ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

A journal for poetry, criticism, reviews, stories and essays published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998


"IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE PUN," by Ricardo Nirenberg.


In Exodus 3:14 God identifies Himself to Moses with a pun on His name, Yah: He says that He is Ehye-Asher-Ehye—I am that I am, or, I will be what I will be.  Heraclitus’ fragment 48 is based on the Greek word bíos meaning both life and the shooting bow:  tôi oûn tóxoi ónoma bíos, érgon dè thánatos—the name of the bow is bíos (life), but its work is death.  And Christian churches have based their authority on Matthew 16:18 which depends on the similarity of the name Pétros and the Greek name for rock, pétra.  It will be enough to recall only those three examples—of which the second, Heraclitus’, is perhaps the best one (but do we know how to judge of the quality of a pun?)—to make the point of puns’ foundational importance.

Notwithstanding that importance, or perhaps because of it, logical thought, the thought that wills itself to rigor, dismisses puns out of hand.  The logical road to truth always starts from some truths taken to be self-evident and proceeds step-by-legitimate-step, from p to q, from q to r, from r to s, and all along the way you are reminded that p is p, q is q and r is r—at any rate until further notice.  This is the identity principle, symbolized by x = x, x is identical to itself.  The most basic of all logical principles is clearly opposed to punning: if bíos means both life and the shooting bow, that is a defect of everyday, non-scientific language, a defect which can be easily corrected by using labels—writing for example bíos1 when we refer to life and bíos2 when we mean the shooting bow.  Ambiguity is not tolerated in logic or in scientific thought, even though, if we are to believe William Empson in his famous 1930 book on the subject, it is a required condition of poetry.

No rigorous thinker will be caught using puns as a tool for finding truth, not even heuristically, that is as a mere aid.  Certainly the use of puns in German academic philosophy has long been widespread—to mention two out of many, Gegenstand, the common German word for object, has been often remarked to mean etymologically ‘something standing against (gegen) us’, and Begriff, the German word for concept, has been linked (by Heidegger) to other words with the same root:  angriff, attack, and ergreifen, to seize or to grasp.  But it was only in the second half of the twentieth century, in the hands of French sophists and their epigones, the literary theorists, that academic punning became de rigueur, merely showing—I can’t find the will to resist the pun—leur manque de rigueur.

Toward the beginning of the furious spread of the fashion of philosophizing by puns, in 1956,  Elizabeth Bishop sent her sonnet The Wit to The New Yorker:

“Wait.  Let me think a minute,” you said.
And in the minute we saw:
Eve and Newton with an apple apiece,
and Moses with the Law,
Socrates, who scratched his curly head,
and many more from Greece,
all coming hurrying up to now,
bid by your crinkled brow.
But then you made a brilliant pun.
We gave a thunderclap of laughter.
Flustered, your helpers vanished one by one;
and through the conversational spaces, after,
we caught, —back, back, far, far, —
the glinting birthday of a fractious star.

Eve and Newton thought by links, step by step.  Eve listened to the serpent, “You will be like gods!” and she reasoned, “Yah has forbidden us the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and He is our god, certainly; but if we eat from the fruit, we too will be like gods; it would be a good thing indeed if Adam and I were to be like gods.”  And so the Fall.  Newton was even more astute than the serpent: starting from his fluxions and the hypothesis of an attractive force between mass and mass, he deduced the laws governing the motion of celestial bodies.  As Pope wrote, “Nature and Nature's laws lay hid in night: / God said, ‘Let Newton be!’ and all was light.”  What Eve was after, Newton got.  Next comes Moses with the Law.  After the shock of Yah’s pun on His own name, Moses must have begged Him to become serious, and He did: He handed him the Ten Commandments.  “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor your neighbor’s ass, nor—etc.”  In this context your neighbor is your neighbor, his wife is his wife and his ass is his ass: the identity principle rules supreme.  Finally, of course, they all come, the Greek philosophers, eager to help in the thinking process.

Then, suddenly, the witty, explosive pun.  All rules of logic, including the identity principle, are dismissed.  “Flustered, your helpers vanished one by one”; in my opinion it would have been better to make them vanish all at once, but the following three lines, the last, are beautiful in their justness.  It is not in conversation itself but in the silence of the spaces between words that the wonder of creation becomes graspable, and there is no essential difference between the wonder of creation of a pun and of a star.  The word “fractious” is vividly descriptive if taken in its etymological sense derived from Latin frangere, to break: all creation is a breaking up of that which appears forever unbreakable—in other words, all creation violates the identity principle.

Howard Moss, the poetry editor at The New Yorker, liked Bishop’s sonnet, but there were problems.  I quote from the book Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker, The Complete Correspondence, ed. by Joelle Biele, Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 2011, pages 168-71.  In a letter dated January 20, 1956—a mere quarter-century after the publication of Empson’s book—Moss writes:

“THE WIT, which we all liked, caused some consternation here, since there were as many interpretations as there were readers.  We felt, finally, that we shouldn’t leave it up to our readers to decide what you intended, when we couldn’t reach an agreement ourselves.  Here are some of the alternatives: this is a comment on the birth of a quotable remark; it is a comment on a remark whose antecedents slowly come into consciousness; it is a poem on the birth of a wit—the punster, having been applauded, begins to shine.
I’m sorry we finally decided against it, especially since it may be our denseness, rather than a real ambiguity in the poem, that led to a negative vote.”

And Bishop replies on January 31:

“I’m afraid that sonnet is confusing.  I meant that making a pun is unlike logical thought; instead of building up, it fractures, in a contrary way—as we might imagine the birth of a star, or creation itself, as taking place against or outside the order of human thought.”

Just now I happened by chance on a piece by Michael Chabon, the Pulitzer Price fiction writer, in The New York Review of Books, June 9, 2011.  It is an introduction to a new edition of Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth; it contains the following praise of puns:

“I can’t see how anybody who claims to love language can fail to marvel at the beautiful slipperiness of meaning that puns, like aquarium nets, momentarily catch and bring shimmering to the surface.  Puns act to shatter or at least to compromise meaning; a pun condenses unrelated, even opposing meanings, like a collapsing dwarf star, into a singularity.”

I leave to others the trouble of finding out whether in the matter of puns and explosive stars there has been any influence from Bishop to Chabon; I prefer to take refuge in the old French saw, “Les grand esprits se rencontrent”.  Notice that Chabon changes the image somewhat: with him it is not the birth of a star, as with Bishop, but its collapse, and then he adds something else, the word singularity, which may be a subtle pun.  It is a mathematical word, later imported into physics and astrophysics, and it means a point near which something extraordinary happens to a function f(z) (in the case of astrophysics, the function may be the density of matter).  For example, the function 1/z, “one over z,” is not defined for z = 0, but when z gets close to 0, the function becomes very large in magnitude, in fact as large as you wish—for short, “it becomes infinite.”  There are other cases which are more complicated, the so-called “essential singularities,” for example the function exp (1/z), “e to the power one over z,” which, again, is not defined for z = 0, but here, if you choose any (complex) number, you can get the value of the function as close as you wish to that number by picking some z very close to 0.  You can get exp (1/z) arbitrarily close to 10, to -5, to 0, to 2 + 5i, or any other number, or else you can get it to be as large in magnitude as you want, by taking appropriately chosen complex numbers z in a neighborhood of 0.  But besides this mathematical meaning of the word “singularity,” there is the non-mathematical meaning:  “individual character or property; individuality; distinctiveness.”

And how can we avoid, when uttering those words, “individual, distinctive,” how can we avoid thinking about ourselves, about our own individuality and distinctiveness, in other words, our self.  So here is where the pun, the conflation of the two meanings of the word “singularity,” may lead us: to the unsettling feeling that in both cases, the mathematical singularity and the singular self, we are in the presence of that for which there is no definition, in the midst of a whirl of choice and an abyss of contingency.  Unlike God, I am not that I am, nor will I be what I will be.  No identity principle rules here, my self is up for grabs.

And yet, Chabon remarks in the same page, “Puns—the word’s origin, like the name of some pagan god, remains unexplained by etymologists—are derided, booed, apologized for.”  Well, that is not surprising, considering the coughing and sneezing caused by the thick clouds of poor punning brought to these shores by fashion winds from France.  Perhaps Jacques Lacan and his disciples are among the worst offenders; there is a pun I heard, I think, at a colloquium in the castle of Cerisy-La-Salle in Normandy, not far from the Utah and Omaha beaches and from Mont Saint Michel.  It goes, if I remember well, like this: rearranging the letters of Lacan we get canal, which in French sounds exactly like chanal, the two middle syllables in the word psychanalyse; therefore Lacan is at the very center of psychoanalysis; or alternatively, Lacan is the channel through which all psychoanalysis must flow.

Everything in this Lacanian pun seems intent on affirming the identity principle: Lacan is Lacan, even when the letters of his name are scrambled up, and, whenever we may want to think or speak of psychoanalysis, this unique Lacan is unavoidable—in French, incontournable, an adjective which, you will be kind enough to notice, has all the letters of Lacan.

Finally, I propose this as a tentative criterion to judge the quality of a pun: its ethical and esthetical purpose is to shake us and wake us up from the complacent and deceitful wakefulness induced by the identity principle.  The quality of a pun is in direct proportion to how well it serves that purpose.

Ricardo Nirenberg is the editor of Offcourse.

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