The obliquely-named Paltry Meanderings of a Taller-Than-Average Woman has a post entitled “Why I Hate Witty People” which has attained the blessed realm of the Freshly Pressed. Much of it laments the writer’s suffering from “l’esprit d’escalier,” the delay of repartee until after one becomes a departee. But an excellent point about how easy someone like Oscar Wilde had it back in a more-literate age arrives at the end.
During the Victorian era, the issues of politics, English society, literature and the arts, and religion were popular topics in dining and drawing rooms all over Britain. It would have been easy for Wilde to anticipate future conversations and arm himself accordingly, loading his quips like bullets into a pistol and pulling the trigger whenever appropriate. When the subject of the Americas or politics was broached, he could rattle off, “Democracy means simply the bludgeoning of the people, by the people, for the people,” a statement which would have signaled uproarious laughter and tittering at any Victorian table.
This has the ring of truth. Everything we know about Wilde suggests that he regarded his life as much a performance as any showing of Lady Windemere’s Fan. The paradox of the theater is that, in order to make a moment seem spontaneous and free, it must be rigorously rehearsed.
Wit and humor also suffer from a communal requirement. In order to find something funny, one must have a shared sense of what is absurd. This is why conservatives find say, Margaret Cho painfully unfunny. Wilde lived in a society with much stronger shared assumptions.
The good news is, wit is far less important than it appears to be. Wordplay can provide an occasional fillip to a strong intellect, but as the pre-Socratics remind us, words are only words. To dance with the meaning of them cannot substitute for logic or analytics. One needs only to note Wilde’s helplessness before the remorseless logic of the law at his indecency trial, the grandeur of his performance fundamentally irrelevant to the proceedings, to observe this. As much as those Victorians enjoyed him, they suspected Wilde of an excess of wit, to be distrusted, as the near cousin of sophistry.
Everyone likes the funny uncle at Thanksgiving. No one wants to let him cook the meal.