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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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By negation Stewart mentions the most definitive point of nonsense--that it stands in a direct, if inverse, relationship to sense. Like the two sides of a coin, one cannot exist without the other. Stewart writes, "Nonsense stands in contrast to the reasonable, positive, contextualized, and "natural" world of sense as the arbitrary, the random, the inconsequential, the merely cultural. While sense is sensory, tangible, real, nonsense is 'a game of vapours,' unrealizable, a temporary illusion" (p. 4). Deleuze also describes the intimate relationship between sense and nonsense: "nonsense is what is opposed to sense in a simple relation with it.... [Jt] is that which has no sense, and that which, as such and as it enacts the donation of sense, is opposed to the absence of sense" (p. 71). Rather than being the absence of sense, nonsense opposes sense: opposition presupposes an opponent

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that must be present for the conflict to take place. Deleuze describes nonsense on its most

basic level as the internal conflict in a nonsense word:

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To go back to "sense" for a moment, we remember that any "sensible" word is one which does not contain its own sense--the sense is always anterior. Nonsense, Deleuze argues, is exactly that which, against the rules of sense, defines its own sense. Or as Stewart puts it, it is "a rule that erases its own context" (p. 30). In fact, the nonsense word tries to become its own world, its own sense, but if nonsense designates its own sense, then it is designating a blank; without a history or context of sense behind it, there is no way to know what it is--it is only itself. We can guess its signification--in fact the reading process requires that we make some attempt at making sense--but it is an endeavour which can only result in arbitrariness. From a similar argument, Stewart claims that this nonsenserelationship to sense "bares the ideological nature of common sense, showing common sense's precarious situation--rooted in culture and not in nature" (p. 49). The word without sense exposes normal sense-relationships to be themselves arbitrary, subjective, and infinitely regressive. The "unsaid" in our discourse, the "given" in our cultural context, i.e., the sense, is thus challenged.3 50 Of course, these definitions are more specific to nonsense words, as opposed to the many other methods of making nonsense, dealt with throughout this thesis, such as "nonsense" relationships with other texts, genres, social contexts, and logical and emotional incongruities. But the idea of an impossible, paradoxical, alternate "sense," one which can never exist yet is implied, is essential to creating all kinds of li terary nonsense.

We can now turn back to the critical debate between the "sense" critics and "nonsense" critics. I take as an example a critical reading of a nonsense text within a nonsense 350Stcwart, pp. 88-9.

text, that is, the King of Hearts's analysis of "Alice's Evidence," or the verses beginning "They told me you had been to her" found in the last chapter of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. The White Rabbit reads aloud the verses assumed to have been written by the Knave of Hearts, who is accused, of course, of having stolen the tarts.

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The verse continues in this manner, piling up subjectless pronouns to create a truly meaningless text. Or is it? Alice believes so (and by this time in the story her judgment is keen), but the King steps in to give it, as he thinks, a shrewder interpretation. He claims "If there's no meaning in it...that saves a world of trouble, you know, as we needn't try to find any" (p. 95). This seems to be the commonsensical conclusion, as attested by Alice's assent, and yet, if this were indeed so of nonsense texts there would be no need for explication or analysis, theoretical or otherwise. Nonsense would be locked in its own hermetic and hermeneutic portmanteau, if you will, but one for which the key has been lost or never made at all. Of course, the King is not a literary critic--he is looking for practical information regarding the case at hand, but his first reaction is troubling, at least from the perspective of the hungry critics who argue for the "sense" of nonsense.

The King reconsiders his opinion and continues his analysis: "'And yet I don't know,' he went on, spreading out the verses on his knee, and looking at them with one eye; "I seem to see some meaning in them, after all'" (p. 95). The King then proceeds to read the characters and events of the present trial into the obscure verse: ""'--said I could not swim--" you ca'n't swim, can you?' he added, turning to the Knave." And, of course, the Knave cannot deny this, being made of cardboard. "'All right, so far," said the King;

and he went on muttering over the verses to himself: "'~Ve know it to be true"--that's the jury, of course'.... " The King continues, fitting the verse to the present situation in an entirely spurious manner, but in a \vay that is hard to refute for him or Alice. This type of criticism is more common with literary nonsense texts; critics use existing theories or milieus, whether linguistic, Freudian, or cultural/symbolic, to "interpret" and impose (ostensibly bring forward) meaning on (or from) the text. I do not criticize these methods in general, but regarding nonsense texts, I hope to show that they are sometimes as arbitrary as the methods of the King of Hearts and often go against a practical reading of the genre. 351 As Wim Tigges states, "In order to be successful, nonsense must at the same time invite the reader to interpretation and avoid the suggestion that there is a deeper meaning which can be obtained by considering connotations or associations, because these

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meaning, and the other, an inappropriate overlay of meaning, represent the pitfalls of critical accounts of nonsense texts.

I suggest an alternative to these two schools of criticism: a model for a theoretical reading of nonsense as "non-sense." On the one hand, just because a text is non-sense rather than sense does not mean that it is unworthy of attention. As nearly all critics agree, there is a strong presence of sense inherent in the non-sense. On the other hand, a reading that discovers nonsense to be sensical necessarily distorts the text. Our pleasure comes, instead, from the "discomfiture of Sense by Nonsense," as Edward Strachey put it in 1888, "this bringing confusion into order by setting things upside down, bringing them into all sorts of unnatural, impossible, and absurd, but not painful or dangerous, combinations" (p.335). This process, Strachey claims, is "a source of universal delight" (p. 335). As William Touponce argues, in his defense of pleasure as a theoretical basis for critical analysis, allegory, or symbolic interpretation

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351See also Lisa S. Ede's "An Introduction to the Nonsense Literature of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll" in E\plorations in the Field of Nonsense, ed. Wim Tigges (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1987), pp. -l7-60, which criticises psychological interpretation..

352This was originally published in "An Anatomy of Nonsense," Dutch Quarterly Revle-w. 16.3 (19g6).

162-185 (p. 166).

Interestingly, in 1846, the same year as Lear's first nonsense book, Edgar Allan Poe repudiated allegorical reading in his review of Nathaniel Hawthorne's Twice- Told Tales in Godey's Lady's Book:, ''The deepest emotion aroused within us by the happiest allegory, as allegory, is a very, very imperfectly satisfied sense of the writer's ingenuity in overcoming a difficulty we should have preferred his not having attempted to overcome. ''353 Poe claims that by focussing on the allegory, we lose the pleasure of the narrative. Nonsense, on the other hand, frees us from such tasks. Colley suggests that nonsense is pleasurable because it "removes the reader... from the anxiety of difference and lets him safely explore the gaps between events." (p. 298)354 Appropriate theories, used with discretion, can avoid "allegorical" readings, "ideological criticism," or limited formalism, allowing nonsense its free rein. In this thesis, I use reader response theory similar to Wolfgang Iser's and the concepts of "sense" and "nonsense" already discussed to analyze the genre. But before I give my reading, I would like to step back and take into account some of the theoretical application on both sides of the sense-fence.

Some of Lear's first critics claimed that, rather than non-sense, a portion of Lear's work was in fact satirical, symbolic, or politically motivated. We can see this trend, albeit quite feeble, throughout the century. A review of 1872 claims that Lear's nonsense botany is "a good-humoured satire" and that some of the limericks are "quaint satire" on "things in general" which contain contemporary references. 355 In The Saturday Review of 24 March, 1888, the critic relates that some of the limericks had been seen as "code" marking Edward, thirteenth Earl of Derby as author and that some verses were "a mild species of genuine satire" (p. 361). The critic of The Spectator who, while claiming that Lear's nonsense is "incapable of being made to harbour any symbolical meaning''356 still cannot resist a "sensical" interpretation of Lear's old man at a Station, which had been noted by others, as well. Some thought this limerick a critique of Gladstone's slapdash railway speeches.

353"Allegory" in Strangeness and Beauty: An Anthology of Aesthetic Criticism 1840-1910, eds. Eric \Varner and Graham Hough, 2 volumes (Cambridge: CUP, 1983), I, 153-4.

354This pleasure in filling gaps is related to Iser' s "gaps" in his reader response theory (described below).

355Anonymous review of More Nonsense Pictures, Rhymes, Botany, &c. in The Athenaeum, no. 2_~O'" (13 January, 1872), ·n.

356"Lear' ~ Nonsense Books," The Spectator, no. 3090 (17 September, 1887), 1251-52 (p. 1251).

This writer asks demurely, "What bearing may we assume the foregoing couplet to have upon Mr. Lear's political views?" (p. 1252).

But the majority of critics, and Lear himself, came to the defense of the genre. In 1861, an anonymous reviewer for a new edition of Lear's first book writes "A Book of Nonsense...is certainly what it claims to be.... The book, we believe, is a reprint of a nursery favourite. ''357 The anonymous critic believes that Lear only executed the illustrations, despite Lear's name being on the cover. The verses, taken to be pure "nonsense," are mostly disregarded, being mistaken for traditional nursery rhymes, which understandably upset Lear. 358 Sidney Colvin, in a review of Lear's More Nonsense (1872), writes "A stout, jovial book of More Nonsense, by Mr. Edward Lear, transcends criticism as usual. ''359 Again, the perception of pure "non-sense" precludes serious attention to the work. It is appreciated for its diverting properties but not given any real consideration. We cannot blame the critics entirely, as they were simply supporting Lear's own words in his preface to More Nonsense. He denies the charges that "that the rhymes and pictures are by different persons; or that the whole have a symbolical meaning, &c., &c....in no portion of these Nonsense drawings have I ever allowed any caricature of private or public persons to appear, and throughout, more care than might be supposed has been given to make the subjects incapable of misinterpretation: 'Nonsense,' pure and absolute, having been my aim throughout. ''360 Lear wrote to David Richard Morier, on 12

January, 1871, concerning his Nonsense Songs, Stories, Botany and Alphabets (1871):

''The critics are very silly to see politics in such bosh: not but that bosh requires a good deal of care, for it is a sine qua non in writing for children to keep what they have to read perfectly clear & bright, & incapable of any meaning but one of sheer nonsense. ''361 But whether nonsense makes "sense" or not is not so much a question of authorial intent as it is 357"Christmas Books,"The Saturday Review (21 December, 1861),646.

358He complained in a letter of 21 January 1862 "but I was disgusted at the Saturda~ Re\~iew Dec. 2 ~.

talking of the Nonsense verses being' anonymous, & a reprint of old nursery rhymes, tho they gave \~r Lear credit for a persistent absurdity.' I wish I could have all the credit due to me, small as that may be.

(LEL, p. 219).

359Sidney Colvin, The Academy, 3 (15 January, 1872), 23-4 (p. 24).

360,Hore Nonsense, Pictures, Rhymes. Botany. Etc. (London: R.J. Bush, 1872), p. iy. _ 361ELSL, p. 22K Lord Alfred Douglas was later to echo similar sentiments concerning the difficulty 01 writing good nonsense. See Douglas's The Duke of Berwick (London: \[artin Seeker. 1)2h). pp \\- u.

a question of interpretation. Most reviewers, unable to separate authorial intent, questionable in itself, from interpretation, agreed with Lear's statement in his Preface, and as a result the genre was, for the most part, not taken seriously (although for children's literature, it received quite a lot of attention). Even through the first half of the twentieth century, critical opinion tended to be more like the King of Hearts's first reaction, to disregard that which is meaningless or to consider it unworthy of serious study. Edmund Wilson, writing a review for Gertrude Stein's Useful Knowledge in the 1929 New Republic, reveals both the disregard of "nonsense" literature of the time and a somewhat half-hearted attempt at appreciation. He writes: ''To characterize something as nonsense is usually to throw it out of court as literature... Yet our ordinary use of the word "nonsense" in English, in connection with matters of literature, is based upon a complete misconception of the nature of literature, and of human expression itself. ''362 Wilson argues that in literature, sense and nonsense are not easily distinguished because figurative language is itself a type of nonsense. Though he compares Carroll and Lear favourably with Coleridge and Poe, in the end his verdict on Stein's book reveals his opinion of nonsense: "I confess that I find most of it [Stein's book] very tiresome. But if I had merely said that it was a book of nonsense, and left it at that, I should have created a misleading impression" (p.

22). Even in an article which attempts to redefine "nonsense" literature (and his definition is almost all-encompassing), he betrays his, and society's, negative estimation of nonsense in general.



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