Thursday, September 06, 2012

"Anyone who hates babies and dogs . . ."

Leo C. Rosten

Ever since I was very young, I have been familiar with the witticisms of W. C. Fields, and I always found particularly funny the line he supposedly uttered in his movies or his real life (if he had a real life):
Anyone who hates babies and dogs can't be all bad.
Except I recently learned that Fields didn't say it. Rather, it was said about Fields by the humorist Leo Rosten in introductory remarks made as a tribute to Fields during a banquet. Authorship aside, the humorous remark suddenly struck a harmonic chord of convergence in my memory the other day, for it abruptly recalled to me a wonderful witticism by Oscar Wilde:
One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.
Little Nell was a sugary-sweet child in the novel by Dickens titled The Old Curiosity Shop. She took a long time to die, and many tears were shed over her death, both in the novel and in real life (though she had no real life). Wilde, however, saw the ridiculous quality to her death -- that took genius and courage -- and coined an epigram that expressed the truth.

Both witticisms -- Rosten's and Wilde's -- depend on surprising us with the opposite of what we expect to hear. But I think Wilde's works better, for let's alter them to express what one would expect to hear:
Anyone who hates babies and dogs can't be all good.

One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without crying.
The first of the two -- an alteration of Rosten's witticism -- feels somehow awkward. A man who hates babies and dogs wouldn't give the impression of being good at all, let alone all good, so the statement doesn't quite make good sense. That, I think, detracts from the unaltered witticism.

The second of the two -- the alteration of Wilde's witticism -- feels entirely right. One should ordinarily cry over the death of a beloved child. Wilde's unaltered remark thus beautifully reminds of its more expected opposite, and that sharpens the witticism.

But I anticipate at least one objection, that I've altered the wrong word in Rosten's remark, that I ought to have substituted "can't" by "must":
Anyone who hates babies and dogs must be all bad.
That's superior to the other substitution (i.e., "bad" by "good"), I agree, but it still falls short of Wilde's witticism, for the beauty of his epigram -- indeed, its perfection -- lies in the unexpected, ultimate word where "crying" is expected, a shocking final word not of sympathy, but of ridicule, the last word that concentrates all of the wit and humor at the very end: "laughing."

And leaves us doing precisely that . . . if we have no heart of stone.

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At 10:35 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Reads like a lost ball in tall weeds.


At 11:47 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Read louder!

Jeffery Hodges

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