Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Sex, puns and Finnegans Wake

The Good and Great must ever shun
That reckless and abandoned one
Who stoops to perpetrate a pun.

So wrote that inveterate punpertrator Lewis Carroll, and he was quite right. Puns are not highly-regarded by 'the Great and Good'. i.e. grown ups. They rank precariously above sarcasm as the second-lowest form of wit. Yet there are puns and puns.

The Messiah, one could argue, made a mild ecclesiastical pun when he appointed Saint Peter as the foundation of the Christian religion, at least in the Latin version: Tu es Petrus, et super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam meam (You are Peter, and on this rock shall I build my church). This makes more sense, but loses all dignity, if we translate Peter as 'Rocky'. ('You are Rocky, and on this rock . . .' etc). Because petrus means rock, see? Punning, as I say, tends to elicit groans, and the more elaborate the pun the more excruciating the effect. This is worth a closer look.

Foerster's syndrome is a condition first described by the German neurosurgeon Ottfrid Foerster. In 1929 he was carrying out brain surgery on a patient suffering from a tumour in the third ventricle – a small cavity deep down in the mid brain and immediately adjacent to those structures associated with the arousal of emotions. When Foerster began to manipulate the tumour the patient, who was conscious, suddenly erupted into a fluent and relentless stream of puns, all of them related (unsurprisingly) to thoughts of knives and butchery.

In the same year a German psychiatrist called Dr. A. A. Brill reported what he believed was the first case of Witzelsucht in the International Journal of Psychoanlaysis. Witzelsucht (from witzeln, meaning 'to joke' and sucht, meaning 'addiction or yearning;) is a vanishingly rare set of neurological symptoms characterised by both a tendency to make puns and to tell inappropriate jokes or pointless stories in socially inappropriate situations. This 'pun mania' is associated (although very rarely) with the condition of hypersexuality, a Tourettish tendency to make explicit and inappropriate sexual comments. 

This disorder is most commonly observed in patients with damage to their right frontal lobe, the part of the brain most involved in the cognitive processing of decision-making. Elderly people are particularly prone to Witzelsucht because of the decreasing amount of grey matter, one of the gifts reserved for age. Dorland’s Illustrated Medical Dictionary defines Witzelsucht as “a mental condition characteristic of frontal lesions and marked by the making of poor jokes and puns …at which the patient himself is intensely amused”. 

Relentless punning? Inappropriate sexual references? It would take a stronger character than mine to resist the temptation to call this 'punnilingus'. Here are two case studies from the ever-reliable Wikipedia:

Case 1: A 30-year-old, right-handed man was admitted to the department of neurology for irritability, inappropriate behaviour, and morbid hyperphagis [constant hunger] with obesity. His inappropriate laughter and persistent pun and joke telling was a sharp contrast to his personality as an intellectual theological scholar, known for his exceptional memory as opposed to his sense of humour. This behaviour was generally prompted by environmental stimuli such as physician’s rounds or blood sampling. To the patient, his behaviour seemed normal, which explains why he remained non-discriminating toward his jokes, their context, and the impression they made on those around him. Neurological examination revealed mild spastic right hemiparesis weakness or paralysis of one side of the body with minimal motor coordination and impairment of voluntary fine movements. […] Additionally, verbal and performance tests showed evidence of poor concentration skills, high distractibility, and difficulty with visual-spatial tasks. 
Case #2: A 56-year-old man, KS, was admitted to the hospital with signs of a putaminal haemorrhage,  including dense paralysis on the left side of his body and face, difficulty swallowing, and visual field defects on his left side. On the fifth day of hospitalisation, he was alert and cooperative with no disorientation, delusion, or emotional lability. He then became euphoric and outspoken, speaking in puns and witticisms with an exaggerated smile. The content of his conversations, however, was not bizarre or random. He would work in puns and jokes while speaking his concerns about his other physical symptoms from the stroke in a coherent manner. Sometimes he would not crack a smile at something he said to make others around him laugh hysterically, while other times he could not appreciate others' jokes. During this time, KS also developed hypersexuality, using erotic words and inappropriate behavior toward the female hospital staff. Before his stroke, KS's family reported he did make jokes on occasion, but never in this bizarre manner, and never behaved impolitely to women. MRI tests showed bleeding at the right putamen, extending into the posterior and lateral portions of the right thalamus and defects in the thalamus and right basal ganglion. Another test showed deficits in recent memory, orientation, abstract thinking, drawing, and verbal fluency.

All of which brings us, by a commodious vicus of recirculation, to Finnegans Wake. Has anyone yet made a connection between Joyce's relentlessly compacted multilingual punning (and the sexual content, not least H C Earwicker's incestuous feelings towards his daughter) and Witzelsucht? I can find nothing at all linking Joyce's last book to this neurological condition, and I am not implying that he suffered from such a condition, or anything like it. Nor, come to that, are those readers who admire the epic punorama of the Wake. After thirty years of not-quite-reading it I find myself quite late in life glumly agreeing with Clive James's lines about 'a book full of writing / For people who can do nothing but read'. That is to say I can see what it is but not what it's for. 

More on Foerster's syndrome in a scholarly article here.

A few puns are so magnificent that they transcend their humble category. Obit anus, abit onus ('An old woman dies, a burden is removed') wrote Schopenhauer in his account book, following the death of a seamstress to whom he had made court-ordered payments for twenty years, after she injured her arm while in his employ. Schopenhauer cannot be classed 'a foolish and abandoned one', and rose to this occasion by perpetrating a quite magnificent pun, one that's worth circulating.

A later blog will look at the history and cultural significance of the 'knock-knock' joke. You have been warned.

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