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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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As the century progressed, however, critics began to take a closer look at Lear's work. While, for the most part, they maintained the idea of non-sense, they began to contemplate exactly what such an activity entailed. The first review which closely examined Lear's nonsense was in The Spectator, on 17 December, 1870, in an article entitled ''The Science of Nonsense," the title alone indicating an interesting change in critical perception. The anonymous writer claims that Lear has a "scientific feeling for nonsense." He continues by establishing a definition of nonsense that has prevailed to this


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but the critic recognizes the essential paradox of the genre,and hence how it differs from nursery rhyme. This critic also asserts that some of Lear's nonsense goes too far, bypassing sense completely and resembling "asylum talk" rather than nonsense proper.

Six days later, another article in The Spectator would name this latter "inappropriate" and totally nonsensical nonsense as "verbal" nonsense, with the former, the mixture of sense and nonsense, called "public" nonsense.

It was not until Edward Strachey's lengthy article "Nonsense as a Fine Art," in the Quarterly Review (October, 1888) that nonsense was given significance beyond the nursery. Strachey begins his piece with "What is Sense? What is Nonsense?" and continues to try to redefine nonsense in a broad manner, including such "nonsense" writers as Aristotle, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton, among other somewhat farfetched icons.

Strachey claims that nonsense is the pinnacle of wit and humour and offers some detailed analysis of how it works, claiming that "Nonsense sets itself to discover and bring forward the incongruities of all things within and without us. ''363 Strachey was before his time, and his analysis was attacked the next month in The Spectator. His introduction to a new edition of Lear's Nonsense Songs and Stories (1894), which contained much the same content as the earlier Quarterly Review article, was also attacked in The Spectator. The time was not yet ripe for his more serious consideration of nonsense, and it would be more than fifty years later that Elizabeth Sewell would continue from where he left off. The anonymous critic of the 1894 Spectator refutes almost every claim Strachey makes for nonsense, declaring that the genre must come from "innocent lightness of heart which 363Edward Strachey, "Nonsense as a Fine Art," Quarterly Review, 167 (October, 1888),335-65 (p. 335).

Such overly-broad definitions continue today, as in the entry for "nonsense" in J.A Cuddon, cd., A

Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, 4th edition, revised by c.E. Preston (Oxford:

Blackwell, 1976, 1998), pp. 551-58.

pours out the purest Nonsense in a full stream, and without stirring the springs of shame and fear. ''364 He claims for nonsense only an escapist value. We are back to the idea of nonsense as "non-sense" and unworthy of serious evaluation. This opinion of nonsense continued into the first half of the twentieth century most notably in the works of Davidson and Cammaerts, and in a slightly different direction, Chesterton and Huxley, who argue that nonsense resembles faith.3 65 These interpretations revolve around the idea of the "non-sense" of nonsense, and consequently critical output of this period, though of increasingly better quality, was sparse.

The King of Hearts's latter reaction is closer to the modem take on nonsense. He proceeds to make sense out of what at first appeared non-sense by imposing a theoretical construct on the text. It was not until Elizabeth Sewell's The Field of Nonsense that critical opinion swayed in favour of the "sense" side. Bypassing biographical and religious accounts, she attempts a detailed linguistic analysis which puts the "game" of nonsense firmly on the side of order and "sense." If nonsense leaned too much towards non-sense, Sewell claims, it would slip into dream and poetry. She writes that "Poetry, so Coleridge said, is at its best when only imperfectly understood. There is nothing of this in Nonsense verse. Far from being ambiguous, shifting and dreamlike, it is concrete, clear and wholly comprehensible:--" (p. 23). This somewhat surprising statement in reference to nonsense comes from the idea, as Jacqueline Aescher writes, that in nonsense "Meaning is often purely physical or factual. It leaves no room for speculation or suggestion and therefore refers to nothing beyond itself. ''366 Not only is the text "clear," but the illustrations contribute to the "sense." Sewell claims that the "pictures sterilize the mind's powers of invention and combination of images while seeming to nourish it, and by precision and 364"Sir Edward Strachey on Nonsense," The Spectator, no. 3463 (10 November, 1894),638-39 (p. 639).

365S ee Ann Colley's Edward Lear and the Critics (Columbia, SC: Camden House, 1993), pp. 1-~5, for a brief, but informative summary of Lear's critical reception. One of the more inter~s~g sc~ools 01..

nonsense criticism sees nonsense as an act of faith having a direct correlation to rehgtous fruth. In additIOn to Davidson and Cammaerts, see also Deleuze and Nietzsche (who saw nonsense as a passionate skepticism): "\Venn Skepsis lllld Sehnsucht sich begatten, entsteht... Nonsense" (Bose Weisheit, Aph. 71.

Quoted in Tigges, 260). This sort of "giving up" on the real world also has been interpreted as cIther a giving up in "despair," (Tigges), or as a cheerful renllllciation of sense, looking towards the unknowable with good faith (Chesterton, B)TOm, and Huxley).

366Jacqueline Aescher, "The language of nonsense in Alice," Yale French Studies,.+3 (1969-70), 128-+l (p. 137).

detail they contribute towards detachment and definition of the elements of the on en e universe" (p.112). In this respect, Sewell argues on the same lines, for illustration at least as Edward Strachey in his 1888 essay on nonsense: "In each creation some touch of art which escapes analysis makes the grotesquely impossible, a living, flesh-and-blood reality. ''367 Sewell, in effect, started the modem critical trend in nonsense cri tici m.

Whether trusting Lear's own description of his writing or not, a reader of Lear' nonsense would be quite puzzled at Sewell's and Rescher's description of nonsen e.

Consider the old man of the Hague:

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The strict limerick form enforces "order." Yet, even in this fairly mundane limerick, the "meaning" is far from what Sewell calls "concrete, clear and wholly comprehensible" (p.

23). If we understand the limerick to exist, as Aescher (and Sewell) would argue, on the "purely physical or factual" level, then the words and ideas here simply represent themselves: "[Meaning] leaves no room for speculation or suggestion and therefore refers to nothing beyond itself. It is in a sense self-contained. In spite of the necessity to mean, the power of meaning is reduced to a minimum" (p. 137). This is a barren nonsense. The Old Man of the Hague is deluded because he is deluded, and this, in a way, is why it could be called "wholly comprehensible." But this description of our processing of nonsense does not go deep enough into the heart of any word's or situation's sense. As Deleuze demonstrates, all words refer to a sense that is not in themselves, but nonsense words refer to an implied sense which does not exist. They can derive meaning only from themselves, and because, according to Deleuze, meanings can never be self-generated, they are nonsense. The implied "sense" in nonsense can never be deduced, can never be made sensicai.

Yet, instead of emptying nonsense of meaning, i.e. understanding any nonsense word or action to refer only to itself, the Deleuzean concept calls for multiple meanings, suggesting that, through the reading process, nonsense creates a multiplicity of paradoxical sensecontexts or meanings. Even the creation of a single paradoxical sense-context, or an idea of sense and its contrary, implies an endless, unsolvable dialogic puzzle, or non-sense.

On a more practica1level, there is no way to explain why the "old Man's" ideas are vague, why he is "deluded," or even why the moon has a strange face in it. Neither does the illustration help. The picture of the old man of the Hague, though it illustrates fairly accurately the words, still does not elucidate the underlying tensions of semantics. The pictures in the limericks either highlight a picture/poem discrepancy, or, in the limericks where there is no such discrepancy, the underlying questions still go unanswered. The illustration has only succeeded in heightening the tension. Kirby Olson, in his study of Lear's art and drawings, notes this ability of the limerick illustration to c:\aggerate the

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sometimes point toward an odd incomprehensibility, which are pushed further into aporia by the drawings" (p. 358). Byrom also recognizes this quality of the illustrations and, refening to the old man of Deal's unexplained walking on his heels, states: "Everything has been rendered so purely a matter of indifference that only the mystery remains, and this is Lear's basic point. When the paradox is dissolved, we are left not with a grand answer, but with the continuing mystery of an unexplained triumph" (p. 132). Contrary to Sewell's assertion that the illustrations detract from the nonsense, concretizing what might have been out of control, it seems that the illustrations add an indispensable level of uncertainty and contradiction which increase the nonsense effect.

Coming from the same structural background as Sewell, Jean-Jacques Lecercle imposes a linguistic and a pragmatic (speech-act theory) reading upon the genre with mixed results. He sees nonsense as a paradoxical genre, one which combines strict adherence to rules with the apparent flouting of those same rules. His overall thesis "is that the genre is structured by the contradiction... between over-structuring and destructuring, subversion and support" (p. 3). In relation to sense, "A nonsense text...plays with the bounds of common sense in order to remain within view of them, even if it has crossed to the other side of the frontier; but it does not seek to limit the text's meaning to one single interpretation--on the contrary, its dissolution of sense multiplies meaning. This is because nonsense text requires to be read on two levels at once--two incompatible levels" (p. 20).

Though Lecercle refers to "common sense" here, the idea rarely appears in his analysis, and his usual use of the word "sense" has more to do with the following of linguistic or pragmatic rules than "meaning." In his linguistic theory, these contradictions exist primaril y amongst a hierarchy of linguistic levels which are continually in play against each other, language itself being the central concern of the genre (p. 68). These le\'eIs are phonetics, morphology, syntax, and semantics. In a strict linguistic/structural reading, "all the levels recognized by theory have the same importance" (p. 51). Lecercle proceeds to show that all the linguistic levels in nonsense, except semantics, are perfectly correct, in fact, hypercorrect. Of course, the semantic field is unknown, but this is only one-fourth 01 the linguistic equation.

Such a reading, Lecercle admits, is "banal," because "one of the structuralleyels is void: this may preserve the coherence of the reading, but it makes its completeness impossible. The lack of analysis on the semantic level will soon threaten to destabilise the coherent reading... " (pp. 22-3). Notwithstanding this flaw in the linguistic reading, Lecercle continues to appraise nonsense in this admittedly limited way. He observes a law of conservation in which "excess always counterbalances lack, and semantic incoherence is canceled by either semantic series, or syntactic hypercorrectness, or both" (p. 68). We are back to a linguistic equation which gives equal, or similar, values to all the levels of linguistics. Somehow, semantic "incoherence" is "canceled" by the existence of an abundance of other linguistic levels, which seems to go against his previous contention of the dominance of the semantic field. But following linguistic rules does not constitute "meaning" or "cancel" the conspicuously blank field of semantics. Nonsense texts are readable, just as other texts are readable, because they follow most linguistic conventions, but this does not mean they make "sense" in a practical appraisal.

Lecercle seems undecided as to the application of linguistic analysis, giving contradictory results. On one hand, he claims that literary nonsense has "crossed the frontier" into non-sense, yet on the other hand, he claims that "one aspect, the orderly or cosmic aspect, is always in the end revealed to be dominant, so that the risk of disorder is strictly limited" (p. 68). It seems that his linguistic reading sides ultimately with the latter evaluation, judging from his conclusion, that "Nonsense... has the same goals (but not the same methods) as school education: to teach children the rules of language... and more generally the rules of conduct" (p. 216). Furthermore, nonsense promotes the type of "rule-governed playing that acclimatizes the child to the rules of adult society through imitation and constraints" (p. 216).

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