The Seeds of Wit

R. G. G. Price is a critic and reviewer who writes regularly for PUNCH and contributes often to the ATLANTIC.

These days, mood isn’t a matter of how you feel when you wake up in the morning but of what drug you have taken. Are you tranquil, feverish, hallucinated, or happy in the belief that you are surrounded by gigantic pink mushrooms, timeless, spaceless, and a credit to your dope supplier? Tell me your state of mind, and I’ll tell you what the last capsule you took was.

Now that man is no longer at the mercy of his mind’s lack of sense of occasion, you would think that never would the world’s dinner tables have heard such brilliant talk. The great wits of the past may sometimes have had an off day. Charles II and Oscar Wilde and Alexander Woollcott and Jean Cocteau must sometimes have groaned as they forced their eyes open past a hangover and remembered they were likely to be in the presence of biographers that night. Today they would simply work out a pharmaceutical routine that would bring them to their verbal peak at the right moment.

In the past, the only aid available was alcohol, and this is not an infallible producer of wit, only of not caring whether you are witty or not. It is a blunt kind of stimulant compared with the amphetamines. It has been known to change a speaker’s mood in mid-anecdote, turning him from an infectiously merry recorder of human frailty into an aggressively suspicious observer of the audience’s laughter. The fact that some of the tremendous repartee which has come down to us now seems so flat shows the extent of alcoholic influence on judgment. We read it cold; they heard it through heating fumes.

Dr. Johnson, who never said a good thing without making sure that Boswell or a stand-in was near, did most of his public performances on tea or even cold water. He drank wine only in private, and eventually he gave even that up. At least that is the legend. Remembering his unflagging conversational energy, his mental vitality, his ability to be victoriously apt however unpromising the lead makes me doubt it. My guess is that he took some kind of primitive booster. This would explain the vehemence of his talk, its unflagging pointedness and the peculiar twitches that accompanied it. Although he had only a small income and not much room in his home, he provided accommodation for Mr. Robert Levet, Practitioner of Physic. This has always been taken as evidence of the simple, Christian kindness that underlay his bullying manner; but I suspect that Levet’s real job was compounding early versions of the benzedrine capsule. While the Grand Cham was flipping through his folios to find some impressive, knockdown quotations for the evening’s melee at The Club, pestle was grinding in mortar. Probably the prescription was increased in strength when some formidable debating opponent like Burke was expected.

Coleridge was one of the most grimly indefatigable talkers on record, and he was also an opiumeater. Perhaps he taught himself to talk in his sleep. On and on, the improvised metaphysics rolled, and he was too far gone to notice the audience were no longer alertly with him. It is only charitable to hope that they were opium-eaters too. Probably if he had changed over to stimulants acting on the central nervous system, his Thought, instead of being cloudy and Teutonic, would have become brisk. He would have snapped out solutions to the traditional problems of Knowing and Being. His poetry would have showed the change as well. Instead of dreamlike evocations of an imaginary Middle Ages, it would have been pulsing with action, more like Robert Service’s.

In the nineteenth century, now more remote to us than Thule or Cathay, many conversationalists reached their peak at breakfast. It was a witty meal, terribly, terribly witty, not, like the modern breakfast, dedicated to getting children to school on time and worrying about catching trains and listening to cereals. Poets and politicians met for a leisurely exchange of epigrams over a menu that might give quite minor billing to such substantial items as pigeon. To us it seems incredible that immediately on dragging themselves out of bed, our ancestors were ready to bandy witticisms and even to improvise theories of versification and to quote trade statistics. The only explanation is that many more of them were opium-eaters than the press revealed and that to rouse them in the morning, their servants gave them antisoporific drugs. In those days dosage in the pharmaceutical world was rough and ready, like quantities in cooking. “Cover a coin with the grey powder,” read the instructions, or “Heap up the crystals in a spoon.” Overdosed, the leaders of fashionable society leapt from their couches in a fever of loquacity.

When an earlier writer in these pages reported the conversation at the “Breakfast-Table,” he devoted very little attention to the food, remarking of peaches, for instance, that they were “a rare vegetable little known to boarding-houses,” but on the whole ignoring what the audience ate. If the food was poor, one can see that a certain lightheaded effervescence might have been the result of starvation. On the other hand, Holmes was a doctor and might easily have pepped himself up and damped his hearers down.

In the World Cup Association football tournament, two players in each team from the fifty countries taking part got a dope test after every game. If this system had been followed among the Pericles set, in the salons of the witty mistresses of French kings, in Whistler’s studio, or around that table at the Algonquin, I suspect some of the gloss would have been rubbed off. What was thoughtlessly taken by onlookers as nature would have turned out to be due to art, or at any rate craft. One has learned to think of the world’s great improvisers as always at it, always ready with a flow of paradox and anecdote and trope when the neighbors dropped by. If my theory has any basis, and I hardly like to claim that much for it, the mechanism was revved up to a schedule. The man who was going to hold the table at Holland House or at Mrs. Astor’s had to be careful not to arrive too soon or stay too late if he was to get the maximum effect from the stuff he used. Call on him at, say, half past three on a Sunday afternoon, and you would be lucky to get a rehash of a story someone else had told the night before. Lackluster the conversation would have tended to be.

Of course, it is not only in the frenzied centers of the world’s great cities that talk is memorable and recorded. Rustic philosophers, like park-bench millionaires, have gone out of fashion; but they once accounted for a good slice of the average dictionary of wit. Their prowess was, of course, due to marrying rustic maidens with a sound knowledge of herbs. While they were keeping an eye open for strangers in the hamlet, especially strangers who looked like the press, the little woman was sleeping off a night spent gathering simples under the light of the full moon.

With the development of the range of drugs of which mescaline was the first to get into literary gossip and LSD is already fairly vieux jeu, dinner party audiences will feel they are having fun whoever the guest of honor may be. These are drugs capable of making somebody planted for an evening next to a John Foster Dulles feel he was enjoying an experience comparable with listening to Talleyrand, Will Rogers, and Madame du Deffand simultaneously.

In conclusion, may I point out that much the oddest of the world’s great talkers was Socrates: he held his hearers spellbound, with such topics as the immortality of the soul, on hemlock.