The Beautiful, Untrue Things of the Lyric Essay

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Oscar Wilde’s most famous critical dialogue, “The Decay of Lying,” begins with a well-meaning but uninformed man named Cyril inviting his male friend Vivian outside: “Don’t coop yourself up all day in the library,” he says. “Let us go and lie on the grass and smoke cigarettes and enjoy Nature.”[1]

Vivian, however, wants nothing to do with Nature, and complains of her “lack of design, her curious crudities, and her extraordinary monotony.”[2]

And thus Vivian and Cyril embark on a grand debate about the role of nature in art, and the problem with what Vivian calls “dull facts,” “depressing truths,” and “careless habits of accuracy.” “There is such a thing as robbing a story of its reality by trying to make it too true,” says Vivian. And “if something cannot be done to check, or at least to modify, our monstrous worship of facts, Art will become sterile, and beauty will pass away from the land.”[3]

Of course, this dialogue is about what Wilde saw as the insufferable realists of nineteenth-century fiction, so what does it have to do with us, a bunch of twenty-first-century essayists?

Vivian, as Wilde’s mouthpiece, gives us the answer near the end of the debate: “Those who do not love Beauty more than Truth,” he says, “never know the inmost shrine of Art.”[4] And in the context of our discussion, it is quite possible that those who do not love beauty more than truth may never know the inmost shrine of the essay.

Put differently, “The Decay of Lying” champions art for art’s sake. Read with an ear for the craft of creative nonfiction, the dialogue has all the workings of a manifesto on the lyric essay—what I might call truth for art’s sake. Consider Wilde’s four basic doctrines:

1. Art never expresses anything but itself.

2. All bad art comes from returning to Life and Nature.

3. Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life.

4. Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of Art.[5]

Here, I shall briefly discuss the first and last of Wilde’s statements.

First, art never expresses anything but itselfor, perhaps, for the purposes of our discussion, and with apologies to Wilde, the artist never expresses anything but him- or herself.

In “The Decay of Lying,” Vivian explains the doctrine this way: “Art takes life as part of her rough material, recreates it, and refashions it in fresh forms, is absolutely indifferent to fact, invents, imagines, [and] dreams.”[6] Art may use nature for its building blocks, but the final product is something entirely new, something reflective, not of the world, but of the inner workings of the artist. Consider Basil Hallward, the fictional painter who captured so beautifully the young Dorian Gray in Wilde’s only novel. “Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter,” claims Basil. “The sitter is merely the accident, the occasion. It is not he who is revealed by the painter; it is rather the painter who, on the coloured canvas, reveals himself.”[7] Something similar could be said of the lyric essay—that it relies on the building blocks of memory, meditation, research, speculation, and even narrative, but that in the final product, the essay’s greatest revelation is the essayist. After all, Montaigne’s famous question was not “What do I see?” but “What do I know?” Likewise, Honor Moore calls the prose of the lyric essay a “vehicle of individual emotion,”[8] and D’Agata and Tall have called it a home for “idiosyncratic meditations.”[9] Ultimately what we want from a lyric essay is the interior knowledge of the writer. As Wilde says, “the vision . . . of the artist, is far more important to us than what he looks at.”[10]

Consider the arresting intimacy of Brian Doyle’s eulogistic essay, “Kaddish,” which relies on both structure and content to capture the tragedy of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. [11] The essay consists of 217 one-line descriptions pulled from obituaries of the victims.[12] More than a tribute to the deceased, the essay attempts to re-create the writer’s emotional experience of that day. Each line falls down the page, evoking images of victims falling from the towers, but also giving each victim his or her own moment in time. As we read, we are simultaneously overwhelmed by the sheer number of victims and arrested by the reality of their individual humanity. What’s more, the title, “Kaddish,” tells us this essay is a prayer—not merely a private one, but a recitation, a ritual of sorts. Doyle hasn’t simply reiterated the public mourning of the obituaries, he has created a work of art that gathers and distills the public record and reframes it in a textual structure that reflects that day’s relentless barrage of images, as well as Doyle’s personal, prayerful reaction to the people in those images. It is a record not of what he saw or read, but of what he felt.

Phillip Lopate has registered skepticism about the lyric essay for its “refusal to let thought accrue to some purpose.”[13] But what if that is precisely the point—to capture thought and emotion before it has accrued to some external determination? Oscar Wilde wrote that the “basis of life . . . is simply the desire for expression.”[14] Regardless of any larger social, political, or spiritual implication, the form of the lyric essay is primarily a vehicle for expressing the interiority of the artist. As Wilde scholar Lawrence Danson puts it: “Realists claim that they refer to a world out there; Wilde claims that the only significant out-there begins in here.”[15]

And that brings us to the second of Wilde’s doctrines that I will discuss here, his fourth and final, and for writers of the lyric essay, perhaps most controversial: the doctrine that says, “lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of art.”

And before you wonder if I’m going “there” with this presentation, before you divide yourself off in either the D’Agata/Shields/Dornick camp on the left or the Gutkind/Lopate/Levy camp on the right, before we start fighting about truth in nonfiction and the relative fallibility of memory, and that oversimplified claim that all writing is a lie, let me just say that if Oscar Wilde were here to witness such a debate, I like to think he’d rub his hands with delight, and say we were all missing the point.

Ezra Pound said that literature is language charged with meaning.[16] If that is true, then perhaps the essay is truth charged with meaning. But how, you might ask, do we infuse truth with meaning? That is where Oscar Wilde comes in. His warning about “our monstrous worship of facts” is a call for resistance to realism that “finds life crude, and leaves it raw,” and is born of a desire for art that dictates terms to nature, and not the other way around.[17] “Nature is no great mother who has borne us,” writes Wilde. “She is our creation. It is in our brain that she quickens to life.”[18] The meaningfulness that we draw from narrative, that we draw from juxtapositions and associations, that is born of research and speculation, these are the beautiful untrue things that are the proper aim of art—not the mere mimesis of reality, but the generation of new truths out of its building blocks.

As an example of this type of lying at work in the essay, let us reconsider one of the sacred tenets of the genre—that the essay imitates the mind at work. The idea is as old as Montaigne, who wrote, “I chiefly paint my thoughts.”[19] Scott Russell Sanders claims that the essay is “the closest thing we have on paper to a record of the individual mind at work and play.”[20] And as I read the lyric essays of writers such as Eula Biss, Brenda Miller, Ander Monson, and others, and experience the meandering, fragmented, associative playfulness of their work, I see what Montaigne and Sanders mean. And yet, there’s something about this idea that also bespeaks a Wildean Lie.

The venerable Carl Klaus writes, “It’s an alluring idea . . . to affirm . . . that the essay reveals the mind of the essayist.” But Klaus “wonders how one could possibly make such an inference without being privy” to that mind. As he sees it, “the mind’s a fine and private place, but none I think do there embrace.”[21]

If Klaus is right, then the notion that the essay re-creates the mind at work is precisely the kind of beautiful, untrue thing that lends both beauty and truth to a lyric essay. Consider for a moment Wilde’s own evidence for this concept—the French impressionists. “Where, if not from the Impressionists, do we get those wonderful brown fogs that come creeping down our streets,” asks Wilde.[22]  According to Wilde’s logic, fog didn’t exist until artists gave us a way of seeing it. In other words, the romantic image of a London fog is a lie that art has told us about nature. However, such a lie does not mean that these images are untrue, but merely that such images are a truth about the artist, and not necessarily a truth about the world itself.

Likewise, where—if not from Montaigne, White, Didion, Biss, and others who play in zigzagging, fragmented forms—do we get our wonderful ideas about the associative, reflexive, even lyric way that our minds process information? The essay might show the mind at work, but only because the essay has given us an idea of how to think about our minds in the first place. My true mind is scattershot, it goes off in dead ends, gets stuck on song lyrics, it daydreams, falls asleep, turns on the television and tunes out. My cultivated mind on the page of an essay, in contrast, wants always to be alert to the connectivity of things. As Klaus writes, “Even if one could get inside the head of another human being, I have a hunch that its workings would turn out to be far messier than anything in a personal essay.”[23]

Now, in the first half of this paper, I’ve argued that expressing interiority is the primary role of the lyric essay. But here in the second half I’m arguing against the notion that interiority can be expressed at all, maintaining that such expression is little more than one of Wilde’s beautiful untrue things. But far from negating the first half of my argument, this apparent contradiction proves that the artful life is a necessary part of expressing interiority.

Consider other artful lies of the lyric essay, such as the selective cutting away of reality and superfluous details, or the amplified significance of certain experiences, certain memories, certain people. Or the way a lyric essay might adopt a particular form—a final exam, a series of found postcards, a Google map—and the way such forms generate new ways of seeing that go beyond the seemingly inexorable facts of nature. “Art itself is really a form of exaggeration,” writes Wilde. “And selection, which is the very spirit of art, is nothing more than an intensified mode of over-emphasis.”[24]

Of course, we must not take Wilde’s advice entirely to heart. I’m not sure I would say, as he did in regard to writers of realist fiction: “we have sold our birthright for a mess of facts.” But I might venture that in all the discussion and occasional vitriol about the ethics of information in nonfiction, we may have overlooked the ethics of art and its integral role in helping us render the interior emotional experiences of our lives—those experiences that must be translated to one another if we are to, as Lopate so aptly put it, help each other feel “a little less lonely and freakish.”[25]

So how do we balance our desire to represent real experiences with art’s insistence on the lie? How do we take what nature has given us and move beyond it, not with an arrogant disregard for what actually happened, but with a humble willingness to let the essay uncover what actually matters? After all, if Wilde is right about nature being our creation, then any responsibility we have to nature is first a responsibility to ourselves.

Judith Kitchen put it this way: “The job of the lyric essayist is to find the prosody of fact, finger the emotional instrument, play the intuitive and the intrinsic, but all in service to the music of the real. Even if it’’s an imagined actuality. The aim is to make of not up. The lyre, not the liar.”[26]

Consider what Kitchen is saying here: the heart of the lyric essay is not reality, not nature, but the music of reality, the music of nature as conceived in the mind of the essayist—the music of beautiful untrue things, which, as Wilde says, is the proper aim of art.

[1] Oscar Wilde, “The Decay of Lying,” in Intentions (Portland, ME: Mosher, 1904), p. 3.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., p. 9.

[4] Ibid., p. 47.

[5] Ibid., p. 49.

[6] Ibid., p. 20.

[7] Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

[8] Honor Moore, “Origin of the Species,” Seneca Review 37, no. 2 (2007): 102.

[9] John D’Agata and Deborah Tall, “New Terrain: The Lyric Essay,” Seneca Review 27, no. 2 (1997): 3.

[10] Quoted in Paul L. Fortunato, Modernist Aesthetics and Consumer Culture in the Writings of Oscar Wilde (New York: Routledge, 2007), p. 30.

[11] Brian Doyle, Leaping (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2003), pp. 132–40.

[12] Brian Doyle, in email conversation, 14 February 2014.

[13] Phillip Lopate, “A Skeptical Take,” Seneca Review, 37, no. 2 (2007): 31.

[14] Wilde, Intentions, p. 36.

[15] Lawrence Danson, Wilde’s Intentions (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), p. 55.

[16] Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading (New York: New Directions, 2010), p. 36.

[17] Wilde, Intentions, p. 11.

[18] Ibid., p. 37.

[19] Michel de Montaigne, Essays of Michel de Montaigne.

[20] Scott Russell Sanders, “The Singular First Person,” in Essays on the Essay, ed. Alexander J. Butrym (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1989), p. 32.

[21] Carl Klaus, The Made-up Self (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2010), p. 20.

[22] Wilde, Intentions, p. 37.

[23] Klaus, Made-up Self, p. 20.

[24] Wilde, Intentions, p. 21.

[25] Phillip Lopate, Art of the Personal Essay (New York: Anchor, 1996), p. xxxii.

[26] Judith Kitchen, “Mending Wall,” Seneca Review 37, no. 2 (2007): 47.