Monday, January 20, 2014

Robert Grudin: the perfect comeback--hours later


"The French use the term 'esprit de l'escalier'  ('wit of the stairway') to describe the brilliant comments that occur to us just after we have left the party or meeting where they would have been appropriate.  The killing response to an unprovoked insult, the quietus for an aggressive bore, the naughty paradox that would have made you shine, are as useless now as tickets to last night's show.  So much is wit the child of time.  Still, it is not just our own slowness that makes us think of things too late.  Something in the social experience itself, some fear of self-expression or some awareness of wit's proximity to the utterly absurd, deadens our minds and stops our tongues.  Besides, the witty remark, whether it denudes hypocrisy or subverts language, is always a miniature revolution, a gesture of reform.    The witticism makes its creator, at least momentarily, an enemy of established society; and thus wit is as much a child of courage and as it is of time."

-- Robert Grudin --
from Time and the Art of Living

The first part, the delayed witticism, is a too common experience for all of us, including me.  Sometimes the brilliant, killing response comes when I'm walking out the door or driving home or even, occasionally, waking up in the middle of the night (the three o'clock comeback).  It is frustrating, but unfortunately a very mundane experience, one that I really don't spend much time thinking about.

Where I part from Grudin is the second part where he states that the delayed comeback is much more than just slowness of thought, that it's "a miniature revolution" or "a gesture of reform."  I think that's pushing it a bit far.    Does the occasional witticism really make one "at least momentarily, an enemy of established society"?

I don't' know about others, but the few times I've been on time with a comment I never considered or thought out what I was going to say--it just popped out, and I was as surprised as anyone else.  The idea that saying that made me "an enemy of established society" never occurred to me, either before, during, or after the incident.

Why does this happen to me?  I'm not the fastest thinker around; it takes me time to think about the situation, the book, or the film, and it's only after some time has passed that I am able to grasp the relevant ideas or themes or nuances in question.  Generally, I'm just a slow thinker, and if an "unprovoked insult" is the issue, then shock comes into play.

Shock, be it physical or mental, paralyzes one momentarily, both physically and mentally.  There's always that moment of paralysis before one takes action.  If it's a physical threat, then the responses are usually limited to flight or fight.  If it's a mental threat, then the possible responses are multiplied: say something or leave or stay there and bear it, and to say something appropriate is the most complex of possible responses.  

I think Grudin is over-intellectualizing here.


  1. I agree with you, Fred. Most of us probably appreciate a good comeback. I know I do. I think we're more apt to hear "Good one" than be thought of as an enemy, even a momentary one.

  2. madamevauquer,

    Yes, I've found the same reaction, that examples of wit are admired by most people. If there are any negative feelings attached, they are expressions of envy, of the "I wish I had said that" variety.