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.

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