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On Wit

MARINA TSVETAEVA said that Boris Pasternak, in his youth, looked like an Arab and his horse. The underlining of a single word is the stroke of wit. I was thinking of the economical nature of wit—if a sentence is wordy, then it’s never witty—when I was once again reading Abba Eban’s Personal Witness, one of his essential books on the history of Israel, the state that he did so much to bring into being. Nobody in the world was more learned than Eban: his triple first from Cambridge was in three hard ancient languages, and he was conversationally fluent in several of the modern languages as well. (When he was Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, delegates from Arab nations seated on each side of him had long conversations across his back until they finally caught on that he understood everything they were saying.) But there have been learned men who have been unable to keep things brief. Eban could do with a prose idea what the poet must learn to do with a poetic idea: make it mark out a space and then fill that space exactly. Of a U.N. official he could not admire, Eban said that he was a man of few words, but they were enough to express his range of ideas. I can’t think of a niftier way of putting that. Eban knew how to throttle back on the witticisms, however, or he would never have been the great orator he was. The audience for a serious speech is there to listen to the deep fire of reason, not to the crackle of a Las Vegas stand-up act. Lately, after reading both Personal Witness and Abba Eban: An Autobiography again, I ordered Voice of Israel on the web. It is a collection of Eban’s speeches, many of them of historic moment. Dealing with the most serious subjects conceivable in his world, up to and including the possible obliteration of the nation he represented, they are light on laughs, but always impressively compact. Off the record, he could be funny even about the stuff of tragedy. Eban was the man who said that Yasser Arafat never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. The crack contained, compressed into a few atoms, everything that spelled tragedy for the Palestinian refugees. The Israelis survived Arafat’s leadership, but for the Palestinians it was a straight stretch downhill all the way to Hamas, whose rule in Gaza has been such a conspicuous part of the great international political disaster that marks the end of my time on earth. How good it would be to be sure that the nightmare will not stretch on into the next generation. But of course it will.