“Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of art.”-Oscar Wilde
(There is a new book by Gregory Mackie by this title, but that is not what this post will be about.)
Have you seen this quote on an Etsy cross stitch or t-shirt? “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”-Oscar Wilde.
This thought obviously strikes a chord in our times. Wilde never actually said it, nevertheless it is one of his most famous sayings, along with another thing he never said “I have nothing to declare but my genius.”
If you look up posts on Twitter, you will invariably find this quote and attribution, and occasionally Wilde experts will chime in to correct it, but it never makes a dent. The misquotations outnumber the corrections 500 to 1, maybe more.
I once tweeted, in response to one of the corrections, that maybe we should just give up and let that be an actual thing Wilde said.
“Never,” came the reply.
So Wilde didn’t say that.
But my saying so will not do much to stem the tide.
Nor, I am afraid, has my research done anything to put a dent in the popular narrative about Oscar Wilde: Living a peaceful, upstanding life until he met the spoiled and reckless Lord Alfred Douglas, who introduced Wilde to “the streets,” Wilde tried to get away from him, but could not resist him. Douglas led him into a dangerous battle with his father, coerced him into a clearly reckless libel suit, which everyone else urged Wilde not to file, abandoned him when he went to jail, and tried to tarnish his legacy years later.
Anyone who follows stories about Oscar Wilde in the media (social and traditional) will encounter variants on this story. Some parts of this story are just plain wrong: Douglas did not abandon Wilde. Nor was he the only one who encouraged Wilde in his libel suit. Many people, including most newspaper journalists, thought it would be a disaster for Queensberry, not Wilde. Some rest on little evidence: the idea that it was Douglas who introduced Wilde to “rough trade.” Some is complicated: the nature of Wilde and Douglas’s relationship. Some, like Douglas’s mid-life religious conversion and bitterness towards Wilde, deserve more contextualization than they usually get. It is, as I see it, and wonderfully complex story, full of colorful characters with good and bad traits, all story-tellers with a desire to spin events as their own personalities dictate. So much nuance, which is so often lost in the re-telling.
Should I just give up and let the popular version be the history?