When George Harrison died, Paul McCartney said, "He was a great guy, full of love for humanity, but he didn't suffer fools gladly." When Northrop Frye died, Margaret Atwood wrote: "He didn't suffer fools gladly ..." When Stephen Harper became head of the Canadian Alliance, a professor in Edmonton told a reporter, "He doesn't suffer fools gladly." Emily Carr, in her wretched years as a landlady, was "never one to suffer fools gladly," according to a publication of the museum in Victoria. The Associated Press once reported that Hedy Lamarr was much smarter than the world knew -- and, by the way, didn't suffer fools gladly.
What were all those people trying to express, and why were they all using the same words? There's something puzzling going on here, because that term makes no sense if you think about it. To say that someone doesn't suffer fools gladly implies that there are others who do. Can this be the case? Are there individuals (never mentioned in newspapers, incidentally) who eagerly cultivate the acquaintanceship of fools and enjoy their company? Surely theirs can be no more than a minority taste. The absence of it hardly merits comment. So when writers and others use that phrase, they don't mean it literally. They are trying to make a point without stating it.
Suffer-fools-gladly, a malleable euphemism, carries a rich load of ambiguity. Everyone who uses it means something different, and readers take from it whatever they choose. If it's said often enough about the same person, we may guess it's an oblique attack. It suggests that the subject is brusque to the point of rudeness, uncaring about the feelings of others, given to rages when crossed. Often it's an attempt to avoid risking offence while describing someone totally disagreeable.
McCartney probably meant Harrison got angry when people disappointed him. Atwood had noticed that Frye could be devastating when confronted by pretentious ignorance, though the honest ignorance of young students aroused his compassion. And my guess is the reference to Stephen Harper meant he can't stand stupid journalists and won't hide his dislike. But these are mostly my own speculative readings.
There's apparently no limit to the individual humans who merit this versatile little formulation. The Rocky Mountain News of Denver has noted that James Garner doesn't suffer fools gladly. How about Robert B. Parker, the mystery writer? He doesn't do it either.
Nor does Ed Harris, the actor. Last year, the Toronto Sun broke the news that Harris's "penetrating gaze signals that this is a serious, sombre man on a singular quest ... he does not suffer fools gladly, if at all." Someone went around and checked out James Woods and discovered he didn't do it either. The same could be said of the late Frank Zappa, and was.
Astrologers (at least some of them) say Aquarians are particularly unwilling to suffer fools gladly. That's because Aquarians are sensitive and intelligent, a thought that as an Aquarian I'd find flattering if only I believed the motions of the planets meant something.
Suffer-fools-gladly also works as thinly disguised self-praise. When Stephanie Zacharek wrote in Slate magazine that the late Pauline Kael didn't suffer fools gladly, she let us know that she, Stephanie, was close enough to Pauline to be able to depict her intimately ("her voice, coquettish and musical and airy as meringue, somehow softened even her sharpest zingers"). This neatly made the point that Stephanie herself was no fool (unless, of course, Pauline made an exception in her case).
Writers of obituaries have always been drawn to the vagueness of suffer-fools-gladly. Obits, of course, frequently appear in code. "Confirmed bachelor," for instance, means homosexual, and "lived life to the full" often means a drunk. I recently came across an English writer who, translating obituary language, explained that "didn't suffer fools gladly" means "cantankerous old git."
Intellectuals have used this cliché to portray other intellectuals for longer than anyone can remember. It was often said about Henry David Thoreau, except by those who thought that his incessant blithering about living with nature made him look like a bit of a fool himself. In 1916, Bernard Shaw applied it to Henry Sweet, one of the phoneticians who inspired the character of Henry Higgins in Pygmalion and My Fair Lady. Sweet's great ability should have won him official recognition and helped him to popularize his subject, Shaw said, but he disliked academic dignitaries and (though not ill-natured) "was about as conciliatory to conventional mortals as Ibsen or Samuel Butler." He "would not suffer fools gladly," Shaw added. And a couple of months ago, in the Partisan Review, someone wrote about the character that Philip Roth based on Bernard Malamud in The Ghost Writer: "He does not suffer fools gladly, nor is he easily impressed by other writers ..."
Referring to an earlier column, a few readers have suggested that I refrain from blaming all the sexual ills of Christianity on St. Paul. Fair enough, but in the case of "suffer fools gladly," Paul must accept complete responsibility. It's his phrase. It occurs in one of his renowned letters, II Corinthians 11:19 -- "For ye suffer fools gladly, seeing ye yourselves are wise."
He was writing to people who needed straightening out, the Corinthians. In those days, Corinth was such a fleshpot that "Corinth" became a synonym for coitus. Paul didn't consider Corinthians wise at all, and was putting them in their place with sarcasm. Or so one gathers. This means that modern writers misuse him if (as sometimes happens) they make his phrase describe someone of stern intelligence who has the good sense to avoid the foolish. Paul wrote in mockery.
Which leaves a question: Who, in the history of the world, ever did suffer fools gladly? Well, Shakespeare did, obviously. Since he gave them so many roles, he must have liked having them around. Others, less great, may enjoy fools as part of the human comedy, perhaps bearing in mind that all of us are fools sometimes, some of us fools often. In fact, I live in hope of reading someday an obituary that says: "He was wise and talented, greatly accomplished, and much admired, above all for his ability to suffer fools gladly."