“At present, people see fogs, not because there are fogs, but because poets and painters have taught them the mysterious loveliness of such effects.” – Vivian in The Decay of Lying
Oscar Wilde is well known to history for his pithy witticisms, his story “The Portrait of Dorian Gray” and his tragic and/or scandalous humiliation and imprisonment for sexual activity. These are all memorable things, but mark only the surface of a life and body of work that is rich with insight about our world. To read Oscar Wilde means to be continually impressed at not just his remarkable point of view, but also his subtle approach toward pointing out the things that he has noticed. Yes, Oscar Wilde could turn phrases into timeless quotations, but deeper reading of his work reveals an understanding so complex and a vision so temporaly distant that it may never be understood in its entirety.
A case in point is Wilde’s “The Decay of Lying,” which is fascinating within its own context. In this era, though, at the onset of the Memetic Age, the information about memetics that is embedded within the dialog snaps into sharp relief. It becomes apparent that Oscar Wilde understood memetics nearly a century before the subject had a name.
The quote about fogs that opens this essay is just one obvious example of Wilde’s ur-description of memetics at a practical level. It follows a sentence earlier in the passage: “Things are because we see them, and what we see, and how we see it, depends on the Arts that have influenced us.” Another sentence within the text reads: “Literature always anticipates life. It does not copy it, but moulds it to its purpose.” And still more: “A great artist invents a type, and Life tries to copy it, to reproduce it in a popular form, like an enterprising publisher.” And perhaps most famously: “Truth is entirely and absolutely a matter of style.”
Many people read Wilde, and his radically counterintuitive statements, and give his words little deep thought. They assume that Wilde’s words are meant only as a joke. It is true, Wilde was definitely a hilarious guy. However, because most people are heartbreakingly shallow, they indulge in a logical failure about his humor, believing that what is meant to be funny is not meant seriously. It is beyond the average reader’s ability to understand that a writer can be devastatingly funny and dead fucking serious at exactly the same time. So, the plebs of the world, if they even read a word of Oscar Wilde, don’t get the message.
More to the point, though. Wilde’s enduring humor is the mark of a true understanding of memetics. Which is to say that Wilde knew that a meme is worthless if it doesn’t spread. And a meme won’t spread if it doesn’t compel human beings to pass it along. Humor is one of a handful of sure-fire ways to make a meme infectious. Wilde’s many quotations live on to this day, separated from their original context, passing from mind to mind because of their deep humor and bracing insight.
Oscar Wilde was a memetic engineer of the highest caliber. His seldom-read Decay of Lying is nothing less than a basic explanation of practical memetics. Anyone who wants to understand memetics and figure out how to make it work will benefit immensely from reading this dialog not just once, but over and over again throughout a lifetime.