112. Lewis Carroll

“The shadow of an amputated limb”–I’ve thrown out that phrase as a description of queerness in literature: the amputated limb is the body, its desires lopped off (repressed) by a society seeking to reproduce itself (humans being, the anthropologist Maurice Godelier writes, the only animals that not only live and reproduce in society, but need and reproduce society in order to live), and its shadow is a present trace of the lost appendage, and one that cannot be held.

“The shadow of an amputated limb”–the phrase suggests also the invention of two of the most queer of Victorian authors, Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear: namely, nonsense verse.

The question that nonsense verse begs is not “what does this mean?”; instead, it is “what lies behind this?” The question is: what situation or dilemma or reality is casting the shadow. The verse itself is the shadow across the page; whatever is casting the shadow, however, is permanently ungraspable by the mind. The trick for the poet is the creation of the shadow without giving away the object behind it.

The joke of the poems might seem to be enacted by the poems. Take, as an obvious example, “The Hunting of the Snark” where the joke of the poem is that one body might be another in reality, and that to encounter it is to cause oneself to disappear. Not a Snark but a Boojum. The characters hunt for a Snark, find the double by mistake, and are swallowed into oblivion as a consequence, and the poem ends too; so the reader hunts for one sense, finds another and believes he has found the answer, is is swallowed into oblivion as the poem ends. An allegory of reading then?

Could they not all be allegories of reading?

There was a Young Lady of Norway,
Who casually sat on a doorway;
When the door squeezed her flat,
She exclaimed, ‘What of that?’
This courageous Young Lady of Norway.

Caught in the jam of interpretation? What of that?

There was an Old Man of Vienna,
Who lived upon Tincture of Senna;
When that did not agree,
He took Camomile Tea,
That nasty Old Man of Vienna.

Swallow one sense (or Tincture of Sense) and if that will not agree, swallow another.

There was an Old Person whose habits,
Induced him to feed upon rabbits;
When he’d eaten eighteen,
He turned perfectly green,
Upon which he relinquished those habits.

It’s one thing to pull interpretations out of one’s hat; another to devour them greedily; don’t do too much of it.

But as the examples suggest, the games are ultimately unsatisfactory: to read nonsense as an allegory of nonsense, as an allegory of open interpretation, is to read it as a shadow of a shadow: in which case, the shadow’s source is identified, however paradoxically, or else the tantalizing possibility of the shadow’s source has been ignored for the shadow itself, which, understood without awareness of a source, ceases to be what it is.

Is it cheating instead to claim that the category or type of source is at least implied by the poems, though the persistent nag of perplexity at the exact nature, movement, and motive of it is not? Because that is what I think can be claimed.

The poems, “The Hunting of the Snark,” and the Lear examples above, and so many others, are often about the discomfort and displacement of the body. They are insistently corporeal poems, telling us about things that the body does.

The reason they remain nonsense is that what the bodies do in the poems, and what the bodies are said to feel, cannot be made sense of in terms of common, conventional, worldly somatic life: we suspect that the amputated limb that casts a shadow is, as the figure of speech I’ve chosen implies, an amputated limb, but we don’t know which limb, what it was doing when amputated, or why it has been removed.

In my favorite of Carroll’s nonsense verses, from the trial scene of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, in which the judgments of those with the power to amputate are on grotesque display, the secrecy is thematized, and the loss of a limb is one part of the secret (without being a clue–because to speak of a clue in the poem is misguided–to its solution):

She’s all my fancy painted him
(I make no idle boast);
If he or you had lost a limb,
Which would have suffered most?

They told me you had been to her,
And mentioned me to him:
She gave me a good character,
But said I could not swim.

He sent them word I had not gone
(We know it to be true):
If she should push the matter on,
What would become of you?

I gave her one, they gave him two,
You gave us three or more;
They all returned from him to you,
Though they were mine before.

If I or she should chance to be
Involved in this affair,
He trusts to you to set them free,
Exactly as we were.

My notion was that you had been
(Before she had this fit)
An obstacle that came between
Him, and ourselves, and it.

Don’t let him know she liked them best,
For this must ever be
A secret, kept from all the rest,
Between yourself and me.

Relations among persons, the secret an obstacle between, but that secret being the source of the poem’s shadowy utterance.

 

 

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