Archive for February, 2013

Distinguishing Types of Wit

By Bob Litton

“We should take care not to make the intellect our god; it has, of course, powerful muscles, but no personality.”  — Albert Einstein

A favorite word —I might even say, the favorite word— of the Augustan Age (1660-1800) was wit.  Recently, while attempting the read of a rather tedious compilation of 17th and 18th Century literary pieces, I was again struck by the ubiquity and variety of wit’s use by authors of that era.  The book¹ is a browned and brittle paperback volume dating from the year I took a course in Augustan Age English literature at Southern Methodist University.  I didn’t read all of it then nor the second time I delved into it two decades ago, but I am determined to finish that book now along with all the other unread works constituting about a third of the volumes on my two book cases.  It’s a to-the-death-of-me project.

It is hard to imagine the ubiquity of wit, the word, in writings of that time; I’m a bit surprised the term didn’t find its way into the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution; but it didn’t, presumably because not many of its uses fit the tone of those publications.  In England, the word appeared frequently in the works of writers from John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester (1647-1680)² to Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)³.  The latter, especially, made much use of the term and seemed to prize the quality above many other attributes a person might possess.  Wit, both as a term and as an admired characteristic, was in fact so prominent during the period that Joseph Addison (1672-1719) devoted two of his Spectator issues (No. 58, May 7, 1711 and No. 62, May 11, 1711) to defining and analyzing the word.

But, before I go much farther, I should exhibit a dictionary’s definition of wit.   Here is an abbreviated definition from my 1991 Merriam Webster’s dictionary:

  1. a: MIND, MEMORY   b: reasoning power: INTELLIGENCE
  2. a: SENSE  — usually used in the plural (alone and warming his five wits, the white owl in his belfry sits — Alfred Tennyson);   b.  (1) mental soundness: SANITY — usually used in the plural  (2): mental capability and resourcefulness : INGENUITY
  3. a: astuteness of perception or judgment: ACUMEN;  b: the ability to relate seemingly disparate things so as to illuminate or amuse;  c: (1) a talent for banter or persiflage; (2) a witty utterance or exchange.
  4. a: a person of superior intellect: THINKER;  b. an imaginatively perceptive and articulate individual especially skilled in banter or persiflage.

And since “banter” and “persiflage” are not part of the general public’s ordinary lexicon, I’ll add brief definitions of those terms as well:

BANTER:  good-natured and usually witty animated joking.

PERSIFLAGE:  frivolous, bantering talk; light raillery.

In his essays, Addison took particular aim at what he called “false wit”.  The first sort of false wit he mentions are those short poems printed in a manner such that they resemble objects, e.g., an egg, angel’s wings or an altar.  George Herbert (1593-1633) frequently used that mode of poetic structure.  An American poet I knew personally, William Burford, wrote at least one poem employing that structure: a Christmas tree.

Other types of “false wit” which Addison denigrates (in his second essay) are anagrams (the transposition of a word or phrase to make a new word or phrase), chronograms (inscriptions in which certain letters are read as Roman numerals and thus as dates), lipograms (poems in which a letter of the alphabet is entirely omitted), acrostics (lines of verse in which the first letters form a word or phrase), and puns.  “True wit”, wrote Addison, “consists in the resemblance of ideas, and false wit in the resemblance of words.”  Emphasis mine.  (One of the weaknesses of Shakespeare was his over-abundant use of puns.)

Furthermore, Addison wrote, “…every resemblance of ideas is not that which we call wit, unless it be one that gives delight and surprise to the reader: these two properties seem essential to wit, more particularly the last of them….Thus when a poet tells us the bosom of his mistress is as white as the snow, there is no wit in the comparison; but when he adds, with a sigh, that it is as cold too, it then grows into wit.”

Now I will divert into personal experience.  I consider myself a natural humorist.  What I mean by that is that whenever I make a wry remark or point out a curious irony, I am merely taking humorous note of objects or events in the world around me.  For instance, once, in a university class where we were studying The French Revolution and Napoleon, the professor, while describing the Paris of the 18th Century, mentioned a street that was, and still is, known as constituting “the red light district”.  For those of my readers who may not be acquainted with that phrase, a “red light district” is an area where prostitution is the dominant occupation.  After the professor had mentioned this street and its continuing reputation and had gone on to other points in his lecture, I raised my hand.

“Yes?” said the professor, by way of inviting me to ask a question.

“How do you spell the name of that street?”

The class broke out in laughter, and the professor smiled while he pointed an index finger at me as though he were about to fire a pistol.

Now, I could have thought the whole day long alone in my room and not have been able to come up with that bit of persiflage — 3(2) above; but I was able to take advantage of the opportunity when it popped up in front of me.  On the other hand, I can’t recall the last, or indeed any, time that I employed a pun; while a person I know in my town can hardly utter a sentence without engaging in punning repartee.  In other words, my humor is in my marrow, not my brain.

The wittiest moment I ever witnessed, however, was not in person but on the radio.  A culturally oriented station in Dallas, WRR-FM, which mostly plays classical music, used to run a local comedy hour as well as a syndicated panel of “wits”.  I never heard enough of either of those shows: the DJ on the first played all kinds of comedy records, especially skits from “Beyond the Fringe” albums; the moderator on the panel show would present a phrase for some member of the panel to elaborate on.  My favorite memory of the latter show was one in which the moderator quoted that old bromide, “you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear”.  The male panelist who accepted the challenge related a long, hilarious story about how and why the sow lost one ear and someone creatively used it to make a purse.  I don’t recall the details (most regrettably, how he transformed the ear into silk), so I can’t adequately represent the hilarity of the fellow’s tale.  Just take my word for it: that was what I would nominate as the perfect example of true wit — 2(2) and 3b above.

Now for a much more personal anecdote relating to the importance of the meaning of wit in the daily struggle to survive.  I must interpose here a slight bit of mystical tenor.  Back in the early 1990s, while I was a frequent attendee at AA meetings, my spiritual antennae extended: I experienced some mystical episodes.  However, I don’t intend to expand this essay into a theological treatise; I merely mean to lay out the back-story for the event I will share.

During my mystical period, I was “touched” in various ways much as the lead character, Jerry Landers (John Denver), experienced in the 1977 movie Oh, God!  I’m referring to the scenes in which Jerry receives an appointment note from God in the mail, tosses it away as a supposed joke from a friend, and then finds it again in a head of lettuce.  Thankfully, I did not “see” God, nor did I ever “hear” Him.

At the time, I was working for temp agencies while trying to find a permanent job doing anything that was stable.  I applied at a department store chain’s corporate office in Dallas; although, viewing my application as insensibly pathetic, I didn’t really expect to be summoned for an interview.  However, as I was driving home one day from an assignment in Richardson, the name of a grade school classmate, Roland Lindsey, popped into my mind.  While I was wondering why I had thought of him, the name of an air force buddy, Donald Lindsley, also popped into my consciousness.  I pondered the oddity of those two invading my mind for a short while and then forgot them.  Entering the apartment that I shared with my brother Elbert, I noticed a note he had left for me on a step of the stairway leading to our upstairs bedrooms.  “Bobby, call Ronald Lindley at the department store (I’m leaving the name of the company out for a reason that will be evident shortly).”  I felt a sensation of near-shock: So that was the reason I had thought of those two names!

I called Mr. Lindley the next day and we set up an interview appointment.  The job opening was that of editor of an in-house magazine directed toward an audience of female sales associates whose average age was 40 — something to read in the company’s break rooms.

I had included photocopies of two of my newspaper clippings with the application, so I made the mistake of not taking my large clipbook with me to the appointment.  Also, I had to wait an irritatingly long time in the anteroom at Mr. Lindley’s office before I was called in, which didn’t help my attitude any.  During our conversation, I began to suspect that whoever forwarded my application to Mr. Lindley had left out the clippings or Mr. Lindley had neglected to read them.  He described the job to me and stressed how important it was for the editor to not only grab the readers’ interest but to liven up their day with humor.

“Are you witty, Mr. Litton?” he asked.

I wasn’t sure what he meant by “witty”, but after a pause I answered “Yes”, thinking of wit as being the same thing as general humor.  My hesitancy in replying caused him to doubt my understanding of his question.

“Are you adept with punning?” he said.

“I don’t express myself that way much.  I just am adept at being funny.”

Out of pretended politeness, he asked me some questions about Monahans and Ward County, where I had worked as the newspaper editor for five and a half years.  Then he said, “I don’t think you’re the caliber of person we need.”

“I don’t think so either,” I replied, not attempting politeness.

Mr. Lindley summoned his assistant.  “Sandra, please show Mr. Litton the way to the elevator so he won’t get lost in these halls.”

I went home, where I picked up the book I mentioned above to distract my mind from the day’s disappointment.  I had been reading that book for several days already; it was my second attempt to read it all the way through.  Suddenly, I was stunned to discover that the next piece to read was that very essay I have just discussed, the one about the distinction between “true” and “false” wit.  I slapped my brow in disgust.  Had I read Addison’s essays prior to my job interview I would have been better prepared to present my case.   I became angry at God, or rather the Holy Spirit, because that was the Person with whom I had related, not God the Father or Jesus.  Why did the Holy Spirit mislead me like that? I wondered.

That night, just after retiring, I felt a strong impulsion to read the book of Jonah — a book I had never read before.  I took my Bible off the shelf in the headboard of my bed and read.  Near the story’s end, where Jonah is lamenting the withering of the gourd which God had provided him for shade, and wishing he were dead, God asks Jonah, “Are you right to be angry over the gourd?”  I felt like I had been struck between the eyes with insight.

There are many directions contemplation of that episode can take us, but, in the last analysis, isn’t it simply funny?


¹ English Prose and Poetry 1660-1800, A Selection, Edited by Frank Brady and Martin Price, (Holt, Rinehart & Winston: 1961).

² Rochester fancied himself a libertine in the mold of Boileau and Hobbes and thus professed a distrust of Reason (wit), which his contemporaries, on the other hand,  generally appreciated.  In his most famous poem, “A Satyr (i.e., satire) Against Mankind”, he wrote:  “And wit was his vain, frivolous pretense/Of pleasing others at his own expense,/For wits are treated just like common whores:/First they’re enjoyed, and then kicked out of doors./The pleasure past, a threatening doubt remains/That frights th’ enjoyer with succeeding pains./Women and men of wit are dangerous tools,/And ever fatal to admiring fools:…” (Lines 35-42).

³ In contrast to Rochester, Dr. Johnson rated wit highly, perhaps second only to piety, both of which qualities he saw in Jonathan Swift.  In his prefatory essay to Swift’s works,  Johnson wrote:  “In the reign of Queen Anne he turned the stream of popularity against the Whigs, and must be confessed to have dictated for a time the political opinions of the English nation.  In the succeeding reign he delivered Ireland from plunder and oppression; and showed that wit, confederated with truth, had such force as authority was unable to resist.”



Our Violent Nation

By Bob Litton

When I was a child in grade school during the 1940s, there was no obvious need for electronic detection devices or armed guards patrolling the hallways, at least not in my hometown of Dallas.  Ironically enough, there was some alarm about the possibility of an atomic bomb attack; photos exist of children in my generation huddled under their classroom desks, as though that would help protect them.  Also, our general acquaintance with violence in films was quite sanitary, and the reality of a weapon’s effect was diminished by the absence of visible blood.  Our cowboy heroes shot the guns out of the outlaws’ hands, and the Indians galloping around the wagon train’s circle simply fell off their horses.

Of course, in the real world there was actual violence, especially during the decades immediately prior to our own and in the larger cities of Chicago, New York, and Las Vegas. And even in Dallas, the decade before, there had been the days of Bonnie and Clyde.   In the Dallas of the 1940s, there were reports of the escapades of gangsters Benny Binion, Herb Noble and Cecil Green;  but those guys seemed to concentrate on killing each other,  not children in the schools.  I do recall one episode of a man being shot in the back of the head while viewing a movie at the Capitan theater;  my brother Elbert was there that night and claimed that the bullet whizzed right over his own head.   Nonetheless, these were incidents most of us children never witnessed, although we might have heard our parents talk about them.  And the only images of bodies evidencing bloody ends were those in the Police Gazette, which my father read.

In the 1960s, things changed.  Fictional violence on television and in movies became more constant, ubiquitous and explicit.  Racial protests and consequent beatings were televised, and the Vietnam War was brought home daily through our TV sets.

In 1965, a French/Italian group produced The 10th Victim, which depicted a fictional international club known as the “Big Hunt”.  A participant could win fame and fortune by surviving five rounds as hunter and then five rounds as prey.  According to the Wikipedia article on this film, “…big wars are avoided by giving individuals with violent tendencies a chance to kill in the Big Hunt.”

That was followed in 1967 by Bonnie and Clyde, “…one of the first films to feature extensive use of squibs — small explosive charges, often mounted with bags of stage blood, that are detonated inside an actor’s clothes to simulate bullet hits.  Released in an era where shootings were generally depicted as bloodless and painless, the Bonnie and Clyde death scene was one of the first in mainstream American cinema to be depicted with graphic realism.” (Wikipedia)  When I first saw Bonnie and Clyde, I was shocked by the graphically realistic ending, but I also applauded it because it shunted the chimera of “painless and bloodless” violence.  Now, more than half a century later, I’m not sure my approval was justified.

The previous year, the nation was shocked when Charles Whitman, atop the University of Texas tower in Austin, shot and killed 11 persons on the campus below after having already killed his wife and mother at home and four persons within the tower.  A group of varied medical professionals later concluded that a tumor in his brain might have caused his violent behavior.

In 1968, another film — this one patterned on the UT-Austin massacre — was released, contemporaneously with the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. Its title was Targets, and it included a cameo role for Boris Karloff as a retired horror film star.  Although the main character in Targets, a Vietnam veteran, does kill his wife and mother before going out on a spree of killing anonymous victims, his shooting takes place not on a college campus but first on an oil storage tank at a refinery and then from the stage of a drive-in theater.  Karloff appears on the stage for a guest appearance, after the film is over and just before the killer arrives.  As Wikipedia describes the film’s finale, “…the old-fashioned, traditional screen monster who always obeyed the rules confronts the new, realistic, nihilistic late 1960s ‘monster’ in the shape of a clean-cut, unassuming multiple murderer.”  Karloff slaps the killer down and then utters sardonically, “Is this what I was afraid of?” (Rotten Tomatoes)

I will spare my readers mention of all the Clint Eastwood and Bruce Willis films of similarly violent content.  I think we can all admit that we have surfeited now on decades of bloody films and television.

Presently, the nation is finally locked in a real debate over what to do about gun violence, especially in our schools.  This debate is a positive event…if it leads to anything effective.   As is the case with other major social issues that are being debated — immigration, birth control, marijuana, sexual orientation — both sides have valid arguments.  I have a “side” regarding gun violence, although I don’t have much in the way of a totally effective solution to offer.

It is true that the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights contains an amendment that allows for gun ownership by individuals…because a well regulated militia is necessary to the security of a free state.  The picture I see the writers of the Constitution having in mind is of a musket perched above the citizen-farmer’s fireplace which the farmer might take down to go out and hunt bear, deer, and squirrels; or the citizen might take it down to respond to his local colonel’s call for volunteers to go out and fight the Indians or the British.  I don’t see our forefathers imagining an AR-15 or an AK-47 hanging above the fireplace for the angry citizen-farmer to take down and go pulverize his neighbor for stealing his chickens.

The National Rifle Association folks like to argue that mental illness, not gun ownership, is the problem.  And it is true that in the cases of Whitman and the Korean student, Seung-Hui Cho, who killed 32 persons at Virginia Tech in 2007 — both of whom had sought medical help before going on their rampages — mental illness was a primary factor.  However, in the cases of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold at the Columbine massacre and Adam Lanza at the Sandy Hook massacre, the role of mental illness cannot be determined because all three never sought psychiatric help.  And I find it a bit implausible that Harris and Klebold, if both were supposedly mentally ill, could have cooperated in carrying out their scheme.  There was some speculation about the influence of bullying; and on that ground I can see some substantiation of the point.  I think it is possible that both wanted revenge on the bullies; and, to show the magnitude of their rage, they increased the number of their victims.

But there is another type of mentally disturbed person: the one who kills or attempts to kill others simply to draw attention to himself or herself or out of vengeance.  Among these are John Hinckley Jr., who wounded President Reagan in 1981 in order supposedly to win the admiration of Jodie Foster; and Mark David Chapman, who shot John Lennon to death in 1980 because Lennon had reportedly made a remark about being “more popular than Jesus” and had recorded a couple of songs (“God” and “Imagine”) which had incensed Chapman.  Hinckley claimed insanity; Chapman pled guilty. Hinckley was placed in a psychiatric facility; Chapman was sentenced to life in prison.

Anyway, the NRA has to-date rebuffed any proposals for background checks, and how can one determine mental health status without a background check? Moreover, psychiatrists and other health care providers are resistant to divulging the comments of their patients because of confidentiality concerns.  This is understandable, since without a confidentiality guarantee many mentally ill people will not seek help.

The NRA has also claimed that the vast majority of gun-owners are law-abiding citizens who are careful about how they keep and use their guns.  But, lo and behold, what happened last January 19 — “Gun Appreciation Day”: a total of five gun enthusiasts were accidentally wounded at gun shows in Raleigh, NC; Medina, OH (a suburb of Cleveland); and Indianapolis, IN!

Then there is the NRA’s complaint to a Senate Judiciary Committee that immediate background checks would cost gun dealers a lot of money, create a huge pile of paperwork, and result in yet another bureaucracy.  Wow!  That definitely is too great a burden!  Much better to allow half-wits and crazies to buy guns and shoot up schools than mess with all those regulations and forms.

The NRA — and others — say that the only rational way to handle the school safety issue is to make expert shooters of teachers, principals, bus drivers and/or assign police officers to patrol the schools’ hallways.  What happened to the argument about expense?  Frankly, I was shocked to read that many teachers are willing to pack pistols.  Has anybody wondered about the possibility that a teacher — regardless of the amount of firearm training he or she has had — might accidentally misread what a student is doing, think he is threatening somebody, and shoot him.  Or what if there is a genuine threat, but the teacher misses the culprit and hits another student, or a bullet ricochets off a wall and injures or kills someone. Beyond the possible unintentional deaths and woundings, the school and the teacher could be wide open for a lawsuit.

As I wrote above, I don’t have any sure-fire solution to this gun problem, although I kind of like the Big Hunt idea in that movie The 10th Victim.  (But, I realize it is unrealistic and innocent bystanders might get hurt.)   I only know that random violence was virtually non-existent when I was a child, and that single fact leads me to the conclusion that my country has become a nation of crazies — and not all of the crazies are the murderers I wrote about above.  We are a Violent Nation.



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