As I was growing up, I became aware of people talking about how witty this book was, or that movie, or a famous person sitting in a famous cafe in Manhattan or Paris. I began to read Jane Austen, and saw her references to wit. Then I saw references to how wittily she wrote about wit.
Sometimes people said funny, but mostly it was witty.
So what is wit?
Included among Webster’s definitions: The ability to make lively, clever remarks in a sharp, amusing way.
And again, in the old Collegiate version: Wit suggests the power to evoke laughter by remarks showing verbal felicity or ingenuity and swift perception especially of the incongruous.
Here’s Lord Chesterfield (who besides Gilly Williams was considered one of the wittiest people in ci-pays-ci):
Ready wit may create many admirers, but take my word for it, it makes few friends. It shines and dazzles like the noon-day sun, but, like that too, is very apt to scorch, and therefore is always feared…Never seek for wit; if it presents itself, well and good; but even in that case let your judgement interpose, and take care that it be not at the expense of anybody.
If God gives you wit, which I am not sure that I wish you, unless he gives you at the same time an equal portion at least of judgement to keep it in good order, wear it like your sword in the scabbard, and do not brandish it to the terror of the whole company…Wit is so shining a quality that everybody admires it, most people aim at it, all people fear it, and few love it, unless in themselves.
There is a reason wit is likened to swords, because it can be wielded as a weapon. Like fencing, it requires speed and the skill of instant assessment: the fencer assesses the opponent’s defense and offense, the wit assesses not just the target but the listeners as the fast exchange goes on. I’m one of those who is lucky to think of a perfect comeback two weeks later, in the middle of the night. The wit, like the duelist, matches the sally, disengages . . . and lunges with the perfect skewer.
The duelist must also exhibit style, that is, does not bludgeon the opponent but skewers with grace. Wit as well an expert duel can be a pleasure to watch–so long as one is not the target. For the duelist as well as the wit, there is pleasure in the challenge, the risk of matched skills.
Some maintain that wit is the province of the upper class. I don’t think so. Upper class wit is the province of the upper class. Now, if the beholder admires what he or she acknowledges as the upper class, that is, something above one that one aspires to, then one emulates the manners of that group–and admires its wit. But wit exists in all groups, wherever they are perceived on any given social scale. Wit can be used against those trying to climb as well as at the expense of those who claim superiority or privilege. Wit can be exclusionary, or inclusive. In other words, wit can be a great leveler, and it is both admired and feared because it can be wielded without physical exertion yet the impact is often likened to a bomb.
It seems to me there are many types of wit. There is punning repartee, but this is almost always verbal wit, topical in nature, and usually without wisdom or insight. It isn’t memorable, unless the the context itself is memorable. Charlotte Bronte gives us an example of this type of wit in the company gathered at the Rochester home in Jane Eyre.
In the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth century wits (as well as those later) verbal wit was almost always topical, thus the witty comment worked at the time, the place, and in the style of its delivery. This kind of wit has been rarely written down, and except for a very few exceptions, most examples don’t wear well. The above-mentioned Gilly Williams was supposed to be the master at it. The examples of his wit that show up in contemporary letters aren’t all that funny now, but at the time he could crack up an entire room. Chesterfield could as well, but there was sharp psychological awareness shaping his wit, and behind that a deep and abiding desire for humanity to achieve real, and not superficial, civilization.
Verbal wit seems to have been largely exclusionary: the chuckle of the in-group at the expense of those who want to be in.
Wit in literature is not confined to cruelty at the expense of others, though there are plenty of examples of cruel wit that have endured. See quotations from the Algonquin Table lunches. Wit with insight is entertaining and illuminating, especially when the point is made against the worthy target, instead of merely the weak. When I think of modern examples, the first to my mind is Rachel Maddow. In literature, Tom Wolfe has been witty about the follies of modern society. Tom Stoppard is another.
Oscar Wilde’s plays glitter with wit at the expense of the follies of his own society. A good many of his witty epigrams are predicated on shared assumptions about the differences between men and women. Some of those differences–one can be thankful–are no longer true, rendering one-time wit into mere curiosity.
Mr. Darcy is drawn to Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice by her mesmerizing ability to combine wit and compassion. Her wit is ironic at the expense of the hypocrite, the pompous, the fool. Her compassion is expended fearlessly on behalf of the defensible: the honest, the steady, loyal, loving, kind. Image, metaphor, Classical allusion, all of these are the compost that bring forth the flowering of wit.
Wit sparks off shared cultural assumptions and references–what the semioticians call signposts. In Austen’s day, the references included a heavy reliance on the classics–by which I mean Greek and Latin writers–which makes them seem impossibly erudite to modern readers. Not so at the time; all but the most superficial educational systems (and Austen satirized those, too) included this reading, and so Virgil and Aristotle were as familiar then as references to TV show and video games and famous comics are to us now.
Why is wit so difficult to write?
Here is my theory. I don’t think many contemporary writers know that wit is missing, and that is because they don’t actually have their characters converse. The old art of conversation seems as rare as that Classical education. People seldom gather to talk, either as friends or when courting–they get together and do things, whether it’s watch the tube together, go to sports events together, or go shopping just to be doing something.
Not that conversation was always brilliant in Austen’s time. In her various novels, we see some very funny examples of what not to do in conversation, from the vapidity and selfishness of the Thorpes in Northanger Abbey to Mrs. Elton’s determined efforts to gain, and keep, the center of attention in Emma. To return to writers and writing, I think the sparkling dialogue of old novels comes directly out of years of developed skill at the art of conversation. Have we lost that art these days, when most of our talk seems to be held on the run, when our leisure energy is spent as spectators rather than as participants?