Monday 20 December 2010

The Crisis (2)

It was four o’clock in the afternoon. The Reverend Hawker sat by the cold fireside with his fingers curled around a glass of whisky. Swift flicked matches into the empty grate, each flaring as it fell like Satan falling from Heaven. Hawker swilled the liquid in his glass like the thoughts in his head; drank from the glass; began:

“Puns,” he said, “enjoyed greater status in the past. One need only to read the works of the medieval divines to see how they considered each word at a remove, seeking a double meaning which might reveal the secret purposes of their God.”

“Indeed,” said Algernon Swift, breezily, “was not the Christianisation of our island the result of a pun? And not one pun, but a whole string of puns, by the future Pope Gregory the Great.”

He flicked another match flaring into the fire. Hawker grimaced.

“The point is,” the Reverend said, “no-one thought of slapping their thighs with laughter when the future Pope said ‘Not Angles, but angels. From the province Deiri, but truly de ira, plucked from the wrath of God.’ No-one said: 'That man – who, I have no doubt who will one day occupy the pre-eminent position in the Church of Rome -- he’s a great laugh!’ The pun was seen as a serious indication of a reality beyond the material and the apparent.

“The rise of Humanism put the pun into the service of the individual, as a means of displaying his wit, but still it retained much of its seriousness. In Hamlet ...”

“Or, indeed, the Metaphysical Poets,” said Swift and sent another match blazing towards the grate. “Their careful double meanings do not detract from, but strengthen, their poems, just as the cleverness of their conceits adds to their emotional force ...”

Hawker glared at him. “I wish you’d stop doing that,” he said.

“What? Wasting matches?”

“No. Interrupting.”

Swift closed the box of matches, and placed it squarely on his lap.

“But how the pun’s stock has fallen!” Hawker exclaimed. “And it has become .... what? By the eighteenth century every vestige of seriousness had been lost from it; and in the nineteenth century – oh, horrors! – it had developed into a bit of entertainment suitable for all the family. Worse still, it was reduced into another weapon in the armoury of the Englishman to avoid the embarrassment of looking life in the face! How far we have travelled from Hamlet in the graveyard – ‘quite chopfallen’, indeed! How far we have travelled into triviality ...”

“But, Reverend Hawker,” risked Swift, “what of the great resurgence of the pun in the twentieth century? What of Freud’s work on puns? What of Joyce’s monumental Finnegan’s Wake?”

Hawker waved his hand, dismissively. “Too late, too late. We might as well face facts, Swift: the Pun in this day and age is nothing more than ... just a bit of fun.”

The words had been said. Swift closed his eyes. Hawker stared blackly into the cold grate. The unbearable tension of his being manifested itself in white spots in his grey complexion. I stood up, unnoticed, and left the room.

Half-unseeing, I strayed onto the drive. The setting sun was an orange jewel, peeping out behind lurid scrolls of cloud. How desolate I felt, surveying this grand spectacle of nature! How small my concerns had revealed themselves to be! Puns were merely the result of the arbitrary nature of language. They were not traces of the handiwork of God, not clues to another existence. A mirror reflected and so did I, but that meant nothing. A brake in the forest was the same word as the brake in a car, but there was no significance to it. And to think I had travelled so far, had left my home, had sold my birthright and worked my passage, had worked every passage for double meanings and triple meanings, for strong misreadings, and had reached at last Hawker’s Pot. And there to hear from the mouth of the man himself that puns were just ... No! The words were inestimably bitter! I can say truthfully that the sun that day set also on my hopes and dreams. The earth around me had grown grey. Behind the house the rooks cawed.

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