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November 16, 2002
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· A Punny Thing Happened on the Way to . . . ·
I got to thinking about all this while I was writing Under the Weather Tuesday. You'll recall I was doing a deliberate double-take on weather/whether and a subtler, single-take on rafters. Although I felt like apologizing — even writing first, "Forgive my puns. I couldn't resist." — I decided to drop my sad pleading and, with the authority of James Clerk Maxwell behind me, stand up plainly and honestly for some electro-magnetic juice delivered straight. Maxwell, you say — literally or figuratively? Literally, though it's still, as you'll see, very tricky business.
What I have in mind is the witty first paragraph to his essay "Are There Real Analogies in Nature?" Included in Campbell and Garnet's 1882 biography of Maxwell, it remains a good literary-philosophical supplement to his more famous A Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism. Although Maxwell's scientific equations aren't my subject, his speculations in that essay seem in some ways their equal, especially in the wisely affirmative answer he gives to his essay's leading question (not surprisingly given Maxwell's Scottish-Presbyterian style, the answer has a nice moral tinge — slightly shaded by Kantian reflections on the larger methodological-scientific questions that prompt it). In any event, since my present interests are stylistic, I'll just cite Maxwell's witty (I think you'll agree) first paragraph. The subject is the reciprocal relation of puns to analogies.
Although I don't want to reciprocate the transposition here — by going astray into deconstructive excursions into catachresian takes on Paul de Man, say — it seems worth noting that, stylistically speaking, Maxwell's text seems to be onto something. In any case, as mine has expressly that aim, I thought to conclude with a good short story, one brought to my attention earlier this week in a widely-shared punny email. Slightly edited for dramatic emphasis, I give you
"Hot stuff," my dad would say. "Tell me, how much do we owe?"Permalink
Such good fun! I may not agree with Maxwell but, who cares? Point made — quite electrically!
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