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Oscar Wilde on Art, Astonishment, Disobedience, and More

 

Happy birthday, Oscar Wilde! Here are some quotes from the writer:

 

“[A]ll sentences are sentences of death.”

 

“A thing is, according to the mode in which one looks at it.”

 

“I don’t at all like knowing what people say of me behind my back. It makes me far too conceited.”

 

“To love oneself is the beginning of a life-long romance.”

 

“Only the shallow know themselves.”

 

“In old days, books were written by men of letters and read by the public. Nowadays, books are written by the public and read by nobody.”

 

“Nothing succeeds like excess.”

 

“I am always astonishing myself. It is the only thing that makes life worth living.”

 

“Discontent is the first step in the progress of a man or a nation.”

 

“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”

 

“All art is immoral.”

 

“Art is the only serious thing in the world. And the artist is the only person who is never serious.”

 

“It is through art, and through art only, that we can realize our perfection; through art and art only that we can shield ourselves from the sordid perils of actual existence.”

 

“Art is Individualism, and Individualism is a disturbing and disintegrating force. Therein lies its immense value. For what it seeks to disturb is monotony of type, slavery of custom, tyranny of habit, and the reduction of man to the level of a machine.”

 

“A work of art is the unique result of a unique temperament. Its beauty comes from the fact that the author is what he is. It has nothing to do with the fact that other people want what they want. Indeed, the moment that an artist takes notice of what other people want, and tries to supply the demand, he ceases to be an artist, and becomes a dull or an amusing craftsman, an honest or a dishonest tradesman. He has no further claim to be considered as an artist.”

 

“No great artist ever sees things as they really are. If he did, he would cease to be an artist.”

 

“They are always asking a writer why he does not write like somebody else, or a painter why he does not paint like somebody else, quite oblivious of the fact that if either of them did anything of the kind he would cease to be an artist.”

 

“All authority is quite degrading. It degrades those who exercise it, and degrades those over whom it is exercised.”

 

“Public Opinion…is an attempt to organize the ignorance of the community, and to elevate it to the dignity of physical force.”

 

“I am but too conscious of the fact that we are born in an age when only the dull are treated seriously, and I live in terror of not being misunderstood.”

 

“Oh! journalism is unreadable, and literature is not read.”

 

“It is always the unreadable that occurs.”

 

“Experience, the name men give to their mistakes.”

 

“Life is much too important a thing ever to talk seriously about it.”

 

“Starvation, and not sin, is the parent of modern crime.”

 

“He to whom the present is the only thing that is present, knows nothing of the age in which he lives.”

 

“People who count their chickens before they are hatched act very wisely because chickens run about so absurdly that it’s impossible to count them accurately.”

 

“I summed up all systems in a phrase, and all existence in an epigram.”

 

“For a sentimentalist is simply one who desires to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it.”

 

“Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.”

 

“One should always be a little improbable.”

 

“Time is a waste of money.”

 

“Patriotism is the vice of nations.”

 

“If one tells the truth, one is sure, sooner or later, to be found out.”

 

“I can resist everything except temptation.”

 

“A man who does not think for himself does not think at all.”

 

“There are three kinds of despots. There is the despot who tyrannizes over the body. There is the despot who tyrannizes over the soul. There is the despot who tyrannizes over the soul and body alike. The first is called the Prince. The second is called the Pope. The third is called the People.”

 

“With the abolition of private property, then, we shall have true, beautiful, healthy Individualism. Nobody will waste his life in accumulating things, and the symbols for things. One will live. To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.”

 

“Disobedience, in the eyes of any one who has read history, is man’s original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and through rebellion.”

 

“There is no sin except stupidity.”

 

“The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it.”

 

“Indifference is the revenge the world takes on mediocrities.”

 

“There are few things easier than to live badly and to die well.”

 

“An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all.”

 

“One can survive everything nowadays except death.”

 

“I put all my genius into my life; I put only my talent into my works.”

 

“Most modern calendars mar the sweet simplicity of our lives by reminding us that each day that passes is the anniversary of some perfectly uninteresting event.”

 

“A poet can survive everything but a misprint.”

 

“Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.”

 

“I have the simplest tastes. I am always satisfied with the best.”

 

“[R]emain, as I do, incomprehensible: to be great is to be misunderstood.”

 

“A thing is not necessarily true because a man dies for it.”

 

“A simile committing suicide is always a depressing spectacle.”

 

“And, after all, what is a fashion? From the artistic point of view, it is usually a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.”

 

“It is always a silly thing to give advice, but to give good advice is absolutely fatal.”

 

“The more we study Art, the less we care for Nature. What Art really reveals to us is Nature’s lack of design, her curious crudities, her extraordinary monotony, her absolutely unfinished condition.”

 

“Art finds her own perfection within, and not outside of herself. She is not to be judged by any external standard of resemblance. She is a veil, rather than a mirror.”

 

“Death must be so beautiful. To lie in the soft brown earth, with the grasses waving above one’s head, and listen to silence. To have no yesterday, and no tomorrow. To forget time, to forgive life, to be at peace.”

 

“I put all my genius into my life; I put only my talent into my works.”

 

“Psycholog­y is in its infancy, as a science. I hope in the interests of Art, it will always remain so.”

 

“Keep love in your heart. A life without it is like a sunless garden when the flowers are dead. The consciousness of loving and being loved brings warmth and richness to life that nothing else can bring.”

 

“There is always more brass than brains in an aristocracy.”

 

“Experience, the name men give to their mistakes.”

 

“When a man has no enemy left. there must be something mean about him.”

 

“Hard work is simply the refuge of people who have nothing whatever to do.”

 

“Life imitates art far more than art imitates Life.”

 

“No great artist ever sees things as they really are. If he did, he would cease to be an artist.”

 

“The final revelation is that Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of Art.”

 

“I am but too conscious of the fact that we are born in an age when only the dull are treated seriously, and I live in terror of not being misunderstood.”

 

“It is through art, and through art only, that we can realize our perfection; through art and art only that we can shield ourselves from the sordid perils of actual existence.”

 

“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”

 

“It is to do nothing that the elect exist. Action is limited and relative. Unlimited and absolute is the vision of him who sits at ease and watches, who walks in loneliness and dreams.”

 

“As long as war is regarded as wicked, it will always have its fascination. When it is looked upon as vulgar, it will cease to be popular.”

 

“[T]here is much to be said in favour of modern journalism. By giving us the opinions of the uneducated, it keeps us in touch with the ignorance of the community. By carefully chronicling the current events of contemporary life, it shows us of what very little importance such events really are. By invariably discussing the unnecessary, it makes us understand what things are requisite for culture, and what are not.

 

“To be good, according to the vulgar standard of goodness, is obviously quite easy. It merely requires a certain amount of sordid terror, a certain lack of imaginative thought, and a certain low passion for middle-class respectability.”

 

“There is no sin except stupidity.”

 

“Ah! Don’t say you agree with me. When people agree with me I always feel I must be wrong.”

 

“A dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world.”

 

“One is tempted to define man as a rational animal who always loses his temper when he is called upon to act in accordance with the dictates of reason.”

 

“The chief advantage that would result from the establishment of Socialism is, undoubtedly, the fact that Socialism would relieve us from that sordid necessity of living for others which, in the present condition of things, presses so hardly upon almost everybody. In fact, scarcely any one at all escapes.”

 

“Charity creates a multitude of sins.”

 

“It is immoral to use private property in order to alleviate the horrible evils that result from the institution of private property.”

 

“Disobedience, in the eyes of any one who has read history, is man’s original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and through rebellion.”

 

“Sometimes the poor are praised for being thrifty. But to recommend thrift to the poor is both grotesque and insulting. It is like advising a man who is starving to eat less.”

 

“As for begging, it is safer to beg than to take, but it is finer to take than to beg.”

 

“Misery and poverty are so absolutely degrading, and exercise such a paralysing effect over the nature of men, that no class is ever really conscious of its own suffering. They have to be told of it by other people, and they often entirely disbelieve them.”

 

“Agitators are a set of interfering, meddling people, who come down to some perfectly contented class of the community, and sow the seeds of discontent amongst them. That is the reason why agitators are so absolutely necessary. Without them, in our incomplete state, there would be no advance towards civilisation.”

 

“For the recognition of private property has really harmed Individualism, and obscured it, by confusing a man with what he possesses. It has led Individualism entirely astray. It has made gain not growth its aim. So that man thought that the important thing was to have, and did not know that the important thing is to be. The true perfection of man lies, not in what man has, but in what man is. Private property has crushed true Individualism, and set up an Individualism that is false. It has debarred one part of the community from being individual by starving them. It has debarred the other part of the community from being individual by putting them on the wrong road and encumbering them.”

 

“Now, nothing should be able to harm a man except himself. Nothing should be able to rob a man at all. What a man really has, is what is in him. What is outside of him should be a matter of no importance.”

 

“With the abolition of private property, then, we shall have true, beautiful, healthy Individualism. Nobody will waste his life in accumulating things, and the symbols for things. One will live. To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.”

 

“Wherever there is a man who exercises authority, there is a man who resists authority.”

 

“The note of the perfect personality is not rebellion, but peace.”

 

“It will be a marvellous thing—the true personality of man—when we see it. It will grow naturally and simply, flowerlike, or as a tree grows. It will not be at discord. It will never argue or dispute. It will not prove things. It will know everything. And yet it will not busy itself about knowledge. It will have wisdom. Its value will not be measured by material things. It will have nothing. And yet it will have everything, and whatever one takes from it, it will still have, so rich will it be. It will not be always meddling with others, or asking them to be like itself. It will love them because they will be different. And yet while it will not meddle with others, it will help all, as a beautiful thing helps us, by being what it is. The personality of man will be very wonderful. It will be as wonderful as the personality of a child.”

 

“‘Know thyself’ was written over the portal of the antique world. Over the portal of the new world, ‘Be thyself’ shall be written.”

 

“Don’t imagine that your perfection lies in accumulating or possessing external things. Your perfection is inside of you. If only you could realise that, you would not want to be rich. Ordinary riches can be stolen from a man. Real riches cannot. In the treasury-house of your soul, there are infinitely precious things, that may not be taken from you. And so, try to so shape your life that external things will not harm you. And try also to get rid of personal property. It involves sordid preoccupation, endless industry, continual wrong. Personal property hinders Individualism at every step.”

 

“There is only one class in the community that thinks more about money than the rich, and that is the poor.”

 

“The things people say of a man do not alter a man. He is what he is. Public opinion is of no value whatsoever.”

 

“All modes of government are failures. Despotism is unjust to everybody, including the despot, who was probably made for better things. Oligarchies are unjust to the many, and ochlocracies are unjust to the few. High hopes were once formed of democracy; but democracy means simply the bludgeoning of the people by the people for the people.”

 

“All authority is quite degrading. It degrades those who exercise it, and degrades those over whom it is exercised.”

 

“When private property is abolished there will be no necessity for crime, no demand for it; it will cease to exist.”

 

“Human slavery is wrong, insecure, and demoralizing. On mechanical slavery, on the slavery of the machine, the future of the world depends.”

 

“A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing.”

 

“A work of art is the unique result of a unique temperament. Its beauty comes from the fact that the author is what he is. It has nothing to do with the fact that other people want what they want. Indeed, the moment that an artist takes notice of what other people want, and tries to supply the demand, he ceases to be an artist, and becomes a dull or an amusing craftsman, an honest or a dishonest tradesman. He has no further claim to be considered as an artist.”

 

“Art is the most intense mode of individualism that the world has known. I am inclined to say that it is the only real mode of individualism that the world has known. Crime, which, under certain conditions, may seem to have created individualism, must take cognisance of other people and interfere with them. It belongs to the sphere of action. But alone, without any reference to his neighbours, without any interference, the artist can fashion a beautiful thing; and if he does not do it solely for his own pleasure, he is not an artist at all.”

 

“Art is this intense form of individualism that makes the public try to exercise over it an authority that is as immoral as it is ridiculous, and as corrupting as it is contemptible. It is not quite their fault. The public have always, and in every age, been badly brought up. They are continually asking Art to be popular, to please their want of taste, to flatter their absurd vanity, to tell them what they have been told before, to show them what they ought to be tired of seeing, to amuse them when they feel heavy after eating too much, and to distract their thoughts when they are wearied of their own stupidity. Now Art should never try to be popular. The public should try to make itself artistic.”

 

“Art is Individualism, and Individualism is a disturbing and disintegrating force. Therein lies its immense value. For what it seeks to disturb is monotony of type, slavery of custom, tyranny of habit, and the reduction of man to the level of a machine.”

 

“An individual who has to make things for the use of others, and with reference to their wants and their wishes, does not work with interest, and consequently cannot put into his work what is best in him. Upon the other hand, whenever a community or a powerful section of a community, or a government of any kind, attempts to dictate to the artist what he is to do, Art either entirely vanishes, or becomes stereotyped, or degenerates into a low and ignoble form of craft.”

 

“They are always asking a writer why he does not write like somebody else, or a painter why he does not paint like somebody else, quite oblivious of the fact that if either of them did anything of the kind he would cease to be an artist.”

 

“If a man approaches a work of art with any desire to exercise authority over it and the artist, he approaches it in such a spirit that he cannot receive any artistic impression from it at all. The work of art is to dominate the spectator: the spectator is not to dominate the work of art. The spectator is to be receptive. He is to be the violin on which the master is to play. And the more completely he can suppress his own silly views, his own foolish prejudices, his own absurd ideas of what Art should be, or should not be, the more likely he is to understand and appreciate the work of art in question.”

 

“The one thing that the public dislike is novelty. Any attempt to extend the subject matter of art is extremely distasteful to the public; and yet the vitality and progress of art depend in a large measure on the continual extension of subject-matter. The public dislike novelty because they are afraid of it. It represents to them a mode of Individualism, an assertion on the part of the artist that he selects his own subject, and treats it as he chooses.”

 

“In Art, the public accept what has been, because they cannot alter it, not because they appreciate it. They swallow their classics whole, and never taste them. They endure them as the inevitable, and, as they cannot mar them, they mouth about them…A fresh mode of Beauty is absolutely distasteful to them, and whenever it appears they get so angry and bewildered that they always use two stupid expressions—one is that the work of art is grossly unintelligible; the other, that the work of art is grossly immoral.”

 

“People sometimes inquire what form of government is most suitable for an artist to live under. To this question there is only one answer. The form of government that is most suitable to the artist is no government at all. Authority over him and his art is ridiculous.”

 

“There are as many perfections as there are imperfect men. And while to the claims of charity a man may yield and yet be free, to the claims of conformity no man may yield and remain free at all.”

 

“There are three kinds of despots. There is the despot who tyrannises over the body. There is the despot who tyrannises over the soul. There is the despot who tyrannises over the soul and body alike. The first is called the Prince. The second is called the Pope. The third is called the People.”

 

“The only thing that one really knows about human nature is that it changes. Change is the one quality we can predicate of it. The systems that fail are those that rely on the permanency of human nature, and not on its growth and development. The error of Louis XIV was that he thought human nature would always be the same. The result of his error was the French Revolution. It was an admirable result. All the results of the mistakes of governments are quite admirable.”

 

“Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live, it is asking others to live as one wishes to live.”

 

“A man who does not think for himself does not think at all.”

 

“For what man has sought for is, indeed, neither pain nor pleasure, but simply Life. Man has sought to live intensely, fully, perfectly. When he can do so without exercising restraint on others, or suffering it ever, and his activities are all pleasurable to him, he will be saner, healthier, more civilised, more himself. Pleasure is Nature’s test, her sign of approval. When man is happy, he is in harmony with himself and his environment.”

 

“It was a fatal day when the public discovered that the pen is mightier than the paving-stone, and can be made as offensive as the brickbat. They at once sought for the journalist, found him, developed him, and made him their industrious and well-paid servant. It is greatly to be regretted, for both their sakes. Behind the barricade there may be much that is noble and heroic. But what is there behind the leading-article but prejudice, stupidity, cant, and twaddle? And when these four are joined together they make a terrible force, and constitute the new authority.”

 

“Here we allow absolute freedom to the journalist and entirely limit the artist. English public opinion, that is to say, tries to constrain and impede and warp the man who makes things that are beautiful in effect, and compels the journalist to retail things that are ugly, or disgusting, or revolting in fact, so that we have the most serious journalists in the world and the most indecent newspapers.”

 

“The fact is, that the public have an insatiable curiosity to know everything, except what is worth knowing. Journalism, conscious of this, and having tradesmanlike habits, supplies their demands.”

 

“It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious.”

 

“I can resist everything except temptation.”

 

“I am the only person in the world I should like to know thoroughly.”

 

“My experience is that as soon as people are old enough to know better, they don’t know anything at all.”

 

“In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.”

 

“What a pity that in life we only get our lessons when they are of no use to us.”

 

“Discontent is the first step in the progress of a man or a nation.”

 

“Men marry because they are tired; women because they are curious. Both are disappointed.”

 

“The only difference between the saint and the sinner is that every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.”

 

“Children begin by loving their parents. After a time they judge them. Rarely if ever do they forgive them.”

 

“It is a very sad thing that nowadays there is so little useless information.”

 

“In old days books were written by men of letters and read by the public. Nowadays books are written by the public and read by nobody.”

 

“Friendship is far more tragic than love. It lasts longer.”

 

“Art is the only serious thing in the world. And the artist is the only person who is never serious.”

 

“Ambition is the last refuge of the failure.”

 

“Religions die when they are proved to be true. Science is the record of dead religions.”

 

“If one tells the truth, one is sure, sooner or later, to be found out.”

 

“Patriotism is the vice of nations.”

 

“Only the shallow know themselves.”

 

“In examinations the foolish ask questions that the wise cannot answer.”

 

“The old believe everything; the middle-aged suspect everything; the young know everything.”

 

“One should always be a little improbable.”

 

“Time is a waste of money.”

 

“The only way to atone for being occasionally a little over-dressed is by being always absolutely over-educated.”

 

“Divorces are made in Heaven.”

 

“It is absurd to have a hard and fast rule about what one should read and what one shouldn’t. More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn’t read.”

 

“Relations are simply a tedious pack of people, who haven’t got the remotest knowledge of how to live, nor the smallest instinct about when to die.”

 

“Memory is the diary that we all carry about with us.”

 

“This suspense is terrible. I hope it will last.”

 

“I always pass on good advice. It is the only thing to do with it. It is never of any use to oneself.”

 

“Fashion is what one wears oneself. What is unfashionable is what other people wear.”

 

“The only possible society is oneself.”

 

“However, it is always nice to be expected, and not to arrive.”

 

“I have said to you to speak the truth is a painful thing. To be forced to tell lies is much worse.”

 

“Only good questions deserve good answers.”

 

“It seems to me that we all look at Nature too much, and live with her too little.”

 

“The supreme vice is shallowness.”

 

“We are the zanies of sorrow. We are clowns whose hearts are broken.”

 

“When one has weighed the sun in the balance, and measured the steps of the moon, and mapped out the seven heavens, there still remains oneself. Who can calculate the orbit of his own soul?”

 

“For a sentimentalist is simply one who desires to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it.”

 

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John Madera's fiction may be found in Conjunctions, Opium Magazine, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His criticism may be found in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, John Madera lives in New York City, where he runs Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.

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