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.