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?
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.
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 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.