Writers on Writing: Manners and Wit

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.

And again:

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?

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Writers on Writing: Manners and Wit — 22 Comments

  1. An excellent point about conversation being a lost art. Lately I’ve been wondering if it is only in books that people seem to have lost the ability to speak– it often seems to me that real conversation is only portrayed as part of courting– part of establishing the furniture for a Hollywood “real connection”.

  2. I also think that to be at its best, wit must be a live performance: part of its shine lies in speed and timing. I admire a writer who can come up with the perfect verbal riposte, but for all I know, she spent three months thinking it up. The person who can do that in conversation? Far more impressive.

    But even in non-spontaneous forms, I often think it’s accurate to say I prefer wit to humour. In other words, verbal cleverness is often much funnier to me than modes that seem uproariously funny to others, like physical comedy or gross-out humour. (There’s a reason I watch very few comedic movies.)

  3. Cheryl: I first began to wonder about conversation back in my twenties, when I was taken to an exclusive party full of wealthy jet-setters (the term then) who had tons of money and so they skiied in Switzerland, and scuba dove in the Caribbean or Mediterranean, and shopped in Paris. You know what most of them talked about: what they bought, and what happened at other parties. They were the most killingly boring people I’d ever seen . . . of course I had no context for any of those experiences, being a hand-to-mouth grad student who made my own clothes, and of course hadn’t attended any of their parties. But I’d thought they would be more like clever people in literature.

    Marie: well, I like humor of all kinds, except I have a scant appreciation for humiliation humor. If I feel it’s deserved, it can strike me as funny, but the humiliation of the powerless or the hapless is just painful.

  4. I totally agree with you that wit exists at all social levels!

    I think maybe part of makes wit difficult to write is that, precisely as you say, there are all different sorts of wit depending on social circles. You can write a witty exchange among high school kids, or among people on a road crew, or among parents standing at the sidelines of a kids’ soccer game, or among soldiers on their down time–but these will sound different, and the content will be different, and I’m not sure which will have broad appeal and which will only be interesting to people interested in the groups concerned. And if you’re writing stuff set in another world, then you have to find a type of wit that fits with those characters and yet will be humorous to readers, and that’s got challenges, for sure.

  5. Chesterfield got it right, but I also think that wit being a potential weapon, people fear it more in women. Maybe I should say men fear it more in women?

  6. I enjoyed this. I’ve always wondered what wit was–appreciated the definition.

    I’d argue though that conversation has just changed. While I do think people are more awkward at face to face conversation with strangers than they may have been because we’re not often thrown in such circumstances without movies or TV to use as a crutch, I always see people on cellphones or chatting online. Conversations still occur but now they may be unaccompanied by body language.

  7. Behindpyramids: Someone at my blog site (where I linked here) observed that they think conversation has shifted to Twitter and Facebook, which intersects with your comments. Though I guess I draw a distinction between talk between two people and social-setting conversation.

    Pilgrimsoul: Do you think that men fearing women’s wit is an issue now? I’m thinking of the Salon days–the Madame Rambouillets and Madame du Deffands and so forth whose homes were designed around the art of conversation. Women have served as the loci for salons more than men have; in fact, the salons were the only conduit women had to power at certain periods of history. They could not hold political position, so their influence had to be indirect.

    Asakiyume: So true. Another observation is that sometimes a group of people (usually very small but not always) get so into their own groove of humor that they become uproarously funny to one another . . . but they are just noisy to onlookers.

  8. Yes, I do think women’s wit is an issue now and always has been. Some of the Salonnieres were social tyrants despite the lack of political power. Now we have Mean Girls, but I don’t find them witty.

  9. Pilgrimsoul: That is an interesting subject. I have read about (and met) Mean Girls who were quite witty, but their wit was cruel, and they used it to control their social set. (And yep, the downside of the Salonnieres was their penchant for exclusivity.)

    I wonder if the exclusivity of the salons is in part responsible for the rise of the coffeehouse, where anyone could go as long as they had the price of a coffee. Of course there is no one reason for everything–paradigm–rise of literacy–so many factors.

  10. I believe wit has largely been replaced by quips, most often thrown out by the action hero just before he offs the villan.

    Of course quips are on their way out, soon to be overtaken by snarkiness.

    It’s the de-evolution of humour.

  11. SKS Perry: Quips were what the Algonquin Roundtable descended to, after starting as a literary discussion group. I suspect the problem was that shift to performance for an audience rather than sharing ideas.

  12. Fictional wit, of course, is wounding people who don’t really exist, which helps neutralize the danger.

    The place where I really missed wit, recently, was a first-person narrative. The character was telling her story, and I was thinking that it really needed some sparkle because this lead-footed prose left her looking like — well, a person who talks in lead-footed prose.

  13. It seems to me that we’ve ended up with plenty of sarcasm but less and less of the compassion that enables wit not *only* to be a skewer—sniper rifle rather than rapier, I suppose, since sarcasm exposes the speaker less.

    I wonder too to what extent (even if it is not specifically a class-constrained issue) the exercise of wit depends upon the expectation that one might ever see conversational partners or a specific group again, or at least see their friends at one remove. It seems to me that wit isn’t necessarily practiced upon/with those with whom one’s most familiar; one needs some kind of recurring social context.

    A couple of friends “do wit” to some extent, so it does still exist (both are about thirty); they grew up in a context in which everyone was clever at something and knew it, and where reading unusual things was just what one did. (Same arts-heavy private school.) Neither of them is a fan of novels of manners, FWIW. 🙂

  14. So to summarize….

    Wit is power. And people don’t even do that for themselves anymore.

    I love wit. It can be arms or armor, but I think it can also be aligned with wisdom, in that it can be self-referential too. (P.G. Wodehouse was a master of benign wit.)

  15. SKG: Wit can definitely skewer, though Austen and Chesterfield both regarded that as a lower form of wit.

    Camille: wit is power, very true. Sometimes in the past, that was about the only weapon women had.

  16. Sherwood, I agree with both you and PilgrimSoul: although wit was one of the few “weapons” historically available to women, men resorted to the usual countermeasures when annoyed by the soundbite. Even today, the surest way for a woman to get hurt — even killed — beyond being defined as “wanton” is to laugh at a man. I have personal experience of this (I almost lost an eye in such an exchange) but here’s a historical event from my culture:

    In Byzantine times, noble families would show their daughters when the time came for the emperor to choose a consort. In one of those lineups in the eighth century was Kassiani, a beautiful, accomplished and intelligent young woman (an Elizabeth Bennett of her time). Noticing her, the young Emperor Theophilos approached her and said: “Through a woman the worst”, referring to Eve. She promptly responded by saying: “And through a woman the best”, referring to the Virgin Mary.

    His pride wounded, Theophilos rejected her and chose suitably meek Theodora as his wife (though she, too, came into her own as dowager empress when he died). Kassiani became the abbess of a powerful convent, was eventually elevated to sainthood, and wrote many well-remembered hymns. One is still sung in the Orthodox Church during the Passion week (the Troparion of Kassiani).

  17. @ Athena
    Your historical story instantly resonated with me, but it was some comfort to know the brilliant Kassiani found meaningful work. I find the importance of women as wives and regents truly fascinating in Byzantine History.

  18. I’m glad the story resonated with you both! There are many folk stories around Kassiani. And powerful women are fixtures in Hellenic history, mythology and folklore, notwithstanding the culture’s tibre.

  19. I also have had my one brush with injury from laughing at a man — in a situation where I was actually laughing at the situation, but he misinterpreted — and ever since I find I place a man higher in reckoning if he can laugh at himself.

    We are so much spectators, I think the quip has become a common substitute for wit. We see something on TV and make an aside that may crack up the room. I’m blessed with a group of people I see twice a month, usually, who value conversation, but only rarely does wit enter into things, because there is so much variety in the backgrounds of the guests. The computer people have their own jokes, but only the computer people may get the skewer just tossed into the mix — that sort of thing. There is overlap, but not huge.

  20. I certainly agree with you, Sherwood. Too little wit is seen today in literature, and it’s part of the general withdrawal into facebook and twitter, where you can only write a set number of words.
    Although I have seen a few authors who expound in wit – in fantasy, Ed Greenwood and George R. R. Martin. Of course, both often deal with courts and social status, where as you siad, wit is often applied.
    Mary, your words were hilarious and correct – sarcasm is easier. Sometimes though, it seems too easy. One hsould always remeber not to overload sarcasm, if one does not wat to define the character as a cynic.