Why Would Oscar Wilde Object to Ridicule?

Ridicule is the tribute paid to the genius by the mediocrities. – Oscar Wilde

I’ve always wondered about this quote, coming from a man who often employed forms of ridicule himself.  Is this quote just another a case of the ever-reflective and self-analytical Wilde’s willingness to include himself in his biting social commentary?   Or was it the opposite, a moment of defensiveness in the face of his critics that blinded him to its implications?

I decided it was time to investigate the quote and try to understand the witty decadent’s strange deprecation of ridicule.
As you probably know, the quote is repeated quite often on the internet, including the usual suspects like Brainy QuoteThinkExist, and AZQuotes and literally countless others.  (By the end of twelve pages of search results, it was still being repeated almost verbatim.)  Almost every time the  quote is used, it’s attributed to Oscar Wilde, but never to a particular work.  That’s not all that uncommon on the internet.
I went next to Google Books, often a handy way to quickly and credibly source a quote from a prominent, English-speaking personality.  I quickly found, however, that the same quote was repeated in print with the same generic attribution. It appeared that way in dictionaries (e.g., Blackie), self-help books (e.g., Pappas 2014 or Seka 2014), and even popular books dedicated to Wilde’s words (e.g., Farnham 2014 or Student’s Academy 2014).  Those are only a few examples.  Importantly, however, none of these were books written by Wilde or books written by Wilde scholars.

Why does everyone seem drawn to this quote, as popularized?

The sense in which most people seem to understand this quote is suggested in Jordan Mackay’s Passion for Pinot (2009, p. 9 – 11): the ridicule of others should be your first clue that you’re onto something great.

Harry Pappas, Jr., flips the emphasis and uses Wilde’s apparent words to say that those who resort to ridicule must be mediocre or in, his Pappas’ words, “losers” (2014, p.77).
With no context for the quote, there’s no way to know what Wilde’s actual intentions were, to uplift those who are ridiculed or to marginalize those who resort to ridicule?  Or was it either of those things?  I still didn’t understand why Wilde would object to ridicule.  1

I’ve done some great research in my day, but I don’t want you to think I’m claiming this is anything like that.  Honestly, it didn’t take too long to get to a credible and likely source.  It usually doesn’t, once you just start ignoring the noise. What I’m about to suggest may well be common knowledge among Wilde scholars and aficionados and just hasn’t filtered out to the broader world yet.

The first clue was in Gloria Deák’s Passage to America.  She presents a slightly different form of the quote: “satire was the tribute mediocrity paid to genius” (2013, p. xxii, emphasis mine).  Deák links the spirit of the quote, thought not necessarily its utterance, to Wilde’s 1882 visit to America.  In her view, it was not offered precisely as advice to others but as a response to the rejection that Wilde and his comrades received at every stop of his lecture tour.

In this view, Wilde is essentially saying, “Yes, they’re making fun of me and my buddies, but, eh, what are you going to expect?  We’re geniuses and they’re mediocre and this is the only way they know how to respond to our achievements.”
Deák still cited no source, but altering my research now to include the word “satire” instead of “ridicule” brought the answer almost right off the top.
The actual, full quote was reprinted with its source by The Victorian Web, specifically in an article by Ryan Wong: Ruskin, Wilde, Satire, and the Birth of Aestheticism (2008).  The source Wong cited was Wilde’s essay, “English Renaissance of Art” (1908).  That original article is reprinted in n various places, including The Literature Network and the University College of Cork.  I chose to verify Wong’s version of the quote by  consulting the Gutenberg Project, where the essay is available as transcribed from the 1913 edition of  Essays and Lectures (edited by Robert Ross).  Wong had the quote exactly correct.
Satire, always as sterile as it in shameful and as impotent as it is insolent, paid them that usual homage which mediocrity pays to genius—doing, here as always, infinite harm to the public, blinding them to what is beautiful, teaching them that irreverence which is the source of all vileness and narrowness of life, but harming the artist not at all, rather confirming him in the perfect rightness of his work and ambition.” – Oscar Wilde, “English Renaissance of Art” (1908, 1913).  [Boldface type mine, indicating the portion in the source material most like the quote that started this search.]
 
There  were certainly implications for Wilde’s time, as he himself would bring out later in the piece. There is also nothing wrong with finding general wisdom in any one’s words.  It is important, however, to note that the context here is historical.  Wilde is specifically describing the British public’s response to the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood which emerged prior to 1850. A careful reading also suggests that the quote isn’t really about satire or ridicule.
At the risk of paring away too much of the drapery essential to decadent and symbolist writing, there’s a slight syntax difference of considerable importance.  Because most of us are approaching this quote with the other already in the back of our minds, we don’t even notice the difference.  The cited quote says that ridicule is the tribute.  In the quote, however, satire pays the tribute.    Pulling out some of the auxiliary phrases, the core of the quote is something like this:
“Satire paid [the revolutionary artists] that usual homage which mediocrity pays to genius—blinding [the public] to what is beautiful, teaching [the public] that irreverence which is the source of all vileness and narrowness of life, but confirming [the artist] in the perfect rightness of his work and ambition.” [abridged]
 

In other words, this quote is not flatly opposed to satire or ridicule, tools that Wilde himself used with great frequency and skill.  The quote is opposed to what the critics were using satire to accomplish: fooling the public into seeing the ugliness of the pre-Raphaelites, but not the beauty, and teaching the public a narrow-minded sort of irreverence which closed them of to new ideas.  Those critics used satire to do this effectively.

But what of the phrase, missing from both the popular quote and this abridgement, describing satire as, “always as sterile as it in shameful and as impotent as it is insolent”?  Importantly, I think that Wilde would accept this charge against his own satire.  He would not deny his insolent attitude towards the cultural establishments he satirized, nor that he used satire in order to render those establishments as sterile and impotent.

The difference is in the purpose and the target of that  satire.  Art, for Wilde, should be outside of any such treatment.  In his Intentions (1891, 1913), he describes art as immoral, dangerous, and essentially a threat to static, stable society.  Throughout this collection you find suggestions that art is also subjective and sheer so that one person’s art is beyond another person’s understanding and reach. In both of these regards, then, it would be inappropriate to try to render art sterile and impotent. In the same collection, society is described as  standing opposition to contemplation, thought, and dreams.  His Gilbert asserts that, “The security of society lies in custom and unconscious instinct, and the basis of the stability of society, as a healthy organism, is the complete absence of any intelligence amongst its members,” whom it grants, “the dignity of machines.”

Thus, society and its cultural conservatism fully deserve insolence and should, in fact, be sterilized and made impotent, a point proven to the artists who have the power to do it by the very attempts of society to do the same to their art.

The essence of the quote is therefore not decrying satire or ridicule, per se.  Rather, Wilde is lamenting the response of the banal cultural establishment (“mediocrity”) toward technical innovation and revolutionary new ideas (“genius”).

The original quote was not intended to be pithy. It was part of a historical critique.  In the attempt to package it up for easier use, it appears that the emphasis shifted.

Why would Wilde, of all people, object to ridicule in a general way?  He wouldn’t.  The problem he identified isn’t ridicule  The problem is that mediocre culture paints beauty with ugliness and regards genius with narrow-minded irreverence.  Satire and ridicule just happen to make those evils much easier to spread.  Fortunately, they also give artists the power to fight back.

 



1 After all, the twelve-plus pages of internet search results quoting Wilde’s anti-ridicule stance are counter-balanced by the same number of pages of results describing Wilde’s ridiculing of the aristocracy and the conservative social customs of his time.  In Oscar Wilde (1959), Edouard Roditi described Wilde as “taunting” and “provoking” journalists.  That’s not so far from ridicule.  Furthermore, Roditi suggested that Wilde used the ridicule of journalists to advance his own publicity and then suggested that, among several other references, The Canterville Ghost made use of “heavy satire on the bad tastes and manners and the prejudices of Americans” (p. 70).  Within the text of that story, Wilde’s narrator observes, with obvious ridicule, “we have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language.”  Surely he would not suggest that his ridiculing Americans should either tip them off to their superiority or that his ridicule indicted himself as a “loser” in comparison to them.

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