Oscar Wilde? G. K. Chesterson? Richard G. Moulton? Coulson Kernahan? William Thomas Stead? Richard Le Gallienne? C. Ranger Gull? Leonard Cresswell Ingleby? Guy Thorne? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: The contemplation of a seemingly self-contradictory statement can help to illuminate a larger truth. This notion may be expressed with figurative language:
Paradox is merely truth standing on its head to attract attention.
The famous Irish wit Oscar Wilde and the English literary figure G. K. Chesterton have received credit for this remark. Would you please explore this topic?
Quote Investigator: The earliest close match known to QI appeared in April 1898 within the London periodical “The Review of Reviews” edited by William Thomas Stead. A piece titled “The Jubilee of the Awakening of 1848” that was probably written by the editor began with the following discussion. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1
“Success is a bad word!” said Victor Hugo once in his magnificently paradoxical fashion. “Success is a bad word. Its false resemblance to merit deceives mankind.” Richard Le Gallienne, who has recently been airing his ambrosial locks in the heated air of American lecture-rooms, once told his audience that “a paradox was a truth standing on its head in order to attract attention.” Victor Hugo’s paradox is a truth that hardly needs to be stood on its head to command attention.
QI believes that English author Richard Le Gallienne is the leading candidate for crafter of this expression. Le Gallienne was a close friend of Oscar Wilde. Further below in this article QI presents a 1923 citation in which Le Gallienne took credit for this saying, and he applied it to Oscar Wilde.
The attribution of this saying to Wilde may have occurred due to the following known misquotation mechanism: A well-known name appears near a vivid statement, and a careless reader incorrectly reassigns the statement to the prominent person.
G. K. Chesterton employed an instance of this saying in a 1935 short story. Chesterton’s story narrator disclaimed credit for the remark. Details are given further below.
The attribution to Chesterton may have occurred due to the following known misquotation mechanism: A famous person uses a quotation which is already in circulation. A cavalier reader reassigns the quotation to the famous person.
Here are additional selected citations and comments.
In 1888 the phrase “Truth standing on its head” was employed during a parliamentary session in New South Wales, Australia, but the phrase simply referred to telling falsehoods: 2
Mr. MELVILLE: The Secretary for Mines is in the habit of implying what is not absolutely true—truth inverted—whenever he gets the opportunity. He is in the habit of giving the truth upside down whenever he can.
Mr. T. WALKER: Truth standing on its head.
In 1895 Richard G. Moulton who was a Professor of English at The University of Chicago crafted an intriguing precursor of the quotation. Moulton edited and introduced a collection titled “Four Years of Novel Reading: An Account of an Experiment in Popularizing the Study of Fiction”. His introduction extolled the merit of writing and reading fiction. He suggested that a biography was limited to presenting the facts of a single life, but a novel depicted a composite life with carefully fashioned details imbued with meaning: 3
The biography is the single specimen, and its gold is diluted with three times its weight of alloy; the truer novel is gold only, and gold from a hundred mines.
This contention that fiction is truer than fact will be called a paradox. But it is none the worse for that: a paradox is simply a truth standing on tiptoe to make itself seen; once recognized, the truth may descend to plain statement. Stripped of paradoxical form our principle comes to this: fiction is truer—or falser—than fact, but in any case more potent.
Moulton’s bon mot placed truth “on tiptoes” instead of “upside down”. In addition, truth was trying to “make itself seen” instead of trying to “attract attention”. QI conjectures that this witticism inspired the construction of the statement under examination.
In June 1895 “The Free Review” of London published “Oscar Wilde: A Literary Appreciation” by music critic Ernest Newman who included a different figurative description of paradox: 4
To hear one of Mr. Wilde’s paradoxes by itself is to be startled; to read them in their proper context is to recognise the great fact on which I have already insisted, that a paradox is a truth seen round a corner. There is not one of the paradoxes that does not argue out straightly and squarely, and we rise from the perusal of them with a self-conscious wisdom that we had not before.
In June 1895 “The Literary Digest” of New York published a review of “Four Years of Novel Reading”, and the reviewer was impressed by the introduction. A lengthy excerpt was reprinted, and Moulton’s clever phrase achieved wider distribution: 5
This contention that fiction is truer than fact will be called a paradox. But it is none the worse for that; a paradox is simply a truth standing on tiptoe to make itself seen . . .
In April 1898 Richard Le Gallienne received credit for the target quotation within the pages of “The Review of Reviews” as noted previously in this article:
Richard Le Gallienne, who has recently been airing his ambrosial locks in the heated air of American lecture-rooms, once told his audience that “a paradox was a truth standing on its head in order to attract attention.”
In February 1900 “The Graphic: An Illustrated Weekly Newspaper” discussed a book titled “Miss Malevolent”. The book was dedicated to Le Gallienne, and the anonymous author was later revealed to be journalist C. Ranger Gull: 6
But the book contains many better things even than good puns—even than bad puns, which are notoriously better still. For example—“Paradox is only truth standing on its head to attract attention,” is an exact definition very wittily turned.
In 1902 “The St James’s Gazette” of London printed a column of sayings which included the following three items: 7
Knowledge consists in having a clerk who can find the thing.
There comes a time when a woman must confess that she is thirty-nine.
Paradox is truth standing on its head to attract attention.
In June 1902 “The Athenaeum” published a book review of G. K. Chesterton’s “The Defendant”. The reviewer employed the saying while giving it an anonymous attribution: 8
Paradox ought to be used, like onions, to season the salad. Mr. Chesterton’s salad is all onions. Paradox has been defined as “Truth standing on her head to attract attention.” Mr. Chesterton makes Truth cut her throat to attract attention
In 1903 Moulton’s remark continued to circulate. “The Park Review” of Parkview, Missouri printed an article containing the following: 9
As Aristotle puts it, it is not the function of the poet to tell what has happened, but what may happen. Hence he asserts, and fairly, that poetry is truer than history. A paradox, perhaps, but none the less true on that account. As Prof. R. G. Moulton says, “a paradox is only a truth standing on tiptoe to make itself seen.”
In 1907 the pseudonymous Leonard Cresswell Ingleby published a biography titled “Oscar Wilde”. The author was later revealed to be journalist C. Ranger Gull. The book included the saying, but it was not ascribed to Wilde: 10
Yet, the condemnation of their teaching can hardly be too severe. With every wish in the world to realise that a paradox is only a truth standing on its head to attract attention . . .
In 1908 “The New York Times” printed a letter from a correspondent who employed the saying with an anonymous attribution: 11
Somebody has defined paradox as “truth standing on her head to attract attention.”
In 1909 the pseudonymous Guy Thorne published “The Socialist”. The author was later revealed to be the prolific C. Ranger Gull. The saying was applied to one of the book’s characters: 12
Fantastic paradox was his chief weapon, and many people did not realise his own point of view, which defined paradox as simply truth standing on its head to attract attention.
In 1917 Coulson Kernahan tentatively attributed the saying to editor William Thomas Stead, but Stead had credited Le Gallienne back in 1898: 13
Was it not Mr. Stead who defined paradox as a truth standing on its head? Wilde’s aim in paradox was so to manipulate truth and falsehood as to make the result startle one by appearing to reverse the existing standard.
In 1918 “Cartoons Magazine” of Chicago, Illinois cautiously attributed the saying to C. Ranger Gull: 14
And after all, as Ranger Gull I think once said, a paradox is truth standing on its head to attract attention.
In 1923 Richard Le Gallienne wrote the introduction to the first volume of “The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde”. Le Gallienne credited himself with the saying: 15
I have elsewhere defined Wilde’s favourite form of wit, the paradox, as Truth standing on its head to attract attention. Wilde, as one of the greatest advertisers of all time, realized that the great need of truth is advertisement. No mere placid, or even vehement, statement of a truth will ever gain the circulation that can be given it by a witty phrase.
In 1935 G. K. Chesterton published the short story “When Doctors Agree” in “Harper’s Magazine” of New York. The saying appeared with an anonymous attribution: 16
Mr. Pond’s paradoxes were of a very peculiar kind. They were indeed paradoxical defiances even of the law of paradox. Paradox has been defined as “Truth standing on her head to attract attention.” Paradox has been defended, on the ground that so many fashionable fallacies still stand firmly on their feet, because they have no heads to stand on.
In 1937 Chesterton’s story containing the saying was reprinted in his collection called “The Paradoxes of Mr Pond”; hence, the phrase was further connected to Chesterton’s name, and it achieved additional distribution. 17
In 1951 Richard Le Gallienne’s book “The Romantic ’90s” was posthumously republished. Le Gallienne applied the saying to his friend Oscar Wilde while crediting himself with its coinage: 18
He employed exaggeration merely as a means of conveying his intellectual sincerity, and, as I once said, paradox with him was merely Truth standing on its head to attract attention. Behind all his humorous fopperies there was a serious philosophy, as beneath all the surface sophistication there was the deep and simple heart of a poet.
In conclusion, Richard Le Gallienne received credit for this saying in the earliest citation in 1898, and QI believes he is the most likely creator. Richard G. Moulton published a thematic precursor in 1895, and QI conjectures that Le Gallienne was influenced by this earlier statement. G. K. Chesterson and others used the saying after it was already in circulation. QI has found no substantive evidence that Oscar Wilde employed this expression; instead, it was applied to him by Le Gallienne.
Image Notes: Public domain image of Penrose triangle. Image has been duplicated and rotated.
(Great thanks to Christina Sonas whose email led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Sonas located the important 1898 citation. Thanks also to researcher Nigel Rees who mentioned the instance in Le Gallienne’s “The Romantic Nineties” within his reference “Cassell’s Humorous Quotations”.)
- 1898 April, The Review of Reviews, Volume 17, Edited by W. T. Stead (William Thomas Stead), Section: The Topic of the Month, Article: The Jubilee of the Awakening of 1848, Start Page 339, Quote Page 339, Column 1, Published at the Office of the Review of Reviews, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link ↩
- Parliamentary Debates: New South Wales, Session: 1887-1888, Legislative Assembly, Date: February 7, 1888, Examiner of Coal-fields, Quote Page 2390, Column 2, Charles Potter, Government Printer, Sydney, Australia. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1895, Four Years of Novel Reading: An Account of an Experiment in Popularizing the Study of Fiction Edited by Richard G. Moulton (Professor of Literature in English at The University of Chicago), Introduction: The Study of Fiction by Richard G. Moulton, Start Page 1, Quote Page 6, D. C. Heath & Company, Boston. Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1895 June 1, The Free Review, Volume 4, Oscar Wilde: A Literary Appreciation by Ernest Newman, Start Page 193, Quote Page 197, Swan Sonnenschein Company, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1895 June 22, The Literary Digest, Volume 11, Number 8, Section: Letters and Art, The Value of Fiction, Start Page 221, Quote Page 222, Funk & Wagnalls Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1900 February 10, The Graphic: An Illustrated Weekly Newspaper, New Novels, (Discussion of “Miss Malevolent” by Anonymous), Quote Page 26 (210), Column 1 and 2, London, England. (British Newspaper Archive) ↩
- 1902 May 9, The St James’s Gazette, Salt and Sincerity, Quote Page 13, Column 1, London, England. (British Newspaper Archive) ↩
- 1902 June 14, The Athenaeum, (Book Review by Brimley Johnson, G. K. Chesterton’s “The Defendant”), Start Page 746, Quote Page 747, Published at The Office by John C. Francis, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1903 July, The Park Review, Volume 4, Number 4, The Historical Value of the Greek Poets by Roy Vernon Magers (Paper read before the Historical Club of Park College), Start Page 154, Quote Page 155, The Review Publishing Company, Parkview, Missouri. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1907, Oscar Wilde by Leonard Cresswell Ingleby (pseudonym), Part VII: The Philosophy of Beauty, Quote Page 350, T. Werner Laurie, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1908 October 31, The New York Times, Is Mark Twain Greatest Ever?: Daring Correspondent Seems to Question Verdict Delivered by Yale and Columbia Professors of Literature (Letter from J.W.A. of Berkeley Institute, Brooklyn), Quote Page BR643, Column 2, New York. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1909, The Socialist by Guy Thorne (pseudonym for C. Ranger Gull), Chapter V: “To Inaugurate a Revolution!”, Quote Page 58, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York and London. (HathiTrust Full View) link ↩
- 1917, In Good Company: Some Personal Recollections of Swinburne, Lord Roberts, Watts-Dunton, Oscar Wilde, Edward Whymper, S. J. Stone, Stephen Phillips by Coulson Kernahan, Chapter Oscar Wilde, Start Page 189, Quote Page 215, John Lane, The Bodley Head, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link ↩
- 1918 May, Cartoons Magazine, Volume 13, Number 5, “G.B.S.” Tells Why the Allies Will Win, Start Page 650, Quote Page 650, Column 2, H. H. Windsor, Editor and Publisher, Chicago, Illinois. (HathiTrust Full View) link ↩
- 1923, The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, Volume 1: Poems, Introduction by Richard Le Gallienne, Start Page xiii (13), Quote Page xlviii (48), Doubleday, Page & Company, Garden City, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link ↩
- 1935 August, Harper’s Magazine, When Doctors Agree by G. K. Chesterton, Start Page 329, Quote Page 329, Harper and Brothers Publishers, New York. (Online archive at harpers.org) link ↩
- 1937, The Paradoxes of Mr Pond by G. K. Chesterton, Story: When Doctors Agree, (No Page Numbers), eBook No.: 0500421h, Original Publisher: Cassell & Company, London. (Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook ) ↩
- 1951, The Romantic ’90s by Richard Le Gallienne, Quote Page 149, Published by Putnam & Company, London. (First published 1926; new edition 1951) (Verified on paper) ↩