Fou Littéraire vs. nonsense: part 2

The 'non' in the Non-Sense
Medieval map of world

In previous posts, I have used the capitalized and hyphenized term "Non-Sense" instead of the more common “nonsense,” which can be either a noun or an adjective. However, I prefer Non-Sense, at least for the noun, as it draws attention to both the "negative" side of its referent, and to its duplicity. This is to say no more nor less than is implied by Deleuze and Guattari's concept of "the School." For, if Non-Sense is a crucial part of the Victorian School – a rhizomatic collection of institutions vying for the power to organize British education, and to collect under their own umbrella the recipients of that gift, namely boys – it also includes, all those children excluded from official schooling, those for whom nonsense literature was written, preschoolers and little girls. That is, the rhizome of the School includes its own apparently external other, its own extimité. Likewise, as we shall see, from the D-G perspective, Sense fully understood, includes Non-Sense. However, before we can make sense of this claim, we must first understand the "non" in the Non-Sense. Perhaps the best way to do this, is to examine one of Carroll's other, poetic, works, The Hunting of the Snark: An Agony in 8 Fits. Again, my commentary is a summary of Lecercle's findings in Philosophy of Nonsense, see especially pages 192-194 and 224-232.

Written when Carroll was 42, nine years after Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the text was published by Macmillan in 1876 with intricate black-and-white illustrations by the English historical genre painter Henry Holiday. 


              Illustration of the crew, by Henry Holiday

The poem chronicles the impossible voyage of an improbable crew to find an inconceivable creature. It  is a rewriting of a classical epic in which "the eight fits are so many cantos, and the leitmotiv stanza...fulfills the same role as the notorious Homeric tags, (Philosophy of Nonsense, J-J. Lecercle,p. 192).

They sought it with thimbles, they sought it with care;

They pursued it with forks and hope;

They threatened its life with a railway share;

They charmed it with smiles and soap...

For all that the mix of the serious and comic undermines the unity of a grand style, Lecercle justifies calling the poem "Homeric" and "epic," on the grounds that,

[t]he theme of the quest is an acceptable, even a usual one for an epic, and all the commonplace situations are there, in the usual order...[the] list of weapons...the great speech before the battle, where the Bellman, in a parody of Nelson, describes the five unmistakable marks by which one can tell a Snark...a prophecy...a scene of friendship...a premonitory dream...[and] most tellingly, [a descent] into Hell and back...The result is a Victorian epic in a condensed form – it takes a few hundred lines, not many thousand, (ibid., pps., 192-3).

However, where the classical epic is a national poem in which the nation is embodied in the figure of the hero, here each fit or chapter has a different protagonist; the only commonality is that their names, or titles, all begin with a B, and the eponymous hero, the Snark, is conspicuously absent, being present only in its description by the Bellman, in the dream of the Barrister, and in the last few lines, when the Baker vanishes as he shouts that he has espied one. Again, as in "Jabberwocky," we have a grammar and a syntax, the formal structure of epic poetry, but the world refered to is unclear. The characters composing the crew are not traditional seamen. Their only reason for inclusion in the expedition seems to be that they are all B–ings. This applies even to Snark, as the last lines make clear: "For the Snark was a Boojum, you see," words uttered by the narrator as the Baker disappears on  apparently seeing one. This being Carroll, the last line was written first, after it appeared to him out of the blue, in a fit as it were, "before he knew what the creatures were or what the poem was about...This was followed by the last stanza, followed by the rest of the poem," (ibid., p. 194).

Some critics, like Elizabeth Sewell, have argued that it should not be included in the cannon of Non-Sense, for it is both too serious and too gloomy; not parodic enough, (see The Field of Nonsense, E. Sewel, Chato and Windus, 1952, cited by Lecercle, pp. 192-194). But Lecercle disagrees, arguing that even the most serious stanzas, such as this one: 

Erect and sublime, for one moment in time.

In the next, that wild figure they saw

(As if stung by a spasm) plunge into a chasm,

While they waited and listened in awe.

which can be read as genuinely Romantic, contribute to the patchwork methods by which all Non-Sense texts are constructed. In other words, Non-Sense as a genre is pastische or bricolage, being always constructed from odds and ends of other discourses, forgotten genres, clichés, and idées recues, (see previous post). This is where the ideological function of Non-Sense texts appears, for they defend no ideological position in themselves. Rather they constitute a meta-commentary on a range of other Victorian discourses. For us, the most important is the Victorian discourse of logic.

As everyone knows Lewis Carroll is the pseudonym of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, an Anglican Deacon who taught mathematics and logic at Christ Church College, Oxford, from the time of his graduation in 1855 to the time of his death in 1898. Professionally best known for his contributions to logic, Dodgson was a conservative in his field, completely ignoring the revolution initiated by his contemporary Georges Boole. Nowhere is this more clear than in his view of the existential import of the Universal Affirmative. Thus, in the traditional (Aristotelean) view of logic, to make a Universal Affirmative claim, such as,

All pigs fly.

is also to make the existential or ontological claim that:

There exists at least one flying pig.

Modern, post-Boolean logic has severed the ontological claim from the Universal Affirmative, recognizing that no universals make existential claims. This was fully recognized, even by Aristotle, with regard to Universal Negatives. Thus to say,

No wise young pigs go up in a balloon           (a real Carrollian example)

does not imply the existence of any actual pigs, in or out of balloons. Where Universal Affirmatives caused real philosophical problems for conservatives like Carroll, Universal Negatives did not, precisely because they entailed no existential or ontological implications. Thus, we could say, the world of Non-Sense dwells wholly in the realms of the negative, making no ontological claims, either for its author, or for the reader. If, therefore, Alice in Wonderland can be seen to fictionalize the discourse of logic, we could say that its ur proposition is something like this:

'No white rabbit takes a watch out its waistcoat pocket and exclaims: "Oh Dear! "Oh Dear! I shall be too late!"' (ibid., p.201),

there being no possibility of any such white rabbit actually existing.  

As Lecercle shows then, the genre of literary Non-Sense may be seen as a meta-reflection on Victorian discourses about the workings of logic and language. Furthermore, despite Carroll's professional conservatism, his fictional works both intuit, avant la lettre, many of the findings of 20th century linguistics, and also, provide a critical commentary, again avant la lettre, upon those findings. To put it otherwise, we can use Non-Sense in general, and the Snark in particular to read 20th century philosophy, especially philosophy of language. This is what Lecercle does in his conclusion – a mini-history of Western philosophical thinking on negation (and nothingness, or absence). Here he shows that while philosophers often take literature as an object for their critical speculations, literature can in reverse take philosophy as its object, and reflect upon it. As we shall see in future posts this reversal has drastic effects on our understanding of language.

Lecercle begins his tour through negation with Kant’s “Essay on the introduction of negative quantities into philosophy,” a pre-critical work that nevertheless marks a profound shift in Western thinking on Negation snd Nothingness. Here Kants shows that contra Structuralism, the Scholastics recognized not just one kind of negation in language, but many. Following Lecercle, in analysing the Snark, we shall focus on only a few.

1)- Nihil negativum, is the form "absolute negation" seen by Scholastics as occuring in logical contradictions. The formula for this is:

[ A and not-A ] leads to or produces impossibility.         

OR                [ A + not-A ] ––> impossibility.

Presumably Scholastics thought this kind of contradictory negation "absolute," because they equated logical impossibility with an inability to exist. Today we know different, and easily accept contradictory phenomena as real. (Lacan even reverses the Scholastic formulation, claiming that what is most real, namely what he calls The Real, is precisely that which is most impossible.) Whatever its status, this brand of negation is not elaborated by Lecercle. It is merely given as an example of a different kind of negation than that embodied in nihil privativum, the most important category of negation for our purposes.

2)- Nihil privativum is/was seen as relative rather than absolute, for what is at stake here is not the (absolute) non-existence of the impossible, but rather that kind of non-existence which arises from the mutural cancelling-out of two opposite quantities. The formula for this is: 

[ a + –a = 0, or absence].

In Kantian terms, Lececle says, rather than a real or absolute negation, this formula re-presents a "positive structure of oppositions," and the “0” quantity, or absence it produces it not an absolute nothingness, but simply the blank that derives from the non-existence of the two originally given quantities.

In the Snark, the emblem for Nihil privativum is the encounter between the Baker and the Snark, in which the two extinguish each other.


                                            "The Snark was a Boojum, you see" Illustration, Henry Holiday

3)- Then we have negation as lack or absence-in-itself. This “inert passivity” is not the (positive) product of 2 quantities cancelling each other out, but a pure in-difference, or nothingness, an __________ that we may not symbolize at all. 

However, this in-different lack or nothingness may be semioticised by giving it a name, symbol, or frame, such as "0," “(   ),” or _______ .  However, such a framing or naming positivizes the in-different lack and thereby turns it into something like an element in a structure of positive privation. The formula for this would be something like:

[ ________    + –  ________   ]

OR       [ ________    +  “0” ]

[Where “0” is understood as the “name’ of _______, and ______ is a placeholder for the unsymbolizable, i.e, really another symbol for the      (nothingness)         ].

The question then becomes: what does this new structure lead to?

What does [ ______ + “0” ] ––>    ?

In Lecercle's analysis it leads to (the concept of) difference. The complete formula is thus:

[ ______ + “0"] ––> (the concept of) difference.  

In naming or semioticizing the indifferent lack of the nothingness, we initiate a change, and create, by a process of abstraction, the concept of (pure) difference, just as early physicists created the concept of “mass” by abstraction from their observations and analyses of the many phenomena involved in accelerating bodies.

Difference is thus simply the difference between the indifferent nothingness-in-itself, and its name – with the process of naming or semiotization bringing that difference into being. This is to say no more nor less than is stated in Genesis: "In the beginning was the Word." Or,  in Frege's account of numbers, where "0" as the name of ______, becomes the first element whose name is "1". Then, as ( "0" +"1" ) consitute 2 element-names, the name of these twins is "2",  and the name of the triple ("0" + "1" + "2") is "3," etc., etc. By such means we can generate the whole sequence of natural numbers number as the names of the combined names of the previous elements, starting from an original creative act of naming or semioticizing ______ (nothingness). The crucial point however, according to Kant, is that this proces of naming or semioticizations is less a form of negation, than a form of abstraction. For Kant, abstraction is Kant a "negative form of attention "in which one ignores some imputs or data in order the more clearly to bring forward others. Abstraction extracts from the supra-complex flux of experience and ideas only a certain subset on which to focus. Though  extraction/abstraction constitutes a reduction, it does not do so at the expense of bringing into being another (dubious) entity whose Otherness is defined by its absolute unsymbolization, or innate resistence to semiotization. "Absence" here is thus not seen as the shadowy Other of representation or semiotization. Rather, semiotization is the process by which ever new phenomena can be re-created by/from the infinitely fertile Nothingness. (The question, as we shall see later is simply: who or what is responsible for this re-creative act, the Nothingnes itself, or some "external" entity such as a "subject"?)

In the Snark, the emblem of  “positivised,” “semioticised” difference is not a name, but an object-image – the map by which the crew navigate in their quest for the Snark.