Oscar Wilde Will Not Be Automated

Or, why there’s no hack for Algernon and Jack

If, with the literate, I am

Impelled to try an epigram,

I never seek to take the credit;

We all assume that Oscar said it.

Dorothy Parker

The genius of Oscar Wilde speaks for itself — and sometimes, it sounds awfully familiar. The Irish playwright had a knack for deflating conventions of the Victorian age, and that knack became his trademark.  This is particularly evident in his conversational epigrams, those clever sentences that when lined up start to seem very formulaic.

Consider:

  • “There are a hundred things I want not to say to you.”

  • “He hasn’t a single redeeming vice.”

  • “One of those characteristic British faces that once seen are never remembered.”

  • “Work is the curse of the drinking classes.”

  • “Punctuality is the thief of time.”

Why, it’s almost as if you can take a common expression, flip it upside down, and present it as a counterintuitive observation. You could create a @Wildebot to crawl Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations and spit out wit. (If they can do it for Bach ….) I originally made this observation in Elements of Wit but it wasn’t original.

According to Jure Gantar’s book The Evolution of Wilde’s Wit, that honour goes to the anonymous wag writing in the 1895 London magazine Truth, who suggested that one might “design an apparatus for turning out ‘Oscarisms’ automatically. We might put our pennies in the slot, press a button, and draw out ‘Wilde’ paradoxes by the yard.”

Grumpy critic Arthur Bingham Walkley wrote, “After half-a-dozen or so, anyone can see through the trick; and when they cease to surprise, they cease to amuse.”

In the words of grumpier critic Clement Scott,  “Cleverness nowadays is nothing but elaborate contradiction, and the man or woman who can say that black is white or white is black in a fanciful fashion is considered a genius.”

So everybody seems capable of spotting the formula, and if there’s a formula for Wilde’s work it can’t be that clever. And yet it is. Enough of Wilde’s epigrams worked to make him immortal. This Guardian analysis of his top 50 most remembered epigrams demonstrates an exceptionally high batting average.

The lesson here: Wilde made writing witty things look easy, and so it naturally but incorrectly follows that it is easy. The best proof that it’s not easy came from Wilde’s contemporary George Bernard Shaw in his review of An Ideal Husband:

“Mr. Oscar Wilde’s new play at the Haymarket is a dangerous subject, because he has the property of making his critics dull. They laugh angrily at his epigrams, like a child who is coaxed into being amused in the very act of setting up a yell of rage and agony. They protest that the trick is obvious, and that such epigrams can be turned out by the score by anyone lightminded enough to condescend to such frivolity. As far as I can ascertain, I am the only person in London who cannot sit down and write an Oscar Wilde play at will. The fact that his plays, though apparently lucrative, remain unique under these circumstances, says much for the self-denial of our scribes.”

So go ahead and harness machine learning to build the Wilde-o-Matic 9000, smart guy. We’re waiting, pennies in hand.


Quick quips; lightning

“Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.”

— H. L. Mencken

This is the rare zinger that soothes; think of it whenever you see a news item about the moronic powers that be and know that it was always thus.

“Outside every thin woman is a fat man trying to get in.”

— Katharine Whitehorn

To make it as a female columnist on 1960s Fleet Street, Whitehorn (1928-) had to be sharper than her peers. Here she took Cyril Connolly’s observation that “inside every fat man is a thin one signalling wildly to get out” and put a much finer point on it.

“You had to stand in line to hate him.”

— Hedda Hopper 

It’s unclear exactly who gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (1885-1966) said this about; Hollywood’s golden age apparently produced a surplus of abhorrent producers.