Oscar Wilde on the art of conversation

Aurora Borealis and Full Moon above the Beaufort Sea off the Alaskan coast of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Aurora Borealis and Full Moon above the Beaufort Sea off the Alaskan coast of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
Image credit: Alaska In Pictures

ERNEST. But what is the difference between literature and journalism?

GILBERT. Oh! journalism is unreadable, and literature is not read. That is all. But with regard to your statement that the Greeks had no art-critics, I assure you that is quite absurd. It would be more just to say that the Greeks were a nation of art-critics.

ERNEST. Really?


GILBERT. Yes, a nation of art-critics. But I don’t wish to destroy the delightfully unreal picture that you have drawn of the relation of the Hellenic artist to the intellectual spirit of his age. To give an accurate description of what has never occurred is not merely the proper occupation of the historian, but the inalienable privilege of any man of parts and culture. Still less do I desire to talk learnedly. Learned conversation is either the affectation of the ignorant or the profession of the mentally unemployed. And, as for what is called improving conversation, that is merely the foolish method by which the still more foolish philanthropist feebly tries to disarm the just rancour of the criminal classes. No: let me play to you some mad scarlet thing by Dvorak. The pallid figures on the tapestry are smiling at us, and the heavy eyelids of my bronze Narcissus are folded in sleep. Don’t let us discus anything solemnly. I am but too conscious of the fact that we are born in an age when only the dull are treated seriously, and I live in terror of not being misunderstood. Don’t degrade me into the position of giving you useful information. Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught. Through the parted curtains of the window I see the moon like a clipped piece of silver. Like gilded bees the stars cluster round her. The sky is a hard hollow sapphire. Let us go out into the night. Thought is wonderful, but adventure is more wonderful still. Who knows but we may meet Prince Florizel of Bohemia, and hear the fair Cuban tell us that she is not what she seems?

ERNEST. You are horribly wilful. I insist on your discussing this matter with me…
Oscar Wilde in “The Critic as Artist: With some remarks upon the importance of doing nothing. A Dialogue, Part I”. Available in The Works of Oscar Wilde (London; Glasgow: Collins, 1948), p. 280.

Related: Florizel makes an earlier appearance (later in this circumstance) in William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale

Associated: Vik Muniz is the artist of the “Narcissus After Carvaggio” piece linked earlier.

Oscar Wilde Posted on behalf of on Friday, February 19th, 2010 under Quotations.

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