That great eccentric of the Enlightenment, Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, who put into his private notebooks just about everything that came into his head, once jotted down: “Whoever decreed that a word must have a fixed meaning?” He was perhaps the first to recognize the psychic constraint involved in the perception of meaning and the attempt to make it firm.
In his discussion of humor, Sigmund Freud deals with this laconically by a profound reflection. The mechanical structure of psychoanalytical theory is now rightfully laboring under some discredit, but Freud’s literary genius gave him insights that are still valuable. After treating at length the kind of humor that allows a safe and neutralized outlet for the taboo expression of sexual desire and of social aggression, he arrives finally at “pure” humor, the jokes that are innocent of repressive fantasies, but just simple word games, silly puns that are only a form of play. (I can remember a superannuated example from my junior high school days: “Why do radio announcers have such small hands? Wee paws [we pause] for station identification.”)
To explain our delight in such foolishness, Freud invokes the lallation of very small children, who sit and repeat long strings of nonsense syllables (“ba, da, ma…mow, bow, wow…etc.) at great length for their own amusement. Learning a language, being forced to attach a meaning to a sound, is a burden to the child, who, in reaction, strings together senseless rhyming noises as a form of escape. Even for adults understanding speech is not devoid of effort, and can be a source of fatigue. With a silly play on words, there is a split second when a word suspended between two incompatible senses briefly loses all meaning and becomes pure sound, and for a lovely moment we revert to the delighted state of the child freed from the tyranny of language. Of all the constraints imposed on us that restrict our freedom—constraints of morality and decorum, constraints of class and finance—one of the earliest that is forced upon us is the constraint of a language that we are forced to learn so that others can talk to us and tell us things we do not wish to know.
We do not learn language by reading a dictionary, and we do not think or speak in terms of dictionary definitions. Meaning is always more fluid. Nevertheless, we are hemmed in, even trapped, by common usage. Senses we wish to evade entrap us. The greatest escape route is not only humor, but poetry, or art in general. Art does not, of course, liberate us completely from meaning, but it gives a certain measure of freedom, provides elbow room. Schiller claimed in the Letters on Aesthetic Education that art makes you free; he understood that the…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!
Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue – that’s 10 issues online plus six months of full archive access for just $10.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.