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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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Thomas Dilworth, in his article "Society and the Self in the Limericks of Lear," takes reader-response theory to heart and comes up with yet another symbolic 376This study focuses on Carroll, but its approach to indeterminacy can easily be appli.ed to Lear., 37 7Dolitskv, p. 9. Dolitsky's definition of nonsense, as the signifier w~thout the slgrnfied. IS qll1tc a narrow one: and may be the cause of her extraordinary claim for "sense" 10 nonsense "interpretation" of Lear's nonsense. His interpretative premise is that, because the limericks are "social in subject" they rely on reader response. The reader identifie \vith both the individual represented in the limericks and "them," or societal forces. Till dual allegiance of the reader as individual and society is what causes much of the reader' tension, and hence the tension within the nonsense. So far, there is no implication of sense, but Dilworth continues: "Like riddles, the limericks insist on interpretation by resisting it. They also require interpretation because, however dramatic they may eem, they are primarily revelatory. ''378 The limericks become simply "riddles" to be solved and it is only a small step to the dangerous ground of outright symbolic interpretation.

Bouissac claims that because "the nonsensical elements are symbolically significant, the limerick provides no serious impediment to straightforward analysis" (p. 46). We hall ee the consequences of this assumption.

Among the limericks Dilworth "solves," his account of Lear's "old man, who when little" shows the bizarre direction symbolic interpretation, in the name of reader re pon e theory, can take.

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answer his fabricated question: "See the man's gesture. Why does he regard and display the marvellously erect spout? In relation to his body the spout is phallic, but the spout is not a phallus. Where then is his phallus?" (p. 54). I would argue that this is not a constructive question to ask. His phallus, we can assume, is where most men's phalluses are--attached to them--and it is probably doing nothing very interesting. Dilworth, however, proposes that either the old man is "having intercourse with the kettle" or that he is using the spout as "a boastful disguise for an easily surmised physical inadequacy. Look again at his nose. If his phallus is proportionately unextended, he is hardly likely to be copulating with the kettle" (pp. 54-5). These are the only two options we are given; the limerick's "message" which arises out of a combination of the two is "the phallic and infantile... social valuation that bigger is better" (p. 55). Mixing the Freudian, the symbolic, and reader response, Dilworth has constructed two "solutions" to the fabricated riddle, and though he does not choose one over the other, they combine to produce a distinct "moral. ''379 Dilworth seems guilty of faulty psychoanalysis, which, as Gilles Deleuze states, "has two ways of deceiving itself: by believing to have discovered identical materials, that one can inevitably find everywhere, or by believing to have discovered analogous forms which create false differences. ''380 From the premise that there is a meaning to be found, Dilworth, like the King of Hearts, sets about finding it. Beginning with the reader response premise of identification with both the limerick's subject and "them," the interpretation becomes transformed into a fantasy at least as amusing as the limerick itself.

379S ee also Dilworth's article "Edward Lear's Suicide Limerick," The Review of English Studies, 46.184which offers an ingenius "solution" to Lear's "old man whose ~e~pair" limerick. \\-hIlc Dilworth's reading is quite interesting in its exploration of visual/verbal puns, It 1~ also bas~d on duhlOus psychoanalytic assumptions, such as the hare being "an exaggerated phallus" (p. ;:,37). ".bile all..

interpretations make nonsense texts richer, any conclusion drawn, any "answer" to the fabncatcd nddle, IS reductive and does not faithfully represent the open-endedness necessary in literary nonsense. In this G~e, Dilworth, who does note seemingly-contradictory "messages" within the limerick, ne\"erthel~ss reconCIles them in his unique deduction of the "moral": "Killing yourself achieves nothing more dCClsl\c or pcn1l3nent than masturbation" (p. 538).

3800clcuzc, p. 92.

Because Dilworth sees the sensical as non-sense, he fails to recognize the nonsense. The limerick gives the reason the man could not leave the kettle, but the circumstances leading up to this condition are where we find paradoxical meanings. The nonsense is two-fold: first, we are infonned that the young man fell "casually into a kettle," itself a nonsensical action. That a kettle could be big enough to fall into, yet small enough not to be able to get out later, and that anyone could fall in "casually," seems impossible. If we accept these circumstances, however, we are still left with a paradoxical situation. It appears from the syntax of the statement that the man wanted to leave the kettle, as he would never know if he could not leave without trying to do so. Growing stout, which takes considerable time, should not provide any real impediment to egress, but the limerick asserts that it prevents his leaving. We may ask why, then, he stayed in the kettle (which is what Dilworth does), but the limerick clearly states the answer-unfortunately, the answer is anything but clear. The reason and the situation are nonsense, to be taken for what they are, yet they remain entirely impossible. We thus find an example of Deleuzean nonsense, attempting to create its own sense, implying a paradoxical, impossible context. The limerick is nonsense.

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It is not the theory that is necessarily at fault. Literary theory is a tool which should help the text resonate; it should not be overlaid onto the text, in which case its results are somewhat predetennined, but should develop from a close examination of the text and its practical reception. To begin what I would hope is a more fair theory of nonsense, we must first clear away the old premises. If we wipe out the last fifty years of nonsense criticism, we wipe away (along with some fine analyses) the assumption that nonsense has a symbolic meaning which the author mayor may not have intended. As Lecercle states.

nonsense is "a text which is said, and certainly not meant, or only paradoxically so, as it means not to mean" (p. 124). We must also step back from structuralist and linguistic evaluations which, though they have demonstrated the technical brilliance of nonsense in tenns of playing with the linguistic field, are less relevant to the idea of sense.

Like most critics, I assume that the genre of nonsense operates primarily by transmitting contrary meanings. I use Wim Tigges's definition of nonsense as a genre in which "the seeming presence of one or more 'sensible' meanings is kept in balance by a simultaneous absence of such a meaning" (p. 255). Furthermore, as Deleuze has shown, such contradiction erases the sensical "context" required for all statements or words. A kev element in literary nonsense is its ability to imply an impossible context, a sense which never was nor could ever be, yet which is taken as a given. And with Sewell, I would furthermore claim that in the play of nonsense ''The mind is seemingly partly the player and partly its own plaything, not alternately but simultaneously, in a mutual interchange" (p.

187). The reader of nonsense is given some known materials (structure and meaningful words and images) and some unknown materials (undefined words, unclear semantic relationships, and unclear logic) out of which, through the "play" thereby ensuing, he or she mentally attempts to fill the gaps between these fields. If these gaps could indeed be filled satisfactorily, then they would cease to be nonsense; the gaps are the embodiment of the missing context implied in Deleuze's theory of nonsense. To show how these two fields are brought together, I refer to Iser's theory of the implied reader.

While Sewell's concept of play explains why the reader participates in the game of nonsense, Iser's theory shows in detail the result of this play, which, in the case of nonsense, is non-sense. The particular effect of nonsense mentioned above, that of supplying imaginative links where the more pure nonsense words occur, is similar to the effect of what Iser calls the "blank" occurring in prose fiction. The blank is one of the three major methods by which the reader is brought into the dialectic of reading, the others being negation and negativity, which are not relevant here. ''The blank," Iser writes, "designates a vacancy in the overall system of the text, the filling of which brings about an interaction of textual patterns. ''381 In a work of fiction, the blank as Iser defines it is the "empty space between segments" (p. 197), which could include the physical or temporal space left 3Xl Iser. Act. p. 182.

between segments of plot, character, and narrative perspectiYe. It could also be "a deliberate omission of generic features that have been firmly established by the tradition of the genre" (p. 208). The function of these blanks is described by Aiden Chambers who finds two kinds of blank, or what he calls "gaps": the first is simply when information is left out, while the second, the one closer to Iser's, is one "that challenge[s] the reader to participate in making meaning of the book" (p. 264). Iser claims that these blanks "indicate that the different segments of the text are to be connected, even though the text does not say so. They are the unseen joints of the text... [which] trigger acts of ideation on the reader's part" (pp. 182-83).

A good example of this device in a fictional setting, although one not mentioned by Iser, occurs in Alice in Wonderland, at the moments when Alice has consumed something which changes her size. When Alice experiments with the caterpillar's mushroom, she accidentally makes herself far too small. She is barely able "to open her mouth~ but she did it at last, and managed to swallow a morsel of the left-hand bit" (p.42). The paragraph ends here, and between this and the next paragraph appears a series of asterisks, occupying three horizontal lines of text, in a simple alternating pattern. When the text resumes, Alice exclaims, '''Come, my head's free at last! '" which implies that the actual growing has been left out of the description. As this is meant to be a child's story, Carroll includes the asterisks as a guide to the child that something is happening~ it is up to the child to imagine exactly the manner in which the growth occurs.3 82 This is a somewhat exaggerated example of what Iser calls a blank, a moment in the text when the reader is halted, is given a task, and must use his or her imagination to compensate for the lack of information. The implied reader is one who is able to fill the gaps; if the reader is unable to perform the expected tasks, then the text fails in its designs.

Using the example we have already seen from Four Little Children, we find that Iser's theory of blanks helps explain exactly how the "play" of nonsense functions to create

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imagine the lillusual contortions of Alice's body.

non-sense and why, consequently, literary nonsense is such an effectiye genre for children and adults.

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As we have seen, the sensical (syntactic, phonetic, morphological, and at least some semantic coherence) and nonsensical (semantic confusion) elements become the pieces \\'ith which the play is performed, the distances between which are the "blanks." Each time the reader encounters nonsense words among the sensical ones, he or she is briefly halted and must bridge the gap to continue. As Iser states, "whenever the flow is interrupted and we are led off in unexpected directions, the opportunity is given to us to bring into play our own faculty for establishing connections--for filling in the gaps left by the text itself. "383 While Iser is concerned with narrative structure, the same idea holds true on a smaller scale, for individual words which, because of their equivocal meaning, represent blanks in the meaningful construction of a sentence. Susan Stewart observes this tendency in nonsense, claiming that "it is only by means of such blank spaces that what is interpreted is able to appear. ''384 The result in either case is the imagination's attempt to create a meaning out of the given materials. lt is the job of nonsense both to encourage such an attempt and to ensure the attempt is ultimately a failure.

Nonsense achieves its effects through the various devices we have seen described throughout this thesis, including misappropriation, neologism, portmanteau, and logical incongruity.385 For example, the misappropriated word "mucilaginous" in the above example represents a semantic blank, as its dictionary definition does not make sense here.

lt seems to follow phonetic rules, and also seems to fulfil the role of adjectiye.

Additionally, the word is placed in a fairly sensible context which implies some meaning,

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and the word's evocative sound comes into play, adding another clue as to meaning.

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