«Heyman, Michael Benjamin (1999) Isles of Boshen : Edward Lear's literary nonsense in context. PhD thesis. Copyright and ...»
Lecercle's assertion that nonsense is a conservative pedagogic genre disguised in an unconventional method comes from the hermeneutic paradox which recognizes that language cannot be used accurately to describe or criticize language--that such an effort leads us to a loop of meaning from which there is no escape, as there is nothing outSide of language to describe language. Therefore, Lecercle would claim, because nonsense tnes to subvert language through strict adherence to three linguistic levels while deli berately overturning the fourth--and because it means not to mean--it ends up supporting the very system it ostensibly subverts, which, in the end, is its meaning. Nonsense becomes an ultra-conservative form only pretending rebellion; the upside-down genre is stood back on its feet. I would argue, however, that adherence to linguistic fields, no matter how strict, does not necessarily teach the rules of language. Why should we find it unusual that nonsense follows these three linguistic fields precisely? In this it is like most sensible texts. The subversion of the fourth, the semantic field, represents a gap to be filled but in no way supports or highlights the other three levels: they are indeed correct, but no more so than a Chemistry textbook, which, though it happens to follow correct syntax, phonetics, and morphology, does not in any way teach language.
Lecercle's second claim, that nonsense teaches "essential educational material--a belief in the necessity of rules: rules of grammar, of linguistic behavior, of politeness and manners" (220), I would again answer with a practical reading of the text. Several historical and cultural studies of the Alice books have shown that Alice is the antithesis of the girl heroine typically found in Victorian girl's books like Harriet Mozley's The Fairy Bower (1841).368 Gillian Avery describes this image of the ideal Victorian girl: "She should be thoughtful and devoutly religious before anything else, devoted to her mother and to her brothers and sisters, obedient to her father, well educated, serious of purpose, submissive to whatever heaven might choose to send. Very little room seemed to be left for satisfying personal tastes and interests, and any independence of mind was stamped out. ''369 Alice on the other hand, though thoughtful, well-educated, and serious of purpose, has no thought for her family, aside from her cats, and is strikingly independent
minded, which would have been considered selfish in a Victorian context. Furthennore.
the traits she learns in Wonderland are assertiveness, confidence, and independence-qualities far from the "rules of adult society" for women of the pericxl. However, because Alice is learning things, the claim that nonsense is pedagogic bears some truth, but what is being taught, which is itself unclear, seems quite opposite the norms of the period. 370 Lear's nonsense, often a parcxlic version of pedagogical forms, seems entirely opposed to the "politeness and manners" of middle- and upper-class Victorian society.
Lear himself constantly felt these oppressive restrictions, especially when he began living and working at Knowsley Hall. He found it stifling to mingle with the gentry, with their "uniform apathetic tone." He writes in a letter, "nothing I long for half so much as to giggle heartily and to hop on one leg down the great gallery--but I dare not. ''371 Likewise, his nonsense promotes the defiance of societal rules. Most studies of Lear have noted that in the majority of limericks the eccentric individual is nearly always blissfully happy, even in the face of societal opposition.3 72 Social conformity is usually the enemy: Lear's heroes, like the Nutcrackers and the Sugar-tongs, the Daddy Long-legs and the Ry, or the Jumblies, escape their restrictive cultural surroundings and usually seem the better off for it. When domesticity becomes unbearably oppressive and inescapable, as it does for Mr.
Discobbolos, he simply fills a trench with "dynamite, gunpowder gench" and blows up his whole family, himself included. With this kind of activity condoned in nonsense, it is odd that Lecercle would claim that "it complements the usual institutions by providing material for home schooling--after all, that is what nursery rhymes and cautionary tales are meant to do" (p.219). It seems that Lecercle has forgotten that nonsense, by its irreverence towards these texts, opposes them.
Other problems also arise with Lecercle's linguistic analysis (not to mention his pragmatic analysis), as it ignores vital components of nonsense which add to its "nonsensicality." Linguistic play is perhaps the largest part of literary nonsense, made most 3 70Stewart also disagrees with Lecerc1e, noting nonsense's questioning of reality and ~nyention: "If nonsense has to do with learning, it has this status most likely as a pattern of incongrmty, teaching the nature and uses of incongrui ty, and a set of procedures for m aki ng thi ngs lDcongruous... [It te'lchcs a] set 01 · (,.
procedures for manipulating, for erasing and reforming, contextual markers" (pp. 207-8).
37 1Noakes, p. -tJ.
372Sec Dayidson, p, 196; Orwell, p. 182; Byrom, pp. 92-101, among many others.
famous by Lear's and Carroll's neologisms and portmanteaus like "scroobious" and "brillig," but there is more to nonsense than word-play. Lecercle neglects the all-important characteristic of Lear's nonsense, especially the limericks: the interaction with illustration.
Lear's work marries poem and picture in an interactive relationship that is usually amusingly contradictory. The linguistic approach also ignores the logical incongruity, though Lecercle's speech-act analysis takes this more into account. Looking at nonsense as a purely linguistic phenomenon also has disadvantages in basic comprehension of the genre. He asserts that, in nonsense, "the semantic blanks are not meant to be visualized.
They are meant to be playfully explored, or exploited, by our linguistic imagination, which is boundless." (p. 24). Anyone who has seen the pictures of Lear's "Runcible Bird" and "Scroobious Bird" might care to argue that our imaginations cannot be limited to linguistics, that in the "tumultuous tops of the transitory titmice" our minds explore beyond the words.
Here we find one of the weaknesses of both Lecercle's and Stewart's analyses of nonsense: for both critics, literary nonsense is a genre not about a fantasy world, characters, or stories; rather it is a genre about linguistics or discourse. 373 As the King of Hearts does, these and other critics have allowed theory to take over its subject, making the subject about the theory instead of the theory being used to describe the subject. Because the text conforms to Lecercle's theory, he declares, "It is by now clear that there is nothing arbitrary or incoherent in those texts--that they conform to a strategy" (p.lll). The "strategy," if it can be called that, is his theory of nonsense creation, yet to claim that nonsense texts are neither arbitrary nor incoherent in any way is bizarre. Part of the problem is that these analyses focus on Carroll. Lear's nonsense is less technical, less aware of itself, and therefore more childlike. As "sophisticated" adults, we all too easily find the undercurrents, the flashes of linguistic insight which comprise nonsense, to be dominant, but we must never forget the intended audience and the child's reaction.
The King of Hearts's major fault is that he construes the nonsense "letter" from faulty premises, i.e. the verse is a letter written by the Knave of Hearts. He attempts an interpretation: he looks for hidden meanings, and, as might be expected, he finds them.
The result is ridiculous, though, in a devious way, hard to refute. A similar process has been practiced upon Lear's nonsense, in the form of symbolic-structuralist readings, notably in Paul Bouissac's two articles, ''The Meaning of Nonsense (Structural Analysis of Clown Performances and Limericks)" (1982) and "Decoding Limericks: A Structuralist Approach" (1977). In the latter article, Bouissac begins his analyses of limericks with a few hypotheses: "nonsensical discourses" he claims, refer "to the codes which condition cultural meaning," are "a constellation of mythical reflections," and "seem to manipulate the rules concerning the culinary system of our society... through a translation of those rules into the sexual code.... "374 From these premises, he analyses several limericks, deriving meaning from "the semiotic operations" of the verse. He interprets the following limerick
This limerick's meaning is clear until the adjective in the final line, which mayor may not make sense depending on how "incongruous" is defined. If taken to mean simpl y "unbecoming, unsuitable, inappropriate" (OED), the word is fairly clear. However, the first definition of the word, as "disagreeing in character or qualities~ not corresponding" (OED), colors all the word's meanings, implying that there must be some other basis by which to judge any incongruent behavior. Taken in this sense, the word is nonsensical and is the basis of Bouissac's reading of the limerick as culturally symbolic "code" which will make sense of the final adjective by giving it a frame of reference. He claims that "to bum" can be understood as "the act of roasting or barbecueing [sic]" and that "therefore the operation denoted in the first two lines can represent the first step of an act of
anthropophagia" (p. 6). Because cannibalism is a cultural taboo, the act can been seen as "incongruous" or alien to the cultural system. He continues, observing that '''to burn' can also denotate a sexual content" and that therefore "the action can be interpreted as an overrating of kinship and be seen as 'female homosexual incest''' (p. 7). He also notes that the substitution of the cat is significant because the cat "traditionally stands for the female sexual organs" (p. 7). Once again, because this type of sexual behavior is taboo, the word "incongruous" makes sense. To summarize, the limerick is important because "it refers precisely to the link existing between feeding and breeding through the institution of culture" and that "a mate must above all be considered as non-edible protein" (p. 8).
premises, the logic, and the theoretical basis are all suspect. Not only are the definitions for "bum" highly doubtful, but Bouissac's whole method stands the actual nonsense in the limerick on its head. In his analysis Bouissac questions a word whose meaning is clear, like "bum," while claiming that the usual "non-sense" part of the limerick is the essential piece of sense-making, but in a way contrary to the actual definition which might make it sensical. In the OED, "bum" has over a dozen meanings, none of which refer to the meanings Bouissac claims. "Bum" certainly has no immediate connection with "barbecuing," or with any food which we plan to eat, as burnt food is considered inedible.
In an obsolete usage ending in the sixteenth century, the verb could have meant "to infect with sores; esp. with venereal disease," but this is not quite the second definition Bouissac claims.3 75 The nonsense here is not derived from any equivocal meanings of this verb; we can probably assume from the situation that the grandmother has fire and punishment or torture in mind, not her appetite, sexual or otherwise. The non-sense of the limerick, if there is indeed any at all, comes from the word "incongruous." Even though the grandmother's actions are somewhat shocking, we have no basis on which to judge her congruity. It seems farfetched that the granddaughter would be referring to the congruity of the grandmother's actions to sexual or culinary norms. Like all good nonsense, the 375.\fter checking two nineteenth- and three twentieth-century slang dictionaries. I could not find a sc:\ual memung for "burn."
word elicits the desire for meaning while refusing to satisfy it. Yet this vague, but suggestive word is Bouissac's primary piece of evidence, the anchor of meaning, in solving the sense equation in a direction far from the more obvious sense implications.
Bouissac's interpretation, like the King of Hearts's, is difficult to refute once the premises are accepted. Literary nonsense certainly allows for various readings, but the key to its success is that it provokes a simultaneous multiplicity of contradictory interpretations.
Reader-response theory has also been applied to nonsense in ways which wrestle the genre into interpretive submission, in the analyses of Marlene Dolitsky and Thomas Dilworth. Dolitsky, in her book Under the Tumtum Tree: From Nonsense to Sense, 376 claims that nonsense gains meaning in context or experimental situation. Normal relations between word and world cannot be taken for granted, and so the world becomes strictly textual, its meaning found within. She assumes that meaning is a product of authorial intention, however obscured, and that we as readers must try to find it. Dolitsky writes, "While, like ordinary texts, nonsense texts presuppose the readers' ability to find its purpose, goals, and motives, readers must do so without the usual givens they are accustomed to. ''377 Stating that nonsense has "purpose, goals, and motives" is a position which is difficult to defend. Dolitsky admits that the text alone will never admit a definite meaning; it ignores the rules which normally govern meaning, splitting signifier and signified. Thus, "each person, when presented with nonsense, must bring into play some strategy that will lead to a satisfactory interpretation" (p. 102). Here, Dolitsky approaches reader response theory, but the assumption that a "satisfactory interpretation" is necessarily one of sense, however it is achieved, is false. In fact, I would argue, using similar theory, that the essence of nonsense is that it can never achieve a "satisfactory interpretation," especially with an adult--that its meaning must remain in flux, and that our pleasure deri\'es from such an impasse.