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«Heyman, Michael Benjamin (1999) Isles of Boshen : Edward Lear's literary nonsense in context. PhD thesis. Copyright and ...»

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340 It is particularly telling that Wordsworth deleted this passage, along with 11. 244-25+ and 267-8, from Book II of the 1805 Prelude. He added instead, in the 1850 version, passages stressing the purity and weakness of the infant, which show the infant, a "Frail creature as he is, helpless as frail" (1850, II, l. 253), pointing to a flower "Too weak to gather it" (1850, II, 1. 246). Gone is the reference to the child's extraordinary combinative powers and much weakened is his conscious active role in nature. In the 1850 version, in what seems an attempt to illustrate the child's role, the child makes the flower more beautiful by his wanting it, yet far from the consciousness of not being "satisfied" and "largely" giving back to nature (in the 1805 version), the 1850 child gives back unwittingly. Rather than the rough and imaginative child who experiences "grief,!... exultation, fear and joy" (1805, II, n. 270-1, cut from 1850 version), the 1850 child is a weak blob of love, pity, and "inward tenderness" (added to 1850, II, 1. 249). In a subtle, yet crucial change, the child's mind alters from an actual "agent of the one great mind" (1805,1 272) to he "like an agent of the one great Mind" (1850,1. 257, my italics). Relegating the child's pro~mjty to divinity to the metaphorical rather than the real, Wordsworth withdraws much of the earlierchild'spower.

By 1850, as his revisions to 17le Prelude indicate, Wordsworth's idea of the child had changed coIlSlderahl) into a sentimentalised, weak, but pure child.

disturbs the boy's thoughts for days afterwards is that of "huge and mighty forms that do not live / Like living men" (I, ll. 127-8). The rising mountain has combined \\'ith a vengeful and fully animate being, whether God, or nature, or the owner of the "elfin pinnace," and the result is a paradoxical combination created by his imagination in conjunction with the promptings of his experience in nature. 341 The unlike elements of animal and mineral are combined in an impossible image, yet the child is deeply moved by his creation.

Such mental agility also occurs in Ode (''There was a time... '') in which the child

creates images of his world through "work of his own hand":

–  –  –

The child, being new to the world and coming from divinity, can still see reality only as a dream. He has no prejudices, no preconceived, tainted notions of convention, and thus is in a state of wonder towards all, somewhat like the infant in Coleridge's ''To an Infant," of whom, "Alike the Good, and the III offend thy sight, / And rouse the stormy sense of shrill Affright!" (11.9-10). Rather than being frightened, yet still motivated by the same lack of distinction, Wordsworth's child is all-accepting of the conventions of humanity, not attaching conventional taboos to the ''wedding,'' and the "funeral;" he sees them from a higher viewpoint. This child, poised on a "new" world, is exceptionally accepting of perceptions which create this reality for him. His divine creativity seeks the materials out of which he can form his world, as in the infant in "Characteristics of a Child three Years Old," who chases "wantonly / The many-coloured images impressed / Upon the bosom of a placid lake" (11. 19-21). The child chases a false image of reality, the one reflected in the still water, instead of running to the source of the image, which is reality. The child is delighted with this reflection and is more attracted to this other reality in play than the one around him. Such a "play" reality is nonsense, towards which the child will be drawn, as the child is drawn to the colourful images on the water. Though Wordsworth might have 341]onathan \Vordsworth. pp. -P-48.

–  –  –

The qualities of the nonsense and the Romantic child constructs described in the preceding chapters define these constructs up to a point, but the source of these characteristics remains a mystery. What drives the child's individuality? Whence comes such wildness?

What exactly elevates the child above the adult? These features signal the child's elevated status, even its divinity, but, whether from divinity or some other source, the inner workings of the child's mind, the underlying mechanics behind the surface characteristics, remain inscrutable. While the Romantic child's unknowable characteristics perhaps ultimately make sense, they only do so because the divine influence is simply beyond the comprehension of adults. The nonsense child does not have this questionable comfort.

Part of my argument in this thesis is that, in the end, literary nonsense rests on the side of non-sense rather than sense. The issue is important, as, if the genre can be proven to be "non-sense," then the child-reader construct will naturally follow. Likewise, if the implied child-reader emerges as a nonsense construct, the text follows. The text and implied reader are thus linked in this self-defining circle. The basis for such a nonsense child and hence the genre, I argue, can be found in the Romantic conception of the child, albeit with some crucial differences. This chapter and the next argue that literary nonsense is indeed closer to non-sense and that the implied, nonsense reader construct is a close descendant of the Romantic child.

It may seem an absurd question to ask whether literary nonsense makes "sense" or not, but critical debate often addresses this question in its struggle to find order and design.





When Edward Lear's A Book of Nonsense first hit the market in 1846, it became popular instantly, coming to the attention of both children and adults, including that hardy species of adult, the literary critic. What followed in the next half-century was an unprecedented debate, sparked by Lear's work (and later, Carroll's), on the very nature of nonsense. As we have seen in the last few chapters, the nature of nonsense has repercussions for child theory, the genre being a direct sympathetic reflection of the child construct. The question thus expands into whether the "nonsense child" makes "sense," that is, whether the child and its world are rational and explainable, or not. Before we look further at nonsense- and sense-child constructs, we must examine the "sense" debate, which has continued into the twentieth century, increasing in sophistication, often splitting the critics into roughly two theoretical camps. On one side are the critics who claim that nonsense is non-sense--on the other, those critics who claim that nonsense, in the end, is really a kind of disguised sense.

Unfortunately, there are as many definitions of sense, nonsense, and literary nonsense as there are critics. As theoretical debate progresses on the meanings of sense and nonsense, they are increasingly seen as two sides of the same coin. Definitions of these terms build progressively upwards from the OED to the theories of Gilles Deleuze and Susan Stewart. The basis of the classification of literary nonsense is its relation to what we call "sense." The OED defines "sense" in fairly simple terms: ''The meaning or signification of a word or phrase; also, anyone of the different meanings of a word, or that which it bears in a particular collocation or context" A few other, related definitions are applicable: ''The meaning of a passage or context," ''The meaning of a speaker or writer~ the substance, purport, or intention of what he says," "Discourse that has a satisfactory and intelligible meaning," and "What is wise or reasonable." Derived from the meaning of that which can be sensed, or verified physically by the senses, thereby presenting a self-evIdent truth, the meaning of sense becomes a somewhat less definite assumption of general "purport," or even common-sense. Yet, the definition assumes that words are definable.

In a broad study of sense and nonsense, Baker and Hacker assert the conditions of sense to be related to three fields of discourse: syntax, semantics, and pragmatics.

An ~d~uate syntax ~or a la~guage should,.when sup~lemented by a lexicon speCIfYIng the meamngs of Its words... assIgn a defImte meaning to every well-formed sentence. This semantic theory, when supplemented by a specification of the relevant context of utterance of a sentence-token should determine exactly what a speaker has done in uttering this token sentence (whether he has made an assertion, issued an order, etc., and also what he has asserted, ordered, etc.). ".344 Put simply, these three levels work together to create a coherent meaning for the communicative act, but meaning is also contextual. Hence, we find the stress of a critic such as Susan Stewart on the subjective and social side of making sense. For Stewart, "meaning," the key concept in "sense," "is manufactured and accomplished in light of the constraints of tradition, the stock of knowledge at hand. 'Meaning' itself is not prior to social interaction, but is achieved in the course of social interaction. ".345 This relativistic viewpoint, which makes "sense" a condition of culture and social interaction, is important for her discussion of nonsense. Sense, in whatever form, is another term for what she calls "common-sense," which "is used to determine the parameters of everyday situations, including their functions and outcomes.... Common-sense activities are characterized by direction and hierarchy" (p. 47).

But saying that sense is that which makes sense, in an absolute or relativist sense, is simply tautological. What do we make, for instance, of the paradox of Epimenides the Cretan, who walked out of his cave and pronounced "All Cretans are liars"?346 It is this problematic side of sense which Gilles Deleuze and Susan Stewart explain. Deleuze, in his dense Logique du Sens (1969), highlights the inextricable nature of sense and nonsense.

Deleuze enumerates the paradoxes inherent in the concept of sense, paradoxes without

which sense would not exist at all. He writes:

3..l4G.p. Baker and P.M.S. Hacker, Language, Sense and Nonsense: A Critical InvestigaJion into,\fodem TheoriesoJLanguage (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1984), p. 6..

3..l5S usan Stewart, Nonsense: Aspects oj Interte.xtuality in Folklore and litera/ure (Baltlmore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1978,1979), p. 14. See also Fred Inglis, The Promise of Happiness: Value and meaning ITl children'sfiction (Cambridge: CUP, 1981), pp. 27-8.

3..l6Slewart, p. 30.

Th~ systell?-atic c~ara~teris.tics of g~ se~se ~re t~us the following: it affIrms a ~Ingle d~rectIon; It detennines this direchon to go from the most to the least differentIate~, fro~ the. singular to the regular, and from the remar~able to t~e ordIn~ry; ~t on.ents !he arrow of time from past to future, a~or~Ing t~ thIS. determInatIon.; It asSIgns to the present a directing role in this onentatIon; It renders possIble thereby the function of prevision· and it selects the sedentary type of distribution in which all of the preceding characteristics are brought together. 347 The proposition of sense, which is that which joins actions and their objects, comprises denotation, or the relation of word to idea; manifestation, or the relation of the speaker and context; signification, or the relation to universal concepts; and a fourth, his entirely original category: sense, or "the expressed of the proposition, is an incorporeal, complex, and irreducible entity, at the surface of things, a pure event which inheres or subsists in the proposition" (p. 19). That is to say, sense does not exist as such, but only as the assumed

foundation of a "sensical" pro[Xsition. Deleuze continues:

Sense is like the sphere in which I am already established in order to enact possible denotations, and even to think their conditions. Sense is always presupposed as soon as I begin to speak; I would not be able to begin without this presupposition. In other words, I never state the sense of what I am saying. But on the other hand, I can always take the sense of what I say as the object of another proposition whose sense, in turn, I cannot state.

I thus enter into the infinite regress of that which is presupposed. (p. 28) Because the sense of any sensible proposition (or word) must exist before the event, and the proposition cannot create its own sense, the sense contributing to it and that which it potentially creates is infinite; it is always that which is before or after. To illustrate this, Deleuze uses the example of the White Knight's song in Alice in Wonderland, a song whose "name" always has another name designating that name, and so on. 348 Stewart also claims that nonsense exposes the paradoxical side of nonnal sensical operations, in metaphor for instance. She writes: "By abstraction, the metaphor presents another domain of meaning that is more than the sum of its components. Like fictions, metaphor invoh;es the making of both ''factual'' and metacommunicative statements, yet it is neither" (p. 3-1-).

–  –  –

This paradox, and others inherent in discourse, will lead us on an increasingly more perilous path of sense. What began as a somewhat straightforward idea of sense as progressing from disorder to order has become fraught with paradox, and indeed, shades of nonsense.

The OED defines "nonsense" as "that which is not sense; spoken or written words which make no sense or convey absurd ideas; also, absurd or senseless action." Other definitions are, "Absurdity," "Unsubstantial or worthless stuff or things," and "A meaning that makes no sense." These definitions add to Johnson's definition (1755) of "unmeaning or ungrammatical language" or "Trifles; things of no importance. ''349 The word, it seems, is susceptible only to negative definition. Stewart discusses one of the most significant reasons why a definition of nonsense is so difficult: "[The] nature of nonsense will always be contingent upon the nature of its corresponding common sense, and since such common sense is always emergent in social processes... the category "nonsense" \vill never have a stable content; and second, the forms of nonsense will always be determined by the generic system available to the given set of members" (p. 51). Nevertheless, within our own system of sense (whatever that is) we must make an attempt at definition.



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