Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Journal #2: An Analysis of "True" and "False" Wit, and Amphibiousness

The Lives of Amphibians and Chimæras:
Journal #2
An Analysis of "True" and "False" Wit, and Amphibiousness
Joseph Addison defines 'true' wit as involving the resemblance of ideas (my mistress' breast is as white as snow--and as cold, too) and 'false' wit as operating on the resemblance of letters, syllables, words, or sentences (as in anagrams, doggerel rhyme, puns, or concrete poetry). He then defines mixed wit, which combines the two. This mixed wit is praised to some degree, called "more or less perfect" at one point, while at others I get the feeling that he prefers 'true' wit on its own, especially when regarding Cowley; however, it is the names of the wits and not their practitioners that interest me.
Addison seems to take a Platonic stance on truth in his discussion of wit. In reality, 'true' wit is hardly closer to truth than 'false' wit; false wit is not false because, as Sir Philip Sidney would say, what affirms nothing does not lie. What Addison is really trying to say is that he approves of the concordance of ideas more than he approves of the concordance of sounds or shapes. He thus attributes "true" to that of which he approves and "false" to that of which he disapproves. In a way reminiscent to Plato, he attributes goodness to truth and truth to goodness, and badness to falsehood and so forth. That, at least, is my take on it. Perhaps he considers something devoid of meaning to be false (and then I am upset to think of what his opinion of 'Jabberwocky' must be), but this is really a logical impossibility. Nonsense cannot be false (thankfully) just as it cannot be true.
This throws an interesting slant on "mixed" wit, belonging half of the time to falsehood and half of the time to truth, a sort of amphibian. I would think automatically that this is the best form of wit of all. However, in the connotation of wits' various names, mixed wit must fall below true wit. This, then, may be the source of the confusion I reas in Addison's article (whether the confusion should be attributed to Addison or myself is debatable and likely irrelevant): wit that uses both resemblance of idea and sound seems best and most skillful of all, but the names require that it is less desired than wit using resemblance of idea alone.
I, of course, prefer the amphibious nature of mixed wit. The amphibian, incidentally, is a useful symbol for many things; in some cases, Christ is represented by a mermaid, which is both human and piscean and thus amphibious, as a symbol of His being both human and divine. In my Religions of Native Peoples class, I learned that Inuit believe those who cross both halves of the world (defined by dualities in Inuit cosmology) have power, especially those raised as the opposite gender until puberty (which is socially acceptable in that culture). Mixed wit, like these others, should have a sort of power that a pure-bred with would not. Among other things, mixed wit is easier to remember.


Anonymous said...

Did terms such as 'truth' and 'falsehood' not hold much ambiguosity in this period? By 'truth,' could he not have expected his audience, skilled in the vague yet dramatic language of their day, to deduce the simple connotations of 'positive' and 'negative?'

Christian H said...

1) I'm not sure how the relationship between true-positive and false-negative is ambiguous. It seems clear-cut to me. This beng said, I assume that the actual border between true and false has always been ambiguous.

2) It's quite possible that he expected this. I'm not sure, though, how that affects anything in the article I wrote, when I'm discussing the relationship between true and mixed wit, in which I think the later is better, but by his nomenclature it would rank lower than true wit (presumably, because it seems to me less clear that he intended this than he intends false wit to be lower than true wit, since he comes out and says that in the essay).

3. I wouldn't be so sure that their terminology was vague. It could have been quite precise, but over time the words they used have generalized, so that when we read the same text now, it seems vague.

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