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Six - Oscar Wilde

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  29 February 2024

Olga Vainshtein
Affiliation:
Russian State University for the Humanities, Moscow
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Summary

Oscar Wilde: The Dandy-Aesthete

‘A really well-made buttonhole is the only link between Art and Nature.’

‘The first duty of life is to be as artificial as possible. What the second duty is no one as yet discovered.’

‘Nothing that actually occurs is of the smallest importance.’

‘The only way to atone for being occasionally a little overdressed is by being always absolutely over-educated.’

‘No crime is vulgar, but all vulgarity is crime.’

‘One should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art.’

‘Wickedness is a myth invented by good people to account for the curious attractiveness of others.’

‘To love oneself is the beginning of a life-long romance.’

‘In all unimportant matters, style, not sincerity, is the essential. In all important matters, style, not sincerity, is the essential.’

Penning his provocative aphorisms, Oscar Wilde set out to shock bourgeois society with his manifesto of a self-confident Aesthete. Perhaps unexpectedly for him, however, longstanding associations with the genre came into play, with readers seeing the aphorisms as stemming from a solid cultural tradition. British humour had long sanctioned light-hearted sarcasm even on the gravest of topics, and the witticisms of high-society eccentrics were accepted as a necessary rhetorical accompaniment to the ceremonial rituals of salon conversation.

Aphorisms concerning fashion, naturally, also possessed their own associations: through George Brummell and his undying fame, they were commonly linked with early nineteenth-century dandyism. In fashionable novels and treatises, large collections of maxims on good taste and the art of dress did not appear out of place. With its laconic form, which suited the dandy principle of minimal energy expenditure, the aphorism was seen as the perfect dandy genre. Wilde, furthermore, contrived to lend dandy aphorisms a new air of conceptual elegance and philosophical paradox. Inspired by the works of Walter Pater and John Ruskin, he attempted to render their ideas on pure art through more accessible expressions, thought-provoking, yet entertaining. Encountering his maxims, even the poorly educated paused to think. The amusing nature of his paradoxes caused readers’ attention to focus, whilst relaxing at the same time.

In any paradox, one encounters a counterpoint, a meeting of conflicting interpretations. As many of Wilde's aphorisms are uttered by his characters, the possibility of multi-layered readings is infinitely multiplied. Creating a deliberate distance between himself and the speaker, Wild plants his paradoxes in ambiguous style.

Type
Chapter
Information
Fashioning the Dandy
Style and Manners
, pp. 145 - 162
Publisher: Anthem Press
Print publication year: 2023

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