- Semantic continuity and...
Meaning is built in linear continuance. And sometimes in pain. When this has trouble coming out it is evident that making sense requires effort. Go on, spit it out or even Come clean and well try and get to the bottom of it. Explaining what we mean supposes the application of ones mind to a subject that it seems to resist. To speak is to build, in effect, on the horizontal axis of concatenations and on the vertical axis of substitutions both syntactically and semantically a reality that does not exist and yet that can be communicated.
Acceptable meaning comes from the respect of grammatical rules applied to a description of the plausible world, that is, that which is shared by potential speakers and listeners.
In so far as the meaning is expected, and on the whole predicted (the register of plausibility in which it will be used), it is already there in the mind of the listener. Grammatical rules are communal, as is ones experience of the world. The meaning just produced remains present in the mind and accords with the meaning in production. Each sentence adds slightly or questionably in continuity. Obvious grammatical incorrectness, just like semantic incoherence, triggers a stupor that is expressed in the non forewarned listener by the emission of the N400 wave (a negative variation of electrical cerebral activity; the less the word is expected, the larger the amplitude: Kutas et Hillyard,1980). Crash! The semantic line bangs into a wall.
The brain, the producer of meaning, is equally an extractor of rhythm. Proverbs often possess this literary trick that enables them to be committed to memory and which bases them in necessity Whoever lives, will see Translator the traitor. To teach a child is to etch in stone; to teach an old man is to write on water says an African proverb
The arena of style, rhetorical figures, paralipsis, emphasis, holorimic verse (Gal, amant de la reine, alla, tour magnanime, galamment de larène à la tour Magne à Nimes) palindrome (Esope reste et se repose), anagram, calligram, acrostic, chiasmus, (Pascal used to invent mathematical problems to make his headaches go away, the dunce invents headaches to make his maths problems go away). Poignez le villain, il vous oindra/Poignez-le, il vous poindra. Syntactically, it is a parallelism; action = consequence. Phonologically it is a chiasmus.
All these expressions have the line in sight when they deviate from it. In their own specific field, that of style, or command of language (which is not in itself a command of reality), their tour de force is to leave the thread and remain on the thread, to intertwine which in their lightness, in their apparent casualness pay homage to the linear necessity and to the seriousness which with the support of the significant aim makes up meaning. These expressions produce Aah (silent) and not laughter (ah! ah!) In other words, surprises, not of the N400 type, improprieties, incongruities, incongruences; but in addition over-determination of the meaning and not a lack of meaning. Stylistic devices show metalinguistic activity, the recursivity of language, the capacity of the mind to think what it thinks. Polyphony or polysemy is what is particular to man.
Like the weaver's shuttle, speech weaves lines, in effect, between the scattered elements of the world. Language is not simply a mirror, a lexicon that catalogues objects. Without speech, the objects of the world would remain orphaned. It is speech that allies, transports and transposes, etymologically: metaphorizes. The mind not only employs homophony, sonorous reverberations, but also the identity that it detects in the diversity of registers of experience. To compare a young girl to a flower and an old woman to the cracked earth is to see the unity of form in the diversity of expressions. It is to sum up all the worlds experiences in one sole experience. It is, to humanise the world. Polysemy emerges from the forge of the mind. Dichterisch wohnet der Mensch Man lives as a poet as Holderlin wrote. This same polysemy, which translation software, through lack of experience of the world and lack of humanity, can only have an imperfect command of (for example: ouvrir un judas does it mean to see what one has in ones stomach or to bump someone off), all this depth in the treasure of language, these holes dug by generations of ants according to Baudelaire, demonstrates the fundamental plurivocality of speech.
Of course the context that helps us to discern if my voisin de paillasse is a sleeping companion (paillasse = straw mattress) or a lab colleague (paillasse = laboratory work surface) (perhaps both) is well understood. Thus, when I say that the village idiot has been charged with giving intelligence to the enemy, Im expressing neither a contradiction nor an absurdity. Im expressing a non-sense that has meaning. Im proving the subtlety (albeit relative I admit) of him who knows that there is intelligence and there is intelligence
Its not the contrary of what is true. Its a metalinguistic truth.
When the rupture is just a noise, it stupidly bother us. When it has meaning and when it questions the right meaning, it makes us laugh.
The funny story is an example of an all the more efficient significant breaking-off device, as the change in level on which it is built is more noticeable, notably when there is a structural opposition between the starting point and the conclusion. Here is a (very classy) example of this (kind of) structural opposition. A man seats himself at a table in a restaurant and the waiter suggests he try the menu of the day, Beef tongue. Thank you the customer replies, but I dont really like things that come from an animals mouth. Ill have the eggs instead. (Another example, the opposition behind and in front, previously under the rubric ethnic joke illustrating, moreover, the opposition between expression and excretion, jeering at the other man with his turd like a plume.You lead the listener in one direction, establishing him in one reference system then, thanks to the polysemy that you keep in reserve (homonymy, homophony, assonance, homology, symmetry, chiasmus) you oblige him to apply the rule of intellection of this reference as a prerequisite to this last reality, which is generally trivial.The scatological (or sexual) joke systematically exploits this structural opposition between the ideal and the concrete, the psychological and the biological, degrading the ideal in the matter. Spencer notes that laughter penalizes exclusively the descending path of this ambiguity. Its like the couple who tuck themselves away in the countryside and lie down on the grass. Her: You see my darling how everything around us is beautiful; the flowers, the blue sky, you could say that everything is in harmony with us. Listen, a little bird has just started singing, there, nearby. Him: No its not! Its the zip of my flies.
Its not laughter, stricto sensu, which is particular to man. It is, as Vico (vide infra) explains, polysemy. The degrees of the mind are evaluated in the most ordinary way according to the nature of this polysemy.
At the bottom of the ladder, the pun leaves droppings to the flying mind Victor Hugo once said, and also drives us to despair when it is used systematically. It denies language any practical function, which in a significant continuity introduces a homophony that has no other role than that of a blind window, pleasing by this sole sonorous reverberation. There is thus no significant relation between the gaiety and the pedestal, that is (nevertheless) supposed to provoke it (Si t'es gai ris donc / guéridon)
The conceptual model of the pun could be the exploits of the schoolboy who manages to string together authentic Latin words, but whose sequence, ultimately, makes no sense, in order to compose comprehensible sentences (preferably salacious ones) in his mother tongue
of the type: Cleopater certe cuis, Caesar latremens
(sorry!,) (pranks that, like, of course, the unfortunate Corneilles famous
par trois en son sein, le fer a repassé or others like Cicéron cest Poincaré match up to with ease)
It is a pathetic, incompetent exploit, unless we make puns, following in the footsteps of Jean-Pierre Brisset, the sacred prince of poets by those hoax amateurs
the foundation of language and the access road to truth : The fiery sword that guards the path of the tree of life. The idea that there couldnt be something hidden under the pun, Brisset explained, never occurred to anyone because it was forbidden to the human mind. He was only forced to start laughing stupidly, which remains, furthermore, the lot of fools and limited minds
(Les Origines humaines, 1913). In order to take the creative path of the pun and to understand the original meaning of the words and speech, one has to become like a child. An example (and how can we not follow Brisset when he relates mans upright posture, his raising up to the sudden appearance of speech) :
All words express in their initial meaning, an order to sit up straight, stand up and hold oneself straight. Speech lifts the soul. Our ancestors resolved, as difficultly in the past as nowadays, to walk upright. Numerous corrections were needed to make the corps-rection [correction]. Body-erect yourself [Corps érige-toi] one would say while creeping to correct it, correct yourself [corrige-toi] I am going to erect your corpse, cor(pse)-rect you [Je vais te corps ériger, te corriger]. In many a dialect, we still hear the sound e in the word correct. Furthermore, riger = erect and to raise [riger = ériger et dresser]. Ai rigé = I have raised. The word straight applies equally to laughter, since rigé is made up of ri jai = jai ri, upright or straight. Consequently, laughter was provoked by those who wanted to stand up straight and who kept on falling down pitifully. I laugh, I m making light of it [Je ris, je me ris] equalled : I hold myself upright and by saying so our ancestors fell back down. Im laughing, Im laughing cried the other, laughing. Its there then that the origin of involuntary laughter trips us up, when we see someone fall ridiculously. The rampant beast that is in all of us is jealous of those who can stand up and it pokes fun at their downfall : Paws on the ground becomes CRASH! (In French, PATATRAS!- pattes à terre as) (Les Origines humaines) It is the fall (punchline), in fact, this basic and ordinary device, that triggers laughter a demonstration of the descending path of the double states that reminds man of his own infirmity: his incapacity to hold himself high.
On the Eve of the French Revolution, the brief literary career of the Marquis de Bièvre, the pun merchant par excellence according to one of this contemporaries, was probably more revealing, in its own way, of the ordinary function of the pun. In 1770, the unlikely success of his Contesse Tation (Letter to the Countess Tation) which justified 15 or so editions seemed to be like a contagious fever. Georges de Bièvre quickly became one of those personalities that were most seen in salons and he was protected by Louis 14th who had made him Marquis. He succeeded again with the Comic variations of l'abbé Quille, a tragedy, Vercingetorixe (1770) and the Loves of the Angel Lure, a historical novel, (1772). Even if the fever abated rapidly, the lightning success of puns as lamentable as: De nos pères de bas imitons la constance, Ton image en moi sera peinte ou chopineJe vais me retirer dans ma tente ou ma niece (Vercingétorixe) left one not knowing what to think. When he wrote his Letter, Georges de Bièvre was 23. He would note in a Dissertation on play-on words philosophising on this art that had granted him fleeting glory, (it would be solicited in 1776 by Diderot, in order to write the note Kalembour ou Calembour destined for the Supplement to the Encyclopaedia) the relationship between youth and the frenzy of play-on words: Young people, gifted with imagination and whose taste is not yet formed, he explains, are nearly all dazzled by these much sought after antitheses [
] There are seldom those who, on entry into this world who dont pay a jeering tribute to frivolity. In effect, there is a kind of juvenile hebephrenia in this mechanical usage of the pun, particular to the Stupid Age necessary to knowing oneself and largely obscure for him who has passed this critical age. Reading Vercingetorixe requires a period of adaptation, since the production of puns (one per verse, embodied in Italics) confuses the expression, until it appears that the pun enters (in accordance with the definition above) not into the construction of the semantic line, but into its destruction. It is, in the case in point a rhyme or a superfluity (meaning an unnecessary extra word to fill in the gaps, to rhyme..) of the kind poil aux dents ? (a childish game of repeating nonsense) in schoolboy humour, an interference that serves to repeat, phonetically, the target word. ((Mais plus que toi Sylvie est adroite en rentrant, Ne peux-t-on vivre heureux sans elle de dindon, Je méritais plutôt d'être plaint comme un uf. / Pourquoi ce ton salé ? Prenez un air de buf. Je sus, comme un cochon, résister à leurs armes, / Et je pus, comme un bouc, dissiper vos alarmes.)
The familiar teen who systematically repeats what youve just said, (including, of course, those who beg him to stop parroting them) settles himself in the same way in the denial of communication, in a production of meaning whose one goal is to destroy meaning, the saying of nothing. Investment in language of this type is not gratuitous. It expresses without doubt, the command or the practice of the speaker, and eventually his ability to be derisive: Vercingetorixe is thus both a caricature and a demystification of those gaulois and that 3rd estate which was supposed to have taken power back from the Aristocrats- those descendants of the Franks who would have subjugated them
But also, indeed, his frivolity or his powerlessness, when the reality only exists in order to join the play on words and to bend to the desires of the pun-merchant. The Marquis had thus planted yew trees (ifs) in his property, numbering six, in order to be able to say : Here is the place where there are six yew trees (Voici lendroit des six ifs/décisif)
Fever of the era, fever of words, fever of history, also which would take the great spirits of the court in its turmoil and swashbucklers of language. The Marquis was amongst the first to emigrate. He died in Germany in October 1789.
Bièvre illustrates the last shouts of a civilisation condemned by history, but also a way of refusing triumphant reason. He is perfectly conscious in his Dissertation of the difference between the play-on word and the witticism. In fact he explains, When the sharpness of a projection does not lie in an ambiguity but in an ingenious idea, expressed with precision, it is no longer a play-on word. It is, in truth, the witticism. It is lost only on witty people, whilst the play-on word is the spirit of those who do not possess it. He quoted on these grounds in his note for the Supplement, Molieres words for the audience, the day when the President of Harlai, the supposed model of Tartuffe, suspended the performance. Sirs, we were counting on having the honour of giving you today, Tartuffe, but Mr First President doesnt want us to perform it. (Messieurs, nous comptions avoir lhonneur de vous donner aujourdhui Tartuffe, mais M. le premier président ne veut pas quon le joue). This does not prevent Bièvre from producing puns. Sometimes the pun does not have a shadow of the right meaning, but then it is all the more amusing because it suddenly transports the imagination far from the subject which one was talking about, in order to give us only a curious and cutting puerility. (Supplement) And by displaying gaiety against the sad amateurs of the public world (I judged the pun could certainly be an effective defensive arm against those annoying characters [
] A liking for puns is not a disease in my book, but a useful resource for repelling the boredom and calling forth gaiety; frivolity as opposed to the vanity of the serious. What is more, it denies both reason and the philosopher the ability to explain the world. The inventor of this sublime art of overlooking education and substituting science by puns (according to the publicity of an anthology published before the Revolution, when it topped the bill. In April 1776, in a letter addressed to the Bibliothèque universelle des romans, he posed as a partisan of a satirical faction against the philosophers plot, its cold conceit and its vain claims at being able to explain the mystery of the universe and as the leader of the French Parnasse against the rude and barbaric talk of those imitators of foreign customs the useless, proud, fanatic, delirious, serious, talkative, pretentious philosopher. We can see that the Marquis is against the system
Whilst it was, from then on, forbidden to make puns in the presence of the (new) King (King Louis the XVIth didn't understand them) and whilst the Revolution was breaking out, he wrote: The Revolution that is producing so many changes has had almost no impact on the French character. The same frivolity, the same taste for noble ideas. Paris, this country rich in contrasts, offers this kind of extravagant excess. Whereas everything around him is burning down, the Parisian plays with words and consoles himself with puns. (Dissertation). Without a doubt. But there are limits to the power of play-on words and we contrast the Marquis and his philosophy of adaptation by laughing with a parody of Liancourts retort to Louis XVI, No, Marquis, it is not a Countess Tation, its a Revolution.
The sonorous inanity of the pun is sometimes spared precisely in so far as it frees itself from homorimic meaning. This can be seen in these verses, belonging to Bobby Lapointe who develops an interesting concept of domestic harmony. Mon père est marinier dans cette péniche / ma mère dit: la paix niche dans ce maris niais. Amongst the heirs of the Marquis, it is the Vermot Almanach, without a doubt, but also, more surprisingly so, not entertainment companies but communication companies, such as the daily journal Liberation whose titles and, sometimes the front page, are systematically arranged to make it interesting at a fraction of the cost. (Compost Mortem is thus the title of an article about the 1st November and funeral techniques; Jeux de demain, an article about consoles and video game joysticks, etc.) The systematic characteristic of this way of presenting information has an unlikely function of distancing or derealisation which specifies the info 68 in the serious press.
The heirs of Brisset, themselves, would probably see themselves more among the disciples of Jacques Lacan (1901-1981), the French psychoanalyst whose prophetic word convinced the flower of a generation of Social Science researchers, dazzled by this very sublime art of doing without education and replacing science by the pun-merchants (and paying tribute to frivolity). Their verbal jugglings and analogies are not substitutes for concepts. If they do not show us the path to the tree of life (Brisset), then at least they illustrate the art of puffing oneself up with words and trying to pull the wool over our eyes of which the "Sokal Affair" provides striking, priceless and salubrious proof.
Deux publications de 2005 aux titres emblématiques :
Lacan même (Lacan même même, dirait-on en créole réunionnais) et Des noms-du-père.
This seduction of verb, as Bièvre noted, expresses a refusal of reason and of reality and represents, in its own way, a strictly adolescent testimony of the freedom of the mind. (A symptom of the infectiousness of this mix of insolence, casualness and complacency : the director of a prestigious Parisian institution who, himself, is well established there, managed to put up an artistic montage in his office representing this Lacanian thought: Les non-dupes errent (The non-duped wander / The names of the Father) a way of displaying, with a knowing wink of the eye, this amused distance suitable for the intellectual who wont be fooled but who certainly would not want to seem old-fashioned. The path of reasoning is rectilinear and neither metaphorical nor polyphonic. It is on this linearity that both the understanding and the scientific command of reality rest. There is no telethon for the trope virtuouses and the literary researchers. It is obvious that linearity guards itself from all verbal intoxication such as teenage tags. This is Platos lesson in Menexene (infra: chapter 16), which is such a brilliant pastiche of verbal pathos of the time that it stayed unnoticed for a long time. Eloquency is certainly captivating, but its value as truth is opposite to its ability to seduce. Recognition of polysemy proves the membership of the pun amateur to the human family, whatever it may be. It is this idea that lade a serious philosopher state that the pun [was] the most base form of the feeling of verbal tones: that is why it sometimes brings together great artists and great imbeciles.
The witticism (where the mind adds reflection to reverberation) is distinguishable by a significant double line: it is not only the noise that words make that interferes (heavily) in the meaning being constructed during the course of the sentence, but this time it is another meaning that intensifies or contradicts the former. Thus we see the double meaning of the le in the example by Molière, quoted by Bièvre, which represents both Tartuffe (the play) and Tartuffe (the President of Harlai). Willy, the abusive husband of the brilliant Colette, whilst totally conscious of the limits of his own inspiration, nevertheless issues us with a similar warning of sobering realism: Il ne faut pas poëter plus haut que son luth !. When Bonapartes army invaded Italy, the Italians commented: Not all Frenchmen are thieves, ma
Buonoparte. A Spanish minister, having had the ludicrous idea of making all civil servants clock on at 9am, was immediately described as hideous
hombre de las nieve. Here, polysemy allows us to both mock the proverbial lack of concern of the Spanish and the conscientious irresponsibility of the civil servants. Dont kill your wife at work. Let electricity do it
If homo ridens draws a cognitive benefit from the recognition of polysemy, it is obviously a moral benefit, the truthful effect of this tumble/fall (in the funny story) from protasis to apodosis which is immediately obvious. The moral of the Zip tale (supra:12.3) could thus be told (objectively): Poor girl, I pity her. Look how she gets ideas into her head with her little bird that goes zip; or (subjectively) Im paying myself back for this stupid naivety and I register the (sad?) truth by laughing (sardonic laughter in this case). In fact, in the pitiless world of reality that Im paid to know, having, like a bee against a window pane, smacked against this necessity that drunkenness and the anaesthesia of games and laughter have let me explore, having left the bubble of childhood to live in the world of adults, in a way I can formulate a style of Zipfs law (suitable for deflating ideas and unzipping bladders) of the order of values by virtue of which the strength of an ideal has every chance of being inversely proportional to its distance to the biological necessity that it intends to transcend. The descending hyperbole (cf. the structural opposition targeted above) calls the Kantian dove or the silly goose back to reality and protects me from such illusions.
Maybe we owe this word to a North American humorist: The very shape of the pyramids shows we are in the world of geometry and mathematical ideals, a thousand miles from the routine happenings that govern our own little self interests- from the world of the generation and of corruption as the Ancient Greeks would have said. Therefore one should use a slightly more pompous tone to elevate ourselves to the level of the words. The very shape of the pyramids shows that, from the very earliest Antiquity this last proposition confirms our intentions to build up the sentence: from the top of the pyramid we can gaze down at forty centuries [Bonaparte is supposed to have said]. The very shape of the pyramids shows that, from the very earliest Antiquity, workers have tended to do less and less work. The effect of the encounter between the silence of spheres, the eternity of shape the age-old depth of civilisations and the letters from Le Figaro readers obviously depend on the position of the listener in the social pyramid. Told at the end of a trade-union meeting, this story had little chance of causing great mirth.
Humour also hedges its own bets, but only by intending to overdetermine (like this inversion of the inversion: The masochist: Hurt me! The sadist: No!) or to incite semantic insecurity which causes a distancing from reality. When a pauper eats a chicken so the Yiddish Proverb goes one of the two is ill. Between a down-and-out in not so good health, an unfortunate pauper resigned to eating a sick chicken so that he doesnt waste money (with the risk of getting empoisoned for saving his capital), and a sick pauper resigned to having to wring the neck of his most beautiful fowl, thus eating his capital to survive, there exists little space for real, unadulterated happiness. But the euphoria of this mockery and the celebration of this arithmetic of misfortune, whose balance is always negative, makes the scoffer feel insensitive, which is, in fact the objective advantage of humour. When we have to make the most of what we have, nothing does not equal nothing as the story, heard in Poland before the fall of the Wall, demonstrates.
A Pole needs shoes and so goes into a State shop to buy a pair. State shops, as we all know, are vast, yet empty. Our man goes to the floor where he is convinced there might be a small chance of finding some shoes. The floor is empty; in fact, there are no shoes on sale. He catches sight of the salesman (even though there is nothing to sell there is nevertheless a salesman) Excuse me, is this the floor where there are no shoes? No, this is the floor where there is no furniture- the floor with no shoes is the next one up! This religious denial of the reality which formed one of the pillars of scientific socialism is pleasantly accommodated in this story. Swindled, the consumer cries and distances, between other afflictions, that of the official arithmetic of socialist paradise. Nothing added to nothing, nevertheless gives a globally positive outlook. What difference is there we asked ourselves here on the US West coast before the AIDS pandemic between love and Herpes? Answer: Herpes lasts forever... We want love the sunshine of our lives to never obscure: lack of chance, as only its consequences last forever. And in this remark (that we have already quoted) from an (authentic) Belgian surrealist: The question of the existence of God is one that only concerns him, or in theories of the type: Life is a sexually transmitted disease, or Love is biodegradable etc. Amphibology? [ambiguity / polysemy] maintained between opposite registers God/Man, Life/Death, Happiness/Corruption allows us to taste the bitter superiority of the human condition: and to laugh about it.
Generally speaking, the encounter of two semantic lines allows us to deliver an overmultiplied message. Yes ok I applaud you
But only with one hand, obviously signifies by seeming to say that Im only half-applauding that in fact Im not applauding at all. I dont shake the hand of anyone who has just greased their own palm! publicly notifies us of the dubious morality of the hand in question etc.
The significant rupture, the semantic banana skin, causes, with more or less the same intensity, this moment of stupor and of incomprehension which him who fires the line, plays with. An example of a family in a restaurant. So the waiter says Dad will have the liver (this was before Mad Cow Disease, liver being, furthermore considered as an MRS. Thank you!) And for you young lady?- Im going to have a bit of a tummy. The Dad remains taken aback: cheek (of monkfish), palm (of bear) or Haggis, yes! But [take belly ?stomach]?