Our next Master of Chiasmus is the inimitable Oscar Wilde, one of the greatest writers and wits—and certainly
one of the most colorful characters—in literary history. Wilde experimented with chiasmus innumerable times in both
his writings and in his everyday conversation. I'll present a number of my favorite chiastic quotes from "The Oscar" here.
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"Life imitates art
far more than
art imitates life."
In this observation—which may have been inspired by George Sand's, "Life resembles a novel more often
than novels resemble life"—Wilde conveys his belief that the purpose of life is self-expression, with art
being a great aid in that endeavor. It's a fitting observation from one who once said, "I have put my
genius into my life; I have put only my talent into my work."
"I made art a philosophy
and philosophy an art."
This chiastic self-assessment comes from De Profundis, Wilde's famous 1897 letter
to his former great friend and lover, Lord Alfred Douglas.
"When we are happy we are always good,
but when we are good we are not always happy."
Wilde was the toast of London in the 1880s and early 1890s, as people of all social classes hovered
around him in hopes of hearing witty bon mots and clever epigrams. Wilde was fond of recycling his
favorite lines, and this was apparently one of them. This version appears in The Picture of Dorian Gray
(1891), but Wilde reportedly used it again and again in conversations with friends and associates.
"When a man says
he has exhausted life
one always knows
life has exhausted him."
This was another one of Wilde's favorite lines, showing up in innumerable conversations. Here's how
it finally appeared in A Woman of No Importance: "I hope you don't think you have exhausted life …
When a man says that, one knows that life has exhausted him." Below are several more examples of sayings
that show up both in conversation as well as in Wilde's plays and writings:
"The soul is born old, but grows young.
That is the comedy of life.
And the body is born young and grows old.
That is life's tragedy."
Nowadays, all the married men live like bachelors,
and all the bachelors like married men."
"The Ideal man … should always
say much more than he means,
and always mean much more than he says."
"No crime is vulgar,
but all vulgarity is crime."
"Nothing can cure the soul but the senses,
just as nothing can cure the senses but the soul."
"As for begging,
it is safer to beg than to take,
but it is finer to take than to beg."
"The aim of most of our modern novelists seems to be,
not to write good novels,
but to write novels that will do good."
Wilde wrote literary reviews for The Pall Mall Gazette from 1885 to 1890.
While highly regarded as a writer, Wilde did not apparently distinguish himself as a critic.
Hesketh Pearson, Wilde's biographer, explains it this way: "He was too gentle a man to hurt people's
feelings, too good-natured to make a good critic." Wilde could, however, be caustic and derisive
in his overall opinions about the state of English writing, as he does in this observation about modern
English novelists. He also wrote, also chiastically, "The ancient historians gave us delightful
fiction in the form of fact; the modern novelist presents us with dull facts under the guise of fiction."
"The popular novel that the public call healthy
is always a thoroughly unhealthy production;
and what the public call an unhealthy novel
is always a beautiful and healthy work of art."
Wilde could also be pretty tough on the readers and audiences of his day, whose taste he often questioned.
This line from The Soul of Man is clear—when it comes to literature, the public can be counted on to judge
what is good as bad, and vice versa. Wilde's view of the public's taste extended even to the audiences at his own
plays. When asked how he felt after one of his plays met with a disappointing reaction, he said, "The play was a
success, but the audience was an absolute failure."
"It has been said of him, and with truth,
that he is a master of language,
but with still greater truth
it may be said that language is his master."
When discussing individual artists, Wilde could be critical in a thoughtful, penetrating way, as in
this comment on Algernon Swinburne. Wilde believed that Swinburne was both the master and slave of
his literary style. He added: "Words seem to dominate him. Alliteration tyrannizes over him.
Mere sound often becomes his lord. He is so eloquent that whatever he touches becomes unreal."
"(An) inferior poet …
lives the poetry that he cannot write.
The others write the poetry that they dare not realize."
From Dorian Gray, there's a fascinating chiastic truth embedded in this observation. First of all,
though, here's how Wilde set up the line: "The only artists I have ever known who are personally delightful are bad
artists; good artists exist simply in what they make, and consequently are perfectly uninteresting in what they are.
A great poet, a really great poet, is the most unpoetical of creatures. But inferior poets are absolutely fascinating.
The worse their rhymes are, the more picturesque they look. The mere fact of having published a book of second-rate
sonnets makes a man quite irresistible." Wilde's observation illuminates a fascinating chiastic phenomenon—the best
artists often look pretty average, while the average ones often look the most creative.
"In France … they
limit the journalist, and
allow the artist almost perfect freedom.
Here we allow absolute freedom
to the journalist,
and entirely limit the artist."
Wilde's comparison of England and France says something about the two very different cultures in the late
19th century. In another chiastic comparison of the two countries, Wilde wrote: "The great superiority
of France over England is that in France every bourgeois wants to be an artist, whereas in England every artist
wants to be a bourgeois."
"London is too full of fogs—and serious people.
Whether the fogs produce the serious people
or whether the serious people produce the fogs,
I don't know, but the whole thing rather gets on my nerves."
Chiasmus is often used to ask questions of a "Which came first, the chicken or the egg?" nature, and this
line from Lady Windermere's Fan (1892) is a whimsical example. Here's another example, from
A Woman of No Importance: "There was … I remember, a clergyman who wanted to be a lunatic, or a
lunatic who wanted to be a clergyman, I forget which, but I know the Court of Chancery investigated the matter,
and decided he was quite sane."
"Knaves nowadays do look so honest that
honest folk are forced to look like knaves
so as to be different."
This line from The Duchess of Padua suggests a number of chiastic spin-offs
to me, including this one: "Nowadays, it seems as if all the college girls are dressing
like hookers, and all the hookers like college girls."
"There are no trappings, no pageantry,
and no gorgeous ceremonies.
I saw only two processions:
one was the Fire Brigade preceded by the Police,
the other was the Police preceded by the Fire Brigade."
Wilde said this about America after his celebrated trip to this country in 1882. Billed as "The Great Aesthete,"
Wilde's air of superiority was simultaneously off-putting and fascinating to Americans, who thronged to his lectures and
loved to hear stories about him. When he arrived in America, Wilde was asked by a customs agent if he had anything
to declare. He replied, "I have nothing to declare but my genius." Every newspaper in New York carried the story,
and similar stories were soon being reported throughout his lecture tour, which took him to over eighty American cities.
"I know not whether Laws be right,
Or whether Laws be wrong;
All that we know who lie in gaol,
Is that the wall is strong;
And that each day is like a year,
A year whose days are long."
This comes from The Ballad of Reading Gaol, written during Wilde's imprisonment in 1895-96.
When the poem was written, no author's name was attached. It was signed, simply, "C.3.3." (for the
prisoner of Cell 3, third landing). Gaol is the traditional way the English spell the word jail (although
they pronounce the word as we do). It's still hard to believe, but Wilde's famous Ballad was written during
his imprisonment—two years at hard labor—for "homosexual offenses" under England's Criminal Law Amendment!
Wilde had been having an affair with Lord Alfred Douglas, the son of the Marquess of Queensberry (yes, the same man
who formulated the famous rules of boxing). Queensberry was horrified by his son's scandalous behavior and
publicly accused Wilde of homosexuality. Against the advice of his closest friends and advisors, Wilde sued
Queensberry for libel. In the most celebrated trial of the 19th century, the tables turned against Wilde and
he was prosecuted for and ultimately convicted of homosexual conduct. In typical Wilde fashion, though, he
didn't allow the ordeal of the trial to diminish his legendary wit. After being sentenced, Wilde was handcuffed
and placed outside in the driving rain, waiting to be transported to prison. "If this is the way Queen Victoria
treats her prisoners," he was heard to say, "she doesn't deserve to have any."
"I wrote when I did not know life;
now that I do know the meaning of life,
I have no more to write.
Life cannot be written; life can only be lived."
Two years of prison left Wilde a broken man. Formerly one of the most celebrated
men in England, he was now a social pariah. He moved to France, where he spent the
last years of his life plagued by ill health and near-bankruptcy. Oscar Wilde died at
age 46 in the year 1900.
In my Never Let a Fool Kiss You or a Kiss Fool You book,
I introduced a concept called implied chiasmus, which occurs when the words of a popular saying are deliberately reversed.
Some popular examples are Mae West's "A hard man is good to find," Kermit the Frog's "Time's fun when you're having flies,"
and Ziggy's "A waist is a terrible thing to mind."
If you examine these sayings, you'll notice that each one reverses the words of a popular saying:
"A good man is hard to find," "Time flies when you're having fun," and the slogan of the United Negro
College Fund, "A mind is a terrible thing to waste."
Implied chiasmus has been favored by wits and wordsmiths for many years, and Wilde was no exception.
Here are several examples from his life and works.
"Work is the curse of the drinking classes."
Wilde was fond of saying that he detested work, claiming that he wrote only to give him the freedom to
do nothing. Here, he cleverly communicates his disdain for the working life by reversing the words of
the popular expression, "Drink is the curse of the working classes."
"The English have a miraculous power
of turning wine into water."
Cleverly reversing the biblical phrase about turning water into wine, this was Wilde's assessment
of the wine-making skills of the English.
"Tell me, when you are alone with Max,
does he take off his face and reveal his mask?"
Wilde was referring to English writer Max Beerbohm when he asked this question of a friend, reversing the normal
sequence of things, taking off a mask to reveal one's face.
"She was made to be an ambassador's wife.
She certainly has a wonderful faculty of
remembering people's names,
and forgetting their faces."
In this line from A Woman of No Importance, Wilde reverses what people normally do—remember people's
faces and forget their names.
"I hope you have not been leading a double life,
pretending to be wicked and
being really good all the time.
That would be hypocrisy."
I regard this popular line from The Importance of Being Earnest as an example of implied chiasmus,
for it reverses the usual conception of hypocrisy—pretending to be good while really being bad. The
English writer, Joseph Addison, noted a similar phenomenon in a 1712 essay: "Hypocrisy at the fashionable end
of the town is very different from hypocrisy in the city. The modish hypocrite endeavors to appear more
vicious than he really is; the other kind of hypocrite more virtuous." The same thing can now be observed
in America's cities and suburbs. It's clear, then, that the street of hypocrisy runs in both directions,
suggesting the following full-blown chiastic observation: "There are two kinds of hypocrites—the bad pretending
to be good, and the good pretending to be bad."
I hope you've enjoyed this chiastic look at Oscar Wilde. Join me next month when we take a look
at another chiastic master, George Bernard Shaw.