Oscar Levant and Oscar Wilde: Masters of Staving Off Melancholy with Wit
David Lazar on Two Wounded Men Who Frustrated Expectations
Oscar Levant is a melancholy figure, full of barbed wit, self-loathing, and “Rhapsody in Blue,” which he performed more than any other 20th-century pianist. You may not know who he is, though Jack Paar used to go off the air after a time saying, “Goodnight Oscar Levant, wherever you are.” Jimmy Durante used to say, “Goodnight Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are,” and no one ever knew who she was, which he must have found disconcerting.
Oscar Wilde, you undoubtedly know, but you may think of him staring languidly into the camera, dressed as a dandy, self-pleased.
I think of my two Oscars as trying to say the perfectly witty thing as a way of staying the melancholy that dare not speak its name. I think of wit as a stay against melancholy, a brief moment of verbal perfection, before its self-immolation: time.
Our attitude toward wit is: what have you said for me lately? Wits, whether Dorothy Parker or Oscar Levant (friends, by the way), or Oscar Wilde, or Samuel Johnson, make their own traps that wit springs them out of: expectation. The only way a wit can stop being a wit is to be dull, a melancholy resolution.
Oscar Levant looked a bit like a cross between Leslie Caron and Delmore Schwartz on a bad day, except for his long fingers, which must have played “Rhapsody in Blue” a thousand times. If you don’t know who Leslie Caron and Delmore Schwartz are, let’s say Levant looked like a moon for the misbegotten, with bad teeth.
So, early in the essay I keep asking if you know who people are—that really means I’m concerned about my age, and yours, about whether this is a December-May essay, which might be a melancholy affair.Aristotle, as far as we know, wrote the first essay on melancholy, at the least, the first that survives.
Like Leslie Caron, with whom he starred in An American in Paris, when he was known as one of the wittiest men in America, Levant had moony eyes. This was before he spiraled into multiple psychiatric commitments, addiction, and electric shock therapy. He would emerge one of the wittiest broken men in America, and the first full-fledged American performative psychodrama: he prefigured reality TV and the performance comedy of the neurotic self in actor comedians like Woody Allen, Larry David, and Louis C.K.
“What do you do for exercise?” Jack Paar asked him in 1959. “I stumble and fall into a coma,” Levant said. That, of course, would relieve him of his wits (the Old English gewitt, the base of consciousness). If melancholy, not brevity, is the soul of wit, perhaps it is because sadness is our natural fallen state. Awareness is a painful condition: moony, misbegotten, sublunary—except when Oscar played the piano.
Melancholia, you may already know, derives from the Greek (which seems rather perfect to me; one person’s epic hero is another’s sad, anxious wanderer, or monomaniacal and impulsive oppositional type with authority problems) melaina chole, translated into Latin as astra billis and English as the black bile, an excess of which caused, and perhaps still causes for all we know, chronic sadness, which is, according to Hippocrates, in the 5th century BCE, one of the four humors, or temperaments, along with the Sanguine, the Choleric, and the Phlegmatic.
Aristotle, as far as we know, wrote the first essay on melancholy, at the least, the first that survives. And the temperaments are still being tossed around in the 20th and 21st century: Balanchine and Hindemith collaborated on The Four Temperaments, Carl Nielsen composed a symphony called the Four Temperaments, the Waldorf schools rely on a version of them in their pedagogical ideology (so if you have melancholy children, relax, you know where to enroll them), and so on.
Seneca, in De tranquillitate animi, notes the difficulty of pinning down melancholy, or violent sadness, in name or cause. Burton, temperamentally rather different than Seneca, eases melancholy by musing over just this difficulty for hundreds of pages, to our delight.
The Hippocratic, or Temperamental school of thought, merged or married with the Latin in the form of Galen in the second century, and melancholy began its slow dance between this condition as problem and irremediable burden, or mark of specialness, even genius, as the melancholic looks inward, acts different, perhaps even performs a Saint Vitus dance of the self, and is possessed of some inordinate talent.
In his journals, published as Straw for the Fire, Theodore Roethke writes, “Sure I’m crazy. But it ain’t easy.” In Anatomy of Melancholy, Burton writes, “Why melancholy men are witty, which Aristotle hath long since maintained in his Problems, and that all learned men, famous philosophers, and lawgivers, ad unum fere omnes melancholici, have still been melancholy, is a problem much controverted.” Burton also refers to the Aristotelian or pseudo-Aristotle Problema of the 4th century BCE—so the idea had melancholy legs.
As Clark Lawlor notes, in From Melancholia to Prozac, “The Renaissance saw the rise of the first form of melancholy in a flourishing of the myth of melancholic genius that has persisted up to the present day.” Marsilio Ficino, the 15th-century philosopher priest, aided the union of melancholy and genius, sprinkling the discourse of love and alchemy, and finding that, in fact, every man of genius was melancholic, though the humoral conception of the body maintains, as we see in Montaigne.
In his Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man (1795), Schiller avers that we all share in the condition of melancholia. Perhaps that’s the real beginning of the history of “depression.” Attention must be paid when melancholy separates from genius and becomes ordinary.
In the 19th century, melancholy becomes pharmaceutical, at least in a more organized way with the spreading use of opium, laudanum, which had been around since Thomas Sydenham, “the English Hippocrates,” concocted it in the 17th century. His recipe: opium, two ounces; saffron, one ounce; bruised cinnamon and bruised cloves, each one drachm; sherry wine, one pint. Mix and macerate for 15 days and filter. Twenty drops are equal to one grain of opium. The results, as we know, thrilling and disastrous.
Not every melancholic is a genius. But Oscar Levant, along with his namesake Oscar Wilde, was a self-made genius, at least a self-proclaimed one, which alternated with a deep vein of self-laceration, a running theme of his witticisms. At the beginning of An American in Paris, Levant, who wrote almost all the lines for the films he was in, announces, “I’m the world’s oldest child prodigy.”
Self-pity and delusions of grandeur—a classic combination! Except that Levant was an excellent concert pianist. I’m not sure if any of us quite know what a genius is. But Levant did: it was George Gershwin, and he measured himself against Gershwin disastrously.
How melancholy to become the memorialist for the man you loved (“The Man I Love”?) and against whom you measured yourself so severely.
Excerpted from Celeste Holm Syndrome: On Character Actors from Hollywood’s Golden Age by David Lazar by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. ©2020 by the Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska.