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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

‘Witty’ lecture by visiting professor

Published: March 23, 2012
Section: Arts, Etc.

This past Wednesday, the Dean of Arts and Sciences and European Cultural Studies brought Gary Saul Morson to campus to discuss the concept of wit. Morson is a professor of arts and humanities at Northwestern University and is an expert scholar in Russian literature.

Known for his picky and precise sentences, Morson applied his insights into the little talked about topic of wit to the modern day.

In a literary world consumed with the novel, the short quips of witty statements and anecdotal stories often go unmentioned. Morson is wit’s crusader, serving to remind us of the importance of possessing wit. Defined by Morson, wit is mind over circumstance and the ability to respond with a smart comment on the spot regardless of the environment. It is entirely tied to timing.

While as humans we often have afterthoughts about what we should have said, wit has no patience for human folly. If a person possesses wit, he or she is also armed with a clever remark on the tip of his or her tongue at all times. Wit is therefore a social skill, a literary tool that makes a person exceptionally intelligent. Morson described this concept with verbal duels. In his opinion, the ability to retort to an insult with a witty remark grants the person respect and honor. It demonstrates the importance of brains, logic and knowledge in the world. He cited examples ranging from Dorothy Parker to Winston Churchill, both of whom were able to stupefy the person insulting them with wit.

Morson insists that wit is a non-violent way to become a champion. By possessing wit, one can adapt and thrive in the most testing of social situations.

Morson also illustrated the importance of wit in darker situations such as on the deathbed or the scaffold. Oscar Wilde’s famous last line was “either that wallpaper goes, or I do.” Death is inevitable; only the bravest of men can face it while maintaining a sense of humor and wit. The scaffold is an even more trying environment than the deathbed, for men are forced to face death firmly in the face while enduring extreme embarrassment and shame. The ability to possess the presence of mind necessary to joke on the scaffold is astonishing, which is a sort of unique stoicism, he explained.

While it may seem that Morson is talking about topics entirely unrelated to the everyday Brandeis student, his comments on wit are relevant.

While students do not expect to face the scaffold in their lifetime, possessing a calm presence of mind in the face of danger is a valuable lesson. While studying for a looming chemistry exam for example, it may be easier to approach the challenge with a witty comment instead of constantly stressing about it. It would make a person appear more intelligent as well, given that wit is the sole literary tool that requires adept social skills. Morson preaches that wit is about transforming a situation into a more pleasant one.

Morson is an excellent lecturer. Although he was reading a chapter out loud from his new book that is set out to come out in April, he brought his own words to life. When quoting witty comments, he would take on different tones, deepening his voice and pausing for effect at the funny outcomes. The audience was very invested in his topic as they were constantly reminded of the clever tactics of wit. Morson would even stray from his text. For example, he joked that many of the witty comments taking place on the scaffold were brought to us from the French Terror. Personable and pleasant to hear, Morson has finally given wit the attention it deserves.