Shakespeare loved puns and used them as a way of tacking on layers of meaning to the characters he so richly developed in his plays. My purpose in this blog will be to demonstrate how even one short line containing a pun can lead to other interpretations and further discussion. While an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, I met Frank Millendorf, who was a graduate student studying physics. At the time, both of us had been introduced to Ayn Rand, the founder of the philosophy of Objectivism, by another more advanced graduate student in physics. One day, Frank wrote on a blackboard in the room I was studying in: A well sown mind has no “seems.” He glanced at me, smiling, and asked what I thought.
My immediate reply was that I very much liked the sound of the pun. Then I reacted to the content. The quotation marks around the word seems indicates a separate meaning from its homophone seams that creates the intended pun. On further study, the acuity of the pun becomes more apparent inasmuch as the choice of words to complete the poem is, in fact, seems and not seams. What I’m quite sure I missed at the time Frank had composed this pun was “seems” though typically an intransitive verb, used in the context of this pun becomes a noun replacing seams, a word we know to be a noun.
Puns are meant to confuse but in a humorous way. It is this confusion that the receiver of the pun feels before the aha moment. It is precisely what Frank’s pun had done: Play with the sound of words to achieve particular effects. Here the visual presentation of the pun on the blackboard facilitated the intended meaning. The pun ends with seems and not seams because the main idea embedded in the pun is how a good mind, well sown, functions. A seam refers to a line along which two pieces of fabric are sewn together in some garment. The immediate connection then is that the seam, though necessary, represents a break in the sewing of the garment. Seems, in a similar manner, represents a break in the completion of a thought whereby the speaker qualifies his/her statement by saying, for example, it seems this way. In a neat and original way, Frank made a pun to make his point: A mind that thinks clearly and logically about things will not have to resort to the word “seems.”
The word seems did not enter into Ayn Rand’s vocabulary when she first developed and later introduced her philosophy of Objectivism to the public through her literary works. The philosophy she created allowed her to make judgments in many walks of life: For example, her romantic interest in literature extended to her perception of music. Accordingly, she believed that Tchaikovsky, who scored his pieces with a romantic flair, was a better composer than Beethoven. No doubt people well versed in music probably would disagree with Ms. Rand’s opinion. In my view, Ayn Rand’s greatest fault was that she thought that her ideas, buttressed through her system of philosophy, were airtight and did not require any change or modification.
I would argue that it is good to have convictions and knowledge in your profession. So, as a psychologist, I usually can answer a question of a psychological nature without attaching the word seems to my response. However, I do not profess to know the answers to everything in my field, an area that is in constant change.
Unfortunately, because our politicians along with their constituents are unwilling to see the other side’s position, America, it would seem, is being tore apart by its seams. The dogmatic thinking reflected by our enmeshed belief systems has created a huge amount of stress on American democracy. Richard Feynman, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965, said: “It is important to doubt and that the doubt is not a fearful thing, but a thing of value.” Feynman places value on what we are unsure of as a requisite for advancing knowledge. Wouldn’t it be nice if some of our leaders, once in a while, questioned the validity or “truth” of their ideas? The late Daniel Patrick Moynihan once stated: “You are entitled to your opinion, but not to your own facts.” Members of both the Republican and Democratic parties, in many cases, have confused opinion with fact and have spoken with little doubt. I find the acrimony existing in both parties toward their opponents to be neither healthy nor constructive for our country.
Perhaps a more accurate expression of Frank’s pun would have been:
“A well sown mind has few seems.” Here I would argue that the sound of the pun is lost as compared to what Frank had written: “A well sown mind has no seems.” Regardless, we can let the matter rest if we can accept the premise that, as a rule, a good mind will not be wishy washy about matters it is most familiar with, but rather will have strong convictions.
It being that time of year, I will leave you all with a seasonal pun that my colleague Andy Schwartz gave me today:
Q: How did the English professor refer to Santa’s helpers?
A: As his subordinate “clauses.”