Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Shot Not Taken

This one will be short and vague, by necessity.

This week I witnessed a devastatingly effective “shot not taken,” a sort of negative-space insult that worked by implied contrast.  I gasped at its elegance.  It’s a dying art, but it’s not entirely gone yet, and I’ll miss it when it breathes its last.

I’m sure there’s a word for it -- wise and worldly readers, help!! -- but we’ve all seen it.  It’s Mozart saying to Salieri, “only you.”  Or Alan King listing his favorite actors: “Sir Laurence Olivier.  Sir Kenneth Branagh.  And Drew Carey.”  

It’s more impressive in relatively spontaneous contexts.  It can be the silent beat, followed by a conspicuous change of subject, after a stupid comment.  Or the compliment that implies its own shadow, often in the space of a pause: “he’s very...decisive....”  “She certainly has a...presence.”  

It’s not exactly sarcasm; it’s more surgical than that.  Done well, it leaves the attacker looking clean and clever, and leaves the attacked almost nowhere to go.  It’s the verbal equivalent of the perfect knuckleball: off-speed and easy to get wrong, but when done right, almost beautiful in its evasive effectiveness.  

The undisputed master, of course, was P. G. Wodehouse.  Politically, he was somewhere between naive and offensive, but in verbal precision, nobody came close.  “Even at normal times Aunt Dahlia’s map tended a little towards the crushed strawberry.  But never had I seen it take on such a pronounced richness as now. She looked like a tomato struggling for self-expression.”   “He resembled a minor prophet who had been hit behind the ear with a stuffed eel-skin.”  “Unseen, in the background, fate was quietly slipping the lead into the boxing-glove.”

Wodehousian humor demands close attention, which may be why it’s fading.  It requires both precision and subtlety, and it asks of its reader or listener the ability to appreciate each.  It’s easy to miss.

All of which is to say, I tip my cap.  It was so elegant that all I can do is applaud.

Wise and worldly readers, is there a simple term for that?  And do you have a favorite application?