Oscar Wilde said this. To which he added, “Moderation is a fatal thing.” I’ve always been a big fan of Oscar’s and once used that quote to justify inordinate drinking and recklessness in college, which in turn led to a year’s suspension and a subsequent turnaround in my life. Oscar’s life ended badly; mine is happily still in progress.
Born in Dublin, he came from a fortunate family and evolved into the major spokesperson for the aesthetic movement in late Victorian England. The aesthetes were a noisy but watered-down offshoot of the French Symbolists, whom I wrote about in a doctoral thesis. Through his pen and his wit, Oscar became known throughout the educated world.
I’ve never made any claim to wit or been part of a movement. I did come from a fortunate family and have written about that elsewhere. Part of growing up in the 1950s as I did was, however, to be seen as educated and clever, and I attempted to fill that bill through love of music and art. As Oscar did, this was an effort to move out of the pedestrian world of business and the common culture that grated on such elegant souls.
But it was important to make this move without much pretension or hype. The last thing you wanted was to be looked at as a pansy or, god forbid, a homo. Since my social tendencies lay in the other direction, I generally fitted in, had lots of friends, male and female, and made the arts the focal part of my “other life.”
Wilde, on the other hand, went out of his way to promote and display his otherness, disdaining convention, writing well, and paradoxically pleasing and even capturing society. His popularity even extended beyond the smart set. Excess does sometimes win out.
The phrase, “nothing succeeds like success” is still current and still accepted. But it’s part of the old culture, particularly the moneyed culture. The common culture today makes it a virtue to have come up the hard way. If you are a politician or an entertainer, the last thing you want to do is admit you came from wealth. Being successful typically means working your way up from being poor or middle class. The classic example is Joe Biden. John Kerry is still mocked.
I smell a lot of hypocrisy in this. Coming up the hard way means you likely had to spend a lot of energy on learning accepted behaviors, on pleasing the powerful, on survival skills. The more fortunate, on the other hand, can (theoretically) earn their success more easily. Yet privilege and success are publicly disdained because our culture continues to value the familiar, the commonplace and the old work ethic.
Oscar knew better. He also said, “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.”