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Puns As a Language of the Soul?

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    Why are puns commonly held to be “the lowest form of humor?”

    For years, I’ve assumed this was a putdown of the pun, in acknowledgement of the groan factor – but, as with any pun, on reflection there is more here than meets the eye. Read one way, yes, there does seem a bit of snobbish condescension in the statement

    . . . but “lowest form of humor” – must this be taken as a negative?

    The cell might be described as the lowest form of life, but where would life be without it? I choose to believe this phrase implies the universality of the pun – yes, it is the lowest, most basic form of humor, but where would we be without it?

    Further, can’t help but notice, groans notwithstanding, that the pun (along with its cousin, the riddle) is the most benign form of humor.

    In all other humor, someone gets hurt.

    Slapstick elicits laughs by portraying physical pain (as do cartoons – how often can Wile E. Coyote – hey, there’s the Trickster again – be blown to kingdom come?); satire and sarcasm can be biting, painful; jokes involve various levels of humiliation and insult, from the blatant (“your mama is so fat that…,” or “did you hear about the [insert ethnic minority/blonde/martian or other descriptive epithet here] who was so stupid/greedy/lazy/cheap that …?,” or “how many of [them] does it take to screw in a lightbulb?”), to the very subtle.

    Even self-deprecating humor has a barb: the target is just oneself.

    Of course, that’s just apologetics from an unapologetic punster – a defensive reaction on my part, no doubt, to decades of collective grumbles and groans

    But Jung and Campbell advance some interesting observations about this lowest form of humor that suggest, at least to me, that puns are the language of the psyche

    (which may indicate my need for therapy).

    In Symbols of Transformation – the volume published in 1912 that triggered the break with Freud, who just did not get it – Jung’s lengthy prologue stands on its own as an essay entitled “Two Types of Thinking.” Usually, when we use the word “thinking,” we are referring to directed thinking, to which concentration, focus, and cause-and-effect (“if P is given, then Q follows…”) are key components.

    This is the type of thinking necessary to engineer a bridge or remove an appendix; we could each draw dozens, even hundreds of examples from daily experience (often portrayed as “masculine,” rational, conscious, left-brain activities).

    But there is another mode of thinking that underlies and is prior to directed thinking in both the individual, and in the evolution of our species. This is associational thinking – much of which takes the form of unconscious daydream, fantasy, and a flood of thoughts constantly shifting shape, related by association, sometimes the loosest possible associations (generally depicted as “feminine,” irrational, unconscious, and/or right-brained)

    . . . much like a pun . . .

    Prior to the development of one’s ego-consciousness, unconscious association forms the context and content of the infantile mind. “Directed thinking” is slow to appear, gradually emerging in conjunction with ego-consciousness.

    With perhaps rare exceptions (though no one I’ve ever met), life is neither experienced nor remembered as one seamless narrative from the moment of birth. Our earliest days remain unconscious – our earliest memories, whether appearing at age four or three or two or even earlier, are islands of consciousness in a vast unknown sea of experience.

    These little islands of consciousness gradually grow together, forming the continental mass of one’s personal narrative.

    But that unconscious state of associated thoughts, images, ideas and memories flowing one into another remains – in fact, this associational from of thinking underlies directed thinking. Even an engineer crunching numbers drifts off into daydream in between equations – and that surgeon cutting into your flesh might find himself unaccountably thinking about what’s for dinner, pondering tax shelters, and unconsciously scratching an itchy ankle bone with the heel of his other foot all in the same moment.

    In fact, in the here and now (which some cognitive scientists measure at three seconds – the outer limit of what consciousness experiences as “the present”), hundreds of half-formed images and thoughts flit through one’s mind.

    Haven’t we all experienced a block once in a while, a problem that seems impossible to surmount no matter how hard we think about it – but then, once we slip into the shower and our mind wanders, inspiration suddenly strikes?

    Jung points to this form of thinking (which is not ego-directed, but rather unconscious association) as being the experience of early humans, before the development of ego and of self-aware, waking consciousness (which some authorities place as recently as three to four thousand years ago – e.g., Julian Jaynes in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bi-Cameral Mind).

    And this state of being is still our experience at night, in dream, where the waking ego is muffled, unable to censor and “direct” – leaving psyche free to express herself . .  . which she does through symbol, and through pun – often visual puns.

    For example, after one lengthy internet binge lasting days on end, I woke one morning with but a fragment of dream remembered – aural, not visual – just a Greek chorus, in a stage whisper chanting, over and over, “microwave prison” (all sorts of associations embedded in that image)

    . . . and if, in dream, your mother-in-law morphs into a snake, do you need to be Fellini – or Henny Youngman – to figure that out?

    Joseph Campbell, on the first page of The Hero With A Thousand Faces, points out that myth and dream have a common source in the human psyche:

    Religions, philosophies, arts, the social forms of primitive and historic man, prime discoveries in science and technology, the very dreams that blister sleep, boil up from the basic, magic ring of myth. .  . . For the symbols of the psyche are not manufactured; they cannot be ordered, invented, or permanently suppressed. They are spontaneous productions of the psyche . . .

    Dream is the personalized myth, myth the depersonalized dream; both myth and dream are symbolic in the same general way of the dynamics of the psyche.”

    Could just be a perceptual bias, but I’ve noticed over the years that individuals who have the greatest difficulty “getting” puns, or express the greatest antipathy toward punning, are often the most literal minded, and (surprise!) also have trouble accepting Jung’s symbolic approach to psyche and dream or embracing Campbell’s mythopoeiac perspective.

    Coincidence? I think not . . .

    (Notice, not one pun dropped in the course of this post!)


      Hello !

      Low humor in Conversations of the Highest Order
      Perfect !!!
      My Father always said ,
      Fuggem if they can’t take a joke !!!
      There’s a comedic commodius vicus of recirculation …
      But there’s a pretty little thing waiting for the King down in the Jungle room !!!

      How do you think Mother Nature got pregnant in the First place ??? There is only one way !!!
      That’s going south of the border and gettiner done !!!

      Happy Easter !!!


      Not surprised you appreciate puns, Robert, considering your affection for Finnegans Wake. Indeed, every image in Finnegans Wake seems to have at least half a dozen meanings, like dream, – also no surprise, considering Joyce takes us deep into the dream of one Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker (aka HCE – or Here Comes Every Body).

      I have literally recorded over a thousand dreams in a dozen dream journals over the decades; early on I realized puns are related to dream consciousness, that same playful, spontaneous, unconscious imagination whence arises symbol. Dreams are full of visual puns. In that a symbol is related to day consciousness, to what unfolds in this vale of suffering through which we pass – or in which we are embedded, depending on perspective – the dream image helps us rise above the mundane, twist our brain out of a literal perspective of the world, and lift us above a sensate reality fueled by fear and desire.

      Freud points to not just the proverbial Freudian-slip of the tongue as providing a glimpse into the uncensored unconscious, but also humor – and puns

      . . . and indeed, the pun and its cluster of associations reminds us that language itself is primarily metaphor.

      I love the pun for its patterns which step outside and break past (transcend) directed thought, rigid definitions and linear sentences, evoking instead a rhythm of associations good and bad and everything in between.

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