The Titular Line

October 2, 2012 § 2 Comments

I’ve been thinking a fair bit lately about titular lines—those lines in a book or movie which include the title of the work (the preceding, for example, is the titular line of this blog post).  The working title for the book I’m currently writing is Slash, and though I think it is the perfect fit in many ways, I’m mourning the opportunity to write a titular line.  Since it is just a single word tied closely to the subject of the book, it seems I have the narrator or one the characters saying “slash” almost every other page, so none of the lines carry the important weight of titular line.

The titular line is important, and as such, it has often been made the subject of fun.  If you haven’t seen the Upright Citizen’s Brigade sketch on the subject, do yourself a favor and click the picture to the right for a link to the youtube clip.  UCB gets it so right here, the sketch spawned it’s own tumblr, examples included below.

What makes the fakes so funny is that the titular line is supposed to be important—much too important, as the clerk in the sketch points out, to be given “to some stow-away who arbitrarily walks through the scene.” But it is exactly this importance that the annoying customer is trying to hijack; the titular line is like a flag to the audience, alerting them to a thematically important part of the story, and Titular Line Guy wants to get to hold that flag.

I sympathize with him now that I’m writing a titular-lineless book.  As an author, the titular line is like a special card you get to play once a story, your only chance outside the first and last lines to make sure the reader is paying you their full attention, not just reading for entertainment, but for importance.  It’s akin to announcing to the reader, “This is important!  It was in big letters on the cover—remember?—so listen up!  This is almost as important as my embossed name and the full page photo of me looking thoughtful on the back cover.”

In making you think of the story as a book or a film with a title, the titular line can take you out of narrative.  Even if it isn’t delivered by a random weirdo, this brief suspension of the suspension of disbelief can ruin the story.  If it seems even a hundredth as arbitrary or obvious as these parodied examples, the narrative will seem contrived or shallow.  There’s also the danger that someone will reach the titular line and say, “That’s all this book is about?,” and quit with the assumption there’s nothing more important to come.

When done well, though, I think the titular line can take the reader briefly out of the story in a good way: they might pause for a second and think about the implications; maybe look back at the cover, keeping their finger on the passage while thinking about the expectations it initially inspired; they’ll think of everything that has happened so far, and how it has changed their idea of the novel; and hopefully dive back in to the next paragraph, ready to see how their understanding of those now familiar words might change again before the final line.

Spider-Ham Must Die!

September 10, 2012 § 3 Comments

I sat down to write this last post in my series on puns planning to elaborate on the dichotomy I laid out last post between puns and irony; this was originally meant to be a manifesto for all the punners in the world, a call for us all to keep our eyes out for sarcastic eye-rollers and arm ourselves against their ironic armor.

But then I actually remembered how obnoxious over-punning can be. When I was a kid, I read a lot of Spider-Man comics. (Not as many as I read now that I get paychecks instead of an allowance, but that’s beside the point). In the late 80’s they sometimes featured back-up stories about Peter Porker, Amazing Spider-Ham, a parody of Spider-Man who fought and allied with other animal versions of Marvel characters such as Ducktor Doom, Nick Furry (Agent of S.H.E.E.P.), and the X-Bugs. They all punned incessantly—no one more so than Frank Carple, aka The Punfisher.

I always felt cheated out of the last few pages of my proper Spider-Man comic when they showed up; I didn’t get why Peter Parker needed parodying. I still love it whenever I get to see Batman treated less seriously than normal (which is to say, as seriously as world hunger or less), but Spider-Man already joked around in his regular comic. In fact, he made good puns nearly every issue and they were all the funnier and more affecting because he made them as a means of coping with the incredible danger and loneliness being a hero brought him. In contrast, Spider-Ham made one joke after another just to fill up the panels until the pages became a tasteless pablum of puns. I think it was my first exposure to making bad puns on purpose, the sort of humor that is purposely so unfunny it is supposed to be funny—a form of irony that is not at all in opposition to the pun.

Wrestling with whether puns and irony were opposed or aligned, I came across this last quote for us from John Pollack’s The Pun Also Rises:

Incidentally, both irony and sarcasm are, like puns, a way to say one thing and mean another. However, irony and sarcasm don’t suffer the pun’s poor reputation. Maybe this is because punning, which seeks to create a connection between words and ideas, is inherently an attempt at intellectual construction. Irony and sarcasm, by contrast, tend to be acts of criticism or destruction.

Interestingly, I’d been thinking of them as opposites in exactly the opposite way: puns destroy our illusions that language is exact while irony builds up our false sense of intellectual security. But I don’t disagree with Pollack’s analysis here; I guess it is due to the inexactness I’ve been talking about, but we can both be right while saying opposite things.

Irony and punning can do different things in different situations. Since irony is currently in fashion, the contrarian in me wants to see it degraded. But I could just as easily imagine myself in ancient Sumeria, where the pun was revered enough to start wars, being the guy groaning and rolling his eyes,”Really? You’re going to send all of us off to die in battle just because Prince Apuulluunideeszu pointed out that your name sounds a little like the words for ‘smelly genitalia?’ Really?”

So at the end of three posts, I guess I don’t have much definite to say about puns. Again, I guess I’m just reiterating that one of humor’s most important functions is to illuminate our mistakes, to tear down those structures which don’t build us up but only bind us—including most of the grand sweeping theories we can make about humor itself.

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.

Moby Dick in Needlepoint (on humor and theme)

June 25, 2012 § Leave a comment

Last time I discussed humor and subtext, I focused on the way authors can use subtext to involve a reader in the story, drawing him or her deeper into the experience of meaning—but authors can use subtext for additional reasons, as well, while still accomplishing this goal.  For example, in times and places of severe censorship, subtext is often used to address forbidden subjects, and the bond created by the subtext takes on the air of a clandestine handshake between secret conspirators.

But even in free-ish societies like ours, there are some things authors feel they can’t just come out and say.  Anything we could say directly on the subject would sound trite because what we want to say is too complicated and nuanced for words.  I’m talking about the big questions literature grapples with: the true nature of truth, beauty, or what have you—all the meaty issues we generally discuss as theme.

These are the issues that inspire a work of literature, the questions that the story is attempting to answer.  So it is never enough for me when we say, “the theme of Moby Dick is obsession” (or God, or the limits of knowledge, or class-strictures in colonial America)—but it is much worse when we get specific, with high-school three-part essay conclusions, “Moby Dick shows the destructive aspects of obsession.”

I should say here that I love the high-school theme paper, and that through it, my favorite teachers first instilled in me a sense of literature’s power, an idea that has become a driving force in my life.  That said, I feel it is really just a stepping stone to further understanding and that many readers’ desire for “theme” to come in the form of a clear, easy answer, is not just a failure to fully understand the nature of literature, but of language and the human experience at large.

I’m not saying that Moby Dick doesn’t “show the destructive aspects of obsession,” but through subtext, it does so much more that any such simple statement seems almost insulting; if Herman Melville thought a sternly parental, “Don’t succumb to obsession,” would do anyone any good, he could have saved himself a lot of time and sewed a saying onto a wall-hanging instead of writing a novel.  I, for one, am glad he realized most good advice goes ignored, and instead chose to explore the subject (and so many others, tying them all together) in a complicated and nuanced way, to say something about obsession that couldn’t be said in less than the 211,000 words he used.  We don’t get a nice take-away for an inspirational poster, but what we do get is a indelible but inexpressible sense of, “yes, Herman, that’s exactly how it is, isn’t it.”

Theme, then, isn’t a parental lesson or a sermon from on high, but an understanding shared between friends.  As I discussed last time, humor creates understanding in a similarly cooperative way.  The most profound jokes work like theme by communicating a concrete yet inexpressible sense of the truth of our experiences.  When we laugh together at the great ironies of life, commiserating over the cosmic joke of it all, we affirm a shared reality that can be expressed no more concisely than with laugher, but which we are willing to take as concrete because we agree on how abstract it.

I’ll flesh out this comparison with examples next week, but in the mean time, thanks for reading!

If you have to explain it, it isn’t funny—and it isn’t subtext

June 11, 2012 § 2 Comments

Continuing on from my previous posts on the subject—in which I discussed and provided an example of humor as a literary tool and a sense—I want to get into the meat of my argument today and look at the relationship between humor and subtext.  As I hinted at in last week’s examination of Leaving the Atocha Station, it is hard to discuss any literary technique without discussing subtext and theme.  This is because the presence of an underlying theme built by subtext is what defines literature and sets it apart from general fiction.

I don’t think anyone has written so clearly on subtext as Charles Baxter does in his short treatise, The Art of Subtext, which I highly recommend and am greatly indebted to.  In short, subtext is the content implied but not explicitly contained by the text; it could be a character’s motives, the narrator’s understanding of the world, or anything else the author can’t or doesn’t want to express explicitly.  As such, it is literature’s greatest strength; straight genre fiction, depending on the genre, can certainly excel over literature at plot, setting, dialogue, or anything else to quickly satisfy a reader’s desires, but nothing can draw a reader deeper, more permanently into a story than subtext.

For example, if you’re reading a procedural crime novel set in a morgue, you’ll get drawn easily along the surface of a nice plot, and as you’re told what the main character is thinking and feeling, you might grow to like her and learn a few (hopefully forever useless) facts about how to dissect a corpse.  Maybe you’ll get so involved in the circumstances as to hazard an informed guess at the identity of the murderer—but unless it is a particularly literary crime novel, you won’t ever have to wonder at the inner workings of the main detective, the emotions that she may be hiding from even herself, or what her struggles imply about the human condition.

It is the mental and emotional work involved in all that implying that turns a lot of readers of off literary fiction, but for those that stick with it, the rewards are great.  In helping build the story through active involvement, a reader who picks up on subtext gains a sense of partial ownership of the story as well as a sense of communion with the author.  This deeper form of communication is why so many people dedicate their lives to the study of literature, obsessing over single authors or books, while most people won’t dedicate more than $5.99 and a couple afternoons to a disposable paperback.

Humor can work the same way in fiction by building similar bonds and forming another layer of subtext.  Both humor and subtext make generous assumptions about the audience’s intelligence, compassion, and attentiveness; an author who uses subtext takes the risk that the reader won’t pick up on it, losing the thread of the story, just as the comedian takes the risk that the audience won’t understand his joke, settling into a serious silence.  If you have to explain it, it isn’t funny—and it isn’t subtext.

There are many jokes that play on this risk of misunderstanding, and the humor of Chico Marx is a great example.  He’s always playing against the language barrier for a laugh, but while he’s misunderstanding everyone and being misunderstood, our understanding of him as a performer deepens as our laughter effectively says, “We are so simpatico, you and I, that we both understand not just what you said, but what you were trying to say, as well as everything that was implied by the discrepancy.”

So, just as with subtext, the rewards of humor are a deepening bond with each successful communication.  We’ve all broken the ice with a joke in the company of strangers and felt a good laugh cementing a friendship.  Similarly, humor can act as subtext in literature, deepening the unspoken bond between author and reader by letting the reader share in making the meaning of the story.

Just what this meaning might be is the subject of next week’s post, as we’ll discuss the ways both subtext and humor can express the inexpressible.

Thanks, again, for reading!

The Nonsense Sense

May 29, 2012 § 4 Comments

As a brief intermission from my thoughts on why literary authors should employ more humor, I want to digress and discuss an idea I touched on at the end of last week’s post: our sense that humor is a sense.

In English we refer to our “sense of humor,” and though the categorization fits in some ways, it seems pretty loose in others.  I’d love to know if other languages have similar idioms surrounding humor but would be especially excited to hear of any diverse expressions from around the globe, as they might provide a fresh angle to understand humor from.

In any event, we know that we haven’t always thought of humor as a sense: as Chesterton points out in his definition, the term evolved from the medieval idea of humours in the body, such as bile and phlegm.  As clumsy as it can feel at times, I think our conception of humor as a sense is closer to the truth than this physiological idea that our moods come from within us. I don’t know enough about the theory or its professors and leeches to say what they thought ruled these humours that ruled our passions, but it seems important to me that any conception of humor we have recognizes that it comes from outside ourselves and is mostly out of our control.

As a metaphysical sense (other examples may include our sense of sympathy or sorrow), our sense of humor responds to the levity that exists around us.  But it only seems capable of detecting the crudest distinctions: besides differences between polite laughter, sickly gallows chuckles, and surprising belly-quakes, there don’t seem to be too many lines to draw.  In contrast, we are able to name hundreds of colors and detect subtle shades between thousands more with our naked eyes.  Perhaps there are as many subtle hues to humor as there are differences in the wavelengths of light, or maybe mirth is a solid, unchanging quality throughout the universe: regardless, our senses of humor only seem developed enough to detect, not make many distinctions.

Maybe this is the modern, empirically-obsessed writer’s beef with humor: it is too imprecise.  Whatever the reason, though, it is important to note that mirth does exist; to those with their hearts ready to sense it, it can be found in even the most desperate circumstances.  Literature is about our human experiences, not ideal ones—certainly not ones that make perfect literal sense—and as a result, I’m happy to read a novel about character suffering from a prolonged bout of that critical lack of a sense of humor we all occasionally suffer from (this, after all, is the classic straight-man), but I don’t have much patience for a writer who would purposefully blinds themselves.

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