There Are Only Two Tragedies. One Is Not Getting What One Wants, and the Other Is Getting It

Oscar Wilde? George Bernard Shaw? Oliver Onions? Anonymous?

Quote Investigator: The psychology of human desire is paradoxical. The failure to achieve a goal can lead to unhappiness and ever despair. Yet, attaining an objective can produce an aftermath of uncertainty and lassitude. The following adage is humorous and poignant:

There are two tragedies in life—not getting what you want, and getting it.

This notion has been credited to the famous wit Oscar Wilde and the prominent playwright George Bernard Shaw. Did either of these Irishmen really employ this saying? Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: Both Wilde and Shaw used versions of this adage, but Wilde deserves credit for coinage. Oddly, the version in Shaw’s 1903 play “Man and Superman” changed over time as shown in the citations given further below.

The earliest close match known to QI appeared in the 1892 play “Lady Windermere’s Fan: A Play About a Good Woman” by Oscar Wilde. The minor character Mr. Dumby asked the character Lord Darlington whether the love he felt for Lady Windermere had ever been reciprocated. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

DUMBY
She doesn’t really love you then?

LORD DARLINGTON
No, she does not!

DUMBY
I congratulate you, my dear fellow. In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it. The last is much the worst, the last is a real tragedy! . . .

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading There Are Only Two Tragedies. One Is Not Getting What One Wants, and the Other Is Getting It

Notes:

  1. 1893 Copyright, Lady Windermere’s Fan: A Play About a Good Woman by Oscar Wilde, (Performed at St. James Theatre in London on February 22, 1892), Third Act, Quote Page 94, Elkin Mathews and John Lane, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link

Some Cause Happiness Wherever They Go; Others Whenever They Go

Oscar Wilde? Success Magazine? Olin Miller? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Individuals with energetic, warm, and joyful personalities are welcome at most gatherings, but individuals with sullen and mean-spirited dispositions are often unwelcome. This observation accords with the following insight:

Some people bring happiness wherever they go, and others whenever they leave.

This statement is usually attributed to the famous wit Oscar Wilde, but I am skeptical because I have never seen a good citation. Would you please trace this remark?

Quote Investigator: Oscar Wilde died in 1900, and QI has found no substantive evidence that he employed this saying.

The earliest close match found by QI appeared in “Success Magazine” in May 1908. The phrasing was a bit odd. The magazine printed a short item with the title “Others Whenever”: 1

Others Whenever
Some people make happiness wherever they go.

The joke was presented with an inverted ordering, To decode the humor the reader must understand the sentence after the title and then reflect back on the meaning of the title. No attribution was given for the joke.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Some Cause Happiness Wherever They Go; Others Whenever They Go

Notes:

  1. 1908 May, Success Magazine, Volume 11, Pleasantry, Quote Page 303, Column 2, The Success Company, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link

Patriotism Is the Virtue of the Vicious

Oscar Wilde? A. H. Cooper-Prichard? Alvin Redman? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The Irish playwright Oscar Wilde achieved his greatest fame in London. The historically fractured and deadly relationship between Ireland and England has led some intellectuals of the isles to adopt a skeptical attitude toward patriotic fervor. Intense emotions have been inspired by both patriotism and opposition to patriotism. The following remark has been attributed to Wilde:

Patriotism is the virtue of the vicious.

I haven’t been able to find this saying in famous wit’s oeuvre. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: Oscar Wilde died in 1900. The earliest match located by QI appeared in the 1931 book “Conversations with Oscar Wilde” by A. H. Cooper-Prichard. The author presented statements he heard spoken by Wilde during discussions and social events. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

“How is it,” I once asked him, “that people who are not possessed of a single other virtue should come out at times as patriots?”

“Exaggerated patriotism,” he answered, “is the most insincere form of self-conceit.” And at another time he said, “Patriotism is the virtue of the vicious.”

The accuracy of the quotation is based on the memory of Cooper-Prichard, and his book appeared decades after the words were spoken. Nevertheless, the citation is significant because it presents direct ear-witness testimony.

According to Cooper-Prichard another dialog reflecting Oscar Wilde’s attitude toward patriotism occurred in the early 1890s in a drawing-room in South Kensington, London: 2

AN AUNT. Oh, come, let us be patriotic!
OSCAR WILDE. ‘Let us sing unto the Lord a new song!’ and let that song be that to-day the World has become altogether too wide for mere Patriotism, which, after all, now is only the virtue of small minds.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Patriotism Is the Virtue of the Vicious

Notes:

  1. 1931, Conversations with Oscar Wilde by A. H. Cooper-Prichard (Arthur Henry Cooper-Prichard), Chapter 1: My Introduction To Oscar Wilde, Quote Page 20, Philip Allan, London. (Verified with hardcopy)
  2. 1931, Conversations with Oscar Wilde by A. H. Cooper-Prichard (Arthur Henry Cooper-Prichard), Chapter 5: Oscar Wilde at Afternoon Tea, Quote Page 99, Philip Allan, London. (Verified with hardcopy)

I Know Artists Whose Medium Is Life Itself, and Who Express the Inexpressible Without Brush, Pencil, Chisel, or Guitar

Frederick Franck? Oscar Wilde? Donna J. Stone? J. Stone? Timothy Morrissey? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Artists do not always require implements such as brushes, clay, chisels, hammers, or guitars to create works. Some artists use life itself as a medium. This fascinating notion has been expressed in a family of quotations that I have been attempting to trace. Would you be willing to help?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in the 1973 book “The Zen of Seeing: Seeing/Drawing As Meditation” by Frederick Franck. The work was extensively illustrated, and the text was handwritten. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

And yet, I know artists whose medium is Life itself, and who express the inexpressible without brush, pencil, chisel, or guitar. They neither paint nor dance. Their medium is Being. Whatever their hand touches has increased Life. They SEE and don’t have to draw. They are the artists of being alive.

Researchers would have difficulty finding the text above in a modern computer database. The handwritten text is not properly converted to searchable text by current optical character recognition algorithms. Hence, Franck’s book is in the Google Books database, but it is not searchable. QI has verified the printed text above with the handwritten text.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading I Know Artists Whose Medium Is Life Itself, and Who Express the Inexpressible Without Brush, Pencil, Chisel, or Guitar

Notes:

  1. 1973, The Zen of Seeing: Seeing/Drawing As Meditation, Drawn and Handwritten by Frederick Franck, Quote Page 129, Vintage Books, New York. (Verified with scans)

Socialism Would Take Too Many Evenings

Oscar Wilde? H. G. Wells? George Bernard Shaw? Michael Walzer? Arnold S. Kaufman? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Some forms of socialism are implemented via a participatory process. An engaged citizen would attend meetings, learn about different approaches, discuss topics, formulate policies, build consensus, and vote. These tasks can be quite laborious. Here are two versions of a critical statement:

  • Socialism would take too many evenings.
  • The trouble with socialism is that it takes up too many evenings.

This saying has been attributed to the famous wit Oscar Wilde, the science fiction author H. G. Wells, and the prominent playwright George Bernard Shaw. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: Oscar Wilde died in 1900. H. G. Wells died in 1946. G. B. Shaw died in 1950. QI has not yet found convincing evidence that this remark was made by any of these three luminaries.

The earliest match found by QI appeared in the journal “Dissent” in 1968. Political theorist Michael Walzer published “A Day in the Life of a Socialist Citizen: Two Cheers for Participatory Democracy”. Walzer asserted that: “Self-government is a very demanding and time-consuming business”, and he referred to “meetings of study groups, clubs, editorial boards, and political parties where criticism will be carried on long into the night”. Emphasis added to excerpts: 1

Socialism, Oscar Wilde once wrote, would take too many evenings. This is, it seems to me, one of the most significant criticisms of socialist theory that has ever been made. The fanciful sketch above is only intended to suggest its possible truth. Socialism’s great appeal is the prospect it holds out for the development of human capacities.

The statement attributed to Wilde was not enclosed in quotation marks; hence, it was possible that Walzer was using his own words to present a paraphrase or summary of Wilde’s viewpoint. Currently, QI does not know the underlying source, and QI hopes that this article can be used as a starting point for future researchers who will make additional advances.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Socialism Would Take Too Many Evenings

Notes:

  1. 1968 May-June, Dissent, A Day in the Life of a Socialist Citizen: Two Cheers for Participatory Democracy by Michael Walzer, Start Page 243, Quote Page 243, Dissent Publishing Corporation, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)

Success Is a Science; If You Have the Conditions, You Get the Result

Oscar Wilde? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Recently, I encountered the following bromide within a get-rich-quick self-help book:

Success is a science; if you have the conditions, you get the result.

I was astonished to find that the words were attributed to the famous wit Oscar Wilde. The websites listing the quotation were useless. None of them presented a solid citation, and skepticism is a natural response. Would you please trace this quotation?

Quote Investigator: The ascription to Oscar Wide is correct.

The U.S. actress Marie Prescott agreed to take the leading role in Oscar Wilde’s play “Vera; or, The Nihilists”. “The New York Herald” in August 1883 published a promotional piece about the upcoming production of the play within the city. The newspaper reprinted portions of a letter Wilde sent to Prescott. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

I think we must remember that no amount of advertising will make a bad play succeed, if it is not a good play well acted. I mean that one might patrol the streets of New York with a procession of vermilion caravans twice a day for six months to announce that ‘Vera’ was a great play, but if on the first night of its production the play was not a strong play, well acted, well mounted, all the advertisements in the world would avail nothing.

My name signed to a play will excite some interest in London and America. Your name as the heroine carries great weight with it. What we want to do is to have all the real conditions of success in our hands. Success is a science; if you have the conditions, you get the result. Art is the mathematical result of the emotional desire for beauty.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Success Is a Science; If You Have the Conditions, You Get the Result

Notes:

  1. 1883 August 12, The New York Herald, The Theatre: Preparations for the Approaching Musical and Dramatic Season, (Letter from Oscar Wilde to Marie Prescott), Quote Page 10, Column 4, New York, New York. (GenealogyBank)

My Idea of a Gentleman Is He Who Can Play a Cornet and Won’t

Oscar Wilde? Mark Twain? Frank Fiest? Will Rogers? Walter Armstrong? Herman Lindauer? William M. Lewis? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: What do the following musical instruments have in common: cornet, ukulele, saxophone, bagpipes, accordion, and banjo? Each of these instruments has a distinctive sound that is unpleasant to some listeners providing inspiration for a family of comical insults. Here are three typical barbs:

(1) A true gentleman is someone who knows how to play the bagpipes, and doesn’t.

(2) A considerate person is one who could play a saxophone but doesn’t wish to.

(3) A man who can play the accordion but won’t, is a good neighbor.

The well-known wits Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain have received credit for this kind of quip, but I have been unable to find any supporting citations. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in January 1917 within the pages of “The Atchison Weekly Globe” of Atchison, Kansas. A mellow brass instrument was disparaged by a joke ascribed to a local man named Frank Fiest. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Frank Fiest: “My idea of a gentleman is he who can play a cornet and won’t.” Well said, Mr. Fiest.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading My Idea of a Gentleman Is He Who Can Play a Cornet and Won’t

Notes:

  1. 1917 January 25, The Atchison Weekly Globe, Half Minute Interviews, Quote Page 1, Column 7, Atchison, Kansas. (Newspapers_com)

What You Read When You Don’t Have To, Determines What You Will Be When You Can’t Help It

Oscar Wilde? Charles Francis Potter? Mabel C. Wolcott? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The famous wit Oscar Wilde was an avid reader and an excellent classicist. The following statement has been attributed to him:

It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.

I am skeptical of this ascription because I haven’t been able to find a citation. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: This remark is not listed in the valuable compendium “The Wit & Wisdom of Oscar Wilde” assembled by quotation expert Ralph Keyes. 1 QI believes that the attribution to Oscar Wilde is mistaken. The discussion accompanying the 1948 citation given further below suggests one possible mechanism for the error.

QI thinks that the prominent Unitarian minister Charles Francis Potter deserves credit for the remark under analysis. In June 1927 a newspaper in Burlington, Vermont reported that Potter had spoken to members of the local Athena Club on the topic of “Books and the Home”, and he used a version of the expression. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 2

“What you read when you don’t have to, determines what you will be when you can’t help it,” according to Mr. Potter. Libraries must be for the people and they must be accessible. He believes as much should be spent for the libraries as is for the streets.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading What You Read When You Don’t Have To, Determines What You Will Be When You Can’t Help It

Notes:

  1. 1996, The Wit & Wisdom of Oscar Wilde, Edited by Ralph Keyes, (Quotation “…what you read when…” not found during search), HarperCollins Publishers, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)
  2. 1927 June 7, The Burlington Free Press, Says Highbrows Are in Need of Education, Quote Page 7, Column 3, Burlington, Vermont. (Newspapers_com)

A Work of Art Is Never Finished, Merely Abandoned

Paul Valéry? W. H. Auden? Anaïs Nin? Maya Deren? Jean Cocteau? Gore Vidal? Marianne Moore? George Lucas? Oscar Wilde?

Dear Quote Investigator: A creative person who is absorbed with the task of generating an artwork hesitates to declare completion. Reworking and improving a piece are always tantalizing possibilities. Here are five versions of a saying about unavoidable incompleteness:

  • A poem is never finished, only abandoned.
  • A work is never completed, but merely abandoned.
  • A work of art is never completed, only abandoned.
  • Books are never finished—they are merely abandoned.
  • Films are never completed, they are only abandoned.

The prominent poets Paul Valéry and W. H. Auden have both received credit for this adage. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: In March 1933 Paul Valéry published an essay in “La Nouvelle Revue Française” (“The New French Review”) about his poem “Le Cimetière marin” (“The Cemetery by the sea”). The saying under analysis was included in this article although the exposition was lengthy. Over time Valéry’s words were streamlined and modified to yield the current set of expressions. Here is the original French followed by a rendering into English. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Aux yeux de ces amateurs d’inquiétude et de perfection, un ouvrage n’est jamais achevé, – mot qui pour eux n’a aucun sens, – mais abandonné ; et cet abandon, qui le livre aux flammes ou au public (et qu’il soit l’effet de la lassitude ou de l’obligation de livrer) est une sorte d’accident, comparable à la rupture d’une réflexion, que la fatigue, le fâcheux ou quelque sensation viennent rendre nulle.

The following translation by Rosalie Maggio appeared in the valuable reference “The Quote Verifier”: 2

In the eyes of those who anxiously seek perfection, a work is never truly completed—a word that for them has no sense—but abandoned; and this abandonment, of the book to the fire or to the public, whether due to weariness or to a need to deliver it for publication, is a sort of accident, comparable to the letting-go of an idea that has become so tiring or annoying that one has lost all interest in it.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading A Work of Art Is Never Finished, Merely Abandoned

Notes:

  1. Date: Mars 1933 (March 1933), Periodical: La Nouvelle Revue Française (The New French Review), Article: Au sujet du Cimetière marin (Concerning the Cemetery by the Sea), Author: Paul Valéry, Start Page 399, Quote Page 399, Publisher: La Nouvelle Revue Française, Paris, France. (On February 23, 2019 QI accessed image showing Table of Contents via gallimard.fr; QI has verified that Table of Contents for March 1933 lists the article; also text is visible in multiple snippets within La Nouvelle Revue Française in Google Books, but QI has not yet accessed the issue directly to view the article) link
  2. 2006, The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes, Entry: “A poem is never finished, only abandoned”, Quote Page 167 and 317, St Martin’s Griffin, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)

“Are You Enjoying Yourself?” “Yes, But That’s the Only Thing I Am Enjoying”

Oscar Wilde? George Bernard Shaw? Ambrose Bierce? Charles Frederick Joy? Percival Christopher Wren? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: If you are attending a soporific party, and the host asks whether you are content you might reply with the following comically self-absorbed zinger attributed to the famous Irish wit Oscar Wilde:

“Are you enjoying yourself, Mr. Wilde?”
“Enormously, Madam, there’s nothing else to enjoy.”

This same quip has been attributed to the prominent English playwright George Bernard Shaw:

“Are you enjoying yourself, Mr. Shaw?”
“Yes—and that’s the only thing I am enjoying.”

Are either of these exchanges genuine? Would you please explore this topic

Quote Investigator: The evidence supporting an ascription to either Wilde or Shaw is weak.

The humor of this rejoinder rests on verbal ambiguity. The host’s inquiry “Are you enjoying yourself?” typically means “Are you experiencing enjoyment via conversation with fellow partygoers and via consuming the refreshments?”. The humorously contorted interpretation is “Are you deriving enjoyment from experiencing your own being?”

A matching joke appeared in 1883 in “The Times” newspaper of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania which acknowledged the “Boston Transcript” of Boston, Massachusetts. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Wrapped in his own originality: Young Goldy sat by himself in the corner, meditatively twirling his moustache, not noticing anybody and noticed by none. He was finally spied out by Brown, who approached and said, “You don’t seem to be enjoying yourself, Goldy, my boy.” “Oh, yes, I am,” replied Goldy in a languid manner: “enjoying myself hugely, old fellow; but kill me if I am enjoying any of these people, you know.”—Boston Transcript.

The identity of the joke creator was not given in “The Times”. It might be specified in the “Boston Transcript”, but QI has not yet seen the original context. Currently, the creator is anonymous. The same passage was reprinted in other newspapers in 1883 such as “The Times-Democrat” of New Orleans, Louisiana: 2

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading “Are You Enjoying Yourself?” “Yes, But That’s the Only Thing I Am Enjoying”

Notes:

  1. 1883 January 8, The Times, Midwinter Mirth, Quote Page 3, Column 2, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1883 January 12, The Times-Democrat, All Sorts, Quote Page 3, Column 6, New Orleans, Louisiana. (Newspapers_com)