A brief and partial survey of the “bon mot” and a nod to the latest contender….

Hi, folks!  I’ve finally returned to blogging, back from my winter hiatus of the turn-of-the year holidays, my own illness (a nuisancy cold), and the illness of a couple of friends (now on the mend) whom I took time out to make something for to lift their spirits.  And my topic?  A brief (all too sketchy) and partial (showing favoritism to the French and the U.S. citizenry) survey of the bon mot (the “witty remark”).  Naturally, I wanted to include one of the latest examples of the form, so let me embark upon my survey without further ado, and I will bring this fraction of the world’s wit and bonhomie up-to-date with a nod to Justin Halpern’s short text Sh*t My Dad Says, which actually you probably heard of long before I did.  It can’t do any harm, however, to situate it within a line of historical descent with its forebears.  So here goes:

First, there’s the comparatively gentle and whimsical Montaigne, who included his cabbages and his cat in some of his musings.  The remarks he has to offer are thoughtful, perceptive little contributions to the world’s store of witticisms and go something like this:

  • “The thing I fear most is fear.”
  • “I want death to find me planting my cabbages.”
  • “He who would teach men to die would teach them to live.”
  • “I do not speak the minds of others except to speak my mind better.”
  • “Nothing is so firmly believed as what is least known.”
  • “When I play with my cat, who knows if I am not a pastime to her more than she is to me?”
  • “Man is certainly crazy.  He could not make a mite, yet he makes gods by the dozen.”

Then, there is the more pointed and far more cynical La Rochefoucauld, whose Maximes are famous for their cutting edge and bite:

  • “That we can overcome our passions signifies their weakness rather than our strength.”
  • “There is always something in the misfortune of our best of friends which does not entirely displease us.”
  • “We are never so happy nor so unhappy as we imagine.”
  • “There is no disguise which can for long conceal love where it exists or simulate it where it does not.”
  • “True love is like ghosts, which everybody talks about and few have seen.”
  • “Everyone complains of his memory, and no one complains of his judgement.”
  • “Old people like to give good advice, as solace for no longer being able to give bad examples.”

Finally as a requisite for situating Halpern’s book in a slapdash historical context, there are a few from Oliver Wendell Holmes (Sr.), and The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table:

  • “Insanity is often the logic of an accurate mind overtasked.”
  • “Put not your trust in money, but put your money in trust.”
  • “Sin has many tools, but a lie is the handle which fits them all.”

The first patently obvious difference which stands out in Justin Halpern’s book and which sets it apart from the more conventional book of bon mots is that in this case part of the humor is in fact derived from a disrespect for the polite conventions of conversation, signified here by the repetitive and constant use of vulgar and quasi-abusive language (by the “Dad” in question, who is copiously quoted).  Though Halpern makes it clear that there is much affection amongst the family members he writes about in the showcase for his father’s wit and wisdom, he never hesitates to quote his father’s disparaging remarks to him and other family members, and even started a Twitter feed for the work, at www.Twitter.com/ShitMyDadSays.  Here are some of the choicer remarks, not for the shy or faint-hearted, and definitely not for the social worker type who eschews frank language in family situations:

  • “Do people your age know how to comb their hair?  It looks like two squirrels crawled on their heads and started fucking.”
  • “That woman was sexy….Out of your league?  Son, let women figure out why they won’t screw you.  Don’t do it for them.”
  • “Jesus Christ, one fucking Snickers bar, and you’re running around like your asshole is on fire.  Okay, outside you go.  Don’t come back in until you’re ready to sleep or shit.”
  • (On off-limits zones in hide-and-go-seek) “What the fuck are you doing in my closet?  Don’t shush me, it’s my fucking closet.”
  • (On getting in trouble at school) “Why would you throw a ball in someone’s face?…Huh.  That’s a pretty good reason.  Well, I can’t do much about your teacher being pissed, but me and you are good.”
  • (On my first school dance) “Are you wearing perfume?….Son, there ain’t any cologne in this house, only your mother’s perfume.  I know that scent, and let me tell you, it’s disturbing to smell your wife on your thirteen-year-old son.”
  • (On fair play) “Cheating’s not easy.  You probably think it is, but it ain’t.  I bet you’d suck more at cheating than whatever it was you were trying to do legitimately.”
  • (On slumber parties) “There’s chips in the cabinet and ice cream in the freezer.  Stay away from knives and fire.  Okay, I’ve done my part, I’m going to bed.”
  • (On understanding one’s place in the food chain) “Your mother made a batch of meatballs last night.  Some are for you, some are for me, but more are for me.  Remember that.  More.  Me.”
  • “The dog is not bored.  It’s not like he’s waiting for me to give him a fucking Rubik’s Cube.  He’s a goddamned dog.”
  • “You sure do like to tailgate people….Right, because it’s real important you show up to the nothing you have to do on time.”
  • (On the right time to have children) “It’s never the right time to have kids, but it’s always the right time for screwing.  God’s not a dumb shit.  He knows how it works.”
  • “The baby will talk when he talks, relax.  It ain’t like he knows the cure for cancer and just ain’t spitting it out.”
  • “Sometimes life leaves a hundred-dollar bill on your dresser, and you don’t realize until later it’s because it fucked you.”

Though longshoremen are often credited with having vulgar language and using vile expressions that bring out the timidity in the rest of us, it’s vital and useful, I think, to report that this opinion is a result of class prejudice and that the language usage above comes from an educated member of the community, in fact a doctor, who uses his panoply of casually dismissive and discrediting language to call members of his family to attention and to let them know that he is making a serious point about something that involves them.  His point, clearly, is that they should listen carefully, and there’s apparently nothing like a good round expletive or frank evaluation to call people to attention quickly.  What comes out as well in Halpern’s book, after one has had a good laugh at all the many things that one wishes one could have said in similar situations, but which one didn’t have the chutzpah to enunciate in quite those terms, is that there is genuine affection and caring, not only of Justin Halpern for his family, but of the family itself as well by the frank and vocal father.  Not bothering with the excuse a lot of people offer before becoming either snide or frank, “I’m saying this because I love you,” Sam Halpern (the lauded dad) simply cuts to the chase and verbalizes what we all wish we could say sometimes, but with the whole emotional resonance of the remark intact.  The result is a hilarious collection of sayings and some other story-like passages of text which continue and update the traditions of the bon mot, making one wonder what indeed could possibly come next.  Truly, if one puts one’s linguistic prejudices regarding formal and stately language aside, assuming that one has them in the first place, there’s a world of wit and laughter in the picture Justin Halpern creates just by exhibiting his father’s contributions to one of the oldest traditions in the world.  Kudos to him and his father both, the older for being who he is first and foremost and not hiding himself from the world behind a screen of propriety, and the younger for knowing how to appreciate a true contributor to our literature without being blinded by false modesty because the speaker is a member of his own family.  May we all learn a little more of frankness as well as adroitness from their example, in whatever vernacular we choose to express them.

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4 Comments

Filed under Articles/reviews, What is literature for?

4 responses to “A brief and partial survey of the “bon mot” and a nod to the latest contender….

  1. A bored dog…what a fascinating concept…I fail to picture it, it is a meaning I cannot really grasp.

    • Yes, I think in that particular “bon mot,” the father (Sam) was expressing the revolt of the commonsensical individual towards the seemingly overly pampered animal which has a psychiatrist of its own, etc. Though we are learning more about animals’ mental states every day, and are finding that they can indeed share many of the same conditions and emotions we have, there will always be loveable holdouts who refuse to acknowledge that the animal is more than another mammal, and an inferior one at that.

  2. Richard Gilbert

    I love these, Victoria—and your sly structure, with its pleasant historical survey before the shin-kick of Halpern. Wisdom comes in many forms!

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