What Would Oscar Do?

Life on the Wilde side

Petri Dishes

Today is Oscar Wilde’s birthday. He would be 155 years old, and he would not be enjoying it very much. “Youth is the only thing worth having,” he would mutter quietly into his cake. But he’d appreciate the attention.

And he would deserve it. (Nowadays, in the midst of bans on sexiling and Nobel Peace Prize furors, it’s easy to forget the truly important things, like calling your parents or stopping to wish happy birthday to the “first modern man.”) Wilde is an invaluable acquaintance. Often, in situations where I am required to appear witty, I simply steal large chunks from his works and attempt to pass them off as my own with minor modifications. I’m not the first to do this—Dorothy Parker noted, “If, with the literate, I am/Impelled to try an epigram/I never seek to take the credit/We all assume that Oscar said it.” But I know he would approve. When a woman told him that a passage from one of his plays reminded her of a drama she had read before, he nodded. “Taken bodily from it,” he admitted. “Why not? No one reads anymore.”

I first met Oscar at the age of 14. All four of my wisdom teeth had just been removed, and I lay prone on the couch bleeding into a bag of frozen peas. There was nothing else to do but read

The Picture of Dorian Gray.” After that, it was impossible to stop. I read everything he had ever written, from the poems to the prose to the plays, except for that one book attributed to him that you can only buy online. Wilde said of himself that he summed up all systems in a phrase and all existence in an epigram, and he was right. There was no subject he couldn’t speak on. Once someone asked him to comment on the queen. “The queen is not a subject!” he shot back. Like most of my favorite Wildean phrases, this joke is something I keep trying to spring on people in conversation. (“Ask me to talk about anything! Any subject at all!” I tell people. “Health care,” they respond. People nowadays lack imagination.) But that doesn’t stop me. Oscar gets dragged into every conceivable situation. “Do you like the consistency of this soup?” people ask me. “Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative,” I retort.

Now, seven years later, we’re still going strong. And we have so much in common—for instance, we both like men! And if someone wants to catapult me to fame, say, by basing a comic opera on me and sending me on a tour of North America in which I lecture about interior design, you can find me sitting in my room trying to live up to my china.

Wilde is an invaluable guide to life. And for people who find the concept of asking “What Would Jesus Do?” in certain, specific situations a little uncomfortable—does Jesus sleep with people after the third date? —“What Would Oscar Do?” can serve as a handy replacement. Of course, not all his advice is useful; as he pointed out, “The only thing to do with advice is to pass it on. It is never any use to oneself.” And some of it lacks practical applications, like that thing he said about plump missionaries being “God’s gift to starving cannibals.” But some of his remarks are startlingly perceptive. “Anyone can sympathize with the sufferings of a friend. But it requires a truly fine nature…to sympathize with a friend’s success.” Especially at Harvard, this line can be painfully apt. And his relationship advice can be remarkably consoling. “In life, there are only two tragedies,” Wilde noted. “One is not getting what one wants. The other is getting it.”

Sometimes, listening to him can get you into trouble. Oscar said he put his genius into his life and his talent into his works. I keep trying to explain this to professors. “Sure, my paper fails to capture the existential stillness of Conrad’s prose,” I say, “but I had a brilliant weekend! My wallet is in Rhode Island!”

But Oscar offers vital encouragement in all areas of life—for instance, in the realm of dress. Someone said that fashion makes a statement. Often, the statement my outfits make is, “It is a distinct possibility that the person who assembled me is colorblind.” I lost a sweater once. My friends believe it was carelessness, but I think it was trying to escape. Once, in delight at hearing that knee socks had come back in, I rushed out and purchased a pair striped in rainbow colors. Every so often I wear them outdoors and people excitedly inquire when the rest of the pride parade will be coming along. But Oscar has a phrase for these naysayers. “Fashion is what one wears oneself,” he noted. “What is unfashionable is what other people wear.”

Now, 155 years later, I like to think Oscar would feel at home in our world. I don’t know whether he would be consigned to the David Sedaris circuit of National Public Radio and well-attended lectures, take Broadway by storm, or become the next Lady Gaga and show up at the Video Music Awards dressed as an angry lampshade. But imagine what a Twitter following he would have.

Regardless, I wish him the best. “To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance,” Wilde once noted. The same could be said of loving Oscar Wilde. Happy birthday, Oscar.

Alexandra A. Petri ’10 is an English concentrator in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

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