Sunday, October 19, 2014

`Where Do the Naughty People Lie?'

A happy confluence: One of the epigraphs Gary Marmorstein appends to A Ship without a Sail (2012), his biography of the great lyricist Lorenz Hart, is taken from Dawn Powell’s diary entry for March 1, 1939: 

Wits are never happy people. The anguish that has scraped their nerves and left them raw to every flicker of life is the base of wit—for the raw nerve reacts at once without any agent, the reaction is direct, with no integumentary obstacles. Wit is the cry of pain, the true word that pierces the heart. If it does not pierce, then it is not true wit. True wit should break a good man's heart.” 

We think of wit as an aphoristic retort, a barbed bon mot delivered with venomous aplomb. We think of Johnson and Wilde. But wit comes in many forms, and not all are self-satisfied. Powell’s novels, especially the later ones set in New York City, are deliciously witty, and she knew something about anguish. So too are Hart’s lyrics witty, supremely so in the American Songbook: 

“Is your figure less than Greek
Is your mouth a little bit weak
When you open it to speak, are you smart?” 

Of course, that’s from “My Funny Valentine,” a title already witty in a mere three words. For some reason, Marmorstein leaves off the final two sentences of Powell’s diary entry quoted above, and they’re the pierced heart of it. “Wits are never happy people,” yes, but neither are witty words happy, affirming, empowering – name your poison. Without the pain, wit isn’t witty, though it may be funny or merely cynical. Here is wit imbued equally with humor, bite and melancholy. On this day, Oct. 19, in 1810, Charles Lamb writes a letter to William Wordsworth praising the latter’s “Essay on Epitaphs.” Lamb asks, “But what is the reason we have so few good Epitaphs after all?” Being Lamb, he recommends the epitaphs to be found in “the Church yard of Ditton upon Thames, if you know such a place,” which are “all different, and all ingenious.” He adds (and one wonders how Wordsworth, not the wittiest of men, received it): 

“I have seen in Islington Churchy’d (I think) an Epitaph to an Infant who died `Ætatis four months,’ with this seasonable inscription appended, `Honor thy Fathr. and Mothr. that thy days may be long in the Land &c.’ —Sincerely wishing your children better.” 

[In his 1935 edition of The Letters of Charles Lamb, Vol. II, E.V. Lucas adds this note: “Lamb had begun his criticisms of churchyard epitaphs very early: Talfourd tells that, when quite a little boy, after reading a number of flattering inscriptions, he asked Mary Lamb: `Where do the naughty people lie?’”]

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