Where the Wildean Sayings Are

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde:
Only Dull People Are Brilliant at Breakfast
Penguin Little Black Classics, No 119, 2016

There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.

This volume’s selection of sayings was taken from Nothing . . . Except My Genius: the Wit and Wisdom of Oscar Wilde (2010), itself a collection of the man’s pithy witticisms and epigrams. Being only some fifty-odd pages long any review of this mini-treasury will of necessity not be very long but I can’t resist adding a somewhat spurious commentary.

First, the arrangement of epigrams. They are generally laid out with related sayings bunched together — sentences about principles abut each other, his judgements on his own playwriting sit side by side, there is even a sequence of his judgements on relations between women and men:

Misunderstanding . . . is the basis of love.
One should always be in love. That is the reason one should never marry.
The proper basis for marriage is a mutual misunderstanding.

The second thing to note is that (as above) Wilde frequently repeats and even contradicts himself. He also occasionally utters something utterly trite (“Life is much too important a thing ever to talk seriously about it”) while at other times hitting the nail on the head (“Nothing that is worth knowing can be taught”). Very often he says something that is beautifully put as well being true:

You forget that a thing is not necessarily true because a man dies for it.
It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.
A critic should be taught to criticize a work of art without making any reference to the personality of the author. This, in fact, is the beginning of criticism.

His best sayings are those which speak of a broader experience than that offered by the society glitterati of his time. 21st-century social media, for example, could be the target of this scathing epithet: “Public opinion exists only where there are no ideas.” Frequently he merely exhibits mere facetiousness with a smug witticism, as when he declares “Oh, it is indeed a burning shame that there would be one law for men and another law for women. I think there should be no law for anybody.” And yet he’s capable of fatuous statements which still give one pause, as with “There is a fatality about all good resolutions. They are invariably made too soon.”

I could continue peppering this notice with at least half the quotes in this slim volume, but you’ll be relieved to know I shall now desist. As Marcus Aurelius had his Meditations and Mao Zedong his Little Red Book so might this little gem stand as a brief testament to Wilde’s capacity for no end of outrageous opinions, some funny, many cynical, others trenchant aperçus. As he himself observed, “It would be unfair to expect other people to be as remarkable as oneself.”


A title by an Irish author read for Begorrathon 2020 or, to be clearer, Reading Ireland Month 2020

And let me point you to a series of very informative posts related to Wilde by blogger Stefy at https://etinkerbell.wordpress.com:

15 thoughts on “Where the Wildean Sayings Are

    1. I have to admit I skimmed many of the entries, Karen, especially the less than pithy sayings (typically with three sentences) which seemed too verbose to be effective. I suspect the longer tome from which this is extracted is better organised — here I would’ve welcomed some division to make more sense of the groupings. But this is merely a sampler, a sprat to catch a mackerel I suspect.

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        1. This is one of those mini books Penguin produce, like those 80p works they published to celebrate eighty years of existence. The Little Black Classics have been around around for a few years too; and though they publish those parody Ladybirds for adults many of these Classics have literary merit (I reviewed de Quincy’s satiric On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts not so long ago). I’m less sure about the market for this Wildean selection though! 🙂

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    1. Thanks for running this event, Cathy! I’m trying to stick to books I acquired before 2020 (apart from the ones got with a book token) and I’m hoping to include the Roddy Doyle I won from you last year!

      As for quoting Wilde I hope you liked the parody Sendak title I chose, in the spirit of the master of the apt epithet!

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  1. I must admit I feel you nailed my feelings about Wilde in general when you used the word “trite”. I always feel as if he’s trying too hard and too often missing the target. I quite enjoy watching his plays but mainly because it’s fun to see how the actors interpret such well known roles, but I fear I find him annoying to read. No doubt of his status, though – he’s one of the select band who has added phrases to the language – the greatest sign of success being, I suppose, when you are quoted by people who don’t even realise they’re quoting you!

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    1. I too must admit it’s been years since I read Wilde, Dorian Gray for example, but I have shed a tear over his fairytales, ‘The Selfish Giant’ in particular, which have the qualities of Hans Christian Anderson’s stories at their best. I read (or rather skimmed) Importance as a teenager, but the witticisms escaped me then: even now I have only vague memories of a recent adaptation I saw on television. But his quotability does indeed remain stratospheric!

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    1. Sparkling repartee, true, but sometimes just a little too burnished so that it becomes painful to regard — probably in collections like this!

      Oh, and I’ll post a link to your admirable discussions of Wilde in Italy while I think about it!

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  2. Pingback: Reading Ireland Month: Week 2 round-up!

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