In our eight-part series Life Sentence, the literary critic Jeff Dolven takes apart and puts back together one beloved or bedeviling sentence each week. Artist Tom Toro illustrates each sentence Dolven chooses.
Americans are particularly bad at lying, thought Oscar Wilde. Whatever he would say of us today, his views in 1891, when his essay “The Decay of Lying” was published, were clear enough:
The crude commercialism of America, its materialising spirit, its indifference to the poetical side of things, and its lack of imagination and of high unattainable ideals, are entirely due to that country having adopted for its national hero a man, who, according to his own confession, was incapable of telling a lie, and it is not too much to say that the story of George Washington and the cherry-tree has done more harm, and in a shorter space of time, than any other moral tale in the whole of literature.
“The Decay of Lying” is a dialogue. This sentence belongs to Wilde’s avatar, Vivian, who is talking in the library with Cyril; Cyril has gotten things started by failing to persuade his friend to go outside and smoke their cigarettes in the grass. (“Grass is hard and lumpy and damp,” protests Vivian, “and full of dreadful black insects.”) The riposte to American pragmatism has all of the art that Vivian so prefers to the discomforts of nature. But it wears its art lightly, being at moments formal, even stiff, but mostly loose and improvisatory. Its shifts in tone are a matter of what grammarians would call its coordination, its connections to itself, the appositions and the ands. Perhaps Wilde’s casual mastery ought to deflect study of such matters, or any further thinking. And perhaps not.
The opening series of phrases does wax rather rhetorical, keeping the main verb at bay through no fewer than four witty accusations. There’s nothing complicated about their syntactic relation, making up a compound subject—“asyndetic” in its preference for commas rather than conjunctions, though ands would do as well and would make everything a little less elevated. (If you read it aloud that way, with ands in-between, you can feel your voice flatten; the cadence is relieved of the burden of sustaining the suspension and those little words do the work.) Things get more complicated with that participial phrase (“that country having adopted”) and then a relative clause (“who … was incapable”), which is opened up with an adverbial phrase inside (“according to his own confession”). But not much more complicated.
And what I’m really interested in is that next and: “and it is not too much.” That and is the moment when the sentence’s ambition to periodicity—to being the kind of sentence that makes a rainbow of its syntax, bending toward a promised end—is flicked away like cigarette ash. The sentence simply keeps going across the and into the wry impiety of its take on the old George-Washington-and-the-cherry-tree anecdote. What does that and do? Besides tack the parts together? It presumes no objection, as though what follows barely even follows, simply keeps going, yes? It preempts any surprise we might express about the sly judgment. Cyril is never quite up to such blithe invitations; he is the straight man, and it is his job to be startled or scandalized by what Vivian takes for granted. (“My dear boy!”) For the rest of us readers, however, why not take that and and everything after with an insouciance coequal to Vivian’s, neither balking nor laughing, even lighting a cigarette of our own from the end of his cigarette, in the genial parataxis of one cigarette and then another and then another and so on, yes?
Vivian’s chain-smoking syntax is a knowing rebuke to the periodic sentence and its far-seeing self-importance. It makes instead what sometimes gets called a running sentence, adding parts as it goes rather than subordinating them to a master plan. The period may be a stubborn ideal of English eloquence, the English that would be Latin, but it is the running sentence that has always been more native to the language. (Plain American, as Marianne Moore might say, that cats and dogs can read; and somewhere behind of Wilde’s essay is one by Twain from ten years before, “On the Decay of the Art of Lying.”) There are many ways for a running sentence to keep running, but there is much virtue in an and—for Wilde, its very flatness, its loose fluency, is a tacit provocation to supply the missing logic and the missing affect. We all agree, don’t we, that this little fable is a great cramp in the American imagination? Lying is an art lost on young George and on those who idolize him. And really, what kind of an answer is that: I cannot tell a lie? Is it enough, standing next to the bleeding stump with the ax in your hand, simply to say, I’m the one who did it? Isn’t the question rather why: Why, George, that arbitrary act of ecological violence? The confession only blocks the real question. How could we ever have been satisfied with that story? And how different the story if George had answered, Cherry wood is the key to our energy independence? Or the cherries—they were so sweet, and so cold?
Which is to say that we might have learned a little more about the father of our country if he had lied, if he tried to invent something, if he had tried to explain or to justify himself or even made a poem of it. The answer he gives in the story is so much better than a lie for blocking the truth, at least any useful truth. All of which could be said to spring from Wilde’s sentence not because it makes a show of saying, or knowing, where it is going. Quite the contrary: it continues on its way garrulously, sociably, as though everything it has to say is perfectly obvious, refusing to subordinate its chain of associations. That would be another kind of lie: for this sentence to pretend that it already understood, in its very structure, what it is saying, and understood on our behalf, doing the work for us. For all his love of lying, Wilde does not approve that kind of lie. Understanding is our job, friends, citizens, and Vivian’s sentence leaves us to it.
Jeff Dolven’s poems first appeared in The Paris Review in 2000. He teaches at Princeton University, and his new book, Senses of Style, which looks at the work and lives of Thomas Wyatt and Frank O’Hara, will publish in January.
Tom Toro is an American cartoonist whose work appears regularly in The New Yorker, Playboy, The American Bystander, and elsewhere. His book of Trump cartoons, Tiny Hands, is available now through Dock Street Press.
Read earlier installments of Life Sentence here.