimsatt’s premises, it is clear that he finds much more than beautifully cadenced nonsense in me, otherwise he could hardly put his finger on so many central things: Plato’s Ion; Oscar Wilde’s Decay of Lying (which Messrs. Ellmann and Feidelson were quite right in putting at the beginning of their collection of documents of The Modern Tradition); the conception of poetry (not criticism) as a kind of forgery of myth. ––from “The Well Tempered Critic (II)” in “The Educated Imagination” and Other Writings on Critical Theory 219
When drama revives in Great Britain towards the end of the nineteenth century, the formulas of New Comedy are used increasingly for purposes of parody, parody being the usual sign in literature that some conventions are getting worn out. We begin with parodies of foundling and mysterious-heir plots in Gilbert and Sullivan, notably in Pinafore and The Gondoliers; then we have Wilde’s urbane treatment of the foundling plot in The Importance of Being Ernest, where the hero has to overcome a refusal to “marry into a waiting room, and contract an alliance with a parcel.” Wilde is followed by Bernard Shaw, who was well aware of the extent to which some standard New Comedy devices, such as the hero’s being attracted by a girl whom he does not know to be his sister, had already been parodied by Ibsen. ––from “Myth and Poetry” in “The Critical Path” and Other Writings on Critical Theory 287–8
Eliot begins his dramatic efforts with the exuberant and superbly original Sweeney Agonistes, subtitled “Fragment of an Agon,” where, besides the obvious and avowed influence of Aristophanes, many of the features noted above appear, such as the assimilation to musical comedy and vaudeville forms. When he settles down to write seriously for the stage, however, we get such confections as The Confidential Clerk, where the main influence is Euripides’ Ion, usually taken as the starting point of New Comedy. But this play seems, in comparison with Sweeney Agonistes, a somewhat pedantic joke, an attempt to do over again what Oscar Wilde (and, for that matter, Gilbert) had already done with more freshness.
––from“The Critical Path” and Other Writings on Critical Theory 291. See a similar statement in “The Secular Scripture” and Other Writings on Critical Theory 130
By turning his back on history, the realist records the world in front of him, and in due course his picture of that world becomes something of a historical document. In the pastiche of Gibbon in Scott’s Count Robert of Paris, or of Commines in Anne of Geierstein, there is little of much historical value, entertaining as these stories may be on other grounds. But in Mansfield Park, though of course the structure of comic romance is still there, the reflection of the life of the Regency period has a genuine historical importance. Later in the century, Oscar Wilde remarked, in “The Decay of Lying,” which is really a manifesto of romantic and mythical writing as opposed to realism: “M. Zola sits down to give us a picture of the Second Empire. Who cares for the Second Empire now? It is out of date. Life goes faster than Realism, but Romanticism is always in front of life.” ––from“The Critical Path” and Other Writings on Critical Theory 368
But when English drama revived towards the end of the nineteenth century, the formulas of New Comedy were used mainly for purposes of parody, parody being the usual sign in literature that some conventions are getting worn out. We begin with mysterious heir parodies in Gilbert and Sullivan, notably in H.M.S. Pinafore and The Gondoliers; then we have Wilde’s urbane spoof of the foundling plot in The Importance of Being Earnest. ––from “The Secular Scripture and Other Writings on Critical Theory 127
In the eighteenth century the comic formulas expanded into the genre of prose fiction, and can be found in Henry Fielding, Jane Austen, and Dickens. With Oscar Wilde and the Gilbert and Sullivan operas, the formulas are presented in the form of parody, indicating that the conventions were wearing out. ––from “The Secular Scripture and Other Writings on Critical Theory 368
The beginning of a new kind of criticism is marked by Oscar Wilde’s The Decay of Lying, which explains very lucidly that, as life has no shape and literature has, literature is throwing away its one distinctive quality when it tries to imitate life. It follows for Wilde that what is called realism does not create but can only record things on a subcreative level.
M. Zola sits down to give us a picture of the Second Empire. Who cares for the Second Empire now? It is out of date. Life goes faster than Realism, but Romanticism is always in front of Life.
Wilde was clearly the herald of a new age in literature, which would take another century or so to penetrate the awareness of critics. He is looking forward to a culture which would use mythical and romantic formulas in its literature with great explicitness, making once more the essential discovery about the human imagination, that it is always a form of “lying,” that is, of turning away from the descriptive use of language and the correspondence form of truth. The nineteenth century was also an age that threw up such philosophical schools as “idealism” and (in a different context) “realism,” which may be described as two sets of reasons for feeling confident about the adequacy of words to represent external reality. Twentieth-century literature and painting are part of the same cultural movement that in philosophy has shifted the centre of interest back to the linguistic structure itself, after destroying much of our old naive confidence that words have an unlimited ability to represent things outside themselves. ––from “The Secular Scripture and Other Writings on Critical Theory 32–3
The reflection of one’s personality may take the form of a container where the hero’s soul or life is kept, and of such objects the closest to the central Narcissus theme is the portrait, as we have it in Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray and elsewhere. ––from “The Secular Scripture and Other Writings on Critical Theory 78
Eliot has found the right word for Dickens: “decadent.” That’s a big word, to be applied to a big man: it’s inaccurate to call Oscar Wilde decadent when it matters so little to English literature what Oscar Wilde was. ––from Northrop Frye’s Fiction and Miscellaneous Writings 128
The hero of FW is so obviously the reader that it really consolidates the third age of literature, the hero as warrior being followed by the hero as poet in Romanticism, and that in turn, with Oscar Wilde, shifts the heroic role to the reader. (Joyce didn’t think much of Wilde, because, mainly, he had a prudish dislike for homosexuals, but Joyce almost never shows any critical ability.) Everybody in FW is in a dream: the reader, “the ideal reader suffering from an ideal insomnia,” is the one person involved who’s never allowed to dream. ––from Northrop Frye’s Fiction and Miscellaneous Writings 291
I was reading recently Oscar Wilde’s essay on “The Decay of Lying” [“The Critic as Artist”], which is to some extent the manifesto of modern criticism, and in that essay Wilde makes a wonderfully profound insight in a very casual way, throwing it out as though it were a kind of joke. Two young men are talking together, and one of them says, Shall I play something for you? The other one says, No, I don’t want to hear music at this point, because what music does is create the full range of our own past experience. That is, if a person suddenly, without warning, came across somebody playing a piece of great music he might suddenly realize at that point that he had in his past gone through immense ranges of ex¬perience of which he was totally unconscious. Now in that form the statement sounds paradoxical, but surely it is an essential function of art to acquaint us with the whole possible range of our experience as distinct from what we actually experience, and to that extent it not only fills the gap in our experience but reintegrates our past. Our five senses are, after all, filters. They screen out far more than they take in. And the brain, I suspect, is not the generator of consciousness but a machine for filtering consciousness. There is a whole universe of significance of which we get glimpses in the arts but which our ordinary experience misses. ––from Northrop Frye’s Fiction and Miscellaneous Writings 324
Modern criticism, as such, begins with Oscar Wilde’s dialogue, The Decay of Lying, the main object of which is to point out the shortcomings of any kind of literature that accepts the obligation to imitate “nature,” or “real life.” The speakers in Wilde refer to Charles Reade, who wrote one outstanding romance, The Cloister and the Hearth, followed by a number of inferior realistic stories, as an example of the fact that the popular notion of the greater weight and dignity of realism can often mislead a writer. They also say that Romola is a better novel than Daniel Deronda, not a statement that many admirers of George Eliot would accept, but again expressing a preference for romance over realism. Again:
M. Zola sits down to give us a picture of the Second Empire. Who cares for the Second Empire now? It is out of date. Life goes faster than Realism, but Romanticism is always in front of Life.
Literature, we are told, does not necessarily gain in seriousness or value when it imitates nature or real life, but nature and real life do gain in seriousness or value when they imitate literature, that is, when something like a literary shape can be discerned in their chaotic phenomena. Wilde’s argument is presented as a good humoured paradox, but for us to go on thinking of it as one is living in the past: it expresses a simple truth reflected in many aspects of our cultural situation, especially from the mid 1950s to our own day. ––from Northrop Frye on Modern Culture 147–8
In his essay “The Decay of Lying” Oscar Wilde says of music that it “creates for one a past of which one has been ignorant, and fills one with a sense of sorrows that have been hidden from one’s tears.” Perhaps it is the function of all art to “create a past” in this sense of revealing to us the range of experience that our timid senses and reasonings largely screen out. The power of nature gives us a hope that helps us to face the future: the power of art gives us a faith that helps us to face the past. ––from “Shakespeare’s The Tempest”
The primitivistic theory, thus, works through historically to its direct opposite, for if poets or poet natures can alone evaluate poetry, it follows that the appeal of poetry is an esoteric one, and this idea is developed by Arnold, Pater, Swinburne, and others until it reaches its extreme statement in Wilde: “Man has two duties in life. The first duty is to be as artificial as possible. What the second duty is no one has yet discovered.” ––from Northrop Frye’s Student Essays 7
The atmosphere of demure farce is sustained throughout, and, as the hero remarks rather dazedly, everybody seems to have a heart of gold. The plot complications [of Eliot’s The Confidential Clerk] are closer to Menandrine New Comedy than to Ion (to which however New Comedy owed a good deal), and still closer to Wilde’s Importance of Being Ernest, though it lacks the exuberance of Wilde (“marry into a waiting room, and contract an alliance with a parcel?”). ––from T.S. Eliot 95
The development of realistic fiction, on the contrary, was often accompanied by the assumption implied in the word “realistic” itself, that literature needed to get out and mingle with the nonliterary world if it were to avoid becoming oversubjective, self-indulgent, ingrown, snobbish, elitist, and all the other things that are so often assumed to be endemic diseases in literature and criticism. This attitude is still going strong in Edmund Wilson’s Axël’s Castle, but had been earlier opposed with great wit and charm by Oscar Wilde, especially in his essay “The Decay of Lying.” ––from Words with Power 148