“There will be prolonged disagreement on the more or less figurative sense that Rimbaud (who was nourished, as we cannot insist too often, on occult reading) wished to have attributed to the words ‘alchemy of the word’, and it will be asked whether the whole secret of the passionate interest aroused successively, within the surrealist movement itself, by the punning and playing of words of Marcel Duchamp and Robert Desnos, the discovery of the complete works of Jean-Pierre Brisset and the last work of Raymond Roussel, ‘Comment j’ai ecrit certains de mes livres’, has not to do with the extraordinary impulsion given to these men to the activity known as ‘phonetic cabalism’. Ambelain reminds us that: ‘it is traditionally cabalistic to maintain that in the “world of sounds” two words or two sounds akin from the standpoint not only of assonance but resonance, are indisputably akin in the “world of images”.’” André Bretón, ‘Before the Curtain’, 1947.
The goal of wordplay is the freedom to make it. The pleasure one feels while unpacking the ambivalence between the familiar and the unfamiliar side of words transcends the humorous aspect of puns. One has to handle words like a snake charmer, with a sense of boldness that always includes respect, for words can turn back unexpectedly and bite you. Marcel Duchamp talked about puns having a poetic quality that turned them into a “field of joy”. I can’t imagine anything more appropriate, as I inhabit that space outlined by the pleasure of realizing that the distance between a word and itself is filled with continuous surprises. The fancy name for wordplay, PARONOMASIA, joins the Greek PARA (besides) to ONOMA · SIA (a name, to name). To give a word “a name beside its name” is to hold up a mirror so every word can see itself as its own evil twin.
A good symbol for wordplay would be a crab. In these games language doesn’t move forward with the linear aplomb of a sentence but it scurries sideways in small incremental deviations, like in this poem from Surrealist poet Robert Desnos titled “L’Aumonyme” (1923):
Rose aiselle à vit. = Rose armpit for prick.
Rrose, essaie là, vit. = Rrose, try here, prick.
Rôts et sel à vie. = Burps and salt for life.
Rose S, L, have I. = Rose S, L, have I.
Rosée, c’est la vie. = Dew, that’s life.
Rrose scella vît. = Rrose sealed might have seen.
Rrose sella vît. = Rrose saddled might have seen.
Rrose sait la vie. = Rrose knows life.
Rose, est-ce, hélas, vie? = Rose, is that, alas, life
Rrose aise héla vît. = Rrose ease hailed saw.
Rrose est-ce aile, est-ce elle? = Rrose is that a wing, is that she?
Est celle AVIS. = BE INFORMED, is she.
Desnos followed the logic imparted by Jean-Pierre Brisset, a literary fool worshiped by the Surrealists, whose life work consisted on spinning puns to prove that man descended from frogs. Brisset went as far as saying: “the sword of fire that guards the way to the tree of life is called pun, wordplay.” Here is one of his many examples, from “Le Mystère de Dieu est accompli” (1890):
Les dents, la bouche = The teeth, the mouth .
Les dents la bouchent = The teeth block the mouth.
L’aidant la bouche = With the help of the mouth.
Lait dans la bouche = Teeth with the whiteness of milk.
Laid dans la bouche = Ugliness in the mouth.
L’aide en la bouche = The help in the mouth.
Laides en la bouche = Ugly teeth in the mouth.
L’est dam le à bouche = There is damage in the mouth.
Les dents la bouche = Shut your teeth.
In these examples the sentence duplicates itself sideways through little swerves. There is an additive process at play here, something almost pictorial, in which each slip becomes a layer added onto an overall idea. Those two examples rely solely on homophony. The entire phrase is misheard as something else. Some other times anagrams come into play and a single syllable within a word or sentence could be the glue between parallel notions, like in this list of words containing the phoneme OR (gold) from Agne Pechmeja’s book “L’oeuf de kneph: histoire secrete du zero” (1864):
ORtus = “birth” in Latin.
qOURoun = “crown” in Arabic.
ÖRaba = “carriage” in Breton.
gORod = “city” in Slavic
gORa = “hill” in Polish.
amphORa = “vase” in greek.
How delightful is to see six words from six different languages joined, so every word becomes a facet of an image:
= Ace de Coupes
Sometimes the opposite occurs and it is not a common word, but what words have in common, what makes an idea translucent:
thought SUN said
refuse t ORO t
can one draw a
from the outside?
There is something very pleasant about finding a key (CLÉ) inside a circle, yet there is no need to claim a lasting value in such palavering. The goal is to experience a kind of amusement that has the allure of oracles. That is, if you believe in coincidences.
I came to wordplay through the tarot de Marseille. When the tarots appeared in Italy they had no names written on them. All the players knew the game and there was no mystery about it. As soon as the tarots traveled to France the new players needed to be instructed in the dynamics of the game. The cards were numbered and named. For whatever reason, cunningly or clumsily, those who engraved these names made some puns with them. This isn’t surprising. The French have a long standing fascination for wordplay both in daily speech and in literature. These puns are promptly overlooked by most people, but puns and wordplay in general have a formal logic based on accidents, just like the game of tarots. Anagrams, palindromes, homophonies… those are accidental operations. You can control the process but not the outcome. This is freedom, a total absence of will. You will end up wherever the game takes you.
Once a week I send a bit of wordplay by email to a private list of people who have requested so. The wordplay should surprise and delight. That’s all I expect from the things that interest me. I want to experience and share the elusive beauty of a minute kind of mystery, nothing so big that it would urge us to explain it away, but discreet, like those things we see with the corner of the eye and disappear as soon as we turn to face them. People find something soothing about “facts” but “soothing” has one H too many. That is a dangerous H. We would rather get rid of it and end up with coal in our eyes than risk having it moved to the point where it could blow our brains out.
The keystone to much of my work play with words is the ambiguity found in the same sound for EYE and I, where vision and Self coincide. The French equivalent of this accident is observed in the ambiguity LETRE / L’ETRE, letter – Self. In Spanish, A LETTER sounds like AL ÉTER, “Into ether”. Ink turns into air, body into sound. To HEAR is to be HERE. The eye lives only in the PRESENT TENSE, a time that hides a PRETENSE. To see is to let the eye be lured into the gap between memory and longing.
As a native Spanish speaker who took shelter in the English language and sometimes breaks into the French lexicon through the trapdoor of the tarot’s names, my play with words deals with the way the eye hears what the ear sees. I don’t limit my play to the possibilities of one language. As long as the word is beautiful, who cares to which language it belongs? Words and letters possess their own material integrity. It is the same conventional alphabet that writes the English word APPLE and the French word POMME, so the ear can mishear POMME as POEM. Look at this example:
a bone grammar is a
c ielo œil
open them out
It started with the realization that the French word GRAMMAIRE contained the Spanish word AIRE, or “air”. A grammar organizes the air we let out through our mouth, and which is pressed by the lungs against our tongue and teeth. To find AIRE in GRAMMAIRE I am applying the logic of anagrams: the letters of a word can be totally or partially rearranged to form other words. This is very different from noticing how the French word for “good”, BONNE, sounds alike the English BONE. Here I am applying the logic of homophony, in which two different words with different meanings share the same sound. I like to think that anagrams belong to the realm of contagious magic (bound together once, separated things remain essentially linked by implicit previous associations) and homophony belongs to the realm of sympathetic magic (things that possess similar sound or structural qualities remain fundamentally related). In both cases there is a conceptual link established between at least two words, not by their meaning or linguistic equivalence, but by the random happenstance of their concrete similarities: either they share constructive proximity or they look/sound alike. With the anagrams the connection is “physical”, as I am taking parts of a word’s body while hoping they will retain some of the qualities of the original word, just as you would take a lock of hair from a lover to cast a spell on him or her. With homophonies, I am assuming that words of similar shape and sound share the same qualities, just as you would make an image of your lover so you can affect her by pushing pins into him or her effigy.
It is by accident that GRAMMAR and AIR, GOOD and BONES, ended up together. A certain kind of beauty is reached when a coincidence seems to become an affirmation. The initial connections I see in these words are only an incipient cross-section of their potentialities. Other people will detect other potential swerves. Every bit of wordplay is an invitation to unpack its inner tension between a word and itself. The logic of wordplay ignores the limits of syntax, semantics, etymology, and grammar, but may utilize any of them for moves in the play.
The same two strategies: anagrams / contagious magic, and homophony / sympathetic magic, are applied through the rest of the play of words. Anagrams and homophony have a quasi-symbiotic relationship as anagrams refract the sound-sense of one word into separate syllables while homophony extends these broken phonemes to the level of whole new words, making the game endless. The Spanish word CIELO (sky) contains the necessary letters to form the French word OEIL (eye). Again, the random mechanics of wordplay have us seeing an eye as the sky or the sky as an eye. We can also invoke the glyph ‘c’ to be an image of an eye or sky turned sideways. There is poetic beauty and a sense of mystery in these permutations. Especially because the first syllable of the Spanish word CIELO, CI, sounds like the English word SEE, and the final letter Y in the word SKY sounds like EYE. But to my Spanish-speaking ears, EYE doesn’t sound like I. It sounds like AYEH, which in print is expressed as ELLE, (adapting the Spanish pronunciation convention or LL spoken as YEH]) and looks like a section of the French word OREILLE (ear), another visualization for the letter c as glyph for ear. Once I arrive at EAR, I notice that these funny funnels we have on both sides of our head so words can get inside, the same ones some people use to hang jewelry on, are two letters shy from earTH. Here the line between skeleton and grammar, air and bone, gets extended to receive the whole world.
Anagrams suggest the idea of letters being the bones of words. Inside the French word for “tongue / language” LANGUE there are enough bones to make “water” L’EAU. The same logic of anagrams is found at the end, in OPEN THEM OUT, as a piece of the word THEM is borrowed so OUT can look closer to MOUTh. The same sense, a homophony appears right before that, where THE ICE sounds like THE EYES. By the happenstance of language-as-chance, ICE becomes I SEE, so we can witness a mental operation that is both of a visual and an aural. The goal is to develop a sensibility towards symmetry and ambivalence, so the mind finds its footing in perennial shiftings. By following our spellings in whatever direction they take us, grammar becomes the grimoire of our accidental swerves.
Wordplay is the no man’s land where the schizophrenic and the mystic meet to exchange shirts. Who dares to remain shirtless? It is only if you believe in keys that you will find locks. Once opened they reveal the secrets no one kept (all texts carry a code that will be encrypted in the future, when someone other than its author finds what wasn’t left in there). Through our acroamatic acrobatics we refuse to let ourselves be lured by the currency of language. The very act of reading seems impossible. When the curve of the eye kisses the flatness of letters words become either concave or convex. The wet surface of our bodies, our eyeballs and lips, confronts the dryness of the page. All things, once wet, change their color. To become labial is to become labile. This is the reason why any word can slip and become a pun.
Enrique Enriquez, New York Jun 2013
(This ‘assisted essay’ was catalyzed by the poking and probing of Paul Nagy)
NOTE: Those who can see the analogy between an alphabet and a pack of cards are invited to think that all my wordplay stands for the workings of the tarots. Johannes Trithemius’s “Steganographia,” printed several decades after his death, granted him a place in the occultist’s pantheon for its repute of discussing angels and astrology. The book was banned by Index Librorum Prohibitorum until the 1900s. Now we know that this book was about encrypting messages in a text, but Trithemius disguised the dryness of cryptography by presenting it in the form of a grimoire, promising to teach you how to enlist the help of angelic beings to send a message over a distance. The incantations in the book depended upon very specific astrological calculations. At the end, these lists of planetary numbers were a number-to-letter code. The idea of “enlisting an angel to send a message over a distance” was a metaphor for cryptography itself. I am interested in that initial strategy of encryption in which a book of codes is given the shape of a book of magic. There is something sexy about camouflaging an idea in order to underline its inherent mystery. There is also beauty on deciphering something that wasn’t encrypted, to find those things you weren’t looking for.
The Marseille tarot is a pack of cards embedded with a particular poetic language in which the analogical pairing of the details between images seems to mirror the assonance of words. Three kinds of wordplay can be observed in the tarots’ names: assonance, which is the echo of similar sounds pairing words through an aural symmetry; homophony, when words whose sound have you hearing them as other, different, words; and anagrams, which is the breaking of a words in its constitutive parts that, once reassembled in a new order, would give you a new word. The same strategies can be applied to the images in the tarots: details in one trump may resemble details in another trump. The details of two or more trumps can be grouped by means of their visual similarity. These details can be organized into coherent narratives that are independent from the total images. When the eye looks at a word like LET TER, it notices that there is some symmetry in there:
For the eye, the symmetry between ET and TE is analogous to the symmetry between two characters in a tarot pack: LEMPEREVR and LE PANDV. Both characters show their legs in the same position, crossed as if they were making a number four. In most packs their legs are of the same color. The letters in a word have become invisible. We don’t see them anymore. Learning to observe the visual connection between ET and TE allows us to see a similar relationship between in the details in these two tarot trumps. Both gestures are based on detecting and grouping forms of similar qualities. These, and various other visual and verbal symmetries, are our way in to the poetic intelligence of the world.
NOTE to the NOTE: The puns in the tarot names can be linked to a poetic tradition that connects the Provençal troubadours and the poetry of the Grands Rhétoriqueurs to the antics of the Surrealists, the Collegue de ‘Pataphisique and the Oulipo Group. This ‘lineage’ includes both those authors who used punning and wordplay as an engine for their literary creations, like François Rabelais, Clement Marot, Estienne Tabourot, Raymond Roussel, Alfred Jarry or Michel Leiris; and those who saw these games as means to decode some occult teachings, like Claude Sosthene Grasset d’Orcet, Jean-Pierre Brisset, René Guenón, who referred to these games as “La langue des oiseaux”, and Fulcanelli, the imaginary alchemist who called them the “phonetic cabala”. “What unsuspected marvels we should find, if we knew how to dissect words, to strip them of their bark and liberate the spirit, the divine light which is within!”, Fulcanelli wrote in his book The Mystery of the Cathedrals.
NOTE to DENOTE the NOTE: One day Ferdinand Saussure started seeing names in the words for things. While reading ancient poetry, Vedic, Germanic, Latin or Greek, he noticed some phonemes popping out and being repeated over and over like the broken pieces of a divine or heroic name or a word, disguised within the body of the poem. Finding EVE in a loVEr’s namE rEVEaled becomes a fEVEr. Saussure didn’t know if he was making it up or if he had stumbled upon an occult tradition. Saussure spent his life seeing the signifier mirrored in the signified, but suddenly Harpo wasn’t seeing himself, it was Groucho in his pajamas as the one staring back. This deconstruction of Saussure’s mind, his linear language crumbling into a mirage of phonemes, is of special interest here. The madness of the linguist is the sobriety of the wordsmith.
NOTE to DENOTE the NOTE to DENOTE: Saussure’s science of rhythm is René Guenón’s “Language of the Birds,” also known as “phonetic cabala,” also known as “gay sçavoir”. All these names name the conscious act of weighting words “as diamonds in the scales of your ears” as Alfred Jarry advised in ‘Linteau,’ the prologue for his first book. But such weighting of sounds isn’t as safe as the profits of any jeweler, for we are gambling with words, casting them as one would roll dice or little bones.
aNOThEr: Anagrams, assonance, homophony, they all bring forward the palpability of words, a notion that became evident when Richard Serra started his career as sculptor by making a list of verbs. He applied these verbs to the materials he had laying around in his studio and made his first sculptures. There is an extraordinary physicality on the idea of seeing ‘The Verb’ materialized as the effect that causes a work of art. Joseph Beuys, who saw the voice as material, would agree. Just as the hand molds clay, our body molds air to make words. “Speaking = Sculpture,” he used to say. For Beuys a material’s own way of being in the world, the passing of matter form hot to cold, the way it contracts or expands, constitutes a sculptural process. Sculptor Carl Andre saw the hammering of his typewriter over a piece of paper as sculpting, as acting by force over matter. Just as he made his sculptures by placing untouched units of material on the ground, Andre saw each separate word as a poem that could stand on its own. Underlining such integrity is also a consistent credo of conceptual artist Lawrence Weiner, who works exclusively with text but sees himself as a sculptor: he sells the rights for the buyer to display one of his sentences wherever he chooses, which makes owning them something that has less to do with intellectual property than with the actual treasuring of particles and atoms. I see Weiner’s poetics of commerce as the extension of that fervor with which people holds onto Duchamp’s puns: sentences treated as physical relics for they once were in contact with the artists, even if such contact was purely conceptual. All these artists let matter speak in its own language, and when we let words do the same we see their stance in the world evolving over time to the point that, left outside, they would eventually catch flies.