One of the glories of language is the witty rejoinder, riposte or retort. It is the answer in a quick, witty or caustic response (The Heritage Dictionary) to someone’s comment or verbal assault; a severe, incisive or witty reply (The Random House Dictionary), especially one that counters a first speaker’s statement, argument, etc.
Probably the most famous retort in the English language is that of John Wilkes to the Earl of Sandwich’s, “’pon my honor, Wilkes, I don’t know whether you’ll die on the gallows or of the pox.” To which Wilkes, “That must depend , my Lord, upon whether I first embrace one of your Lordship’s principles or your Lordship’s mistresses.” The additional cleverness here is the plural “mistresses,” which not only rhythmically balances the plural “principles,” but also establishes the hapless nobleman as not only a crook but also a philanderer. And the repeated “my Lord,” with its seeming respectfulness, adds a further bit of mockery. Perhaps it offers some consolation to the lord that the sandwich was named for him.
Barely less famous, and certainly no less witty, is Bernard Shaw’s remark at the curtain on the premiere of his “Arms and the Man .” Amid tumultuous applause, one angry voice booed from the balcony. Said Shaw, “My dear fellow, I quite agree with you, but what are we two against so many?” Here again, the chumminess of the opening makes the final effect that much more stinging.
I have often quoted my probably favorite retort before, but it’s still irresistible. The aristocratic Margot Asquith was lunching with the Hollywood star Jean Harlow, who kept calling her Margott, eliciting from the lady, “No, no, Jean. The T in Margot is silent, as in Harlow.” Margot Asquith was quite a wit, as in “Lloyd George could not see a belt without hitting below it.” Or: “Lord Birkenhead is very clever, but sometimes his brains go to his head.” But then let’s not forget Dorothy Parker’s
response to one of her books, “The affair between Margot Asquith and Margot Asquith will live as one of the prettiest love stories in all literature.”
The great Hilaire Belloc gave his retort in verse to another lord. “Last night I heard Godolphin say/ He never gave himself away./ Come now, Godolphin, scion of kings,/ Be generous in little things.” That benefits from the leisureliness of a quatrain. Another effective retort draws from its opposite, concision. Take the actor Lucien Guitry (father of the endlessly witty Sacha) answering a bore who tried to defend himself by “I only speak as I think,” with ”Yes, but much more often.”
As you might expect, there are many masterly retorts from Oscar Wilde. Thus there was the homely Frenchwoman who sought to combat unsightlinss by celebrity. So she addressed Wilde with her standard, “Am I not the ugliest woman in France?’ To which he replied with a bow and “In the world, Madame, in the world.” Courtesy, or its semblance, always cuts deeper. In Wilde’s French, it was even more terse: “Du monde, Madame, du monde.”
You can even respond with both verse and brevity as in what I like to think was a spontaneous response to someone from the otherwise unknown William Norman Ewer, “How odd/ Of God,/ To choose,/ The Jews.” If eight syllables are insufficient retort to immortalize their author, this was, at any rate, a nice try.
The retort may also be to an object, as it was from the dying Oscar Wilde in a cheap Paris hotel: “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or the other of us has to go.” Were there ever more aesthetic dying words, confirming Wilde as an aesthete to the last with a kind of immortal hyperbole.
The music world too offers prize retorts, even if they were not by what another person provoked, but as a riposte to a widely held opinion. Thus about Wagner, from Mark Twain: “Wagner’s music is not as bad as it sounds.” Or this, from a British columnist, Beachcomber, double-edged no less: “Wagner was the Puccini of music.” That is concise enough, but sometimes a single word will do. As when an American avantguardist made Hindemith listem to his new work for half an hour. “Is this your last work,” Hindemith inquired. “No” replied the American. To which Hindemith: “Pity.”
Sometimes the retort can be insulting, but forgivable for its wit. So when Meyerbeer complained to Rossini at a chance meeting of having aches all over and added “I don’t know what to do,” Rossini, knowing that Meyerbeer was coming from a rehearsal of his [Meyerbeer’s] music, amiably responded, “I know what it is: you listen too much to yourself.” Retorts have a way of sounding better in French. Thus when a woman neighbor of Alfred Jarry’s exclaimed to Jarry, who enjoyed shooting off his gun skyward in his adjoining garden, “For heaven’s sake, Monsieur Jarry, you’re going to kill our children,” he retorted, “Qu’a cela ne tienne, Madame, nous vous en fairons d’autres.” He retorted, which sounds more powerful than in English,”Don’t let it matter, madame, we’ll make you some others.”
There is one magnificent putdown that, though written, I would like to think of as having first come in a conversation. It’s from the formidable Karl Kraus: “Psychoanalysis is the mental illness for which it considers itself the therapy.”
Kraus was quite capable of a retort to the entire female sex: “A woman is, occasionally, quite a serviceable substitute for masturbation. It takes a lot of imagination, though.” How much stronger I this made by that “occasionally.”
And now, in all immodesty, a couple of my own retorts. On the David Frost Show, Jacqueline Susann was defending a trashy novel. I had mentioned to Rex Reed, a fellow guest seated beside me, that I had read only forty pages of it. Reed was shocked: “How could one criticize a novel of which one had read only forty pages?” I answered: “How many spoonfuls of a soup must you ingest before you can tell that it is rancid ?” On another TV program, I was a guest along with a trendy art gallery owner, a husband of Gloria Vanderbilt’s, and Germaine Greer. I had become silent for quite a while and the host, David Suskind, asked why? I answered, “I have often been out of my depth, but this is the first time I have been out of my shallowness.”
But to conclude with the master, Oscar Wilde, who was once asked by a formerly prizewinning poetaster (Alfred Austin, I believe) what to do now about “the conspiracy of silence” surrounding him. “Join it,” Oscar replied. How simple yet powerful a retort can be.