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.