If you are tired of puns, are you tired of life? Puns are easy to disdain. They are essentially found, not made; discovered after the fact rather than intended before it. Puns are accidental echoes, random likenesses thrown out by our lexical cosmos. They lurk, pallidly hibernating, inside fortune cookies and Christmas crackers; the groan is the pun’s appropriate unit of appreciation. On the other hand, everyone secretly loves a pun, and, wonderfully, the worst are often as funny as the best, as the great punster Nabokov knew, because the genre is so democratically debased. Puns are part of the careless abundance of creation, the delicious surplus of life, and, therefore, fundamentally joyful. Being accidental, they are like free money—nature’s charity. There’s a reason that the most abundant writer in the language was so abundant in puns: words, like Bottom’s dream, are bottomless.
The Scottish writer Ali Smith is surely the most pun-besotted of contemporary novelists, edging out even Thomas Pynchon. It’s not simply that she loves puns; it’s that she thinks through and with them; her narratives move forward, develop and expand, by mobilizing them. She is an insistently political writer, and her most recent work can be seen as an urgent, sometimes didactic intervention into post-Brexit British animosities, into a world that could be called, to borrow from one of her many punning characters, “nasty, British and short.” Since that calamitous referendum, in June, 2016, Smith has quickly published two novels, “Autumn,” in October of that year, and now “Winter” (Pantheon), the second of a projected seasonal quartet. But, for all the sense of bitter urgency, her work remains essentially sunny (pun-drenched, pun-kissed). “Autumn” and “Winter,” novels full of political foreboding, are also brief and almost breezy—topical, sweet-natured, something fun to be inside. The last page of “Winter” bears a baleful reference to President Trump’s hideous speech to the Boy Scouts in West Virginia, and the book contains a fair amount of family strife; yet the novel ends more like a Shakespearean comedy than like a political tragedy, with an air of optimistic renaissance and familial unity. One of the characters makes a reference to “Cymbeline” that might also function as a description of the novel we have just read: “Cymbeline, he says. The one about poison, mess, bitterness, then the balance coming back. The lies revealed. The losses compensated.” And much of the comedy and the fundamental cheerfulness in Smith’s work has to do, I think, with the figurative consolations the pun embodies: that life is generative, and that, even as things split apart, they can be brought together. For the pun is essentially a rhyme, and rhyme unites.
In our current historical moment, STEM disciplines, with their experimental-mathematical methods and measurable results, are central in educational practices, and humanistic education is in decline. At my own elite liberal arts college, Swarthmore, only 15 percent of the students now major in the Humanities or the Arts, and 75 percent major in Computer Science, Engineering, Biology, Economics, or Political Science. To some extent, this is natural. After all, in a difficult world like ours, why should anything as vague and unmeasurable as cultivation be taken seriously? Why should one learn Greek or art history or music composition, unless one just happens to enjoy such things? And why should the public or parents pay for these private enjoyments that seemingly lack significant public effect and value for the conduct of life?
Yet education is a historically evolved and evolving ensemble of practices, and it is also possible to wonder whether we might have lost our collective way. Do we really know what we’re doing in turning so strikingly toward STEM and away from the humanities? And are there good reasons for this turn?
Dystopias tend toward fantasies of absolute control, in which the system sees all, knows all, and controls all. And our world is indeed one of ubiquitous surveillance. Phones and household devices produce trails of data, like particles in a cloud chamber, indicating our wants and behaviors to companies such as Facebook, Amazon, and Google. Yet the information thus produced is imperfect and classified by machine-learning algorithms that themselves make mistakes. The efforts of these businesses to manipulate our wants leads to further complexity. It is becoming ever harder for companies to distinguish the behavior which they want to analyze from their own and others’ manipulations.
We live in Philip K. Dick’s future, not George Orwell’s or Aldous Huxley’s.
It has become easier to live longer, but harder to die well. Most people want to die at home; most die in hospital. Most want to be with family; often they are alone or with strangers. “Their death has been stolen from them,” writes Seamus O’Mahony in his bracing and unsentimental account of dying, The Way We Die Now, which charts how something that used to be public and acknowledged, with a common script, has become an aggressively medicalised and bureaucratic process placed in the hands of experts; sometimes banal, sometimes farcical, sometimes painful or undignified. Modern, sanitised death becomes a dirty little secret, almost embarrassing: our language circles round it, we don’t like to name it, cross the road to avoid those recently touched by it, and shy away from the physical, squeamish fact of it, so that the dead body is whisked away, frequently embalmed (for fear of its smell), cremated in “facilities” that are often in industrial zones.