Gag is a strangely ugly word. Its repetition of the g seems to enact the throttling that is the meaning accorded to it primitively by the lexicographers. In fact, until the late eighteenth century, the nominal and verbal forms of gag all referred to the notion of some foreign matter either in the mouth and throat (and the physiological reaction thereto) or some matter barring the mouth. When Anthony Wood tells us about the punishment accorded to the Leveler, John Lilburne, for insubordinant speech, he tells us he was whipped while being dragged down a London street at the hind end of a cart, and then put in the pillory in a courtyard, where he continued to rail at the authorities until he was “gagged”. The association of gagging with speaking was clear in law and practice. In Pope’s Dunciad, the triumph of dullness would not be complete without the display of the tortures undergone by her victims:
Beneath her footstool, science groans in chains
And Wit dreads exile, penalties and pains;
There foamed rebellious logic, gagged and bound
There stripped, fair Rhetoric languished on the ground
The question for an ardent believer in speech magic – the invisible leaps and bounds that act out and incorporate the intellectual history of a language – is how we go from this sense of gagging to the idea of the gag as either hoax or joke. A quick look at slang lexicographers gives us, with the telegraphic obscurity that this tribe deals in, some clues – Partridge, for instance, thinks that gagging some victim of a robbery produces first the outraged gurgle of the victim and “hence” the notion of nonsense, which passes itself on to its associate, the hoax. A more solid clue is given by the citation of Lockhart in the English Dialect Dictionary (1900).
Lockhart is known today, if at all, as the biographer of Walter Scott. In his day, though, Lockhart was the boy. According to his biographer, Andrew Lang, he was definitely a rankin’ Scots intellectual, mentioned in the same breath with Carlyle. In 1819, Lockhart, like Carlyle with Sartor Resartus, decided to publish a thing that was not a collection of essays and not a fiction, but a crossover, a halfbreed. I am partial myself to the halfbreeds of literature, but it is true that they are not exactly domesticable in the classroom the way a poem, essay or story is.In one of the letters, Lockhart, an Edinburg man, holds forth on the state of wit in Glasgow. Lockhart claimed – and all these claims are under the cloud of exaggeration, for as his biographer admitted, Lockhart had a waspish tonge and a Tory disposition – thawt in every party in Glasgow, after a certain number of drinks had been downed, the guests would start to pun: “ for punning seems to be the sine qua non of every Glasgow definition of wit.”
It is under this fug of drinks and puns that the primary meaning of gag meets the angel of language, that player of long games, who put his hand on the word and moved it. Lockhart writes of the “jocular vocabulary of the place”, which is how he places the term “gagging” – which “signifiesm as its name may lead you to suspect, noting more than the thrusting of absurdities, wholesale and retail, down the throat of some too credulous gaper.” A gag could be the kind of doublesided compliment that makes a crowd laugh. Or it could involve some “wonderful story … evidently involving some sheer impossibility. “ He writes of the “joke” of the matter – thus twinning the hoax and the joke. Thus it is, in an atmoshere of imbibing liquids (the well known effect of which, if overdone, is spewing them out with interest), that ‘gag’ is turned.
As the psychoanalytically inclined have long observed, the double function of the mouth, which emits sounds and swallows matter, has long been a common object of reflection and unconscious desire and dread. Freud speaks of the transition from the matter of sounds to the abstractions of sense in his essay on Narcisisism, and is followed by Klein and, in his own deviant way, Deleuze in Logic of Sense – who engages with the word/matter distinction throughout his intricate flight.
Freud, however, was preceded in some ways by the Church fathers, whose meditations on the meaning of Jesus’s speech at the last supper – this is my body, take eat; this is my blood, take, drink – understood the dualism as shaped, in its center, by a miraculous divine intervention.
The reason I’ve been pursuing the gag down the rabbit hole is that I feel it is an underused concept. When discussing fiction, reviewers tend to dwell on plot, but in most fiction worth the reading, the plot is the servant of the gags. I’ve been reading a lot of high modernism lately – Djuna Barnes, for instance – and the displacement of plot by gag is a lot of what that modernism was about.
My ambition is to write some perfect gags by the time I lay down my burdens.