Antithesis Wilde

Oscar Wilde was a dandy, and everyone hated him for it. He sported a flower in his buttonhole, enjoyed a good bacchanalian night out on the town, and was a firm fan of the love that dare not speak its name. A stark proponent of art for art’s sake and aesthetics as the paragon of artistic expression, Wilde was not very much into telling chaps what to do or how to do it. Victorian England, however, was chock-full of fellows telling other gents how to do things the right way, and Wilde, in the eyes of Victorian moralists, could do only wrong. But moralists, though often competent gaolers, never make for good writers. Therefore, it is fitting that Wilde, the amoral contrarian and talented poet, playwright, and prose-artist (and later prisoner), was a master rhetorician, and particularly fond of a form of rhetoric called the Antithesis. Indeed, much of Wilde’s flamboyantly aphoristic writing style is due to his almost suffocating employment of this quipping form, in fact, performing it so often in his only novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, that he immortalized himself in the rhetorical world by way of the Wildean Antithesis.

The Antithesis serves as an equal and opposite lexical comparison to some interesting new posited insight. An antithesis creates a kind of mellifluous dialectic insofar as it presents a thesis (New Insight: X is Y), an antithesis (Negation or Reaction: not X is not Y), and a synthesis: an appealing merger of two ideas creating a highly satisfying semblance of poetic logic.

The Antithesis comes off as incredibly witty and therefore also as incredibly cute. But wit, like cuteness (and her hotter sister, irony), does have the propensity to become annoying or grow tired and should thus be flirted with judiciously. However, unlike the complex, arduous mating-dance required of irony, antithesis is easy. Wilde knew this and, as a man unafraid to, perchance, fag out his readers, chanced to woo her any and every chance he got, sometimes an immortal four or five times per page.

Here is how he did it:

“Nothing can cure the soul but the senses” …(Assertion),” just as nothing can cure the senses but the soul” (Contrary Assertion).

This is an example of a rather straightforward premise/negation antithetical configuration that creates that edifyingly chin-scratching juxtaposition so often sought after by writers. But then Wilde goes wild, hitting us again not a hundred words later with an antithesis of almost identical construction:

“You know more than you think you know, just as you know less than you want to know.”

But did you see what he did there? As rhetoric is, much to the benefit of the sensible world, not logic, one is allowed to tweak one’s antithesis to appeal not only to computers but also to humans; instead of insulting his readers by comparing thinking with thinking, Wilde compares thinking against wanting, a comparison much more apt to the logic of Humanity.

Writing a good antithesis is a great way to be remembered. The Picture of Dorian Gray contains two of Wilde’s most oft-quoted antitheses, both of which pertain to his favorite subject: men, and one to his least favorite, women, which ineluctable binary is still the most easily discernable antithesis known to Humankind. 

Wilde’s arguably fictional character, Lord Harry, also thinks very little of women:

“Women represent the triumph of matter over mind, just as men represent the triumph of mind over morals.”

Just as Wilde’s other rejoining talking-head, Uncle George, thinks very little of ungentle men:

“If a man is a gentleman, he knows quite enough, and if he is not a gentleman, whatever he knows is bad for him.”

Whatever one’s opinion on the sexes and their relation to gentleness might be, if it be in one’s interest to deceive others with the appearance of being knowledgeable and cultured, it is best to say or write whatever nonsense one might conjure in the form of an antithesis.

Our Possessing Gerunds

Johnny got an A on him English test should raise an eyebrow. 

So, why should we feel any differently about the Gerund?

Not to be confused with the Participial Adjective (a smoking chimney), or the Present Participial used to form the progressive, or imperfect, tense (Johnny is smoking like a chimney these days), the gerund, called a Verbal Noun by some and the -ing Form by the lazy, is a verb that takes the form of a noun (Lying was the only subject in which Johnny ever showed much promise). Here, the verb to lie changes to a noun by adding an -ing ending and suggesting it to be a kind of established and perennial activity.

Our common contemporary defense of the Cro-Magnon is to use the objective case pronoun before a gerund, high barbarism that even the rather reasonable Fowler called “grammatically indefensible.”

They do not like us smoking in the house. 

Good, plain, standup English? Nay. As smoking is the gerund in the sentence, and thus acting as a noun, the objective case’s us is only acceptable to those in loincloth. 

Worried about sounding stiff? For a dose of the stiffest, consider replacing the gerund smoking with its common noun equivalent, smoke:

They do not like us smoke in the house.

I can envision the grunts and bludgeonings now.

As we are not here to discuss your option in the infinitive form, your only return ticket to civilization contains the possessive/gerund combination:

They do not like our smoking in the house.

This applies to all pronoun persons: my, your, his, its, our, your, their. My wager is that no one bungles the third-person singular feminine, for her objective and dependent possessive forms are identical. 

To remember as well are the proper noun’s rule (Johnny’s smoking is officially a problem) and the indefinite pronoun’s rule (everyone’s smoking is fogging up the room).

Smoke on that.

After the Staircase

A couple of decades before the French Revolution said pooh-pooh on all things half-interesting, prominent Enlightenment figure and ne’er-do-well libertine Denis Diderot was at a dinner party, taking things rather personally.

It was in the home of statesman Jacques Necker where a remark rode roughshod enough over Diderot’s auricular sense that it nonplussed him, after which he proceeded home quite miffed about the whole thing. But why not just take a swig of something strong, toss on a wry grin, provide the assailant with the final lexical haymaker, and call it a night? Simple: Diderot had not yet reached a staircase. 

Esprit De L’Escalier, known to most English speakers as Staircase Wit, but which might also be known as Escalator WitAfterwit, or the neologism Retrotort, was psychologized by Diderot in his Paradoxe sur Le Comédien thusly:

“a sensitive man, such as myself (sic), overwhelmed by the argument levelled against him, becomes confused and [can only think clearly again when he] finds himself at the bottom of the stairs.”

Whether the result of lighthearted badinage or a life-drowning lover’s wreck, espirt de l’escalier is that perfect response or remark that comes to mind later, after the chance to make it has passed. Esprit is also an English noun meaning liveliness or vivacious wit, which plays part in the word bel-esprit: a person of intelligence and wit.

And this phenomenon seems universal enough to have swept its way eastward. 

Yiddish did it first with trepverter (staircase words). 

As usual, the Germans took things a step further. The German calque is Treppenwitz (Staircase Joke) and also applies to events that appear to be the result of a joke played by fate or history. Moreover, contemporary German’s Treppenwitz engineers further meaning, referring to events or facts that seem to contradict their own background or context. This stems from the frequently used phrase “Treppenwitz der Weltgeschichte” (staircase joke of world history), which supports Diderot’s original hypothesis that staircase wit derives from a personality paradox. 

And speaking of cognitive dissonance, there seems a lack of harmony as regards the best psychological representation of staircase wit, namely, which part of the staircase truly evokes this agenbite of could’ve, would’ve, should’ve.

There are essentially two factions. 

Faction One takes the lesser-informed top-of-the-stairs approach. It suggests this psychological phenomenon’s mot just—although Diderot denoted that those under possession of the spirt of the staircase are “confused and can only think clearly again at the bottom of the stairs—” to be best represented whenever “inspiration is gained upon ascending the stairs to retire to bed, long after the opportunity for retort has passed.” Thus, espirt de l’escalier  is unknown to those who rent bottom-floors and those who own rancher homes.

The second is the popular bottom-of-the-stairs faction. We are reminded that Jacques Necker’s home, a haven for apparent offense, was less of a home and more of a hôtel particulier, a kind of lavish mansion. In such houses (and in hotels in which I cannot afford to doss) the reception rooms were on the etage nobel, one floor above ground-level. To have alighted upon the bottom of the staircase connecting the two would mean to have left the gathering.


Bear in mind that Winnie-The-Pooh was a self-described “Bear of Very Little Brain.” I am here to suggest otherwise. Reminiscent of infamous serial-killer H.H. Holmes, Pooh’s series of name-changes actually seems to belie a certain, deliberate intellect, further proving Pooh to possess a name of not insignificant linguistical value. 

Known initially by those closest to him as Edward Bear, Pooh began his perceived transition into the epicene when his friend, Christopher Robin, renamed him after a vivacious North American female black bear at the London Zoo called Winnie, a former resident of Winnipeg, Canada.

Winnie may indeed act as a sobriquet for the masculine name “Winston,” but Winnie more backhands as short for the feminine Winifred. Winifred derives from the Anglo-Saxon Wine (friend, lord, protector) and Friþ (peace, refuge, sanctuary). Saint Winifred comes to mind. Mr. Pooh is therefore connoted as a “protector of the peace.” 

“But I thought he was a boy?”

“So did I,” said Christopher Robin.

“Then you can’t call him Winnie?”

“I don’t.”

“But you said—”

“He’s Winnie-Ther-Pooh. Don’t you know what ther’ means?”

“Ah, yes, now I do,” I said quickly; and I hope that you do too, because it is all the explanation that you are going to get.

Thanks, Alan.

Connotations however abound, Mr. Winnie-The-Pooh is indeed a gent through and through, the conundrum solved by way of a brief investigation of the rhotic language distinction, the beloved schwa, and the English honorifics system.

British English is primarily a non-rhotic language, which means that, unless an r-sound is to come before a pronounced vowel, such as in the word “red,” the r-sound is dropped. American English, due to its formative population of Scotch-Irish settlers, is primarily rhotic, which means that it almost always, except for some cases in the south and New England, pronounces the r-sound. Americans are also famous for the schwa sound, a loose vowel utterance not found in British English, which sounds like uhh, and is most readily produced by conjuring one’s most troglodytic of ancestral memories, as when an American is asking for more “buhhdder.”

Prior to the Phonetic Alphabet, any self-respecting non-rhotic British writer would denote the schwa-sound with the hesitation marker /r/, which stresses the word “the” by lengthening the schwa sound, providing certainty of Pooh’s masculine title: Winnie-ThUH-Pooh.

Names with “the” in the middle are mostly masculine. We might perceive, then, a child’s imagination to work by adding “the” to transform the feminine Winnie into a masculine title. We may now understand that Christopher Robin was prefixing his honey-addicted, ursine companion with a masculine honorific, much like that of Alfred The Great’s.

P.G. Wodehouse and The Anti-Artist Associative

On Valentine’s Day, 1975, the Sublunary’s lease on Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse was up, the Empyrean wanted its pound of flesh, and we have been paying dearly for it ever since. 

As Mirth has now been proscribed across the United States and Laughter recently legislated punishable by firing squad, Wodehouse might have thought today’s awoken zeitgeist a trifle tired and unmatey. And I am inclined to agree.

Plum’s lighthearted books certainly have their leitmotifs. Love and limerence were never too far in the offing. And it would not be an altogether uncommon experience, when casting a glance over the Wodehouse canon, to witness a few lines about an engagement in jeopardy, a bobby’s helmet purloined, or an aunt disgruntled. Moreover, there are but few, if any, true villains in Wodehouse’s works. But one has always been a close contender for the crown: The Artist. 

Wodehouse is rather notorious for his lovingly mild critiques of poets, painters, and sententious pains in the posterior of all kinds. In his 1917 novel Piccadilly Jim, during Mr. Chester’s attending of a party inhabited by artists, this predilection for putting down his fellow “breed” is wisely unleashed. 

Although the standard recipe for a vacuous, unmatey human has remained fairly consistent going on several millennia, we may, as needed, adjust the forthcoming recipe of fashions, ethical and otherwise, to fit our time’s newly enlightened contrarian orthodoxy: a dash of blue-hair-infinity-effect selfie and so forth.

Wodehouse begins by batting around a few ameliorative depictions of those peace-loving wearers of berets we all know and love. Would it not be without some justifiably “strong objections,” that the Wit’s gentle philistine soul enter a room quarantined by “the hoarse cries of futurist painters, esoteric Buddhists, vers libre poets, interior decorators and stage reformers…men with new religions…(and) women with new hats?” Can we not already envision, amongst this “jamboree” of the enlightened avant-garde, “Ernest Wisden, the playwright… Lora Delance Porter, the feminist writer…Clara What’s-Her-Name, the sculptor, with the bobbed hair?” Is it not also common knowledge that, if one of mildly shrewd means were to attend a party with “that mental broadening process already alluded to,” that he should expect to be “pounced on by a woman who talked to him for an hour about the morality of finance and [who] seem(s) to think that millionaires (are) the scum of the earth?” Forsooth, it is empirically sound to conclude that, when in the “environs” of such genius, great swathes of sheep-grazed pasture will inevitably be “dominated…by an angular woman who (is) saying loud and penetrating things about suffrage.”

Tableaus of such evils are enough. Imagine, then, the traumatic experience of actually having to traverse such a beastly throng. It is not too much to posit this extreme mental exercise as being equally reminiscent to “plung(ing) into a pack of coyotes” only to be “torn to pieces by wild poets.” Therefore, in the simple interest of self-preservation, it is best for one to find a way around incurring such savage acts of mayhem and the subsequent bodily harm pursuant thereto. One certain way to preclude the aforementioned carnage would be to interpose upon the scene the spirited cries of a child being pummeled to crabmeat by a former professional boxer. Wodehouse decides to employ in his narrative just that certainty, whereupon all “twelve highly intellectual topics” meet their instantaneous demise: “futurist painters stared pallidly at vers libre poets, speech smitten from their lips, and stage reformers looked at esoteric Buddhists with wild surmise.” Yet, no good, mismatched street fight is complete without a decent exploration to the conquered’s abdominals with the steel toe of the victor’s size-fifteen boot. And, it is with a rather lively kick that Wodehouse describes of the abovementioned get-together as a “feast of reason and flow of soul.”

It is lonely at the top, and the head where lies the crown reigns heavy indeed, but such is the cross that good wit must bear. The pates of entire communities must be indiscriminately cleaved from shoulders, and spears must bring forth the water of endless sides, and the first in line are those who are full of it: the artists.