The Invincible Groaning Monster

August 29, 2012 § 1 Comment

Last post, I wrote about how I was glad we  modern Americans don’t take puns as seriously as the ancient Sumerians did, but this week I want to argue that we should take them a little more seriously—or at least take ourselves a little less so.

In The Pun Also Rises, the incredibly readable survey of all things punny on which I’ve been basing these extrapolations of the past few weeks, John Pollack posits that puns fell out of fashion in the 1960’s as audiences came to expect something less contrived and more socially relevant out of their humor.  He then goes on to explain that it’s continued unpopularity is due to the obsession with irony in our popular culture, quoting Gilbert Gottfried: “People want to show they’re a lot more intelligent or above something.”

This ironic stance leads to the knee-jerk groan and the assumption all puns are bad.  But we all know from a classic pun what happens when you make an assumption; in his Modern English Usage, Henry Fowler wrote (and this is, again, brought to my attention by the well-read Pollack):

“The assumption that puns are per se contemptible, betrayed by the habit of describing every pun not as ‘a pun’ but as ‘a bad pun’ or ‘a feeble pun,’ is a sign at once of sheepish docility and a desire to seem superior.  Puns are good, bad, and indifferent, and only those who lack the wit to make them are unaware of the fact.”

It should be noted that other attacks against punning throughout history have been based on a fraudulent sense of superiority.  For example, in describing the crusade against puns Jonathan Swift fought against in England, Pollack cites growing class consciousness as a reason puns fell out of fashion; the new upper class of London began to mock regional accents and grammatical constructions, stigmatizing the sort of linguistic flexibility puns require by trying to enforce one exact spelling, pronunciation, and meaning for each word .

This brings me back to those confusers of conformity, the ultimate dashers of pretension: the Marx Brothers.  In each film they bring a different set of self-inflated elites down to an honest level, often using puns to parody their affectations while underlying just how empty their superiority ultimately is.  In this hilarious example from Horse Feathers, Groucho skewers academics with a biology lecture full of puns.  Pointing at a anatomy diagram as if it is a map:

“We now find ourselves among the Alps. The Alps are a very simple people, living on a diet of rice and old shoes. Beyond the Alps lies more Alps. And The Lord Alps those that Alps themselves. We then come to the bloodstream. The blood rushes from the head, down to the feet, gets a look at those feet, and rushes back to the head again. This is known as auction pinochle.  Now in studying your basic metabolism, we first listen to your heart speed. And if your hearts beat anything but diamonds and clubs, it’s because your partner is cheating…or your wife.”

Note, please, that I’m not some reactionary saying we should ship all the academics back to whatever communist stronghold President Obama was actually born in to protect all the real Americans.  I just think it is important for everyone to be reminded of how arbitrary and fragile most of our conventions are: to invest too much in them, such as basing your sense of worth on your diction, will only lead to stagnation and disappointment.  What I think Groucho is doing here is pointing out that while science may aspire to precision, the language it uses is a mess, so it had better take itself less seriously.  To not do so—to continue reading directly from the textbook in a self-assured tone—is hubris that blinds us to the abstractions and imprecisions inherent in human language and the inevitable trouble that will arise from them.

Perma-irony is hubris of another sort, the naive belief that you can somehow stay above being human.  I think the vain hope inherent in most sarcasm and irony is if you say, “I’m too cool for that,” to enough things, you’ll eventually be too cool for all the ugly things in life—or at least detached enough not to feel them.  Do people fear that if they are caught out enjoying a pun they’ll be dragged down into the mess of language?    What other good reason could someone have for not enjoying something?  As if that a stoic eye-roll might be able to guard them against ever saying the wrong thing or misunderstanding someone again.

The problem is, no one can avoid being human.  Death, heartbreak, fear, and all the rest of it will find you, no matter how cool you are.  To think you are above anything, even verbal foibles, will only ensure you’re too detached to deal with it when it inevitably happens.  All you pun-haters need to quit pretending to  be something other than one of us.  You are not some invincible groaning monster—you’re a human, so go ahead and laugh like one.

Ain’t No Sanity

August 22, 2012 § 3 Comments

John Pollack’s The Pun Also Rises (to which I owe thanks for spawning all this thinking I’ve been doing lately about puns) traces the history of the pun in human culture as a wild roller coaster. Anyone who’s ever gotten groaned down after making a perfectly joyous pun knows that they are the most unfairly derided form of humor in our current culture, but it was news to me that at various points in history they’ve been celebrated as not only as great wit, but an important rhetorical technique.

For example, Pollack writes that ancient Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians, and Assyrians “took wordplay very seriously. In fact, it wasn’t considered ‘play’ at all, in the modern sense.” When two words sounded similar, it wasn’t so much an opportunity to crack-wise, as a sign of their connection.

In contrast, he also describes the veritable crusade against punning that took place in England during the Age of Enlightenment. In part, the backlash against punning had to do with literacy, as the printing press “helped transform what had been an oral culture into written one and forced writers, punsters included, to commit to a single spelling before the type was set.” This is indicative, though, of a larger shift in thought toward rationalism, which saw “the pun’s very ambiguity as a flaw.”

As much as I love the pun, I think it’s rightful place is down with the jesters instead of up on the throne with the philosopher princes—but maybe that has something to do with how much more likely I am to pay attention to humor over rhetoric. Language is flawed; there is no point in denying that it is an arbitrary, confusing, and unstable mess. Given how caught up they were in the early stages of language and the invention of writing, it is easy to sympathize with (and thank) the ancient Sumerians for seeing power and magic in words. But with hundreds of examples for foreign and ancient languages easily available to us today, many of which have noises that never even occurred to the speakers of the others, it is clear that we might just as easily have decided to call a whiner a winner and a winner or whiner—or called them both whiggledyblunks and let the context clarify. In any event, we certainly shouldn’t invest much other than laughter in the fact that they both sound a little like wiener (which can refer to food, anatomy, disposition, or an unfortunate family name).

The pun’s proper place, then, is to remind us of the absurdity of language. No one does absurdity better than the Marx Brothers, and there are no better examples of how sometimes, despite all of language’s subtle complexities, conveying our simplest ideas to another person can feel utterly impossible. Here’s some of my favorite punning, from A Night at the Opera:

Chico: Hey, wait, wait. What does this say here, this thing here?
Groucho: Oh, that? Oh, that’s the usual clause that’s in every contract. That just says, uh, it says, uh, if any of the parties participating in this contract are shown not to be in their right mind, the entire agreement is automatically nullified.
Chico: Well, I don’t know…
Groucho: It’s all right. That’s, that’s in every contract. That’s, that’s what they call a sanity clause.
Chico: Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! You can’t fool me. There ain’t no Santy Claus.

Rationalism hated the pun because it pointed out just how inescapable irrationality is. While everything may seem perfectly rational in our heads, expecting that someone else will understand exactly what we’re thinking from a few grunts or pencil scratches is complete insanity. This is not to say communication is impossible or worthless; language is an incredibly useful tool that works remarkably well most of the time. It is important, though, to remind ourselves that to think it infallible or inalterable will usually have you ending up looking the fool.

It should be noted, too, that all those incredible Chico/Groucho puns have to do with the language barrier between their two characters while relying on the language understanding between them as performers and us as an audience. As such, no one who spoke Spanish, the Italian that Chico is pretending at, or ancient Sumerian could get a giggle out of the routine, even if it was translated into their native tongue. Most puns are lost through translation (and most of the snap of wit is lost through footnotes). Sadly, several of the Marx Brothers puns of more antiquated usage are already lost on me.

As a result, while an important form of humor, I think puns usually lack the universality to be truly great. A well constructed scene that gets at the grand absurdity of the human experience can often be translated into different languages and still deliver it’s message after hundreds of years. The puns place seems to be pointing out the elusiveness of that sort of connection.

That said, I feel the pun’s role is important and, as a result, it’s derision is not only unfair but dangerous for our culture. So check back next week for part two of my posts on puns where I hope to launch our campaign of groaning at all those who groan ironically.

Fun Intended: The Pun Also Rises

August 16, 2012 § 3 Comments

Having maintained this blog for five months now, I know how foolhardy it is to try to write seriously about humor, so I was filled with a warm glow of brotherly sympathy while reading John Pollack’s The Pun Also Rises.  I feel humor giggles it’s way out of my grasp whenever I try to make too exacting a claim about it, but in this book Pollack does a great job of theorizing on the history, biology, and psychology of puns with a loose but secure tone.

Pollack acknowledges that the pun is derided in our culture—and has some interesting theories as to why—but notes that if it really is the lowest form of humor, it also serves as the foundation of all humor.  One of the book’s strengths is how easily the simple pun lends itself to study; it’s substitution of one meaning for another is mathematical enough to programmed into artificial intelligence and studied in psychological trials, giving Pollack a solid base of evidence to present and extrapolate from.  As a result, when he’s explaining how punning is the very essence of creativity at the end of the book, his claims don’t seem all that unfounded.

While the book’s subtitle, “How the Humble Pun Revolutionized Language, Changed History, and Made Wordplay More Than Some Antics”, should  make Pollack’s propensity for puns evident, they never obscure his points.  For a former Pun-Off World Champion, he was able to find an admirable balance, using puns to break up scientific evidence and historical accounts every few pages so that the book stayed as quick and effortless feeling as it’s subject.

My complaint about the book, though, is that it was a little too quick and effortless.  It is chock full of information but presented in an anecdotal style, which was pleasant enough for breezy reading on my summer vacation, but frustrating when I tried to delve deeper.  Though full of facts, it is short on details.  For example, he starts the first chapter with what could be an engrossing story about ,”two scholars … arguing fiercely over the accent of a Greek word.”  When the argument turns to deadly duel, we’re meant to understand the power and importance of language—but the point falls short for me with such weak, abstract language.  What scholars?  What word?  I often had trouble at the beginning of new paragraphs guessing whether he was trying to set up evidence or a joke.  (A linguist, a biologist, and a psychologist walk into a bar…)

While I can see the appeal of a streamlined text and understand not everyone has my penchant for detailed academia, Pollack does little to accommodate readers like myself.  For example, when Pollack quotes an account of the above anecdote, he attributes it to “one chronicler of the dispute.”  How is this any less clunky or intrusive than a name?  The endnotes are unmarked in the main text, so finding out who wrote this or any of the other sources he cites involves flipping through the back of the book, looking for the first few words of the sentence you are interested in.

Ultimately, this shallow treatment of the material hurts Pollack’s arguments.  While it made me easy to slide through the points I understood, when I reached sections I disagreed with—such as his discussion of the pre-historical evolution of laughter—I didn’t know how to delve deeper and figure out if I was understanding him fully—and there was absolutely no chance of him changing my mind.

But while the book is frustrating to me now that I’m trying to mine it for future blog posts, it will probably be little but fun to a casually interested reader.  And though it isn’t helping much with the follow through, it has inspired a lot of thought in me, so look forward to a series of post over the next month about puns.

Glad To Be Back

August 13, 2012 § 6 Comments

As much as I needed to relax, I’m glad to be back at the library this afternoon, updating the blog and working on the novel for the first time in several weeks.  I start to feel crazy if I go too long without writing, so today I’m trying to translate the restless anxiety I’ve been feeling for the past few days into manic glee on the page.

That said, I had a great vacation , mostly spent like this, reading in a hammock with my girlfriend.

I read:

May Day by F. Scott’s Fitzgerald, which was far from his best but had some great slapstick moments.

The Ask by Sam Lipsyte, which was hilariously depressing and ugly.

Arcadia by Lauren Groff, which was beautiful and hopeful—but not that funny.

Faithful Place by Tana French, which was great and, though not meant to be funny, made me chuckle when I spoke the Irish dialogue to myself under my breath (“Fecking Jaysus, Da, you banjaxed the whole bollux!”).

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh, which had great comedic characters and dialogue.

Grendel by John Gardner, which had some incredibly elucidating cerebral jokes.

Plus, I’m halfway through Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?, which is so perplexingly  funny so far, I’m sure I’ll have a bunch of thoughts on it for the blog when I’m done.  Several chapters have frustrated me, but other parts, such as her repeated insistence that, “all the best artists know where the funny is,” match happily with my own writing.  It’s the sort of challenging book I’ll only understand once I write my way through it, so look forward to a review soon.

In addition to the fiction, I read The Pun Also Rises by John Pollack, a look at the history, biology, and psychology of puns which I’ll review in a post this Friday.

I usually do like to keep the blog on topic and try to only share my thoughts on books here if I’m able to devote enough time to them to go in depth–but I’m just so excited to be back that I couldn’t help but brag about all the books I got to read.

It’s made me realize, though, that I should post a link here to my goodreads account, in case you’re interested in keeping up with every little thing I read.  I’m always interested in what everyone else is reading, so I’d love to be your friend.

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