«Heyman, Michael Benjamin (1999) Isles of Boshen : Edward Lear's literary nonsense in context. PhD thesis. Copyright and ...»
However, Lear's use of misappropriation is unique in that, usually, it is neither malapropism nor pun. Contrary to Carroll's malapropisms such as "Reeling and Writhing" for "reading and writing," Lear's misappropriation usually has little or no relation to any sensible word in context. 386 The definition of "mucilaginous" does not fit this context, nor does it resemble an appropriate word; the word represents a semantic blank, yet the mind tries to bridge this gap by forming some image, an image which is negated soon after its inception. By a stretch of the imagination, we can try to imagine a beautiful, echoing sound to be "mucilaginous," but whatever we imagine remains arbitrary, however resonant and evocative the word may be. We try to create the impossible sense-context behind a word which neither has nor can have one. We must also remember that the adult and the child will react differently to this device of nonsense--that the child does not know the real meaning of the word and therefore has a different problem from the adult, who knows the meaning and must deal with the obvious incongruity.3 87 Because in the end this word \\ill remain ambiguous, no imagined image can reach any objective certainty, yet the mind must try nonetheless. 388 Hence, the genre's most essential effect is realized: in the end it is nonsense.3 89 A similar effect occurs with neologisms and the rare Learian portmanteau.
In cases such as this, we witness Lear's ability to coin words which somehow phoneticall fit their context; it is hard to deny that the pictured snake somehow is indeed "scroobiou," whatever that is. Again, no definite meaning can emerge, but the imagination must make something of the information it receives. The context implies that the reader know the word and/or that the following situation somehow is a result of it. An anonymous reviewer from The Times (1876) notes this quality in the word "Gromboolian": "Who shall venture to say what meaning is attached to 'Gromboolian' ; but what an expressive word it is; how significant of darkness and size, and generally of the mysterious and awful! ''390 The problem is that this imagined "meaning" proves arbitrary. To make matters even more difficult, Lear uses the word "scroobious" in several texts, always with what appears a different meaning.
The portmanteau also lacks the blank between usage and dictionary definition( ), but it adds another blank: the questionable space between the meanings of the two (or more) combined words. In Lear' s term ''Torrible Zone" (p. 74), in The lumblie, it eem that the word combines "torrid," "terrible," and "horrible," yet the conglomerate 'Torribl " an only be a semantic blank--not anyone of these, nor an easily definable mblllali n.
90" hristmas Books,"The Times, (21 December, 1876). 6-t6.
upon what basis the words, if it is indeed two words, are combined; Carroll gi\'es several conflicting accounts of his famous portmanteaus in "Jabberwocky." Humpty Dumpty argues for a semantic convergence of meaning, in the word "slithy," but he also puts forward other guesses as to the fonnation of "mome," for instance, a word he claims is a deterioration of "home." The first stanza of "Jabberwocky" which first appeared as "Stanza of Anglo-Saxon Poetry" in Misch-Masch, a juvenile, family pUblication in the Dodgson family, gives a similar method to "translate" the nonsense words, but with some differences from what would later be Humpty Dumpty's explanations. Carroll, in the preface to Looking-Glass gives a phonetic analysis of portmanteau words, in his guide to pronunciation, and in the Preface to The Hunting o/the Snark he offers a third method, a psychological one, as to the formation of the portmanteau. He never offers the more likely method, that of morphology.391 The blank created by the constitutive words cannot be filled definitively because we cannot be certain as to the nature of that blank--whether it is semantic, phonetic, psychological, morphologic, or a combination of any or all of these.
Even if we could know the words which create the portmanteau and their relation to each other, the words themselves often have many meanings. In the case of "Torrible Zone," "torrid" alone has two definitions, with several sub-definitions (OED). We cannot assume the words we imagine to be the constitutive ones actually are. Sewell notes that Carroll's word "frumious," "is not a word, and does not have two meanings packed up in it; it is a group of letters without any meaning at all" (p. 120). The reader may choose to imagine many different words to be the constitutive ones: "furious, fuming; or frumpish, gloomy" (p. 120). De1euze agrees and offers a radically different reading of "mome raths outgrabe": "but it is also possible to interpret as follows: taxes, preferential rates (raJh= raJe+rather), far from their point of departure, were prohibitive (outgrabe) " (p. 46).
Portmanteau words are thus rife with blanks--but blanks which can never be filled satisfactorily; there simply are too many possibilities. We need not go beyond Carroll's own contradictory "definitions" of his portmanteau words to show the dangers of making 391 I,ccerde, pp. 44-7.
any kind of sense of them. Perhaps we should consider the wisdom of taking Humpty Dumpty, let alone Carroll's writing persona, too seriously.
The portmanteau word also goes beyond the definitions of the words which ostensibly constitute it--assuming we decide on two words at all. A short nonsense poem
by Michael Rosen, "Really?" illustrates this difficulty inherent in the portmanteau:
As this poem demonstrates, the combinative portmanteau (here, a physical combination, as opposed to the other possible categories we have seen) is neither one nor the other of the terms we assume are its parts. Indeed, the boy no longer has a sticker or a ticket, but a "bit of both" which is in effect something new, a "sticket." Because the two separate words are so close in spelling, the resulting combination is even more confusing regarding the dominance of anyone word: is the word "sticket" the word "sticker" with the "r" replaced by a "t," or is it the word "ticket" with an "s" added on the front? Such a distinction should have some effect on the meaning of the portmanteau. A mouse at the bottom of the page warns the boy holding the sticket, "They won't let you on the bus with a sticket," implying that this artificial entity no longer has the function of either of its parts. Even though the driver will see the ticket only partially hidden by the sticker, the mouse signals that the new creation is something else entirely. In this case the portmanteau ''word'' is two physical, observable objects placed together, but a true portmanteau is more ambiguous, constituting two or more questionable words. These words can never be combined satisfactorily, and as Jacqueline Aescher states, ''The portmanteau words are significant, not so much because of the specific meanings which they suggest, but because they embrace two disparate elements" (p. 133). The end result approaches neologism, and therefore cvokes the inherent blanks already discussed in that device.
One of the most common features in Lear's literary nonsense is the introouction of faulty cause and effect situations. This occurs in nearly every piece of nonsense, but I will take an example from Four Little Children, when the adventurers are pelted with falling oranges and must flee: "Nevertheless they got safely to the boat, although considerably vexed and hurt; and the Quangle-Wangle's right foot was so knocked about, that he had to sit with his head in his slipper for at least a week" (p. 96). Obviously, there is a blank, or gap, in reasoning between the QuangIe-Wangle's injuring his right foot and the seemingly unrelated remedy of putting his head in his slipper. However, there is some semblance of a connection, however nonsensical. The slipper, after all, is related to the injured foot in its function, which possibly leads to the head-in-slipper remedy, but, as far as I know, there is no medicinal value to slippers nor any medical relevance to the head in the case of foot injuries. This is a typical nonsense predicament: just enough sense to activate the mind's powers only to negate any imagined solutions. There is no logical way of reconciling the cause and effect here, but the gap in reasoning created calls for some effort on the reader's part to bridge it. In fact, the humour can only be experienced when the reader has tried to connect the two and found it impossible, thus giving up to the absurdity of the situation.
Yet, the narrator, our omniscient authority in this tale, relates that this remedy works, implying some connection. This connection is implied in the very syntax of the sentence, which reflects what seems to be a circumstance well-known and casually linked: he was so X that he had to Y. The structure presupposes a relationship between the given variables.
We are almost fooled in these cases into believing the rhetoric, so to speak, of nonsense.
Nonsense implies Deleuzean sense, that is, a sense prior to the focal point which would provide a "sensible" context for it. Of course, the context implied does not and cannot exist. A similar description occurs when Violet's brothers chum salt water "in the hope that it would tum into butter, which it seldom, if ever did" (pp. 92-93). By stating that it "seldom" did, the action is granted possibility, and once again the reader's mind must try to imagine how this could work. These exa~ples cannot make sense, but we must accept
This brings us to the fundamental difference between the result of Iser's implied reader's processing of the blank and the result in Lear's nonsense. The process, as we have seen, is quite similar, though in nonsense it occurs on a smaller scale within the bounds of syntax and semantics. The end result, however, is where the different genres diverge. For Iser's implied reader, the blanks only remain "blank" until they are filled by the imagination, guided by textual strategies, of the reader. Looking back at the example from Alice, once the reader has imagined the manner in which she changes size and the results of this, the blank no longer exists. The reader is able to fill this blank in a manner suitable to both the text's promptings and the reader's imaginative inclinations. While our various ideas of exactly what Alice looks like as she changes size may differ slightly, we will agree on the basics of the situation. Thus, in Iser's model of the implied reader, the blanks allow the reader to participate in to the dialogic relationship out of which a meaning emerges.
This act of creating an unequivocal meaning in a consistent manner with the promptings of the text cannot occur in the crucial junctures of literary nonsense. As we have seen, every time the reader tries to fill a nonsense gap, the result cannot, in the end, lead to a meaning. Or, it can lead to two or more irreconcilable meanings. The blanks in nonsense evoke imaginative possibilities, only to contradict them soon after they are
imagined. Iser calls such possibilities "illusions," the creation of which can be dangerous:
"if reading were to consist of nothing but an uninterrupted building up of illusions, it would be a suspect, if not downright dangerous, process: instead of bringing us into contact with reality, it would wean us away from realities. ''392 Indeed, this is what partly occurs in literary nonsense. Iser argues, however, that illusion-building should not be dispensed with altogether. We need this faculty to make sense of most texts, but when too much illusion-building occurs, caused by the paradoxical nature of nonsense, the text 392Iser, "Reading Process," p. 284.
cannot hold meaning in a coherent way. Nonsense, in this respect, is similar to the modem texts Iser discusses such as the works of Joyce, in which it is the very precision of the written details which increases the proportion of indeterminacy; one detail appears to contradict another and so simultaneously stimulates and frustrates our desire to "picture," thUS' continually causing our imposed "gestalt" of the text to disintegrate.
Without the formation of illusions, the unfamiliar world of the text would remain unfamiliar; through the illusions, the experience offered by the text becomes accessible to us, for it is only the illusion, on its different levels of consistency, that makes the experience "readable. "393 Similarly, nonsense is quite precise in the details of its world, which rarely cohere in a logical manner. 394 To follow the narrative of nonsense texts, we also must create such "illusions" to keep the text coherent, yet here we find the major difference between the texts Iser discusses and Lear's work. The defining factor of nonsense is that there is an intentional breaking of these "levels of consistency" of illusion. Nonsense forces us to create illusions which we cannot uphold. Thus nonsense is "readable" and enjoyable precisely because we strive to make the "illusion" hold together in a consistent, logical, manner while at the same time the illusion proves paradoxical. Images are created only to
the accompaniment of their anti-image, and hence we experience the full effect of nonsense:
endlessly juggling meaning and its lack.