Thursday, January 20, 2011

Concerning Puns

All right-thinking people hate puns. And our hearts all share the same image of the wretched punster, a characterless character afflicted by a surplus of education which has left him bereft of humour, save for the heaving chortles that belch forth from his unkempt beard as he repeats to some hapless, cornered victim – in the office Christmas party or the line for the post office – his discovery of two different words that happen to sound the same.

James Joyce was, apparently, exactly this sort of person. According to his biographer, Richard Ellmann, the young Jim not only collected puns, but worse yet, he would reel them off at parties. And so it makes sense that some people might dismiss Finnegans Wake, as Martin Amis did in an article on the novel, as a book written in puns, a “reader-hostile, reader-nuking immolation.”

But regardless of whatever regrettable behaviour might have marred Joyce’s personal life, the wordplay of Finnegans Wake is completely different from that of newspaper headlines and your pedantic uncle. It is a book that you cannot read without reorganising your approach to finding meaning.
In a normal sentence, ideas are connected in a logical structure to create a more or less coherent message. But in phrases like “the fall of a once wallstrait oldparr,” and “the length of the land lies under liquidation” (an eerily fitting description of Ireland today), the reader is adrift in a sea of ambiguous meanings. The banal abuts the divine, pleas of innocence turn into confessions and sermons into seductions. As communication goes, it’s perhaps a little inefficient. But once you get into it, it has a wonderfully disorienting effect on your brain.

I could be wrong, of course. Possibly the greatest effect that reading Finnegans Wake has on the brain is that of forcing you to rationalise the time spent reading it...


James said...

Everything you said seems right with me... in fact I have always loved Finnegans Wake BECAUSE it needs a sort of mind frame that is 'not logical' I'd ask you to share some other lines you like (great choice on "the length of the land lies under liquidation") but I know you are quite busy to continue reciting lines. On a personal note; everyone thinks I'm crazy for loving Language because I like Finnegans Wake... I don't see a problem, so in short, this post makes absolutely perfect sense...I hope I didn't ramble too much.

Ben W said...

My father, a doctor, recently related to me an unusual and historic case concerning a patient a colleague of his had treated. The man had just graduated from college and had backpacked around Western Europe for a few months before returning back to Irvine (where he had also gone to college) to start his job at Google's new office. He had hit the high points of what used to be the Grand Tour, and had spent most of his time in Paris, his first and last stop, and reported that he had particularly enjoyed the narrow, crowded streets of the Latin Quarter, which are completely unlike the broad highways of Orange County, as I hope none of you has any cause to experience first-hand. As many people in his situation do, he picked up a few affectations while abroad; in particular, although he had never been a smoker before, he returned devoted to Gauloises. (He was not a particularly original fellow.) They reminded him, he said, of the chimneylike Parisians whose eccentricities, so unlike those of his friends in the States, had enchanted him.

Now, perhaps unsurprisingly, not long after his return, after he settled in to his work routine, he started experiencing shortness of breath and sometimes sharp pain when he inhaled deeply—which he found himself doing more often, despite the pain, since during the slightest physical exertion his breath was so rapid and shallow that he was left gasping when it ceased. He blamed the cigarettes, of course, and vowed to stop smoking, only to discover when he did so that his symptoms worsened. It was at this point that he went to my dad's colleague to see what might be ailing him.

This doctor had an inkling what might have been causing it, but it had never been diagnosed in the States, and internationally only very infrequently, so he wasn't certain. He knew, however, how to figure out if it was indeed what he expected. While the man sat in his skivvies on a table, he tut-tutted, paced a bit, hmmmmed, and expressed other concern-behavior, and then told the man what he wanted him to do: he thought that what was wanted was exercise: conditioning for his lungs. But not, obviously, strenuous exercise; that would only bring the situation to disaster. So he wanted the man to go on walks, and to ensure that he didn't strain himself too much even while walking ("how likely", thought the man to himself as he heard the doctor's somewhat embarrassed explanation of all this, "is it that I'll walk too fast?"), he had a somewhat odd prescription for him: he was to go to a pet store and procure a tortoise, which he would take on walks with him, and than which he was not to go faster. The doctor instructed him to come back in two weeks and let him know how things were going.

Two weeks later the man returned, with tidings that, it must be admitted, stupefied their bearer. While on these walks down Irvine's unwalkable boulevards, going nowhere, since there's nowhere to go on foot, bearing a tortoise on a leash, and uncertain whether the scoffing glances he received were because of his unusual choice of travelling companion, or his unusual choice of travelling by foot, his condition was much improved—seemed even to vanish. Indeed, even though he gave in to the near-overwhelming temptation while on these strolls to smoke a cigarette or two, no ill effects attended this action; indeed, while dragging on the cigarette, he seemed to feel even better than he did before!

"I suspected as much", the doctor said, when the man had finished his report in wonderment. "While you were in Paris, you picked up a nasty case of flâneurisy."