If we are going to deal with epigrams, we must first distinguish between wit and humor. Humor makes you laugh, as with every good joke that someone tells you. Like the loony in the bin telling the other loony who is painting the wall, “Hold on to your brush, I am about to move the ladder.” Or James Thurber writing, “Poe . . . was perhaps the first great nonstop literary drinker in the American nineteenth century. He made the indulgences of Coleridge and De Quincy seem like a bit of mischief in the kitchen with the cooking sherry.” Humor’s most renowned achievement may be the slip on the banana peel.
Wit is something else—something, if you will, much more serious while still funny. Unlike humor, which at most makes you slap your thigh, it pierces to the quick, wherever your quick may be, and elicits laughter almost as a byproduct. The epigram, witty rather than humorous, needs an object to skewer.
To be sure, that is a slight oversimplification. Not all humor is a thigh-slapper or a roller in the aisle. And not all wit must wound. Take Oscar Wilde’s “The youth of America is their oldest tradition. It has been going now for three hundred years.” This is a good-natured spoof that does not really hurt. Or take this, again from Wilde, “Truth is rarely pure and never simple.” Very often it is the inversion of a truism, as in his “Work is the curse of the drinking classes.” Sometimes an epigram is downright melancholy, as in Shaw’s “England and America are two countries separated by the same language.” Or in Rochefoucauld’s “We have all enough strength to bear other people’s troubles,” and in his even stronger “In the misfortunes of our best friends, we find something that’s not unpleasing.”
The epigram, when it’s truly great, is the shortest, snappiest work of art or philosophy, and a burr to the memory. Take Stendhal’s “The only excuse for God is that he doesn’t exist.” Thus the epigram tends to be the funny way of insulting someone, in this case God. When it doesn’t offend, it is rather a mere aphorism, i.e., pregnant saying, than a witty epigram, as, for instance, in Lichtenberg’s “Nothing contributes more to peace of soul than having no opinion at all.”
Let us first look at the straight insult, usually merited, which embodies some kind of truth. Take this, to an overeager actor being directed by either Noel Coward or George S. Kaufman (multiple attribution is quite frequent): “Don’t just do something, stand there!” Even more succinctly, W.S. Gilbert commented on he Hamlet of Henry Irving or some other stage star (alternative targets are also frequent): “Funny, but never vulgar.” Manifestly, terseness adds impact to the epigram. Take this by Beachcomber, the nom de plume of a British humorist, “Wagner was the Puccini of music.” A double-edged sword that cuts brilliantly in two directions.
Such double duty we get also from Wilde’s “Poor Danton, to have come to such grief for having once in his life taken a bath.” That hits not only the victim of Charlotte Corday, but also the French in general, not known for their regular use of the bathtub as opposed to that of the bidet. Two for one we get, also from Wilde, in “[George] Meredith is a prose Browning, and so is Browning.” A whole profession can be skewered, as in Christopher Hampton’s “Asking a working writer what he thinks about critics is like asking a lamp-post how it feels about dogs.”
But back to the double whammy: Ava Gardner, about her ex, Sinatra, upon his marrying Mia Farrow, “I always knew Frank would end up in bed with a little boy.” Or take Noel Coward, about Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy in the movie version of his “Bitter Sweet”: “Like watching an affair between a mad rocking-horse and a rawhide suitcase,” with the only problem trying to figure out which is which. Sometimes the wit and his target are both made fun of, as in Charles Widor about a dissonant work of Milhaud’s: “The worst of it is that one gets used to it.” Or take Heine: “There is nothing on earth more horrible than English music, unless it is English painting.”
Music has yielded some memorable epigrams. Thus Shaw, early on as music critic: “There are some sacrifices that should not be demanded twice from any man, and one of them is listening to Brahms’s Requiem.” Such things elicit amusement even without our agreement. Or take this, from Ravel: “Berlioz is France’s greatest composer, alas. A musician of great genius, and little talent.” (Reminiscent of Gide on who is the greatest French poet, “Victor Hugo, alas.” Which, in turn, suggests Cocteau’s “Victor Hugo was a madman who thought he was Victor Hugo.”) After playing a violin piece, Albert Einstein asked the great cellist Gregor Piatigorsky “How well did I play?” Answer: “You played relatively well.” Some epigrams are answers to a question.
Here is Stravinsky: “Too many pieces of music finish too long after the end.” Or Sir Thomas Beecham, asked if he ever conducted any Stockhausen. “No,” he said, “but I have trodden in some.” And Stravinsky again, “Why is it that whenever I hear a piece I don’t like, it’s always Villa Lobos?”
Sometimes an epigram comes in duplicate. Take this dialogue: “Shostakovich: What do you think of Puccini? Britten: I think his operas are dreadful. Shostakovich: No, Ben, you are wrong. He wrote marvelous operas, but dreadful music.” Now take Britten talking to W. H. Auden about Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress”: “I liked the opera very much. Everything but the music.” Who plagiarized whom? I suspect the rather humorless Britten. And here is one to enshrine in music history, Oscar Levant about Leonard Bernstein: “He uses music as an accompaniment to his conducting.”
Literature, expectably, also offers some of the wittiest epigrams. Take this rather poetic one by Edith Sitwell about F.R. Leavis: “It is sad to see Milton’s great lines bobbing up and down in the sandy desert of Dr. Leavis’s mind with the grace of a fleet of weary camels.” Here the subtractable epithets “sandy” and “weary” contribute the necessary cadence. Or this from Philip Larkin, “’The Wreck of the Deutschland’ would have been markedly inferior if Hopkins had been a survivor from the passenger list.” Or Evelyn Waugh, somewhat less funny about himself than about others: “You have no idea how much nastier I would be if I was not a Catholic. Without supernatural aid, I would hardly be a human being.”
Here again is Waugh on Stephen Spender: “To see him fumbling with our rich and delicate language is to experience all the horror of seeing a Sevres vase in the hands of a chimpanzee.” Or consider Gore Vidal on Hemingway, “What other culture could have produced someone like Hemingway and not seen the joke?’ Or, more succinctly, about the death of Truman Capote, “Good career move.” An effective device is starting out as if in praise, and then sticking in the knife, as in Wilde’s “Shaw has not an enemy in the world; and none of his friends like him.”
About actors and actresses, theater and movies, there is such a wealth of epigrams as to merit a separate blog post to begin doing them justice. I confine myself to repeating a couple of my favorites. Thus Kenneth Tynan about Vivien Leigh in “Titus Andronicus”: “As Lavinia, Vivien Leigh receives the news that she is about to be ravished on her husband’s corpse with little more than mild annoyance of one who would have preferred foam rubber.” And Margot Asquith at lunch with Jean Harlow, who keeps sounding the T in Margot, “My dear, the T in Margot is silent, as in Harlow.”
Finally, I come to my own modest contribution to the epigram, which comes down to a single entry in the anthologies, always misquoted, even by Diana Rigg herself, as follows: “Diana Rigg is built as a brick mausoleum with insufficient flying buttresses.” What I wrote was “Diana Rigg . . . is built, alas, like a brick basilica with inadequate flying buttresses.” This concerning a scene in Ronald Millar’s “Abelard & Heloise,” where Ms. Rigg knelt nude in profile. Now “basilica” is obviously not something with which the misquoters are familiar, hence “mausoleum,” which, however, has nothing to do with anything. But neither, I confess, has basilica, a type of church that never had any buttresses. “Inadequate,” though, does make sense for what the actress herself has described as “I was only ever a B-cup,” referring to size; whereas “insufficient” refers to quantity, as if two were not enough. What I should have written is “cathedral,” an edifice that does have flying buttresses.
Isolated quotations of another Simon epigram do crop up now and then, but for an epigram to count, I firmly believe that it has to appear in several anthologies. So I find a couple exclusively in “Simpson’s Contemporary Quotations,” and even there one misquoted and another cut to shreds. And I certainly haven’t made it to Bartlett’s even once. Something to look forward to.