Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Man of Ready Wit

"[T]hose who joke in a tasteful way are called ready-witted, which implies a sort of readiness to turn this way and that; for such sallies are thought to be movements of the character, and as bodies are discriminated by their movements, so too are characters."
                                               - Aristotle, The Nichomachean Ethics, Bk. IV, ch. 8 

With snow coming soon to the high country, I improved the time by taking my portable camp over the Divide to the Great Sand Dunes to soak up the last of the sunshine. I found a site, settled in, and prepared myself for a quiet evening at home. Presently a couple of youngish chaps from Vermont pulled in to the neighboring campsite, set up a tent and likewise settled in. The palpable indifference between my neighbors and me was all very congenial.

Home away from home

Before very long, the fellow from the site adjoining theirs on the other side wandered over and struck up a conversation with my neighbors. Neighborly of him, I thought. An hour later, it was time for my supper, and I realized that the fellow was still standing in the same spot, his two listeners having never moved in the last hour, and that the only sound I'd been subconsciously hearing in the interim was his drone. Better them than me, thought I - I'd have sent him on his way long before now.

After my modest repast I stepped out to enjoy the last of the light over the dunes, and the trio had now settled in for the evening by a campfire, the droner still holding court. As yet I'd not heard the sound of any other voice, no more than an occasional polite chuckle from his two captives. Well, I thought as I prepared to climb into the old rack, this can't go on all night. I tried to fall asleep, but after a quarter-hour the quiet night made the steady drone more audible and more intelligible. Sentences began with "Back in my day . . . " or "After I was through college . . ." or "You could get those things back in the 60s, 'specially in Mexico." The Most Interesting Man in the World, I muttered. His parents were probably both named for him.

Rather than let myself descend into sleepless irritation, I rummaged in my kit for my trusty rubber earplugs, inserted them, and promptly dozed off. I awoke hours later (I supposed), gingerly tugged one of the plugs from my ear, and heard the insinuating drone unabated in the darkness. The night was otherwise still, and I could hear the auto-fascinated sod plainly - "Well," he drawled, "no matter whereya go, thereya are."  Oh shit, I moaned in silent irritation, did he really say that? In went the earplug and back to sleep.

He did really say that. The cliche, of course, is the stuff of the "interesting" narcissist's conversation. The trite, the vapid, the lazy-minded, the speciously clever but empty phrase - nothing calculated, nothing thoughtful, nothing funny or clever, just blather intended to pass oneself as a "character," a "really interesting guy," or whatever. An outright insult is less maddening than a cliche.

By contrast, nothing is so pleasant as ready wit. Not buffoonery or puns or heavy-handed guffaws, but the gift of quickness, a sensibility to words and their nuanced meanings, a sense of when it's appropriate and when not. Such people possess a genuine social virtue - a minor one to be sure, but still a conversational polish that gives a complicated pleasure, that does not pale or cloy with acquaintance.We are all logophiles to some degree, so it is pleasant when we hear someone play with words in ways that bring us up short and make us think about the verbal turn we just took.

When I was a young man in college some time near the end of the Little Ice Age in Europe, there was a fellow in the college business office who was notorious for his unwitting malapropisms - a real butcher of the language. There was also a member of the faculty who was equally famous for his wry, glancing wit, an offhanded sort of genius he had for the mot juste. Together in conversation, the two of them were a lethal combination. I was not present for this exchange, but one of my professors, a faculty colleague of the wit's, reported it. 

Passing one another on the campus quad, the professor inquired of the business office chap whether he had passed a pleasant weekend. "Oh," he replied, "my wife and I did a bit of furniture shopping - bought a new sexual sofa."

"Well," drolled the wit, "nothing like an occasional piece in the living room."

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