Free speech and that naked dude at the Tour de France

Bauke Mollema streaked to victory today in Tour de France stage 15 from Laissac-Severac l'Eglise to Le Puy-en-Velay. He made his move with about 30 km to go, after much of the field had cracked. He was only 100 m or so from the peak. Still, a group of pursuers were only a few hundred metres behind. "Mollema needs a buffer!" said the announcer. I tweeted my thanks immediately.

Both announcers, Matthew Keenan and Robby McEwen, liked the tweet. That was fun. I could have a drink or three with those guys, I think.

I have been told that the Greek word for clever, deinos, also connotes a sense of terrible. Perhaps that is why those who make puns are routinely greeted with the judgment "that was terrible!" To say that Mollema needed a buffer was accurate if, by it, the speaker simply meant a little extra time and distance from his chasers. But it's clever to choose the word buffer, which carries the extra meaning of being naked. It's doubly clever, even cheeky, to use the word buffer while the image of the fan's backside is on the screen. This achieves the fidelity of word and picture so important to creating the magical spell of television. It is terrible because words mean different things at the same time. They don't stand still. They mock our desire to make things stay put.

Words are slippery multitaskers.

I have read that the painter-sculptor Marcel Duchamp was addicted to puns. The word addicted, used by Lewis Hyde to describe Duchamp's devotion to the oiliness of words, is, for two reasons, fitting. First, in its etymology, addicted comes from the Latin dicere, which literally means "to say." Fundamentally, it appears, addictions have to do with speech and words. Second, the more obvious meaning of addicted, which describes a mental of physical dependency on a particular substance, suggests why puns are irresistible to all of their coiners, and more than a few of their hearers. Puns are not just good material. They are material. Just like any other material that hooks us.

Consider that it's not the word buff or buffer that is attractive to a punster. It's the viscous coating of the word that allows it to mean different things at the same time. That can be unnerving. And thrilling. Contra-dictions can make us groan. But they can also serve a higher purpose. Here is Hyde on Duchamp from p. 307 of his Trickster book:

"Duchamp's well-oiled contradiction...was a tool not simply for avoiding mundane consumer regret but for avoiding the regret of living a life derived from unexamined language, tradition, and habit. Individuals who never sense the contradictions of their cultural inheritance run the risk of becoming little more than host bodies for stale gestures, metaphors, and received ideas, all the stereotypic likes and dislikes by which cultures perpetuate themselves."

Tomorrow is a rest day for the Tour spokesmen. Then, starting Tuesday, it's the final week and the run up to the dramatic finale on Duchamp's Élysées. Muscles massaged, chains oiled, words ready to flow.


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