sarcasm


I've long been an admirer of sarcasm, which is not, as 66,789 people on Livejournal seem to think, tired irony of the "tell me how you really feel" variety, but instead the fine art of wounding with words, of using language as a weapon to beat down an adversary. Sarcasm should be distinguished from mere verbal abuse in that it is an art form: it aims not just to cause offence, but to cause offence in a beautiful way. It's the verbal martial art, or from another perspective, the art of verbal self-defence. It exists as much for the joy of self-expression as for the punishment of a victim.

Sarcasm is often described, by people without an original thought in their head, as 'the lowest form of wit'; but here Wilde or whoever originated that quote was mistaken. Wit -- the art of verbal ingenuity -- is quite a separate thing. If anything, wit and sarcasm are equals: together with parody, humour, irony, satire and so on they make up the elements of what might be called The Funny, or as Heidegger termed it, Daslustig. Wit can be a tool of sarcasm (and sarcasm of wit), though it's not necessary; some of the best practitioners of sarcasm don't use it at all.

Indeed, one of the greatest sarcasm artists I've seen was a guy I knew in school, who was no wit, but could verbally destroy anyone in seconds. Like a kung-fu master, he knew everyone's weak spots and pressure points, and when he launched his attack, he hit them with a force, speed and precision that was magnificent to behold -- and thoroughly hilarious. It's perhaps such schoolyard experiences that have given me a taste for sarcasm in the written word; H.L. Mencken demolishing one group with a perfectly-crafted insult, before demolishing three more in a parenthetical flourish; Victor Lewis-Smith's breathtakingly vitriolic TV reviews; Nimrod`` tearing apart some idiot on rec.arts.movies.past-films.

Does this make me a sadist? Surely saying not nice things to people is fundamentally not nice? Perhaps; but unlike the physical sadism on show so regularly in the media, I believe sarcasm has a socially improving quality. And this is quite apart from the personal therapeutic effect of unleashing sarcasm, or witnessing it being unleashed on the deserving.

In giving and receiving sarcasm one tends to develop a hide, a tough exterior, and this can only be a good thing. Nature being what it is, there is no utopia I can imagine in which people would not get hit by slings and arrows, not to mention sticks and stones. More valuable still is sarcasm's effect in puncturing that bubble of self-reverence that people carry around with them; if people laugh at you often enough, eventually you begin to see their point. In a world where solipsism is a constant temptation, sarcasm is a healthy reminder you that you're just another git. In diminishing your own personal aura, it increases your respect for others. And so it furthers a sense of honesty, and somewhat paradoxically, compassion.

One arena which is conspicuously short on honesty and compassion, and which I suspect would greatly benefit from the reintroduction of sarcasm, is official American political life, where a hypocritical 'civility' holds sway, for some upright Presbyterian's idea of civility. Politeness, it seems, is still the rule even when an election is being stolen before one's eyes: Michael Moore in Fahrenheit 9/11 needed quick-fire editing and tense background music to make the Democrat protests in 2000 look anything other than anaemic. Indeed, the one bright spot in recent US political life was the appearance before the UN oil-for-food inquiry of George Galloway, whose blunt Glaswegian sarcasm fairly shocked the grey US senators. For all the man's opportunism and venality, his demeanour made him come across with more integrity than any US politician. I can't help but feel that US democracy, and hence the world, would be in a better state if raucous and colourful insults regularly crossed the floors of the legislative houses.


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