The Timeless Wisdom of Robert Benchley

benchleyRobert Benchley was the smartest and the funniest and the best man who ever lived, and I will brook not even the whisper of the most whimsical misandry about him. He was the only member of the Algonquin Round table it would have been possible to have a pleasant lunch together with. His wisdom is timeless; I will pass some of the best of it onto you now.

On sociopathy and the morning commute:

“But probably the most common of all antagonisms arises from one man’s taking a seat beside you on a train, a seat to which he is completely entitled. You get in at Bog Shore and find a seat by yourself. At any rate, you get the window, and although you know that by the time the train reaches Flithurst the car will be taxed to its capacity, you put your hat down in the seat beside you.

At Flithurst a long line of commuters files past. One of them, an especially unpleasant-looking man, spies your hat and hesitates. You are thinking: ‘The great hulk! Why doesn’t he go on into the next car?’ He is thinking: ‘I guess I’ll teach this seat hog a lesson…Is this seat taken?’ Without deigning a reply, you grab your hat sulkily and cram it on your head. He sits down and the contest begins.

He unfolds his paper and opens it so wide that it knocks your hat askew. He is regarding the Post-Examiner. He would. Obviously an illiterate, to add to everything else. You crouch against the window sill, in exaggerated courtesy and fold your paper up into the smallest possible compass. Go ahead, take all the room if you want it! Don’t mind me — oh, no! He doesn’t. Nevertheless, he is boiling with antagonism, while you are on the point of pulling the bell rope and getting off the train to walk the rest of the way to town.

You are enraged because a man took a seat to which he was quite entitled, and he is enraged because he knows that you are enraged and, besides, you have the seat by the window. Thus we see that Old Stepmother Nature has her own ways and means of perpetuating warfare and hatreds. Every one of us may have a daily calendar with a motto on it about loving our fellow men, but when Nature puts two people within a radius of three feet of each other and turns on the current, there is no sense in trying to be nice about the thing. It is dog eat dog.”

On writing:

“I could go on indefinitely citing examples of great men who said things. I guess I will.”

On leaving a party: 

“What is the disease which manifests itself in an inability to leave a party—any party at all—until it is all over and the lights are being put out? It must be some form of pernicious inertia.

No matter where I am, if there are more than four people assembled in party formation, I must always be the last to leave. I may not be having a very good time; in fact, I may wish that I had never come at all. But I can’t seem to bring myself to say, ‘Well, I guess I’ll be toddling along.’

Other people are able to guess they’ll be toddling along. One by one, and two by two, and sometimes in great groups, I watch them toddle along, until I am left, with possibly just my host to keep me company. Sometimes even my host asks me if I mind if he toddles along to bed. When this happens, I am pretty quick to take the hint.

I have often thought of hiring a little man to go about with me, just to say to my host:

‘Well, old Bob thinks he’ll be toddling along now.’ It’s that initial plunge that I can’t seem to negotiate. It isn’t that I can’t toddle. It’s that I can’t guess I’ll toddle.”

On fascism: 

“Another question which my clients on Wall Street and throughout the rest of the country are asking me is, ‘What about Italy under Mussolini?’ This I cannot answer as comprehensively as I would like, because I do not speak Italian very well. (I can say ‘hello’ and then ‘hello’ again, in case they didn’t understand me the first time, but aside from that my conversation is carried on by an intelligent twinkling of the eyes and nodding of the head to show that I understand what is being said to me. As I do not understand, I often get in trouble that way.”

On diets:

“‘By George, I said, examining it, ‘it not only is a vitamin, but it is vitamin F! See how F it looks!’ And, sure enough, it was vitamin F all over, the very vitamin F which had been eluding Science since that day in 1913 when Science decided that there were such things as vitamins. (Before 1913 people had just been eating food and dying like flies.)”

On moral fiber, children’s books, and masculinity:

“I’ll bet there are not more than six young men in the country right now as well behaved and noble as Frank Merriwell used to be.

Take the following excerpts (imaginary but typical) from an old-time thriller book for children:

‘Dick Montague turned and faced the four masked figures who confronted him and Elsie Maxwell as they stood with their backs to the wall. His eyes flashed fire as he rolled back one sleeve.

‘Your names are unknown to me,’ he said in a calm voice, ‘but unless my eyes deceive me, you are members of the Red Band which has been marauding the country hereabouts. I know you all to be cowards at heart, and although I am not one to pick a fight without justification, I will offer to knock down the first man who dares make a move toward this young lady here!’

The four blackguards sneered in unison but there was something in Dick Montague’s voice which inspired terror in their craven hearts.

‘Come, son, have a cigarette and let’s talk it over,’ said one of them, taking a step forward.

Crack! A blow on the face from Dick’s fist felled him to the floor of the cave.

‘Get up, you yellow dog!’ said Dick. ‘You know very well that I do not smoke cigarettes, otherwise I should not be able to lead the flying wedge on the Yale football team with such courage.'”

On William Faulkner: 

In the dining-room of the Twillys’ house everything was very quiet. Even the vinegar-cruet which was covered with fly-specks. Grandma Twilly lay with her head in the baked potatoes, poisoned by Mabel, who, in her turn had been poisoned by her husband and sprawled in an odd posture over the china-closet. Wilbur and his sister Bernice had just finished choking each other to death and between them completely covered the carpet in that corner of the room where the worn spot showed the bare boards beneath, like ribs on a chicken carcass. Only the baby survived. She had a mean face and had great spillings of Imperial Granum down her bib. As she looked about her at her family, a great hate surged through her tiny body and her eyes snapped viciously. She wanted to get down from her high-chair and show them all how much she hated them.

Bernice’s husband, the man who came after the waste paper, staggered into the room. The tips were off both his shoe-lacings. The baby experienced a voluptuous sense of futility at the sight of the tipless-lacings and leered suggestively at her uncle-in-law.

‘We must get the roof fixed,’ said the man, very quietly. ‘It lets the sun in.'”

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