MEAN MOUTHS




Thinking about sarcastic people. I don't mean someone who comes up with the occasional bit of barbed wit, but people who don't do anything else. They are glib, they are often funny. They are usually perceived to be intelligent. They often have nothing to give to the world.


At one time in my life I was around a lot of critics. I was working in theater in New York and was aware that certain critics were going to play hell with whatever show had just opened. The play or the performance became a pretext for whatever bit of poison the critic wanted to expunge, almost as if they'd been sitting in the dark thinking up vicious zingers and would thenceforth look for a target to send them at. Surely there would be a play that the zinger fit. I knew one of them very well indeed. A deeply unhappy person who underneath their intellectual pose was sentimental, needy, and drama hungry.


One of the most vicious critics was the infamous John Simon. He was downright misanthropic. He'd attack anyone, even people outside his area expertise. He once described Richard Benjamin as giving one of his "customarily greasy performances." In one instance, an actress dumped a plate of food on his head in a restaurant. Fault-finding seems to be their only talent. This would be useful in scientific research where a mistake could cost someone's life and exactitude was a prerequisite for the job, but art?


In everyday life, these folks seem to walk around trailing a corrosive gas. The relationships they have, whether with friends or lovers, always have a sadomasochistic dynamic; one person is always being hurt, controlled by meanness. They don't fight back. (Someone once advised me to "never get in a pissing contest with a skunk.") The sarcasms are directed at the core of the person, intended to weaken them, to damage them permanently, to "put them in their place." Even when sarcastic people attempt to give a compliment it is double-edged, ironic, as if they had a black string attached to it and could take it back at any time.


What drives these people is often a mystery. In some cases, they inherited it from a vicious, alcoholic parent, etc. Or they learned to survive by being cruel, by disabling with words anyone who threatened them. They often rationalize their cruelty with the pose of a truth-seeker; someone who will keep winnowing away falsity until they arrive at "the truth." But the truth is always elusive. Here are a few lines from Peer Gynt's peeling the onion scene:


There's a most surprising lot of layers!

Are we never coming to the kernel?

There isn't one! To the innermost bit

It's nothing but layers, smaller and smaller.


So, sarcasm itself is the goal. I can twist the Buddhist idea that it's the journey not the end that is important. But the journey is miserable and it brings unhappiness even to the person who would deny others their happiness.


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