Monday, August 22, 2016

The Writer and Puns, Soundalikes, and Meanings

Donn Taylor

     What can today's writers do with puns?
     In today's world, puns are assigned the lowest rung on the
ladder of humor. So it's generally thought that anyone who likes
puns can't be much of a humidor. It was not always thus.
     During most of the Renaissance--until about 1600--many of
the best minds took puns quite seriously. One reason was the
influence of Hermeticism, a set of ideas based on two fraudulent
manuscripts from the early Christian era which the Renaissance
accepted as authentic. The author of one of these claimed to be a
learned man named Hermes who lived soon after mankind's expulsion
from Eden.

Hermes states that Adam originally had magical 
means of controlling nature, but that after the 
Fall, God hid that knowledge from most people. 
In each generation, however, a few poets and 
priests were to act as custodians of this 
knowledge, communicating with each other in 
symbols and ciphers so that fallen mankind could
not regain and misuse the magic powers. (Hermes
claimed to be one of these, of course.)
     One continuing quest of the Renaissance 
was for rediscovery of the Hermetic knowledge, 
and one method involved the study of languages. If a person would note the similarities and 
sound-relationships of words to their meanings, it was thought, he
might rediscover the language of Eden (lost since the Tower of Babel) and 
with it the lost knowledge Adam used to control nature.
     Consequently, influential philosophers like Marsilio Ficino (1433-99) studied similarities of words as clues to ancient realities. He found it significant that the pearl (margarita) was found in the sea (mare). An advocate of Platonic (totally intellectual) love, he thought it appropriate to the description
of physical love that the word for mother (mater) resembled the word for matter or substance (materia).
     Given this philosophical basis, Renaissance thinkers had to take puns seriously: they were not mere accidents, but might be God-given clues to the most important earthly body of knowledge.
     So we find Renaissance poets using puns to convey profound ideas. Late in life, while seriously ill, John Donne (1572?-1631) punned on his own name and that of his deceased wife (Anne More) in a poetic prayer for God's forgiveness: "When thou hast done, thou hast not done,/For I have more." (His devotion to the deceased earthly woman, Anne More, prevented the perfect love of God theorized in Platonic Christianity, and therefore was a
continuing sin which required forgiveness.)
     Like Donne, Shakespeare (1564-1616) is poised between the Renaissance world and the modern world, and he presents both attitudes toward puns. Some of his characters are modernists: puns are a nuisance, an obstacle to progress. But the dramatist also uses puns to suggest some of his most serious meanings. (In As You Like It, does the name Orlando signify a youth on the edge (orlo) of manhood who, at play's end, will inherit "a land itself at large,
a potent dukedom"?)
     Whenever one reads a Renaissance text, he'd better take language seriously--and that language includes no small number of puns. So why shouldn't we alleged moderns also consider serious use of the puns? Why not add another arrow to our quiver?
     What can today's writers do with puns besides use them for momentary humor? Here are a few suggestions: 1) Pretend you are Shakespeare/Ficino and construct a network of puns that, taken together, suggest a meaning beyond the narrative of your story. (This can supplement or contrast with the meaning of the narrative.) Have your hero put this together at the end of the story—something he has learned about the eternal scheme of things. 2) In a mystery, have a villain whose punning silliness seems to make it unlikely he would commit a serious crime. But his puns become clues that eventually lead to solving the crime. 3) As an ornament to the narrative, have someone's puns create an irritating distraction the hero must fight through to (solve the crime, reach the goal of his quest, etc.).
     I would write more on the subject of puns, but right now I have to go study computers. On which subject I will someday cite chapter and virus.
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