Is it a blessing or a curse to think in epigrams?
For Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), a curse during his lifetime but a blessing ever after. His insistence on offering a witty saying for every occasion hastened his legal troubles and exile but guaranteed him literary immortality.
For G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936), a blessing during his lifetime but a curse ever after. The 300-pound caped columnist produced many forests worth of copy throughout his life. His style was similar to Wilde’s, and the quality of his quips was nearly as high. But while Wilde used his wit to shake things up, Chesterton aimed to put them back into order. He argued for old ideas, which is not a good way to be remembered.
Both were famous for their use of paradox, turning phrases upside down for results that ranged from zen koans to one-liners. Quip for quip, the two men were well matched.
Whereas Wilde said:
“It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances”
“We ought to see far enough into a hypocrite to see even his sincerity.”
Wilde was all:
“Only mediocrities progress. An artist revolves in a cycle of masterpieces, the first of which is no less perfect than the last.”
“The artistic temperament is a disease that afflicts amateurs”
And Wilde’s flippant contention that:
“Life is much too important a thing to ever talk seriously about.”
Was shown religion in Chesterton’s phrasing:
“Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly”
Ultimately, both men are proof that a clever turn of phrase can lodge an idea in the mind but certainly doesn’t prove that it belongs there. To say something well is not the same as to say something good. And when you look at Chesterton’s views on Wilde, the turns of phrases end up as knots of nonsense:
“Oscar Wilde said that sunsets were not valued because we could not pay for sunsets. But Oscar Wilde was wrong; we can pay for sunsets. We can pay for them by not being Oscar Wilde.”
Uh, I guess? The lesson from the large man in the silk cape is to match style and substance. Chesterton’s best lines are those where the message is as light as the medium.
“An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.”
“I believe in getting into hot water. I think it keeps you clean.”
“It is the most sincere compliment to an author to misquote him. It means that his work has become a part of our mind and not merely of our library.”
“A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it.”
“Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.”
Quick quips; lightning
“A witty saying proves nothing.”
“The opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.”
— Niels Bohr
“The art of newspaper paragraphing is to stroke a platitude until it purrs like an epigram.”
— Don Marquis
Critics of both Wilde and Chesterton have pointed out that their lesser epigrams are a bit … mechanical. Way back in GWQ No. 2, we heard from a critic who imagined “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.”
Impossible, we blustered, under the headline “Oscar Wilde will Not Be Automated.” But that was 2019, when people shook hands and talked incessantly about the U.S. president. Things have changed!
Specifically, the Generative Pre-trained Transformer is on its third installment! Known as GPT-3, this is the open-source AI writing tool that can pretty much ace the Turing test. Given a prompt, it can spit out reams of text based on what it’s machine-learned from reading pretty much everything.
The general public can’t use GPT-3 just yet, but GPT-2 is a mere 10x worse and it’s freely available around the web. I fed it a raft of Wildeisms and ended up with a grab bag of common sense, nonsense, and maybe one line that feels like it leads somewhere. To wit:
More to come. “I may have said the same thing before,” the real Wilde admitted, “But my explanation, I am sure, will always be different.”
If I’d realized this was Get Wit Quick No. 88 going in, I probably would have dedicated it to a witty pianist like Oscar Levant or Victor Borges. 🎹 Like a good piano, please stay tuned. If my book Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting were fed to GPT, GPT would demand seconds. All of us are looking at the stars, but some of us are tapping the ♥️ below.