January 12, 2015

The eloquence of Oscar Wilde

A cartoon of Oscar Wilde at the end of his visit to America in 1882, The Judge magazine.
[UPDATE - Martin Amis on the perfect paragraph rhetoric of Hitchens here and below]

Christopher Hitchens was a man of inimitable intellect and staggering, effortless eloquence. I've often pondered how he possessed such mastery and control of the language and rhetorical flair. I feel that James Joyce, speaking to Vanity Fair in Paris in 1922, gives a hint:
"All the great talkers have spoken in the language of Sterne, Swift, or the Restoration. Even Oscar Wilde. He studied the restoration through a microscope in the morning and repeated it through a telescope in the evening."
W.B. Yeats wrote:
"My first meeting with Oscar Wilde was an astonishment. I never before heard a man talking with perfect sentences, as if he had written them all over night with labour and yet all spontaneous."
And V.S. Pritchett wrote about W.B. Yeats:
"[W.B. Yeats] was the only man I have known whose natural speech sounded like verse."
Pritchett recounted a meeting with Yeats also:
"I wrote to Yeats and went to interview him. He was very impressive—tall, handsome, with dramatic gestures and a fine voice. I was having tea with him one day, and I remember he picked up a pot of tea and, finding that it was already full of old tea, he opened the window of his Georgian house and flung the contents into the square! Rhetoric poured out of him all the while."
And here's Martin Amis on Christopher Hitchens:
"No one on earth wanted to debate him on any of these topics because he could be Cicero plus Demosthenes in debate. Absolutely terrifying speaker. Not just perfect sentences but perfect paragraphs, and perfect paragraphs sequence."
We can say, as James Joyce said in his 1922 interview with Djuna Barnes and Mina Loy, that, like Oscar Wilde, W.B. Yeats and Hitchens study the great works through a microscope in the morning and repeat it through a telescope in the evening. Nothing comes effortlessly and without strain. It's an effacement of reality to think that virility and stamina comes without hard work and preparation. The myth of effortless genius is exactly that, a myth, as Charlie Rose said:
"I’ve never said to anybody, in all the years at this table for more than 20 years, ‘So what’s the secret to what you’ve achieved,’ no one has said ‘I’m just smarter and better and more talented than everybody else.’ They all say, every one of them say, ‘I worked harder, I cared more, I was more passionate, I wanted it more’."
That's why Sean O'Casey said that "All the world’s a stage and most of us are desperately unrehearsed." And funnily Hitchens said once, "I should have this more closely memorised", suggesting that many of his speeches, quips and aphorisms are memorised.

I previously wrote a post about Dale Carnegie and public speaking here

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