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  • November 15, 2018
  • By Admin: mrbauld
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On the campus where I teach, there is a landmark, a large rock on which fraternity and sorority members paint their Greek letters, the political-minded announce their slogans, and the whimsical occasionally indite their usually unobscene graffiti. The other day walking past it, I noticed that some less-than-advanced student of Latin had written: “Veni, vidi, vici.” Instantly, my mind rejoined, “Veni, vidi, vici / Your mother looks like Nietzsche.” Why does my mind do this? Where do such items come from? What sort of thing is this for a man in his fifties to be thinking? Ought I to seek, as they say, professional help?

Early on a spring morning in South Bend, Indiana, sitting alone in a quiet room over-looking a swimming pool, I notice two ducks alight on the water. “A pair of ducks,” I think, “a pair of dukes, a pair of docs, a pair of dice, a paradise, a pair of Dekes, a pair of dorks, a paradox.” I could go on, and that morning, for a bit longer, I did. In the newspaper I glanced at soon thereafter, someone was referred to as the “heir apparent” to some job I cannot now recall; but the phrase suggested to me another, which my pun-spewing mind put in the form of a riddle: “What do you call a toupee? You call it, obviously, `hair appar ent.’ ” A friend remarked that her eyes itch. “Eyesitch Bashevis Singer,” I blurted out, since I happened to have been recently reading his novels. In the fullness of time, I was forgiven.

How long has this been going on? asks a fine old torch song sung, in my youth, by June Christy (the Misty Miss Christy, old guys may recall). How long has my mind been subject to such nuttiness? Only as long as I can remember, though the condition seems to be becoming worse as I grow older. Who put these toys in my attic? Can they ever be cleaned out, so that I can turn my thoughts to more serious matters? Is language therapy indicated?

Or is it not my mind but the silliness of words themselves that provokes me to such zaniness? Surely I am not the only one who has noted it. “I went over to Dover,” Henry James wrote to a friend, then he added: “What a language we have, `over to Dover’–it would have made Flaubert an even greater maniac than his own did.” Is the English language inherently zany? Why is it so often the case, at least for me, that one word powerfully suggests another, often in some comic fashion. I hear the word adhering and I invariably think of the phrase add herring, and I don’t even like herring. I hear the word intuit and I feel I ought to put more in to it. I see the name Immanuel Kant and my mind turns it into Immanuel Won’t. When I hear the word paradigm all I can think of is the phrase from the Depression, “Brother, can you spare a dime?” I am like the little boy mentioned by F. L. Lucas in his swell book Style who remarked that “death” does not seem a very good word for what it describes, and when asked what word might be better, promptly replied, “Hig.”

Have I been working with language too intensely for too long, like a man left out in the sun without a hat, who is consequently a bit touched? Are we talking here about a mild case of James Joyce fever? Truth to tell, I have been wandering about in (I won’t say reading) Joyce’s Finnegans Wake and, strange to report, finding whole passages not only comprehensible but charming. This in itself is, as anyone who has taken up this book, a work seventeen years in its highly involuted making, a bit disturbing. What is disturbing is that I have come to think I know what it is that Joyce had in mind writing this just about unreadable book. But, here, do please try a passage on your own:

What then agentlike brought about that tragoady thundersday this municipal sin business? Our cube house still rocks as earwitness to the thunder of his arafatas but we hear also through successive ages that shebby choruysh of unkalified muzzlenimis silehims that would blackguardise the whitestone ever hurtleturtled out of heaven. Stay us wherefore in our search for tighteousness, O Sustainer, what time we rise and when we take up to toothmick and before we lump down upown our leatherbed and in the night and at the fading of the stars!

What I believe the old boy, Mr. James Choice himself, had in mind was to demonstrate the comic instability of language, the way almost every word in English resembles some other word, if not in English then in another language, so that, if one is sensitive enough to language, its soundings and resoundings, one is lucky to be able to communicate at all. Setting aside the problem that language provides in meaning and precision, consider for a moment its hidden traps. The falling into unconscious puns, the double en tendres, the boners, the howlers, the lavish prospects for lapses, the unconscious sexual metaphors, the horrendous comic possibilities awaiting anyone writing and speaking English–all these things make it apparent that the language is not altogether, as the folks down at computer city say, user-friendly.

In this list I haven’t even mentioned irony, the disease that sets in among writers at a certain point of sophistication, and from which, once begun, return is impossible. “One is taught to refrain from irony,” says Max Beerbohm in Zuleika Dobson, “because mankind does tend to take it literally.” And in a radio broadcast, Max once remarked, “I wish, Ladies and Gentlemen, I could cure myself of the habit of speaking ironically. I should so like to express myself in a straightforward manner.” You don’t suppose he meant that last sentence, do you?

Please do suppose that I entirely do mean it when I speak of the comic instability of language. I do not have in mind here anything so fancy as tony deconstructionist notions about language being mystifying, illogical, hopelessly political, and therefore itself, somehow, discredited (to be replaced by what–seashells, perhaps?–has never been even murkily suggested). Nor do I have in mind the struggle to make words mean precisely what one wants them to mean, over which Flaubert daily wracked his brain (cracked his crane?). Poor Flaubert, whose letters to Louise Colet, his mistress, are filled with such groaning complaints about his endless wrestle with language: “Last week I spent five days writing one page, and I dropped everything else for it. . . . ” “Do you know how many pages I have written this week? One, and I cannot even say a good one.” The poor man had with words what must now be called a real “Flaubertian” problem. (There goes language, making a fool of one again.)

Flaubert’s difficulty was in straining after an idea that might not have been achievable. “Oh!” he complained. “If only I wrote the way I know one has to write, I’d write so well.” What he had in mind was a style in which every mot was absolutely juste. (Le Mot, I not long ago learned, is what many of his friends call the novelist Ward Just, and I like them and him straightaway for this little joke.) Here is what Flaubert had in mind:

I envision a style: a style that would be beautiful, that someone will invent some day, ten years or ten centuries from now, one that would be rhythmic as verse, precise as the language of the sciences, undulant, deep-voiced as a cello, tipped with flame: a style that would pierce your idea like a dagger, and on which your thought would sail easily ahead over a smooth surface, like a skiff before a good tail wind.

What a lovely passage! “I believe he’s got it,” as Professor Henry Higgins might say. “By God he’s got it!” But of course Flaubert, being Flaubert, would not have found this or anything else ever good enough. The writer’s–or at least certain writers’–road to hell is paved with the desire for stylistic perfection.

Imagine the state Flaubert would have been in if he had had to oversee translations of his ever-so-meticulously constructed works. It would have taken him onto the stage above madness. Isaac Bashevis Singer, who achieved fame as a writer in English and not in the Yiddish in which he grew up and wrote to the end of his life, noted of translation that “the `other’ language in which the author’s work must be rendered does not tolerate obscurity, puns, and linguistic tinsel.” It is, of course, possible to enjoy the splendidly spare English translations of Singer’s own stories and novels and still love the literary tinsel that he felt these translations must eschew. (The English writer Richard Church once noted that the sound of the word eschew was responsible for his deciding to become a writer, so fascinated was he by it when, as a child, he heard it for the first time. My own reaction to the word is rather different. When I hear someone say “eschew,” I have to suppress saying “Gesundheit!”)

Some often-translated writers have not let foreign languages stand in the way of their love of linguistic tinsel. Often these are writers who have command of not one or two but several languages. It may well be, it occurs to me, that one of the tests of command of a foreign language is to be able to recognize puns in it and, at a still higher level of command, to make puns in that language. Vladimir Nabokov is a case in point. (Is a man living in a rough neighborhood who carries a knife someone who has a point in case? Just thought I’d ask.) In the second volume of his biography of Nabokov, Brian Boyd tells of Nabokov’s friend Alfred Appel reporting to him, during the wilder days of the sixties, that a nun in one of his classes at Northwestern University complained that a young couple near her in class was always spooning. Nabokov mockingly reprimanded his friend for missing a lovely opportunity. “You should have said, `Sister, be grateful that they were not forking.’ ”

One good pun tends to provoke another, often less good pun. With Nabokov’s pun in mind, is it not possible to say of Brillat-Savarin, the great chef and writer on gastronomy, that he was a forking genius? Yes, it’s certainly possible, though probably not a good idea. Yet those who take pleasure in making puns are perpetually crouched to leap– couched to sleep?–always ready to fire away. Using puns in captions has long been considered an opportunity for a bit of fun, and journalists wait to get in their shot at it. Some seem rigged, such as the caption I once read beneath a photograph of trainers with stopwatches during an early morning workout at Aqueduct: “These are the souls who time men’s tries.” Which doesn’t lay a glove on the journalist who had the chance to write a caption for a photograph of the late Aristotle Onassis looking at the home of Buster Keaton, which Onassis was thinking of buying. Under this photograph the lucky fellow was able to write: “Aristotle contemplating the home of Buster.” Did yet another journalist caption a photograph of Mikhail Gorbachev, with a Kur dish child in his arms, “Kurd-carrying Communist,” or did I make this up because I want it to be so?

You know you have the disease bad when you have puns ready-made and hope for situations to arise in which you can call them into play. There is a very good young writer on philosophical subjects named Josiah Lee Aus pitz. If ever I were to know him well enough, I should like to compliment him on something he has written and go on to ask him if he wrote it at home or at the home of relatives on his father’s side–that is to say, under different Auspitzes.

“T’ain’t funny, McGee,” as the wise Molly McGee used to say on their old radio show when reining in her husband at those times that his humor threatened to veer out of comic control. But then punning is famously a low art. One has to have a taste for whimsy to go in for it; and it is no surprise that those two most whimsical of English writers, Charles Lamb and Lewis Carroll, both went in for it in rather a large way: Lamb, always the good host, used to complain about his “nocturnal alias knock-eternal visitors.” But then the distinctly un whimsical Winston Churchill appreciated a good pun, and in his essay on Herbert Henry Asquith he recommends an elaborate pun off the words wait and see and weight and sea that he allows may be apocryphal but “deserves to survive.”

Groucho Marx suffered this same weakness, which he turned to a strength as a comedian, and once wrote to his brother Gummo that he and T. S. Eliot had three things in common: “(1) an affection for good cigars; and (2) cats; and (3) a weakness for making puns–a weakness I have tried to overcome. T. S., on the other hand, is an unashamed–even proud punster. For example, there’s his Gus, the Theater Cat, whose `real name was Asparagus.’ ”

Groucho’s sense of the comic instability of language was at the heart of much of his humor and hence of his charm. He was able to spin off the fragility of words like no other comedian of his time or of ours. I cannot recall specific examples of his doing this, so regular a feature of his performance was it. But if one were talking with him, one did well to watch one’s vocabulary. Say “disgruntled” around him and he was likely to ask you if you ever felt “gruntled.” Mention that you were “non plussed,” he would likely ask when last you were “plussed”; he might even go a step further and ask if you ever read Marcel Plussed. He would wish things untrammeled, trammeled; things impeccable, pecced; things invincible, vinced. If you mentioned that you thought something feasible, he would doubtless ask how precisely does one feas it. Tell him he was frivolous, and he would beg leave to frivol on. When Groucho was on a roll, which was most of the time, it was probably safest not to speak around him at all.

Groucho could also be death on odd names. W. C. Fields, too, thought, as he might have put it, nomenclatural exotica riotously funny, and he became something of a connoisseur (a kind of sewer) of odd names and used them in his movies whenever possible, the odder the better. That someone happens to be named Velveeta Hickenlooper or Montague Fortin bras really lit up old Fields, a man who always had plenty of alcohol in his lamp in any case. (And couldn’t Groucho have done fine things with a phrase such as a “lamp in any case”?) I do not share this appetite, though I sometimes indulge in it myself. I once owned a Volvo that had something called a Manual Choke; whenever I noted it written on the dashboard, I would say to myself, “Manual Choke, wasn’t he one of those Cuban pitchers on the old Washington Senators?” To Shakespeare’s question about what’s in a name, I say, usually, a hell of a lot. What if Shakespeare’s own name, for example, were Lou Peltz? Quite hopeless. Under the name Lou Peltz he couldn’t have turned out a haiku.