The Moment You Think You Understand a Great Work of Art, It’s Dead for You

Oscar Wilde? Robert Wilson? Apocryphal?
Question for Quote Investigator: Major works of art are complex, ambiguous, and difficult to interpret. The vitality of a piece is compromised when a single meaning is imposed on it. Apparently, an artist once said something like this:

The moment you understand a great work of art, it’s dead for you.

This remark has been attributed to the famous Irish wit Oscar Wilde and the prominent U.S. theater director Robert Wilson. I am skeptical of the linkage to Wilde. Would you please help me to find the correct ascription together with a citation?

Reply from Quote Investigator: The earliest match known to QI appeared in “The New York Times” in May 1990. The article reported on a new experimental production of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” in Frankfurt, Germany helmed by Robert Wilson who was described as “the P. T. Barnum of the avant-garde”. Wilson employed the quotation while discussing “King Lear”. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:[1] 1990 May 20, New York Times, ‘Lear’ Girds for a Remarkable Episode by Arthur Holmberg, Quote Page H7, Column 1, New York. (ProQuest)

“The work is a hall of mirrors, and the kaleidoscope of reflections intrigues me. Another reason I want to do the play is because we don’t understand it. The moment you think you understand a great work of art, it’s dead for you.”

QI has found no evidence that Oscar Wilde employed this expression. The quotation does not appear in “The Wit & Wisdom of Oscar Wilde” compiled by Ralph Keyes,[2]1996, The Wit & Wisdom of Oscar Wilde, Compiled by Ralph Keyes, Note: Quotation with phrase “dead for you” was absent in this reference, HarperCollins Publishers, New York. (Verified … Continue reading nor does it occur in “Oscar Wilde in Quotation: 3,100 Insults, Anecdotes, and Aphorisms” compiled by Tweed Conrad.[3]2006, Oscar Wilde in Quotation: 3,100 Insults, Anecdotes, and Aphorisms, Topically Arranged with Attributions, Compiled and edited by Tweed Conrad, Note: Quotation with phrase “dead for … Continue reading

QI presents a conjecture about the genesis of the misattribution to Oscar Wilde in the full article which is available on the Medium website located here.

References

References
1 1990 May 20, New York Times, ‘Lear’ Girds for a Remarkable Episode by Arthur Holmberg, Quote Page H7, Column 1, New York. (ProQuest)
2 1996, The Wit & Wisdom of Oscar Wilde, Compiled by Ralph Keyes, Note: Quotation with phrase “dead for you” was absent in this reference, HarperCollins Publishers, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)
3 2006, Oscar Wilde in Quotation: 3,100 Insults, Anecdotes, and Aphorisms, Topically Arranged with Attributions, Compiled and edited by Tweed Conrad, Note: Quotation with phrase “dead for you” was absent in this reference, McFarland & Company Inc., Jefferson, North Carolina. (Verified with scans)

Everything Will Be OK in the End. If It’s Not OK It’s Not the End

John Lennon? Oscar Wilde? Fernando Sabino? Paulo Coelho? Domingos Sabino? Anonymous?

Question for Quote Investigator: Here are three versions of a popular remark that reflects an unwaveringly upbeat perspective on life:

(1) Everything is OK in the end; if it’s not OK it’s not the end.
(2) Everything is going to be fine in the end. If it’s not fine it’s not the end.
(3) Everything will be all right in the end; so if it is not all right, it is not yet the end.

This saying has been attributed to the well-known Irish wit Oscar Wilde, the famous English musician John Lennon, the prominent Brazilian writer Fernando Sabino, the best-selling Brazilian author Paulo Coelho, and other individuals. The statement has also been credited to the 1999-2005 U.S. television series “Judging Amy” and the 2011 U.K. film “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”. I have not seen any convincing evidence identifying the origin. Would you please explore this topic?

Reply from Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in the 1988 Brazilian Portuguese book “O tabuleiro de damas” (“The checkerboard”) by Fernando Sabino. The author ascribed the saying to his father Domingos Sabino. Here is the key passage followed by a translation into English. Boldface added to excepts by QI:[1]1988 Copyright, O tabuleiro de damas (The Checkerboard) by Fernando Sabino, Chapter: VIVÊNCIA, Quote Page 79, Publisher: Editora Record, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Verified with scans; thanks to … Continue reading

O melhor, talvez, que me lembre, foi o que me disse um dia em que me encontrou entregue à aflição de espírito: “Meu filho, tudo no fim dá certo. Se não deu, é porque ainda não chegou ao fim.”

Perhaps the best thing that I can remember is what he said to me one day when he found me in the grip of a mental affliction: “My son, everything works out in the end. If it didn’t, it’s because it hasn’t come to an end yet.”

The earliest attributions to Oscar Wilde and John Lennon occurred posthumously. Thus, those linkages were probably spurious. The first attribution to Paulo Coelho occurred many years after 1988. Evidence supports the presence of the adage in “Judging Amy” and “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”, but the saying was already in circulation.

Additional detailed information is available in the Quote Investigator article on the Medium website which is available here.

References

References
1 1988 Copyright, O tabuleiro de damas (The Checkerboard) by Fernando Sabino, Chapter: VIVÊNCIA, Quote Page 79, Publisher: Editora Record, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Verified with scans; thanks to Laurence Horn and the Sterling Memorial Library at Yale University)

Consistency Is the Last Refuge of the Unimaginative

Oscar Wilde? James McNeill Whistler? Ralph Waldo Emerson? Apocryphal?

Question for Quote Investigator: Being consistent is important in life. Yet, additional knowledge and experience motivates new thoughts and behaviors. The following adage criticizes the straitjacket of excessive consistency:

Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.

The famous Irish wit Oscar Wilde has received credit for this saying. Would you please explore this topic?

Reply from Quote Investigator: In 1885 Oscar Wilde published an essay about the prominent painter James McNeill Whistler in “The Pall Mall Gazette” of London. Wilde contended that the philosophy of painting propounded by Whistler was inconsistent with the artworks he was creating. But Wilde was eager to forgive this lapse. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:[1]1885 February 28, The Pall Mall Gazette, The Relation of Dress To Art: A Note in Black and White on Mr. Whistler’s Lecture by Mr. Oscar Wilde, Quote Page 4, Column 2, London, England. (British … Continue reading

Nor do I feel quite sure that Mr. Whistler has been himself always true to the dogma he seems to lay down, that a painter should only paint the dress of his age, and of his actual surroundings: far be it from me to burden a butterfly with the heavy responsibility of its past: I have always been of opinion that consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative: but have we not all seen, and most of us admired, a picture from his hand of exquisite English girls strolling by an opal sea in the fantastic dresses of Japan? Has not Tite-street been thrilled with the tidings that the models of Chelsea were posing to the master, in peplums, for pastels?

Whatever comes from Mr. Whistler’s brush is far too perfect in its loveliness, to stand, or fall, by any intellectual dogmas on art, even by his own: for Beauty is justified of all her children, and cares nothing for explanations.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Consistency Is the Last Refuge of the Unimaginative

References

References
1 1885 February 28, The Pall Mall Gazette, The Relation of Dress To Art: A Note in Black and White on Mr. Whistler’s Lecture by Mr. Oscar Wilde, Quote Page 4, Column 2, London, England. (British Newspaper Archive)

Nothing Succeeds Like Undress

Dorothy Parker? Oscar Wilde? Alexandre Dumas? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: While streaming an elaborately expensive television series I encountered a gratuitous scene with scanty clothing. I was reminded of this witticism: Nothing succeeds like undress.

This quip has been attributed to Dorothy Parker. Would you please explore the provenance of this remark?

Quote Investigator: The earliest close match located by QI appeared in January 1906 in a New Castle, Pennsylvania newspaper within a column featuring miscellaneous comical remarks. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:[1] 1906 January 1, New Castle Herald, Scissorings, Quote Page 6, Column 5, New Castle, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)

Motto for Ladies at the Opera—Nothing succeeds like undress.—Town Topics.

Thus, the creator was anonymous. Dorothy Parker used this quip in 1918 after it was already in circulation. Here is an overview with dates of the pertinent family of sayings:

1827: Rien ne réussit comme un succès.(Jacques-François Ancelot)

1847 Nov: Nothing succeeds like success. (English translation of Alexandre Dumas)

1893: Nothing succeeds like excess. (Oscar Wilde)

1904 Mar: Nothing recedes like success. (Anonymous)

1904 Nov: Nothing recedes like ex-success. (Duncan M. Smith)

1906 Jan: Nothing succeeds like undress. (Anonymous)

1918 Apr: Nothing succeeds like undress. (Dorothy Parker)

A separate Quote Investigator article centered on the saying “Nothing succeeds like success” is available here.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Nothing Succeeds Like Undress

References

References
1 1906 January 1, New Castle Herald, Scissorings, Quote Page 6, Column 5, New Castle, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)

Be Moderate In Everything Including Moderation

Mark Twain? Oscar Wilde? Socrates? Nancy Weber? Judy Tillinger? Horace Porter? J. F. Carter? Gaius Petronius Arbiter? James Ogilvy? Thomas Paine? Voltaire? Richard A. Posner? Benjamin Franklin? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The ancient Greek poet Hesiod stated:[1] 2008, Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs, Fifth Edition, Edited by Jennifer Speake, Entry: Moderation in all things, Quote Page 213, Oxford University Press, New York. (Verified with scans)

Observe due measure; moderation is best in all things.

An extended version of this statement has been attributed to many famous people including Socrates, Oscar Wilde, Benjamin Franklin, Voltaire, and Mark Twain. Here are two versions:

(1) All things in moderation, including moderation.
(2) Be moderate in everything, including moderation.

I am skeptical about all these ascriptions for the extended statement. Would you please explore this topic, and help me to find solid citations?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive support for attributing this extended statement to any of the five people listed above. It is difficult to trace.

A collection based on ancient Greek poetry titled “Pagan Pictures” contained a pertinent four line verse called “Moderation”. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:[2]1927, Pagan Pictures: Freely Translated and Fully Expanded from the Greek Anthology & the Greek Lyrical Poets by Wallace Rice, Quote Page 153, Boni & Liveright, New York. (Verified with … Continue reading

Nothing too much, doth Chilo say?
Be moderate despite temptation?
Aye; moderate in every way
Be moderate in moderation.

The biographical notes for “Pagan Pictures” stated that the material was based on the Planudean anthology, the Palatine anthology, and epigrams transcribed from ancient monuments. “Pagan Pictures” was published in 1927, and the collection did not specify an author or provide a precise citation for the verse “Moderation”. Thus, its provenance and date remain uncertain.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Be Moderate In Everything Including Moderation

References

References
1 2008, Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs, Fifth Edition, Edited by Jennifer Speake, Entry: Moderation in all things, Quote Page 213, Oxford University Press, New York. (Verified with scans)
2 1927, Pagan Pictures: Freely Translated and Fully Expanded from the Greek Anthology & the Greek Lyrical Poets by Wallace Rice, Quote Page 153, Boni & Liveright, New York. (Verified with scans; thanks to the University of North Carolina library system)

I Have Nothing To Declare Except My Genius

Oscar Wilde? Stuart Mason? Christopher Sclater Millard? Robert Ross? Elizabeth P. O’Connor? Arthur Ransome? Frank Harris? Sylvestre Dorian? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: According to legend, the famous wit Oscar Wilde delivered a comically audacious line when he first entered the United States during his lecture tour. A customs official in New York asked him if he had anything to declare, and he supposedly replied:

I have nothing to declare but my genius.

Would you please explore the provenance of this remark?

Quote Investigator: Oscar Wilde entered New York in January 1882. Yet, the earliest evidence of the quip known to QI appeared in 1910. The phrasing has varied over time. Often it has been presented from a third person perspective. Here is a summary with dates:

1910: I have nothing to declare except my genius
1912: He had nothing to declare except his genius
1912: He had nothing to declare but his genius
1913: I have nothing to declare but my genius
1917: He had nothing to declare save his genius
1917: He had nothing to declare but genius
1918: Nothing—except—my genius
1923: Only my genius
1925: Nothing but my genius
1934: I have nothing but my genius to declare

The remark appeared within “The Oscar Wilde Calendar” of 1910 compiled by Stuart Mason, a pseudonym for Christopher Sclater Millard. For each day of the year a quotation ascribed to Wilde was presented, and the following appeared for January 4th. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:[1]1910, The Oscar Wilde Calendar: A Quotation from the Works of Oscar Wilde for Every Day in the Year with Some Unrecorded Sayings Selected by Stuart Mason (Christopher Sclater Millard), Quotation for … Continue reading

At the New York Custom House: “I have nothing to declare except my genius.”

Millard mentioned Robert Ross in the acknowledgement section of the calendar. Ross was a close friend and literary executor of Wilde. He may have supplied the quotation to Millard:[2]1910, The Oscar Wilde Calendar: A Quotation from the Works of Oscar Wilde for Every Day in the Year with Some Unrecorded Sayings Selected by Stuart Mason, Section: Acknowledgement, Quote Page 91, … Continue reading

Many quotations are made from works little known to the general reader. Some are taken from unpublished manuscripts, others are traditional. For many of the latter the compiler is indebted to the courtesy of Mr Robert Ross.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading I Have Nothing To Declare Except My Genius

References

References
1 1910, The Oscar Wilde Calendar: A Quotation from the Works of Oscar Wilde for Every Day in the Year with Some Unrecorded Sayings Selected by Stuart Mason (Christopher Sclater Millard), Quotation for January Four, Quote Page 7, Frank Palmer, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link
2 1910, The Oscar Wilde Calendar: A Quotation from the Works of Oscar Wilde for Every Day in the Year with Some Unrecorded Sayings Selected by Stuart Mason, Section: Acknowledgement, Quote Page 91, Frank Palmer, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link

I Drink To Keep Body and Soul Apart

Oscar Wilde? Seamus Heaney? Dorothy Parker? Israel Zangwill? Jen Kirkman? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The body and the soul separate at the time of death according to many religious systems. Hence, the idiom “keep body and soul together” refers to maintaining life, i.e., earning enough money to maintain health and activity. The famous Irish wit Oscar Wilde has received credit for a reversal of the idiom. Here are two versions:

(1) I drink to keep body and soul apart.
(2) I drink to separate my body from my soul.

I am skeptical because I have not seen a good citation. Would you please explore this saying?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence supporting the ascription to Oscar Wilde. It is not listed in the compendium “Oscar Wilde in Quotation: 3,100 Insults, Anecdotes, and Aphorisms”.[1]2006, Oscar Wilde in Quotation: 3,100 Insults, Anecdotes, and Aphorisms, Topically Arranged with Attributions, Compiled and edited by Tweed Conrad, (There is no quotation using “body and … Continue reading Also, it does not appear in researcher Ralph Keyes’s collection “The Wit & Wisdom of Oscar Wilde”.[2]1996, The Wit & Wisdom of Oscar Wilde, Edited by Ralph Keyes, (There is no quotation using “body and soul” and “drink / drank” in this book), HarperCollins Publishers, New … Continue reading

Wilde died in 1900, and the earliest match located by QI appeared in “The Boston Globe” in 1981. The newspaper published a profile of Irish poet and translator Seamus Heaney who later received the Nobel Prize in Literature. Heaney told the “Globe” journalist that Wilde crafted the saying. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:[3]1981 February 26, The Boston Globe, Poet Seamus Heaney: This most rooted of men, bard of the Irish soul by Shaun O’Connell (Special to The Globe), Quote Page 53, Column 3, Boston, … Continue reading

He is particularly at ease in his own kitchen, brewing a fresh pot of tea, slicing bread for a guest, talking. He is not, I rush to add, exactly uncomfortable hunched over a pint in a pub, talking.

“Do know that Oscar Wilde said he drank to keep body and soul apart? That’s good, isn’t it?”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading I Drink To Keep Body and Soul Apart

References

References
1 2006, Oscar Wilde in Quotation: 3,100 Insults, Anecdotes, and Aphorisms, Topically Arranged with Attributions, Compiled and edited by Tweed Conrad, (There is no quotation using “body and soul” and “drink” or “drank” in this book), McFarland & Company Inc., Jefferson, North Carolina. (Verified with scans)
2 1996, The Wit & Wisdom of Oscar Wilde, Edited by Ralph Keyes, (There is no quotation using “body and soul” and “drink / drank” in this book), HarperCollins Publishers, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)
3 1981 February 26, The Boston Globe, Poet Seamus Heaney: This most rooted of men, bard of the Irish soul by Shaun O’Connell (Special to The Globe), Quote Page 53, Column 3, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest)

Salary Is No Object; I Want Only Enough To Keep Body and Soul Apart

Dorothy Parker? Alexander Woollcott? Israel Zangwill? Oscar Wilde? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The body and the soul separate at the time of death according to many religious systems. Hence, the idiom “keep body and soul together” refers to maintaining life, i.e., earning enough money to maintain health and activity. A quipster once reversed this formula and said something like:

I only want enough money to keep body and soul apart.

Would you please explore the provenance of this saying?

Quote Investigator: In 1928 poet, critic, and wit Dorothy Parker published a book review in “The New Yorker” magazine which included a comical plea for employment. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:[1]1928 February 4, The New Yorker, Reading and Writing: A Good Novel, and a Great Story by Constant Reader (Dorothy Parker), Start Page 74, Quote Page 77, Column 1, F. R. Publishing Corporation, New … Continue reading

And now that this review is over, do you mind if I talk business for a moment? If you yourself haven’t any spare jobs for a retired book-reviewer, maybe some friend of yours might have something. Maybe you wouldn’t mind asking around. Salary is no object; I want only enough to keep body and soul apart.

Dorothy Parker deserves credit for the remark immediately above. Yet, this type of joke has a longer history, and an 1891 citation for author Israel Zangwill appears further below.

Here are selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Salary Is No Object; I Want Only Enough To Keep Body and Soul Apart

References

References
1 1928 February 4, The New Yorker, Reading and Writing: A Good Novel, and a Great Story by Constant Reader (Dorothy Parker), Start Page 74, Quote Page 77, Column 1, F. R. Publishing Corporation, New York. (Online New Yorker archive of digital scans)

Deep Truths Are Statements in Which the Opposite Also Contains Deep Truth

Niels Bohr? Hans Bohr? Werner Heisenberg? Oscar Wilde? Emilio Segrè? Carl Sagan? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: A famous scientist once asserted something like this:

The opposite of a deep truth is another deep truth.

Would you please help me to find a citation and the correct phrasing?

Quote Investigator: In 1949 the prominent physicist Niels Bohr published an essay titled “Discussion with Einstein on Epistemological Problems in Atomic Physics” which included a passage about “deep truths”. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:[1]1959 (1949 Copyright), Albert Einstein: Philosopher-Scientist, Edited by Paul Arthur Schilpp, Chapter 7: Discussion with Einstein On Epistemological Problems in Atomic Physics by Niels Bohr, Quote … Continue reading

In the Institute in Copenhagen, where through those years a number of young physicists from various countries came together for discussions, we used, when in trouble, often to comfort ourselves with jokes, among them the old saying of the two kinds of truth. To the one kind belong statements so simple and clear that the opposite assertion obviously could not be defended. The other kind, the so-called “deep truths,” are statements in which the opposite also contains deep truth.

Bohr labeled the remark a joke, and he used the phrase “old saying”. Thus, he disclaimed authorship; nevertheless, he usually receives credit for the statement.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order. The phrasing of this notion varies; hence, this section begins with an overview:

Continue reading Deep Truths Are Statements in Which the Opposite Also Contains Deep Truth

References

References
1 1959 (1949 Copyright), Albert Einstein: Philosopher-Scientist, Edited by Paul Arthur Schilpp, Chapter 7: Discussion with Einstein On Epistemological Problems in Atomic Physics by Niels Bohr, Quote Page 240, Harper Torchbooks, Harper & Row, New York. (Verified with scans)

A Truth in Art Is That Whose Contradictory Is Also True

Oscar Wilde? Niels Bohr? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Sometimes a narrow logical analysis is not enough to understand a topic. In the realm of art, the negation of a truth may yield another truth. The famous wit Oscar Wilde once made a claim of this type. Would you please help me to find a citation.

Quote Investigator: The 1891 book “Intentions” by Oscar Wilde contained an essay titled “The Truth of Masks” in which Wilde boldly indicated that he sometimes disagreed with himself. Boldface added to excepts by QI:[1] 1891, Intentions by Oscar Wilde, Essay: The Truth of Masks, Start Page 179, Quote Page 212, Heinemann and Balestier, Leipzig. (Google Books Full View) link

Not that I agree with everything that I have said in this essay. There is much with which I entirely disagree. The essay simply represents an artistic standpoint, and in aesthetic criticism attitude is everything. For in art there is no such thing as a universal truth. A Truth in art is that whose contradictory is also true. And just as it is only in art-criticism, and through it, that we can apprehend the Platonic theory of ideas, so it is only in art-criticism, and through it, that we can realize Hegel’s system of contraries. The truths of metaphysics are the truths of masks.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading A Truth in Art Is That Whose Contradictory Is Also True

References

References
1 1891, Intentions by Oscar Wilde, Essay: The Truth of Masks, Start Page 179, Quote Page 212, Heinemann and Balestier, Leipzig. (Google Books Full View) link
Exit mobile version