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The anarchist aphorist: Wilde and Gottesman, paradox and subversion.


J.M. Gottesman wrote an occasional column for Emma Goldman's paper, Mother Earth, titled simply 'Aphorisms'. The column usually served as filler, closing the gap between the end of an article and the bottom of the page. However, Gottesman's first contribution, appearing in August 1906, filled the entire page on its own. It read, in its entirety:

[1] If you pretend to be good the world takes you very seriously; if you do it, it laughs at you. Such is the stage of civilization at which we have arrived!

[2] There is nothing in the world like a good government. It is a thing nobody knows anything about.

[3] The basis of every commercial exposure nowadays is an absolute criminal certainty.

[4] Modern education consists in knowing everything, except what is worth knowing.

[5] There is only one thing worse than a bad government, that is a good government.

[6] Governments are so cowardly. They outrage everything that is sweet and beautiful in men, and are afraid of the world's tongue.

[7] The most obvious things in life are the most difficult things for the people to discover.

[8] 'Survival of the fittest' - what a misleading phrase! Survival of the vulgarest would be better.

[9] The only possible morality is to have none.

[10] The most dangerous things in life are those that have the truest intellectual value.

[11] People believe in a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, because they have always believed in the incredible. (1)

I have numbered them here, for the sake of convenience.

If any of these sound familiar it is because they are, with one exception, adaptations of the phrases and philosophies of Oscar Wilde. Here are the originals:

[1] 'If you pretend to be good the world takes you very seriously. If you pretend to be bad it doesn't. Such is the astounding stupidity of optimism' (Lady Windermere's Fan, Act I, page 422). (2)

[2] '[T]here's nothing in the world like the devotion of a married woman. It's a thing no married man knows anything about' (Lady Windermere's Fan, Act III, 451).

[3] 'The basis for every scandal is an immoral certainty' (The Picture of Dorian Gray, 147).

[4] 'Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught' ('The Critic as Artist', 1114; repeated in 'A Few Maxims for the Instruction of the Over-Educated', 1242).

[5] 'Really, now that the House of Commons is trying to become useful, it does a great deal of harm' (An Ideal Husband, Act I, 518); 'There is one thing much worse than no art, and that is bad art' ('The Decorative Arts,' 932).

[6] 'Men are such cowards. They outrage every law in the world and are afraid of the world's tongue' (Lady Windermere's Fan, Act III, 446).

[7] 'Women have a wonderful instinct about things. They can discover everything except the obvious' (An Ideal Husband, Act II, 535).

[8] 'As for modern journalism ... [it] justifies its own existence by the great Darwinian principle of the survival of the vulgarest' ('The Critic as Artist', 1114).

[10] 'An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all' ('The Critic as Artist', 1141).

[11] '[D]emocracy means simply the bludgeoning of the people by the people for the people' ('The Soul of Man Under Socialism', 1182); 'The world is simply divided into two classes - those who believe the incredible, like the public - and those who do the improbable' (A Woman of No Importance, Act III, 497).

The great majority of these - all except the fifth, eighth, and the second part of number eleven - appeared in a single volume, which borrowed its title from Wilde's name in exile, Sebastian Melmoth. Published in 1904 by Arthur L. Humphreys, the book included 131 pages of Wilde's aphorisms, followed by his essay titled, in this version, 'The Soul of Man' (originally, 'The Soul of Man Under Socialism'). It seems very likely that Gottesman lifted the aphorisms from this volume as both misquote Dorian Gray (in number 3, above) by adding the same word - 'absolute'. (3)

The missing item, number 9, which to my ear is the most Wildean of the lot, is not Wilde at all, so far as I could discover. It may be an inversion of Pascal ('There is no shame except in having none' (4)), or else an adaptation from Claude Bernard ('the best philosophical system is to have none at all' (5)). On the other hand, Wilde did say, 'No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style.' (6)

The point of this exercise is not to convict Gottesman of plagiarism, or even simply to remark on Wilde's influence among anarchists of the generation following his own, but rather to note how readily the phrases adapt themselves to the anarchist cause. One comes to suspect that there was already an element of anarchy at work in these sayings of Wilde's, both in the form of contradiction and in the tone of sheer contrariness. Wilde wrote in De Profundis that 'What the paradox was to me in the sphere of thought, perversity became to me in the sphere of passion' (7) - thus linking paradox to his dissident sexuality, to his criminality, and by implication, to his individualism. Perhaps this comparison ought not be surprising, as Wilde's aphorisms, his sexuality and his politics were all, in their way, exercises in inversion. George Woodcock went so far as to suggest, in the title of his study of Wilde, that the man himself represented a kind of paradox. (8)

Wilde's love of the paradox and his aphorist style derive from diverse influences, which are themselves quite anarchic. Jerusha McCormack cites, on the one hand, the 'Irish Bull' - a kind of verbal bluffing that 'keeps the form of logic, while outraging reason and bringing it to a violent halt' (9) - and on the other, the influence of the Taoist philosopher Chuang-Tsu, (10) whom Wilde described as 'something more than a metaphysician and an illuminist. He sought to destroy society ... [and] combine[d] the passionate eloquence of a Rousseau with the scientific reasoning of a Herbert Spencer.' (11) Some of those who knew Wilde personally cited the influence of the anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. Thomas Bell commented, regarding 'The Soul of Man Under Socialism', 'in so far as the style in it had any origin other than his [Wilde's] own genius it is surely that of the great French master of the epigram and the paradox - of the man who in reply to the query Qu'est-ce que la Propriete? declared La Propriete c'est le vel [sic]'. (12) Proudhon's line - 'What is property? Property is theft' - is one that, Robert Sherard tells us, Wilde was fond of quoting to justify his own generosity. (13)

In Wilde's aphorisms, the politics were more a matter of form than subject. In re-writing them, Gottesman set out to better align these two aspects, to match the means and the ends. Some he re-wrote for (usually ill-advised) stylistic reasons - inverting the meaning of at least one - but others he reformulated to direct Wilde's witticism against a new target. (He was not alone in this practice: In 1906, the same year as the first 'Aphorisms' column in Mother Earth, Norma Lorimer wrote in By the Waters of Carthage: 'The amalgamation of great powers! I wish the survival of the fittest did not generally mean the survival of the vulgarest.' (14)) On the whole, the revisions are inferior to the originals. Too often, Gottesman blunts Wilde's wit. Besides which, the originals, read carefully, criticize and challenge some of the most important assumptions and institutions of Victorian society - democracy, marriage, schooling, the press, and especially, morality. Redirecting these barbs to go against 'government' or 'commercial exposure' is, it turns out, strangely redundant.

Yet in his first play, Vera, or The Nihilists, Wilde has one of his characters say, 'I think little of pen and ink in revolutions. One dagger will do more than a hundred epigrams.' (15) But the anarchist John Barlas - who once fired a revolver at the House of Commons simply 'to show my contempt' (16) - flipped this ranking with a metaphor. He compared Wilde's paradoxes to 'a dagger whose hilt is crusted with jewels, and whose point drips with the poison of the Borgias ... He has stabbed all our proverbs, and our proverbs rule us more than our kings.' (17)


As a mode of expression the paradox is almost inherently subversive. It does not only undermine our social conventions and usual expectations, but also turns logic against itself. The paradox inverts hierarchies and destroys dichotomies. It explodes unitary notions or systems of thought, breaking them into inconsistent and opposing fragments; and it resolves contradictions with nonchalance and reconciles opposites with irony. It defies rationality, morality, and propriety; it follows no laws but its own, and it legislates only to make transgressions possible. It reduces common sense to uncommon nonsense, and common nonsense to uncommon sense.

Oscar Wilde's proverbs may, sometimes, be nonsensical, but they are not gibberish. They have a grammar, a structure that produces or defeats meaning - sometimes simultaneously. They work against our usual assumptions and expectations by reversing whatever it is we feel the sentence ought to be saying. The best set up these expectations themselves, and then knock them down, all within the course of a couple dozen words. Some achieve this effect by altering an existing truism, often by as little as a single word - or by keeping the key phrase intact but changing the subject. 'Moderation is a fatal thing', operates by the one method; 'Nothing succeeds like excess', by the other. (18) Many of Wilde's phrases simply implode. They take the form of bold assertions that deny the obvious or contradict themselves. They offer no counter-truth to the orthodoxy, no new doctrine on which to stand. For example: 'It is only the unimaginative who ever invents' is obviously false. (19) But by its very absurdity it seems to call into question the meaning of the words, and our usual understanding of originality and creativity. The significance of such a phrase lies in its pure negation.

This kind of nonsense does, in a word, the unthinkable - and thus produces thought. It interrupts our catechismic recitations; it forces its audience to a place beyond belief - to outrage, befuddlement, or laughter - and the only path back to the world of fact, of true and false, is through thought. George Bernard Shaw said of the audience to An Ideal Husband: 'They laugh angrily at his epigrams, like a child who is coaxed into being amused in the very act of setting up a yell of rage and agony.' (20) We laugh at Wilde's quips and jests, when we do, because we know he is being silly. But we also laugh because we recognize something of the truth in what he says. And it's hard to gauge which surprises us more.

Paradox is the enemy of doctrine. Though it may be quoted or imitated, the paradox is really the very opposite of the cliche: it works for surprise, or else it fails.

Wilde's do not fail. As familiar as many of his phrases have become, there is still something in them that knocks us off-balance. They ought not to make any sense, but then they do; or else they seem to, and then they don't quite. One's never really sure what he means, or whether he means anything. It's playful nonsense, a sort of logical - or illogical - headstand. But also - for just a moment - doesn't it look as though it's the world that is upside down?

Wilde's inversions and paradoxes - those tiny bombs he hurls at rationality - are a little like Zen koans. And that moment when your mind turns over and the world seems wrong, and your feet seem to dangle in the sky - that is the moment of enlightenment. '[T]he way of paradoxes is the way of truth', Henry Wotton says in Dorian Gray. 'To test Reality we must see it on the tight-rope. When the Verities become acrobats we can judge them.' (210 Ernest Newman reversed this metaphor in his 'Literary Appreciation' of Wilde, describing 'the reading of paradoxes is a performance in which the audience is made to dance on the tight rope, while the acrobat enjoys their unsophisticated antics ...' (22) The truth and the audience share this in common: the paradox puts them in peril, and makes them dance.

Wilde understood the force of language, but precisely because he was its master, he understood its dangers and its weaknesses as well. And so when he pitted his rhetorical skills against the institutions of society, he did so in a way that was curiously difficult to reverse. One might bring facts to bear against facts, or use arguments against arguments, but how can one refute an epigram like 'Philanthropic people lose all sense of humanity'? (23) One can contradict it, of course. But the more shocking proposition is always the stronger. Oscar Wilde did not often argue for anything. He did not often argue at all. ('[I]t is only the intellectually lost who ever argue'; (24) and, 'a man who allows himself to be convinced by an argument is a thoroughly unreasonable person' (25)). Wilde, instead, as often as not, used the language against itself, deflating the rhetoric of Law and Morality, and warning against 'turning nomina into numina' (26) - or names into gods.


(1.) J. M. Gottesman, 'Aphorisms.' Mother Earth (August 1906), 29.

(2.) Unless otherwise noted, all quotes are from the Collins Complete Works of Oscar Wilde (Glasgow, HarperCollins, 2003).

(3.) [Oscar Wilde], Sebastian Melmoth (London: Arthur L. Humphreys, 1904), 13.

(4.) Blaise Pascal, 'Against Indifference' in Pensees, trans. A. J. Krailsheimer (London: Penguin Books, 1966), 160.

(5.) Quoted in Ramesh Chopra, 'Bernard, Claude, (1813-1878)', in Dictionary of Philosophy (Gyan Books, 2005), 47.

(6.) The Picture of Dorian Gray, 17.

(7.) De Profundis, 1018.

(8.) George Woodcock, The Paradox of Oscar Wilde (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1950).

(9.) Jerusha McCormack, 'The Wilde Irishman: Oscar as Aesthete and Anarchist' in Wilde the Irishman, ed. Jerusha McCormack (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 88.

(10.) Jerusha McCormack, 'From Chinese Wisdom to Irish Wit: Zhuangzi and Oscar Wilde', Irish University Review 37: 2 (Autumn-Winter 2007), 302-21.

(11.) Oscar Wilde, 'A Chinese Sage,' in The Artist as Critic: Critical Writings of Oscar Wilde, ed. Richard Ellmann (Chicago: University of Chicago press, 1982), 222.

(12.) Thomas Bell, Oscar Wilde Without Whitewash [unpublished typescript] (193-?). Clark Library, University of California-Los Angeles [Wilde B435M3 0814 [193-]?], 398.

(13.) Quoted in Richard Ellmann, Oscar Wilde (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988), 216. The original is from Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, What is Property? (New York: H. Fertig, 1966).

(14.) Norma Lorimer, By the Waters of Carthage (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1906), 128.

(15.) Vera, Act I, 688.

(16.) Quoted in David Goodway, Anarchist Seeds Beneath the Snow: Left-Libertarian Thought and British Writers from William Morris to Colin Ward (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2006), 80.

(17.) John Barlas, 'Oscar Wilde', The Novel Review (April 1892), 45-6.

(18.) Both from A Woman of No Importance, Act III, 498.

(19.) 'Olivia at the Lyceum,' 955.

(20.) George Bernard Shaw, 'George Bernard Shaw on An Ideal Husband' in Oscar Wilde: The Critical Heritage, ed. Karl Beckson (New York: Barnes and Noble, Inc., 1970),

(21.) The Picture of Dorian Gray, 42.

(22.) Ernest Newman, 'Oscar Wilde: A Literary Appreciation,' Free Review, June 1, 1895; reprinted as 'Ernest Newman on Wilde's Genius for Paradox (1895)' in Oscar Wilde: The Critical Heritage, ed. Karl Beckson (New York: Barnes and Noble, Inc., 1970), 204 Emphasis added.

(23.) The Picture of Dorian Gray, 39.

(24.) 'A Chinese Sage,' 225.

(25.) An Ideal Husband, Act I, 523.

(26.) Oscar Wilde's Oxford Notebooks: A Portrait of Mind in the Making, ed. Philip E. Smith II and Michael S. Helfand (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 141.

Thanks are owed to Emily-Jane Dawson, Ruth Kinna, Barry Pateman, Aaron Schlosser, and Adam Warner, for their comments on this essay. Thanks also to the Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation and the Institute for Anarchist Studies, for their support of my research.

Kristian Williams is the author of American Methods: Torture and the Logic of Domination (South End Press 2006). He is presently at work on a book about Oscar Wilde and anarchism.

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Title Annotation:J.M. Gottesman and Oscar Wilde
Author:Williams, Kristian
Publication:Anarchist Studies
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Sep 22, 2010
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