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

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."