Wit and Wisdom: Part II

Despite rumours to the contrary, the art of conversation hasn’t died.  It’s going on all around us — at 140 characters a second.  However, it’s ill; in fact, it’s in intensive care.  We don’t talk anymore because we don’t have to.  It’s a shame, but that’s the truth.  We communicate further, faster, to more people, more often, these days than at any other time in human history.  Unfortunately, it’s all without ever opening our mouths, although, sometimes the texting tongue is hard at work.  Wouldn’t it be the ultimate kick in the head to all the Fahrenheit 451 Doom Merchants (who’ve been predicting the end of books since the dawn of time) if we actually evolved beyond spoken language?  Could happen, but I doubt it.  We’d miss the sound, the cadence, the pause and that incredible nanosecond of recognition on the other person’s face.  Here are a few gems that might inspire you to help conversation get better.

Dorothy Parker (1893 – 1967)
Part of the famous Algonquin Round Table, Dorothy Parker had a wit that cut like a whip through warm butter and she didn’t care who got splashed.  She wrote for Vogue, The New Yorker and Vanity Fair, as well as writing a regular review column called “Constant Reader.”  Parker also wrote plays and worked in Hollywood as a screenwriter, but it is her ability to turn a phrase inside, outside and upside down that we remember today.

This novel is not to be tossed lightly aside, but to be hurled with great force.
The best way to keep children home is to make the home atmosphere pleasant — and let the air out of the tires.
Brevity is the soul of lingerie
The only “ism” Hollywood believes in is plagiarism.
That woman speaks eighteen languages, and she can’t say “No” in any of them.
Money cannot buy health, but I’ll settle for a diamond-studded wheelchair.
She runs the gamut of emotions from A to B. (reviewing Katherine Hepburn.
Men seldom make passes/At girls who wear glasses

Will Rogers (1879 – 1935)
Interestingly enough, the social commentary of humorist Will Rogers is as biting and relevant today as it was seventy years ago.  Rogers, whose “cowboy philosopher” made him famous, always credited his success to simple observation.  He appeared in movies and wrote a newspaper column, but it was his stage show that was the most popular.  It would be interesting to hear what Rogers had to say about how little things have changed since his time.

Income tax has made liars out of more Americans than golf.
Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.
Democracy is the form of government you have to keep for four years, no matter what it does.
I would rather be the man who bought the Brooklyn Bridge than the man who sold it.
Everybody is ignorant, only on different subjects.
The minute you read something you can’t understand, you can almost be sure it was drawn up by a lawyer.
I can remember way back when a liberal was one who was generous with his own money.
There’s no trick to being a humorist when you have the whole government working for you.

Mark Twain (1835 – 1910)
Although Samuel Langhorne Clemens is noted for his novels (which include two classics of American literature, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn)  he was also a popular public speaker.  In fact, after losing most of his money to bad investments in 1893, he literally talked his way out of debt by lecturing around the world.  Here are just a few examples of Mark Twain’s famous wit and some of his comic observations.

There is no distinctly American criminal class — except Congress.
Never put off until tomorrow what you can do the day after tomorrow.
Water, taken in moderation, cannot hurt anybody.
If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.
The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them.
An ethical man is a Christian holding four aces.
Wagner’s music is better than it sounds.
Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated. (reply to the New York Journal which reported him dead)

Anonymous
Greater than Mark Twain or Will Rogers, greater even than the great Will Shakespeare himself, the greatest wit of all time is, of course, Anonymous.  Throughout history, Anonymous has effortlessly plucked wisdom from what seems to be thin air and shared it with the world.  Brilliant and unselfish, “Anon” (as he and she are affectionately called by friends) is, a genius for all time.

Show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser.
Under capitalism, man exploits man; under socialism, the reverse is true.
It’s easier to get forgiveness than permission.
The people who think they know everything are very irritating to those of us who do.
If it wasn’t for the last minute, nobody would get anything done.
When you talk to God, you’re praying.
When God talks to you, you’re crazy.
Whoever said money can’t buy happiness didn’t know where to shop.
Happiness is a child whose father dies rich.

Internet (1972 – Present)
No greater democracy exists than the Internet.  Anybody — and I mean anybody — can be as smart or as stupid as they please, across the entire planet!  The witless wisdom of common humanity is on display 24/7 and nobody can stop it.  But, as a wise website once said, “Just because you can communicate doesn’t mean you have to.

Life is uncertain; eat your dessert first
I’ll be glad when they finally save the environment so I can go back to styrofoam cups.
Nobody ever bets enough money on a winning horse.
It’s like taking a broom and a cauldron to a witch hunt.
If you die with all the toys, you’re still dead.
Life is short: summer is shorter.
He’s got all of his marbles but some of them are square.
“Nouveau riche” is better than no “riche” at all.

A Streak of Bad Huck

It was reported last week that some publisher is going to change Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huck Finn and reprint it so it’s fit to be read in the 21st century.  Professor Somebody (like, I care what his name is) from Auburn has taken it upon himself to bugger up bowdlerize Twain by replacing the N-word with “Slave” and changing the I-word to “Indian.”  He hopes to fluffy up an American tale that has some sharp edges on it and thus bring Twain to a whole new generation of uber-sensitive readers.  The story caused such a stir across North America that this morning, less than 7 days later, I can find no mention of it.  Obviously, the publishers are going to go ahead with this literary castration.   My contempt for this sordid violation is surpassed only by my contempt for the society that allows it happen.  Unfortunately, I am not Twain, so I don’t have the words to properly condemn us all to Hell where we will surely go for this brutal act of nice.

The N-word offends me.  I’ve heard it a lot, in my time.  It never gets easier on my ears.  However, it doesn’t offend me that a dead white guy, hand-wrote it out in full, and published it in a fantastic novel more than 100 years ago.  Why would it?  People in 1885 were barbarians.  They peed outside for God’s sake.

What offends me is the “N-word” itself.  It offends me that perky TV personalities, who are so white they’re blue, use it with such pained contrivance.  It offends me that academic fundamentalists, whose only brush with Black America was watching Spike Lee movies in their sophomore year, use the word to advertise their inherent understanding of The Black Experience.  It offends me that regular people are starting to use it promiscuously, as though all the nuanced cruelty is covered up by this thin disguise.  It offends me that it has become acceptable in polite society, just exactly the way its ugly grandfather was acceptable in 1885.  And it offends me that the all the Professor Somebodies in the world think they’re doing Black people a big favour with this white-wash.

I have a good friend (I’m going to change his name because he is my friend) and when we were young and foolish, we used to drink together quite a bit.  My friend wasn’t comfortable drinking at places I frequented so we used to drink at bars in his neighbourhood.  One day he asked me, “Why do white people keep bringin’ this shit stuff up, all the time?  Man, I got more stories than they ever seen.”  We were drinking heavily at the time, and the conversation got waylaid before I could answer.  Actually, that’s not true: this is what really happened, but I’m going to clean it up a lot — so nobody gets offended.

We were drinking heavily, and we ran out of money.  My friend went over to his friends and said something like, “Hey, chums! I’ll bet you a pitcher of beer that I can show you a man with no butt.” They probably replied, “Nonsense!  That’s seems highly unlikely.  I’ll take that wager.  Prove your statement to be true.”  (This is losing something in the translation, isn’t it?  Let me step it up a bit but not too much: I don’t want to offend anybody.)  My friend brought his group of friends back to where I was sitting and said to me, “Stand up.”  I did.  He said, “See, African Americans?  This man ain’t got no ass.”  From there, the multi-level conversation went something like this.

“Whoa!  You right!  He ain’t got no ass!”
“Nonsense!  Get ut da way.  Let me see this stuff.”
“Po!  What?  He sick or sometin?  Got a disease?  Eat his ass off like dat?”
“Man, where he from, got no ass?  He ain’t from aroun’ ‘ere man.  No way. I’da noticed that stuff.”

My friend’s friends were clearly warming to the subject.
“Hey! African American! Come over here!  Andrew got his self a guy wit no ass.”
“Whatta fornication?  Where his ass at?”
“He don’t got one.  See.  He like straight up and down.  Stick man.”
“Nonsense!  How the maternal fornicator keep his pants up?”
“He got pants on, don’t he?  See wit your eyes, African American!”

There was more, a lot more, but it’s difficult to portray the mood and spirit of the situation correctly while treading so carefully.   Mark Twain didn’t have that problem.  He lived in the Victorian Age — a time, by all accounts, as repressive as our own.  They did, however, do one thing properly: they actually read the books before they burned them.

There will always be professor somebodies out there, ready to remedy the world.  And there will always be anti-censorship cheerleaders who storm the blogosphere barricades for a whole 4 days or until their consciences are clear.  But to the witless ones who aid them both in their endeavours, I say read Huck Finn — before it’s too late – because, when Huck says , “All right, so then, I’ll go to Hell.” at least he knows why he’s been condemned to make that journey and you should too.