Sunday, July 25, 2010


When asked, "How do you write?" I invariably answer, "one word at a time." - Stephen King

For a similar question I will have to answer,"one letter at a time." As you can guess, this is not the best method for indulging in repartees. In The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Jean-Dominique Bauby wrote:
But my communication system disqualifies repartee: the keenest rapier grows dull and falls flat when it takes several minutes to thrust it home. By the time you strike, even you no longer understand what had seemed so witty before you started to dictate it, letter by letter.So the rule is to avoid impulsive sallies. It deprives conversation of its sparkle, all those gems you bat back and forth like a ball - and I count this forced lack of humor one of the great drawbacks of my condition.
In the early years after my stroke, when a splendid retort occurred to me in response to some comment, I used to think that this was an opportunity to get a few claps. I will start dictating my comment to Jaya. After ten minutes, I will wait for the applause. None would be forthcoming. The problem was that no one had the patience to wait reverently for my gem and had been talking about other things with the result that they had forgotten what it was that I was responding to. I will try to remind them of it. Fast forward ten minutes and again the claps will be conspicuous by their absence. The problem this time would be that people would have forgotten a few words from my comment. As everyone knows, a repartee minus key words is as witty and charming as a weather report. Maybe a special computer would have been able to decipher the layers of meanings in my riposte but in the world of real people, it was a miserable failure. By now, knowing that the inordinate delay had killed the punch in my repartee, my initial enthusiasm for displaying my perspicacity would be on the wane and I will wish that I hadn't started the whole thing in the first place. But I will have to plod on because everyone would be curious about what I had thought of. I will accept whatever interpretation anyone puts to my words, my only indention being to complete the damn thing as soon as possible. After the mess gets over, I will wish that I could, like Little Jack Horner, sit in a corner in order to lick my wounds in peace but since this option is not available, I will continue to sit quietly and smile for the sake of the optics.

Steven Pinker said, "In our social relations, the race is not to the quick but to the verbal..." , which is doubly true of repartees. Initially I was eager to show that my mind was functioning as before but now, since most people know that I am a bit better than one of the wax statues at Madame Tussauds, I don't mind keeping quiet. Sometimes, a pithy remark occurs to me in response to some statement but chastised by the memory of the earlier disasters, I resist the temptation to give in to my delusions of wit and wisdom. Heywood C. Broun said, “Repartee is what you wish you'd said”. I am sure he did not say it thinking of a patient with locked-in syndrome.


  1. I remember reading a "book of insults" many years back :-) The foreword to the book said something like - "sometimes you think of a great retort one day after the original comment; here is a book that helps you with ready retorts"! Of course, repartee is in a slightly higher class, but you get the point....

  2. you know there are times when i have a real witty repartee -- at least i'm laughing hysterical in my mind at my own joke -- but i am too scared of a lack of response. so i shut up.
    oh, if i were a little braver, i'd be funnier!
    gotta catch up with all your posts. been a while.

  3. Your wit is something you are not able to display....but the wisdom of your writings and the profundity of your thoughts deserve far more applaud than all your suppressed wise cracks......