Tag Archives: Oscar Wilde

Marginalia, no.318

The great things of life are what they seem to be, and for that reason, strange as it may sound to you, are difficult to interpret. But the little things of life are symbols.

~ Oscar Wilde, De Profundis

The hard part of drawing is to actually see the things you’re looking at. Your idea of a tree, a mountain, a person, will tend to devolve into symbol. You are constantly lured into seeing through your brain, by abstraction, rather than through your eye. But the wild, absurd, incredible fact of a thing in itself is always more than you can grasp.

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Marginalia, no.261

When one has weighed the sun in a balance, and measured the steps of the moon, and mapped out the seven heavens star by star, there still remains oneself. Who can calculate the orbit of his own soul?

~ Oscar Wilde, De Profundis

Quantum mechanics has it that the act of observing a system alters that system. Electrons, they say, are constrained by observation to behave like particles rather than waves. I don’t fully understand this, but I wonder about applying the “observer effect” more broadly. It may be that stars and planets droop with the gravity of a million gazes, that celebrities can’t help but make fools of themselves, and that introspection will get you no closer to self knowledge than watching reality TV.

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Marginalia, no.245

It was also said of Descartes that he entertained the sick with mathematics.

~ Gaby Wood, Edison’s Eve

Oscar Wilde writes in De Profundis that friends have a right to share in each other’s sufferings and when denied that right may pound at the door till admitted. It could only have been violence like this that persuaded Descartes’ friends to let him into their sick rooms. As Job once discovered, there are friends for sickness and friends for health. We hope they know which kind they are.

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Less Praise, Please

Solon famously recommended calling no man happy until he was dead.  It’s just as advisable, I think, not to call him great.  There are some compliments that should only be paid after the object of admiration is safely deceased.  Otherwise it gets embarrassing.

Consider the biographical note written by Cécile Buffet for Alain Planes’ Harmonia Mundi CD, Haydn Piano Sonatas, Vol. 2.  Planes is a gifted pianist and (to judge by his photograph) he’s been on this planet much longer than I have, so it’s only right that his accomplishments are noted.  Buffet’s fawning idolatry, however, is too much:

A great lover and connoisseur of painting, no less learned in his passion for poetry, Alain Planes enjoys a career in his own image: right from the start he has followed the path of life rather than the siren songs of a glory that demands too many compromises. 

From a mother with an artistic temperament…he has inherited and retained fervent humility and disinterestedness of gesture.  In the end it is this that creates style – rigor is of little use without grace.

The man is still alive, for God’s sake.  Let’s not jinx him by smothering any perfectly adequate virtues he may posses with so much saccharine flattery.  If Plaines is as humble and disinterested as Buffet claims, he can only blush at this.  But then, did he have no say at all in the liner notes for his own CD?  No one should take himself this seriously.

Perhaps it’s just Gallic effusiveness.  I ought to be happy, I suppose, for the opportunity to be mildly scandalized, and for the laughs:

There is in him something of a curious blend of Proust and Wilde.  With the first he shares his relationship with time, profound, expanded, Schubertian.  With the second, a certain intellectual dandyism, a form of refined cynicism that nonetheless does not sacrifice tenderness.

Thankfully it’s the Expanded Schubertian and not the Intellectual Dandy that comes through in Planes’ music.  But if there is a bit of Wilde about him, it might serve as inoculation against his admirers’ excesses.  “Praise makes me humble,” Wilde once wrote, “but when I am abused I know I have touched the stars.”

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For the Birds

The highest, as the lowest, form of criticism is autobiography.

~ Oscar Wilde, from his ‘Preface’ to The Picture of Dorian Gray.  Does it follow that autobiography is always a form of criticism?  Criticism of personal experience?  There’s a superficial satisfaction in the reversal.  The merely confessional, in that case, would make up criticism at its lowest.  The rigorously reflective, its highest.  Or perhaps Wilde would disagree.

Robins scour the suburban lawns two hours before sunset.  Between the door and the mailbox yesterday I counted five: three males, two females.  One hopped ahead of me on the concrete walk and I thought for a moment he was leading me somewhere, that I was supposed to follow.  All were perfectly silent and watchful, hunting insects through the little forests of grass, intimately concerned with my intent; cautious, hungry.

Do birds engage in criticism or indulge in autobiography?  Is gravity nothing more than the weight of self-concern that prevents us chasing them into the willows?

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