Paul Vallely: Will's right - better a witty fool than a foolish wit

Too much modern wit is merely paradox for its own sake - or oxymorons for the oxymoronic

Share
Related Topics

Nobody likes a smartarse, it is said. But we seem to have been prepared to make an exception for Gore Vidal. His death has been greeted with generous tributes and copious quotation from a lifetime of waspish wisecracks. Perhaps we have a greater tolerance for professional smartarses, which is why, on this side of the Pond, Stephen Fry is so admired.

The British are suspicious of anyone seen as too clever by half, or by three-quarters as was said of that great polymath Jonathan Miller – who, when asked about his ethno-religious origins, once replied, "I'm not really a Jew, just Jew-ish." That is waggish rather than waspish, though the latter has been a unifying trait in modern wits from Oscar Wilde on through W S Gilbert, H L Mencken, Ambrose Bierce, Dorothy Parker, and Groucho Marx to Vidal himself. The aim has been simultaneously to irritate, illuminate and amuse, preferably with some exquisitely phrased puckish celebration of the sheer deliciousness of the English language.

But some of it is just bad-tempered. Mark Twain was so irritated by Jane Austen, he expostulated, that: "Every time I read Pride and Prejudice, I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone." Virginia Woolf described James Joyce's Ulysses as "the work of a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples". And Dorothy Parker merely sounded jealous when said: "If all the girls who attended the Yale Prom this year were laid end to end, I wouldn't be a bit surprised".

Some of it is simply cruel. Winston Churchill rounded on a woman who accused him of being drunk with the words: "Yes, madam, I am, but in the morning I will be sober, and you will still be ugly". Noël Coward said of Edith Evans "she took her curtain calls as though she had just been un-nailed from the cross". There is a pinched spite in such putdowns. And something curmudgeonly too. Wits are rarely as lovable in person as in print.

In Shakespeare's day, wit was about ingenuity in metaphor, pun and paradoxical conceit, rather than personal remarks. Love's Labour's Lost and Much Ado About Nothing are filled with extended fencing matches in which courtly wit is the rapier that, in Mercutio's phrase, turns any argument into a swordfight. To Donne, Herbert, Marvell and the other Metaphysical Poets, wit meant wordplay of brevity, eloquence and surprise to contrive unfamiliar connections between words and ideas, creating new insights. But it was not a bundle of laughs.

Wit has its roots in the old English "witan", meaning "to know". It was intellectual display of cleverness and quickness rather than humour, though it often dwelt on weaknesses, foibles and absurdity. So it continued through the time of Dryden, Locke and Pope. Wit and wisdom were synonyms. No more. Oscar Wilde turned wit into mere cleverness with epigrams such as: "Bigamy is having one wife too many; monogamy is the same." His was the coruscating comedy of lines such as: "I must decline your invitation due to a subsequent engagement." It is revealing that the motto adopted by Ambrose Bierce, author of The Devil'sDictionary, was: "Nothing Matters."

The exponents of modern wit would deny this superficiality. They would say their contrarian stance was a reprimand to the id-iocies of mass culture and a determined refusal to parrot the received wisdom of the day. Yet much of it is merely paradox for its own sake – or oxymorons for the oxymoronic. "Always be sincere, whether you mean it or not," said Michael Flanders. "Vice is its own reward," said Quentin Crisp.

Indeed, professional wits, even at a private dinner, often seem so preoccupied with the search for their next aperç* that they never quite relax, and neither do you. The flow of conversation and ideas is impeded rather than enhanced. Wit has become, to borrow Henry Ford's aphorism on history, just one damn gag after another.

At its best, comedy is simply a funny way of being serious. "One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors," said Plato. "Nobody talks more of free enterprise and competition and of the best man winning than the man who inherited his father's store or farm," said Marxist historian C Wright Mills. "Literature is mostly about having sex and not much about having children; life is the other way round," said the novelist David Lodge.

"We are the United States of Amnesia," Gore Vidal wrote at his best, lamenting how his country had, like Rome, slipped from a republic to an empire. "We learn nothing because we remember nothing."

For Shakespeare, the wit of Love's Labour's Lost gave way to the unresolved conclusions of King Lear, Macbeth, Coriolanus and The Tempest. "A writer must always tell the truth. Unless he's a journalist," quipped Vidal. Shakespeare's clown in Twelfth Night offered a conclusion which cuts deeper: "Better a witty fool," says Feste, "than a foolish wit."

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Riyadh is setting itself up as region’s policeman

Lina Khatib
Ed Miliband and David Cameron  

Cameron and Miliband should have faith in their bolder policies

Ian Birrell
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor