Fous Littéraires vs. non-sense

Part 1: The little girl
Alice, illustration by John Tenniel

The main interest for early lovers of Roussel's work, such as the surrealists and Duchamp, was its bizarre content – the impossible tableaux vivants and unlikely narratives in which these were supposedly contextualized and “explained.” However, in the second half of the 20th century, focus definitively shifted to the (deeper) structural logics (revealed in How I came to write certain of my books) that generate these contents as their (surface) effects. Various reasons could be given for this shift, a decline of interest in the irrational and fantastic, as well as the rise in a less playful form of introspection attendant upon the horrors of two world wars. But perhaps the most important is the rise of Structural linguistics and a generally widened attention to structures of meaning as such. Within this broader context, the texts of fous littéraires and Non-sense take on a particularly powerful resonance, for their intuitions into language seem to precede those of the linguists, and in some cases wildly exceed them. So, what is the difference between Non-sense and fou-work? To answer this question, we must first understand what Non-sense, as a literary genre, consists of.

What is Non-Sense: Alice and the School

While nonsense might be any form of verbal gobbledy-gook we might care to invent, the capitalized and hyphenized term Non-sense is used here to refer to a specific genre of literature produced in Victorian England, its two most well-known proponents being Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, aka Charles LutwidgeDodgson. Though of course other authors exist, both in and out of this time and place, Victorian England was particularly conducive to its production. Furthermore, most of the philosophical commentary on Non-sense is devoted to these two authors. As space does not permit us to cover even this circumscribed area, we shall concentrate on two works, both by Carroll, Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There (which includes the poem "Jabberwocky") (1871), and The Hunting of the Snark (1876).

As Lecercle points out in his introduction to Philosophy of Nonsense: The Intuitions of Victorian Nonsense Literature, the Alice books have acquired a mythical status, not just because the stories and images contained therein proliferate across all media, but because, in the technical anthropological sense elaborated by Lévi-Strauss, they attempt to solve a real contradiction in (Victorian) society, by imaginary means. This means that all Non-sense texts, including the Alice books, can be seen as structured by a dialectic of excess and lack. Lecercle formulates the linguistic version of this dialectic in the following terms:

the speaker is always torn apart by the two poles of the contradiction of language, 'language speaks' (it is language, not I that speaks, the words come out of my mouth 'all wrong') and 'I speak language' (I am in full control of my utterance, I say what I mean and mean what I say). (ibid., p.3).

One way this dialectic is exhibited is that a Non-sense text "does not seek to limit meaning to one single interpretation – on the contrary, its dissolution of sense multiplies meaning," (ibid., p.20). This is because Non-sense texts are made to be read on two levels at once, levels that are incompatible. The formula for this is not “the te-X-t means A,” or “the te-X-t means B,” but “the te-X-t means both A and B, simultaneously,'' including when A and B are mutually exclusive or contradictory. Take the narrative poem "Jabberwocky" cited in Through the Looking Glass, and famously interpreted, in chapter 6, by Humpty Dumpty, itself a creature of fiction, that is, words.

'Twas brillig and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:

All mimsy were the borogroves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.

(Annotated Alice, ed. M. Gardener, Penguin, 1965, p. 191). (This edition will be used throughout for quotes from the Alice Books.)

As Alice says, "[i]t seems to fill my head with ideas– only I don't exactly know that they are! However, somebody killed something: that's clear at any rate –" (ibid. p. 197). This is because at the phonetic, morphological and syntactic levels the poem reads exactly like English. We recognize nouns and verbs and adjectives, etc. in the concocted, portmanteau words. For instance, we recognize that "outgrabe" is a verb, and the past form of "outgribe," rather than an adverb modifying the verb "rath" performed by the mome. It is only at the level of semantics that the text fails. That is, we understand all the parts of grammar, but reference fails, because we do not know how to interpret, or give a specific meaning to these words. There are two ways to approach this problem. The first, used by Humpty Dumpty, is to impose a fixed meaning on each unknown, portmanteau word; thus, according to HD a " borogrove" is "a thin shabby-looking bird with its feather sticking all round – something like a live mop”... whereas "toves" are "something like badgers –... something like lizards – and...something like corkscrews," (ibid., p. 271). The problem with such a reading is that you can make any word mean anything you like, whether you pay it extra or not!

The other approach is to accept that the poem is pervaded by semantic blanks, and that these compel us to look at the text in a new way. The key to this other way of reading is to recognize that the portmanteau words are not aimed at a visual imagination, but at a linguistic one; they are not meant to be visualized, but to be played with, explored, and even exploited, "by our linguistic imagination, which is boundless," (PoN, p. 24). Under this interpretation, there is not one fixed meaning, systematic and rational, but a playful proliferation of partial structures variously ambiguous:

the words sing in our ears, unexpected links are established between them, relationships of alliteration, assonance or rhyme, of potential spoonerism (why not 'the rome maths outgrabe? (ibid.)

As Lecercle says, by focusing on these semantic gaps as gaps, this second way of reading allows language to play by itself; it lets language speak (for itself), rather than, as is considered the usual case, we speaking it. To use other terminologies, we are no longer in the realm of Saussurean langue, but of Lacanian lalangue, “which does not appeal to our conventional imagination, but rather induces an epiphanic intuition of the real workings of language,” (ibid.).

Here language is both more real and more terrible, for it becomes a balancing act between the orderly and the disorderly. On the one hand, the structure is so coherent that the reader can tell an adverb from a verb, simply because, once I recognize the beginning of a string of words, the end becomes predictable – as in “the mome raths outgrabe.” On the other it allows us to play with our linguistic unconscious in a free, and even subversive manner. But Non-sense is not a purely disorderly genre. It is “conservative-revolutionary” (ibid. p.25) in that while it gives free reign to the linguistic imagination it also imposes the constraints of regular language with a vengeance. We do not take “outgrabe” as an adjverb. “It is both free and constrained. It tells the reader to abide, and not to abide, by the rules of language. We are back with the [  ] paradox,” I speak language…and…I am inhabited, or possessed by it,” (ibid.). Why, the question remains, should this peculiar genre have been so particularly prevalent in Victorian England?

Lecercle answers this question in the final chapter of Philosophy of Nonsense by showing how Non-sense is an integral part of a complex social apparatus that he dubs, after Deleuze and Guattari, “the School,” (ibid., p. 214). Or to put it in D-G terms, there is a nonsense-cum-school rhizome at play in Victorian England, in which, not only is the British school steeped in nonsense, but “nonsense inscribes the school within its text,” (ibid.). As Lecercle shows, Victorian schooling was not so much an education aimed at teaching children understanding, but a system of rote learning that simply filled their heads with meaningless extracts and lists, especially those half of the children whom Carroll favored, i.e., “not boys.” From this perspective Non-sense texts are parodies of grammars and primers in which literally meaningless sentences are given as exemplars of grammatical rules in order to teach children arbitrary discipline(s), rather than give them an understanding of anything at all. In this context Lecercle quotes both Winston Churchill and then Alice, to demonstrate his point.

This is how Winston Churchill describes his first lesson at Harrow in 1888: [when] asked to learn by rote the declension of mensa, a table. Being of an inquisitive mind, he asked for an explanation of the vocative case:

‘What does O table mean?’

‘Mensa, O table, is the vocative case,’ he replied.

‘But why O table?’ I persisted in genuine curiosity.

‘O table – you would use that in addressing a table…’

‘But I never do,’ I blurted out in honest amazement.

‘If you are impertinent, you will be punished…was his conclusive rejoinder,’

(quoted in ibid., 216).

Such fabrications using non-sensical propositions as exemplars of grammatical rules were standard practice in Victorian schooling, and Alice, who did not have the benefit of Arthur’s education fund, dutifully repeats one when she attempts to hail a mouse in chapter 2 of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, where she is drowning in a pool of her own tears.

‘O Mouse, do you know the way out of this pool?...(Alice thought this might be the right way of speaking to a mouse…[and] she remembered having seen in her brother’s Latin Grammar, ‘A mouse – of a mouse – to a mouse – a mouse – O mouse!’ (quoted in ibid., 217).


                                              Alice hailing a mouse from a vale of tears.

As we can see, literary Non-Sense simply highlights the non-sensical aspects of the School by extracting them from their wider context, and thereby exposing their absurdity.But also, we should note, at the same time, actually teaching the child the rule. This is why Deleuze and Guattari can say that Non-Sense as a genre is “conservative-revolutionary,” rather than merely revolutionary. For all its silliness, it is ultimately very conventional in its attitude to language – its aim being precisely to teach the rules to those from whom such teaching is denied, those excluded by the School.

(Side Note – Interestingly, this deep interpenetration of The School and art is also exhibited in surrealist work, where the mad pedantic apparati of listings, random citations, and non-sensical propositions used as exemplars of grammatical rules was used to stunning effect in the production of  unlikely objets both 2 and 3 dimensional. For more on this topic see, Brigid Doherty, "What is There to Be Learned from Kitsch?" Cabinet, No. 39, Immaterial Inc., Fall 2010, pp. 82-89.)

As an “arrangement of utterance,” the School is the total social-collective of institutions and forces that vied, in Victorian Britain, for the power to organize education. These include the state, which sought to increase its control over pedagogical processes, the churches, which sought to maintain their traditional control over these, and various reformers, who criticized the inadequacy of the systems thereby produced, (PoN, p. 218). Victorian England was a time when the School sought to capture an increasing portion of the male population in order to cement an alliance between the middle and upper classes by offering upward mobility through education.

Of course, in Victorian times, many children did not got to school, those we would call preschoolers, but also little girls of contemporary school age. No doubt Alice and other middle-class girls had governesses, but the education provided by these hardly equipped them for the rigorous and often vitriolic verbal dueling required to become a success amongst the Victorian elite. It is not for nothing that Non-sense and Oscar Wilde were produced by the same social milieu.

Nonsense addresses those children whom the school excludes, [little girls and pre-schoolers]. As such, one could argue that it complements the usual institutions by providing material for home schooling – after all, that is what nursery rhymes and cautionary tales are supposed to do, (ibid., 219).

However, the Alice books and other Non-Sense texts such as Lear’s limmericks are emphatically not textbooks. They

are everything that a Victorian textbook is not, and everything that it should be, if it took any account of the personality and educational needs of its prospective readers. (This is where Lewis Carroll again has extraordinary intuitions: he was a failure with [his male] students and pupils, but he instinctively knew what little girls wanted – he was attentive to their desires probably because he was attentive to his own). Nonsense, thus stands Victorian textbooks on their heads… far from being a marginal branch of the rhizome, a patch on the carefully woven cloth of the school, nonsense is an integral, nay crucial part of the arrangement, (ibid., p.220, emphasis added).