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: