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Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Wanna kick me? Aim here

For an insult to stick there has to be a grain of truth. Thus when a guy working on the same Philadelphian magazine told me I was in the wrong job because I didn't "speak American" I was shocked. But only briefly. For one thing no other indigène, during six years in the US, ever insulted me on the basis of my roots (or anything else; suburban Americans are the politest people); for another, I had evidence to the contrary, notably an increasing pay packet.

He'd have done better to touch on my body bulk, my parsimony, my frequent insensitivity, my cavalier attitude towards religious belief or my desire to crush other baseball fans with my superior knowledge of statistics.

But suppose someone - anywhere in the world - insisted I lacked a sense of humour (LSOH). Even if I felt pretty sure the accusation was unfounded I'm sure I'd wriggle. This is much more than being told I don't laugh a lot.

Why is it such an awful contemplation? For me the Number One reason is the possibility that someone - idiot though he might be - thinks I take everything literally, that I am incapable of appreciating inference, subtlety, irony, word-play. That I'd be better off simply counting things. That I am by my own terms stunted, incomplete, wasting my time watching foreign movies and, certainly, trying to put one coherent word against another.

Yep, this is called making oneself a hostage to fortune. Should I temporarily wreck your life with an injudicious post or comment, you now know where my viscera lies. Not that I'm saying you should hold back. I think I need some practice in rebuttal; finding oneself vulnerable, or in fact wounded, one looks instinctively for Elastoplast (US: Band Aid).

8 comments:

Avus said...

I always thought that the Yanks did't do irony. If that is so I fear that you would have been misunderstood over there.
Another instance of "separation by a common language" was the case of my sister-in-law in Western Australia. She was a very active member of their Womens' Institute and made branch secretary and then vice chairman. She was taken aside by the president and told not to stand for chairman (woman?)because her English accent would not be "acceptable". As a reult she resigned in protest. These days that would be classed as racism.

Avus said...

PS. "Result" seems to have lost an "s".

Lucy said...

Has someone said such a thing, Robbie? I find it hard to imagine. While a sense of humour, allied as it is to a sense of proportion, is a useful thing to have, 'where's your sense of humour' can be a nasty disingenuous thing, the bully's evasion. I love to laugh, of course, and hope that I enjoy a sense of the ridiculous and appreciate wit and a comic gift, however, I have to say I find too much time in the company of people who have to be continuously turning everything to fun and creating laughter can be kind of tiring.

Not sure about Americans' lack of irony, maybe an unfair stereotype? Certainly in things written down though, without the benefit of eye contact and expression, intended humour or irony can be lost.

Roderick Robinson said...

Avus: Anyone who imagines the US lacks irony has never read Thomas Pynchon, Marilyn Robinson, Ross Thomas, Henry James, Nabokov's Lolita, or Heller's Catch 22, the essays of Gore Vidal, P.J.O'Rourke, Lionel Trilling, Edmund Wilson or Mark Twain, the journalism/stories of S.J.Perelman or Damon Runyon; never seen the movies Annie Hall, Fargo, Citizen Kane, Groundhog Day, Pulp Fiction, The Searchers or Vertigo; seen most TV series put out by the cable channel HBO plus Man Men; heard Charles Ives Fourth Symphony; or listened to the dialogue in any of a thousand New York or San Francisco bars.

But you missed my qualifier "I had evidence to the contrary". I was a sellable journalistic commodity in the USA bumping up my salary each time I moved and, in one instance, being head-hunted, for a 40% jump in salary. In my last job a guy intending to launch a magazine wanted me specifically to help him do it. By the time I came home I had accumulated almost a dozen letters from academics working at such universities as MIT, Berkeley and USC, thanking me for the way I'd improved their contributed articles; the fact that I left school at 15 didn't matter, they were pragmatists. Needless to say, no British academic member of the waffle brigade has ever thanked me for improving his/her stuff, all subscribing to the divine right of authors, especially British authors.

The problem with English accents is that in other Anglophone countries the natives often find it difficult to rid themselves of the impression that Brits are putting on the dog, acting superior. Yes, you may say, it's a false impression. Just like the US and irony.

Lucy: No they haven't but as Tom Lehrer said about Boy Scouts and the need to carry a condom: Be Prepared. Beyond that I was trying to make the point that LSOH seems at first to be a comparatively mild insult; but that the implications grow after a few moments' reflection. Also that a sense of humour is not purely initiatory; it allows us to recognise others' wit and to expand on it.

In sum, I have few friends but those that exist all have the capacity to make me laugh. And have the grace to laugh at my jokes. Plus, of course, the ability to comment usefully on the tragedy of Paris.

mikeM said...

Yanks who recognize irony should be losing sleep over U.S. support of the Saudi's terror garden.

Ellena said...

I kept a mental note of something said or written by I don't recall whom. His or her opinion was that "wisecracking is acrobatics with words, genuine wit has truth in it".

Blonde Two said...

I like what Ellena said about genuine wit, she is quite right. I was always hopeless at acrobatics anyway. I too would be mortified if I thought that I was no longer funny; but boy oh boy, those moments when nobody laughs!

Roderick Robinson said...

MikeM: Blood mixed with irony; you only have to take a few steps in any direcion in the Middle East to encounter that grievous combination.

And how about the French president in effect telling the US president he's dragging his heels on an imaginary project whereby a few bombs will solve a problem that dates back at least as far as The Crusades.

Ellena: A good one. Wit, of course, is a much wider, less well-defined quality than merely the generation and appreciation of things that make us laugh. Good wit may make us sigh, draw in breath, shake our head ruefully, bring us up short, etc, etc. And yes truth plays a big part.

Blonde Two: Especially when you're trying to break into a group you don't know at some social event; I've got one of those coming up in four hours' time but I'm comforted that they're chasing the contents of my wallet more than the inner me.

But a sense of humour is more than just laughing and causing laughter. It is the external measure of quick-wittedness among other things. Falstaff's summary of what "a good sherris sack" does to him goes some way towards defining it:

A good sherris sack hath a two-fold operation in it. It ascends me into the brain, dries me there all the foolish and dull and crudy vapors which environ it, makes it apprehensive, quick, forgetive, full of nimble, fiery, and delectable shapes, which, delivered o'er to the voice, the tongue, which is the birth, becomes excellent wit.

It's worth memorising this one for social occasions, Blonde Two, although in your case as merely an addition to your armoury. I suspect you're already well equipped.