March 19, 2015

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde

Source: Shutterstock

Reading Steven Goldberg’s Fads and Fallacies in the Social Sciences the other day, I got to his 1998 essay on the Clinton scandals. Steve starts off with an Oscar Wilde quote:

I have never come across anyone in whom the moral sense was dominant who was not heartless, cruel, vindictive, log-stupid and entirely lacking in the smallest sense of humanity.

That got a fist-pump from me. Where matters of opinion and taste are concerned, not many find me on the same page as Oscar Wilde, but he nailed that one. People who are prone”€”the shadow of the old butt-bandit hovers over these sentences”€”to cast all human affairs as moral dramas are invariably narcissistic sociopaths.  That’s how we got Political Correctness. To quote a different writer:

“€œA humanitarian is always a hypocrite”€”€”Orwell.

The sentiment aside, I relished having another apt quote to add to my collection. I”€™m a sucker for a good quote. (The collection is virtual.  I don”€™t actually jot quotes down in a Commonplace Book, as literary gents once did.  Who’s got the time nowadays?)

Next in honor to the first person who says a wise or witty thing, is the first person who quotes him. So, at any rate, someone once said.  Who, though?

“I spit on the fools who want me to alternate “€œhe”€ and “€œshe,”€ or default to a clumsy plural “€œtheir,”€ or sink to monstrosities like “€œs/he.”€

I turn to my sources: Benham’s New Book of Quotations (1924) and the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations“€”the good, old one (1955), not the crappy, later ones. Both have huge indexes by subject heading.

Quote … Quotations …:

“€œOne whom it is easy to hate, but still easier to quote”€”€”Augustine Birrell on Alexander Pope.

“€œAnd quoted odes, and jewels five-words-long / That on the stretched forefinger of all Time / Sparkle for ever”€”€”Tennyson, The Princess.

I hate quotations”€”Emerson.

“€œGrandpa”€ (as his pretty young first wife called him) may have hated quotations, but he’s my guy:

“€œNext to the originator of a good sentence is the first quoter of it”€”€”Emerson.

Some inconsistency there? So what?

“€œA foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”€”€”Emerson.

Consistency-wise, you can”€™t lay a glove on the guy who said that.

Assuming Emerson was right about first quoters, I wonder no-one has compiled a dictionary of them: a sort of first-derivative dictionary of quotations, listing not the guy who said the thing, but the guy who first quoted his having said it. That would be some masterpiece of research, although with the internet now, it might be possible.

Or not. It isn”€™t always even possible to find out “€œthe originator of a good sentence.”€ Who first said: “€œThe Ten Commandments are like an examination paper: six only to be attempted”€? The usual attribution”€”I”€™ve seen it in print somewhere”€”is to Malcolm Muggeridge; but I swear I read in some memoir or other”€”which of course I now can”€™t place”€”that Bertrand Russell said it first.

If he did, it was one of his better efforts. Russell wasn”€™t all that quotable, though I did do another fist-bump at this one:

One should respect public opinion insofar as is necessary to avoid starvation and keep out of prison, but anything that goes beyond this is voluntary submission to an unnecessary tyranny.

Again there are consistency issues. Russell actually did go to prison as a consequence of his beliefs”€”twice, the second time at age 89.

If you do much public scribbling you keep getting caught out on quote attributions. I went along happily for decades believing that Doctor Johnson, in his old age, said: “€œI have found the world kinder than I expected, but less just.”€ Na-uh; although Gibbon, in conversation with the Great Cham, did say something close.

Some of my misattributions were just mis-remembered. I quoted one of Orwell’s more depressing observations once as: “€œIt is possible to love a murderer, but it is not possible to love a person with bad breath.”€ Here is what Orwell actually said:

“€œYou can have an affection for a murderer or a sodomite, but you cannot have an affection for a man whose breath stinks “€” habitually stinks, I mean.”€


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