The Wit's Guide to Enemies
Or, lauding the amber
The more you define your enemies, the more they define you. Do it correctly and you become the mongoose to their cobra. Do it lightly and you’re just another horsefly to their horse’s ass. Obliterate them and, well, we’re running out of animal metaphors so … you can be an anteater? You win, but you win by eating a whole bunch of ants. Maybe pop a Tums.
“Books have the same enemies as people: fire, humidity, animals, weather, and their own content.”
— Paul Valery
In this bestiary of nemeses, Christopher Hitchens took the mongoose route. Henry Kissinger, Mother Teresa, God: His adversaries never lacked for stature. And in contrast to the advice (variously credited to Omar from The Wire and Ralph Waldo Emerson) that if you take a shot at the king you best not miss, he frequently missed — for instance, by titling his book on that “thieving, fanatical Albanian dwarf” Mother Teresa The Missionary Position. But he simply reloaded and kept firing.
“Any kiddie in school can love like a fool,
But hating, my boy, is an art.”
— Ogden Nash
Alice Roosevelt Longworth was more of a horsefly. As the daughter of President Teddy Roosevelt and wife of a congressman, she was known as “Washington’s other monument.” She nibbled away at a half-century of political elites but rarely drew blood with lines like
“Never trust a man who combs his hair straight from his left armpit.”
“I do wish he did not look as if he had been weaned on a pickle.
Longworth told Newsweek her specialty was “detached malevolence.” As such, she was never truly committed to making enemies. If you really want to ensure someone will spit on your grave, you’ve got to put in the hours.
“I have a most peaceable disposition. My desires are for a modest hut, a thatched roof, but a good bed, good food, very fresh milk and butter, flowers in front of my window and a few pretty trees by my door. And should the good Lord wish to make me really happy, he will allow me the pleasure of seeing about six or seven of my enemies hanged upon those trees.”
— Heinrich Heine
James Whistler was anteater, a great painter so thoroughly disagreeable he put down his brush to write The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, a compilation of his conflicts. The book is a cult classic, the record of a man who picked fights like flowers in a spring meadow. Max Beerbohm, one of his great admirers, wrote that:
“Whistler’s insults always stuck—stuck and spread round the insulted, who found themselves at length encased in them, like flies in amber. You may shed a tear over the flies, if you will. For myself, I am content to laud the amber.”
Whistler genuinely believed this was the only way to be, and he dedicates the book to:
“The rare Few, who, early in Life
have rid Themselves of the Friendship
of the Many”
A typical Whistler letter contained lines such as “I am not arguing with you — I am telling you.” He was only such a grump, he claimed, because he had to flip the polarities on his magnetic personality:
“Early in life I made the discovery that I was charming, and if one is delightful, one has to thrust the world away to keep from being bored to death.”
If you genuinely hold such a view, perhaps archenemy to the world is a good fit for you. But be warned: Hating everyone still means you need everyone. As Whistler wrote late in life:
“I’m lonesome. They’re all dying. I have hardly a warm personal enemy left.”
— James Whistler
“If you can’t beat them, arrange to have them beaten.”
— George Carlin
Violence is never the answer, unless it happens to be the pangram in the New York Times Spelling Bee. The only puzzle you need to solve — as you dependably do each and every week — is what next week’s issue will be about. I solemnly pledge that if you pick AI, I will not pull the lazy trick of getting Chat GPT to write the newsletter. But if I do, you can assign a bot to read it for you.
Alice Roosevelt Longworth
Get Wit Quick No. 186 regrets to inform you that Henry Kissinger is still alive. Still! And he just wrote a book about artificial intelligence! A testament to the benefits of pickle weaning. My book Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting could choke an anteater but never would. As Lincoln said, the best way to vanquish your enemies is to ❤️ them.