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What the Vidal/Mailer Feud Taught Us: When In Doubt, Laugh

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The intellectual life is a difficult one at times. The physicist and astronomer Galileo realized this when he theorized that our planet revolves around the sun, refuting the Bible, and the Catholic Church sentenced him to house arrest for the rest of his natural life. He was neither the first nor last intellectual jailed for heretical writings, and in some respects he proved lucky: Governments and other powers have a longstanding habit of killing thinkers whose ideas threaten the status quo.

Keep that not-so-happy history in mind the next time someone decides to crack a joke about your intellectualism: No matter how badly the words sting, the situation could always prove much, much worse ("The worst is not/so long as we can say, 'This is the worst,'" as Shakespeare wrote in King Lear). Because those jokes are coming -- if they haven't started already. Someone saw that volume of poetry under your arm, or noted the way you strung together enormous words into a complex mega-sentence, and decided to take a swipe at what they perceive as your pretensions to brilliance.

The insults themselves usually range from the juvenile ("All that book learnin' won't help your face") to the downright nasty ("You focus on that 'life of the mind' crap because you can't get a real job"). Nor are they particularly clever, for the most part, revealing far more about the insecurities of the insult's hurler than its target.

Laugh at them anyway.

That brings us to the infamous feud between Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer, which has gotten a lot of renewed attention since Vidal passed away last week.

Putting This Theory Into Practice

In 1971, the television host Dick Cavett invited authors Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer onto his late-night talk show. The famously thin-skinned Mailer, already ballistic over Gore comparing him to Charles Manson in an infamous The New York Review of Books article, decided to start firing verbal broadsides at everyone onstage. He turned on Cavett, declaring everyone present "intellectually smaller," to which the host replied that his guest would need "two more chairs to contain your giant intellect."

Mailer's snappy retort: "I'll take the two chairs if you will all accept finger bowls."

Say what?

Mailer later declared he meant the comment as ambiguous, in order to deny Cavett the opportunity for another witty jab. But it also serves as a textbook case of how not to respond to a joke made at one's intellectual expense. Had Mailer chuckled at Cavett and moved on, it would have blunted the comment's power, by showing that he was self-aware enough to take the joke. Instead he launched into that awkward muddle about finger bowls, in the process creating one of the most uncomfortable-to-watch moments in television history -- the sort of clip that stays preserved online, to the detriment of everyone involved, until the end of time.

Nor do you have the option of throwing a punch in response to an insult, as it can spark some unpleasant legal issues. Moreover, hurled knuckles are the final signifier of your emotions overcoming rationality: a victory for the insulter before your fist rises further than shoulder-level.

Shouting back your own insult is a similar nonstarter. Aside from trained professionals (i.e., standup comedians and New York City cabdrivers), few people have the ability to piece together a truly memorable comeback in less than three seconds.

So laugh, especially when it's the best of bad options. You could even earn a little respect in return.

The Inevitable Footnote

If a government or other power tries to ban your work or sentence you to some far-off prison, laughter won't help. In that case, your options include submitting to the Man, or fighting (and perhaps perishing) on principle.

Adapted from How to Become an Intellectual, a firmly tongue-in-cheek guide to becoming a truly brainy thinker, published by Adams Media.