The Wit As Personality Type

"The wit...is hostile, often with a skillful, artful, highly developed, sophisticated meanness and viciousness. He nurses and polishes his meanness like Narcissus himself seeking to sparkle with brilliance in the mirror...He uses words, which he loves, like pebbles to throw at unsuspecting people...He may prefer the word to the idea, the applause to being convincing."

-- Martin Grotjahn, Beyond Laughter

"There is, of course, no such thing as a well-defined type of person known as 'the wit.' If a profile of such a personality type is attempted, we have to deal with an abstraction. We actually mean the sort of person to whom witty remarks come easily -- almost compulsively, as by inner necessity...

"The wit as such is hostile, often with a skillful, artful, highly developed, sophisticated meanness. He nurses and polishes his meanness like Narcissus himself seeking to sparkle with brilliance in the mirror...He shows a strong erotization of word and language. He uses words, which he loves, like pebbles to throw at unsuspecting people. His temperament is cool, intelligent, hostile, sharp, quick, alert, always ready to strike. (The Germans have a special word, meaning just this, for the wit -- Schlagfertig.) He uses his talent as a weapon, whether with the help of a poison pen or the poised spoken word...

"People are not even sure of the witty person's opinions, because he may change his stand for the sake of a wisecrack. He may prefer the word to the idea, the applause to being convincing. Because he is afraid of people, he will attack them, insult them in a sophisticated way and keep them at arm's length. To be witty is a good defense against close contact with friend or foe, but it makes it possible to remain within a group and never lose contact completely...

"Something else can be noted when studying witty men at close range: how sick at heart most of them are underneath their witty defenses. They are hostile, lonely, often unloving and unloved; they feel near to tears and suffering; often they avoid disaster only by drinking, which leads to new complications. They repeat the tragedy of the little boy who feels unloved, becomes defensive and hostile, erotizes his language, and becomes impudent. The life stories of many great clowns give a wealth of clinical evidence of a truly tragic development. It is not funny to be funny. For many clowns, 'comedy is no laughing matter.' Nobody can play with the spirit of incompletely controlled hostility without getting burned himself. Nobody can try to live outside of a group of friends and enemies and still feel that he belongs somewhere. Because of the witty disguise of his hostility, he will find temporary shelter within a group of admirers -- but this is an unsatisfactory solution. Admiration is not love.

"Impudence and quick counterattack are the wit's strength. A striking example: When an admiring lady spotted Groucho Marx in a Chicago hotel at breakfast, she rushed up to him and asked in breathless excitement: 'Are you Harpo Marx?' Without batting an eye, he answered with indignation: 'No -- are you?' Rarely has so much insult been expressed in so few words."

--- From Martin Grotjahn, Beyond Laughter: Humor and the Subconscious (McGraw Hill, 1957), pp.43-48.

 

 

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