Life as a Laughing Matter

I will give an example. During the bombings of cities in World War II, citizens everywhere showed great courage. At the height of the bombing of London, some American newspapermen asked ordinary citizens of London about their feelings. One reporter said that he was amazed not only by the brave determination but by the cheerfulness of the Londoners.

One working man had told him that he was not at all afraid of being hit by a bomb. The man said: ‘How can a German bomber kill me? First of all, he has to find London and then he has to find the East End of London. I live in Alton Street, Number 32. So he has to find Alton Street and then find Number 32. When he has found it, he has to drop his bomb on it. And even if he does, probably I’ll be out, having a drink at the pub’. This ordinary Londoner could not only face the bombs but also laugh at them with this comical story.

In English we distinguish wit from humour. Wit is a clever way of saying something indirectly which cannot be said directly. It is often a way of attacking someone. The French are famous for it. The French writer Voltaire was shown a poem by a rival author, entitled A Message to the Future, and remarked, ‘I doubt if this message will reach its destination’. In other words, no one will read the author’s work after he is dead.

The French constantly make witty sarcastic remarks about their neighbours, the Belgians. After hearing one of these, I asked the Frenchman, ‘Do the Belgians make sarcastic witty remarks about the French in return?’ He looked at me. ‘They would like to do that’, he said, ‘but they are Belgians, so they cannot think of any!’ ‘

We British can appreciate such wit, but most of us do not really like it. It is bitter. The farther east you go in Europe, the bitterer the wit becomes. The Hungarians say about themselves, ‘If you have a Hungarian as your friend, you do not need an enemy’. In other words, you can never trust him. (I have not found this true in my own experience.)

Japanese people should know about these acid international jokes; such things are common. And there is no need to be sensitive when some are told about Japan. The Hungarians even invent slanders about themselves; so do Jewish people.

Sometimes the wit says something very interesting. Vasary Tartakower was a Hungarian cavalry officer at the beginning of this century. He was famous as a duelist. In those days duels were frequent, but they stopped as soon as blood came from the first wound. The wounded man lost the duel. After World War I, the Hungarian army ceased to exist. Tartakower entered university, took a doctorate and finally became a brilliant chess master, one of the best in the world.

Near the end of his life, he was interviewed by a journalist, who said to him, There must be very few people who have had so many triumphs’. Tartakower gave a little smile and said: ‘I have never had a real triumph. Whether at dueling or at chess, I have never beaten a man who was wholly well! ’ He was hinting wittily that a loser always has an excuse.

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