January 11, 2009

The Fine Art of the Insult

Dick Cavett, in his NYT blog, begins “I haven’t ever found any great writing on that wonderful and often unappreciated art form, the insult.”

Cavett points out the value of the witty insult over the prosaic with this example:

There are two kinds of insult. “I was bored by your book” is one kind. “Your book? Once I put it down, I couldn’t pick it up,” is the other.

He goes on to cite several choice examples from writers he has known (and remember, this man wrote for Groucho Marx).

This prompted me to dig out an old Reader’s Digest I’d kept since 1979, which contains excerpts from Nancy McPhee’s “The Book of Insults” (the sole reason for keeping it…) There are few things more enjoyable and satisfying than a clever insult. Wit and savagery combined produce some of the most quotable chunks of language available. There are now several such books available, as well as a massive online resource.

A good insult can be direct and pointed…

I don't think you are a fool, but what's my opinion compared to that of thousands of others.

He does the work of three men: Larry, Curly & Moe.

He always finds himself lost in thought - it's an unfamiliar territory.

It can be direct, pointed and lengthy…

A hack writer who would not have been considered a fourth rate in Europe, who tricked out a few of the old proven 'sure-fire' literary skeletons with sufficient local colour to intrigue the superficial and the lazy. ~ William Faulkner on Mark Twain

Coleridge was a muddle-headed metaphysician who by some strange streak of fortune turned out a few poems amongst the dreary flood of inanity that was his wont. ~ William Morris on Samuel Taylor Coleridge

He was ignored till he began to smash the parlour furniture, throw bombs and hitch together ten pianolas, all playing different tunes, whereupon everyone began to talk about him. ~ Henry T. Fink, American music critic, on Arnold Schoenberg

…or it can be convoluted, even obscure:

... a gap-toothed and hoary ape, who now in his dotage spits and chatters from a dirtier perch of his own finding, and fouling; coryphaeus or choragus of his Bulgarian tribe of autocoprophagaus baboons. ~ Algernon Charles Swinburne on Ralph Waldo Emerson

The Theatre has a fine tradition of insults:

We used to have actresses trying to become stars; now we have stars trying to become actresses. ~ Sir Laurence Olivier

I always said that I'd like (John) Barrymore's acting till the cows came home. Well, ladies and gentleman, last night the cows came home. ~ George Nathan

As does Art:

I've heard that he dreams his paintings -- little wonder that he complains he can't sleep.

It resembles a tortoiseshell cat having a fit in a plate of tomatoes. ~ Mark Twain on J. M. W. Turner's ‘The Slave Ship’

This is not amusing, it is dismaying and disheartening. The other day, someone attributed to me the statement that 'the human race was nearing insanity'. I never said that but if anyone is trying to convince me that this is 'modern art', and that it is representative of our time, I would be obliged to think that statement is true. ~ Kenyon Cox, American critic, in Harper's Weekly (1913) on Henri Matisse's painting The Red Studio'

The famous poster artist, James Pryde, was invited to attend the unveiling of the statue of the Great War heroine, nurse Edith Cavell. When the covering was pulled off, the crowd stood in stunned silence. “My God,” said Pryde. “They've shot the wrong person.”

And, of course, Literature, which one would expect to contain the most finely-crafted examples:

Groucho Marx: (Groucho? Oh well…) From the moment I picked your book up until I laid it down, I was convulsed with laughter. Someday I intend reading it.

Samuel Johnson did not say: "Your manuscript is both good and original. But the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good." But he would probably have liked to.

This novel is not to be tossed lightly aside, but to be hurled with great force. ~ Dorothy Parker

This poem will not reach its destination ~ Voltaire, on Jean Baptiste Rousseau's ode 'To Posterity'

Ah! Meredith! Who can define him? His style is chaos illumined by flashes of lightning. As a writer he has mastered everything except language: as a novelist he can do anything, except tell a story: as an artist he is everything, except articulate. ~ Oscar Wilde

Wilde alone generated enough of these less than bon-mots to fill several books.

Of course, this is far from a lost art. To finish up, here’s a couple at the expense of soon-to-be Ex President G.W. Bush:

This is a guy who could not find oil in Texas. ~ Al Franken

What is his accomplishment? That he's no longer an obnoxious drunk? ~ Ron Reagan Jr.

Keep this form of expression alive – go out and insult someone today! Leave one here if you like… just make it clever and funny, please.

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