This is one of my favourite essays I wrote as an undergrad. It examines how language works in order to make sense out of nonsense in Lewis Carroll's work. You can download a pdf if you would rather read it that way!
The Schizophrenic Nonsense and Veracity of Lewis Carroll
Lewis Carroll’s timeless poem “Jabberwocky,” throughout its history has been subject to the tireless efforts of readers who must find meaning in it. In their quest for truth or a central origin of meaning, readers often find themselves frustrated by the schizophrenia that Carroll’s poem provokes. They may find themselves all the more frustrated to discover that sense is not identical to truth and that nonsense does not equate to the absence of sense, or the existence of falseness. Carroll’s work has often been passed off as that of a lightweight, nothing more than fancy, or work meant solely for a child’s fascination. Those designations are likely a result of the unsettling ideas that Carroll’s work forces the adult reader to wrestle with, ideas that are still present in the language when the child reads it, but which require a greater maturity to fully understand. Lewis Carroll’s poem “Jabberwocky” and the novel wherein the poem is found, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, makes use of nonsense and schizophrenia in order to reveal the impossibility of ever reaching truth, except by way of metaphor.
In Carroll’s work the function of non-sense is surely different than that of not-sense, for the two are not congruent. The common interpretation of nonsense as equivalent to not-sense, that is, to understand that nonsense is that which is deprived of the ability to make sense, is to fail to comprehend the goals that Carroll’s work seeks to accomplish. Gilles Deleuze, in his Logic of Sense, points out that the nonsense, not-sense misunderstanding is a result of one failing to take note of the following question: “what would be the purpose of rising from the domain of truth to the domain of sense, if it were only to find between sense and nonsense a relation analogous to that of true and false?” (Deleuze 68). Indeed, there would be no purpose for this rise, because if nonsense were merely a doppleganger of not-sense, the two would share the same distinction as veracity and falsity. It follows then, that nonsense must have some other purpose in mind, some other peculiarity to separate it from its apparent antithesis that is sense.
In order to discover the peculiarity of nonsense it would be beneficial to first establish a clear and ubiquitous understanding of what constitutes as sense, but even this is difficult. Sense is not identical to truth in that it has no center. There is no platonic origin to which sense is birthed, or to which sense revolves about, and whatever center the individual subject might think herself privy to is, in fact, not the center at all, but rather solely her own center, a center among millions of others and separate from each. Sense differs from truth in that it contains more centers, that is, sense is less universally agreed upon and understood than truth. This is not to say that truth has a center or an origin, for it does not. Truth, like sense, is impossible to reach because the human being can only operate through metaphor. This is an issue that has been taken up by Friedrich Nietzsche. Of truth, Nietzsche says: “Truths are illusions that we have forgotten are just that; metaphors that have become worn out and sensuously powerless; coins that have lost their image and are now being considered only as metal, no longer as coins” (Nietzsche 455). Nietzsche goes on to explain that to be truthful is solely to use those metaphors that have become customary. Deleuze says something similar regarding the formation of sense, namely that sense comes about as a result of circulation (Logic of Sense 70). In order for a phrase, an object, an event, or a single word to become customary, in order for it to be understood or to have any sensical output, it must be heavily circulated. Only upon circulating to the masses, only upon being generally understood as a fixed convention by the herd, only then can a phrase, an object, an event, or a single word feign to produce a truth or claim to possess sense.
In the Humpty Dumpty chapter of Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, Carroll displays the necessary role that circulation plays in creating truth and fabricating sense. In this chapter, and upon proving that unbirthday presents are unquestionably superior to birthday presents, Humpty Dumpty says to Alice, “There’s glory for you!” to which Alice cannot help but to question what Humpty Dumpty could possibly mean by the word glory. Humpty Dumpty informs young Alice that she could not possibly know what he meant, for he had not yet told her what he meant. Glory, according to Humpty Dumpty, is meant to signify a nice knock-down argument. “‘But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument,’’ Alice object[s].” And indeed, Alice is likely right. Up until this point in her life she had not had Humpty Dumpty’s interpretation circulated to her, though it is curious that readers are never offered an explanation as to what Alice believes ‘glory’ to mean. Nonetheless, Humpty Dumpty’s following retort is perhaps the purest example of the concepts that Nietzsche and Deleuze bring forth above: “When I use a word. . . it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less” (251). Humpty Dumpty is touching on the idea that all human beings experience life in a separate way, one which is unknowable to any other human being except by means of communication.
Communication, however, can only provide so much context because, as Nietzsche said, what is known of the world and what is capable of being communicated in it relies entirely upon the use of metaphor, and more precisely according to Deleuze, upon the use of circulated metaphor. Humpty Dumpty can use words to convey what he likes, but they do not mean anything unless the receiving party shares his same understanding of those words, and even then Humpty Dumpty has no way of truly knowing whether the other party understands his words in the same way he believes he is communicating them. This concept of incertitude, one which dismantles the notion of a singular, communicable truth, present within a collective unconscious, is a concept that is likely to cause despair, for, as Nietzsche puts it:
Only by forgetting this primitive world of metaphor, only by hardening and stiffening the primal mass of images that gush in fervid fluency from the original wealth of human fantasy, only by means of an unconquerable faith that this sun, this window, this table is a truth in itself, in short, only by forgetting himself as subject, that is, as an artistically creative subject, does man live with any tranquility, security, and constancy. If he could escape the prison walls of his faith for only an instant, it would be over at once for his “self-assurance.” (Nietzsche 456)
Humpty Dumpty was certainly cognizant of Nietzsche’s concept of forgetting that there is a singular truth, a singular sun, a singular window, or a singular table. Humpty Dumpty was aware of the necessity of forgetfulness, as well as the inevitable feeling of incertitude one must face upon recognizing the necessity of metaphor in her daily interactions with the her surroundings.
After defining the word “glory” and circulating his definition to Alice, Humpty Dumpty shares one of his most profound morsels of intellect: “‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all’” (251). Of this passage, Jessica Durham writes the following: “Humpty’s use of master is an immediately obvious intertextual allusion to Hegel’s “Master-Slave” dialectic. Humpty Dumpty is right — the question is, which is to be master: signifier or signified? Word or meaning?” (Durham 100). It would be beneficial, in this matter, to recognize signifier and signified not as word or meaning, but rather as sense or truth. Humpty Dumpty, as noted by Martin Gardner’s editorial notes, is a nominalist. When he uses a word, it means whatever he likes it to mean because he understands that he cannot possibly signify the truth, the objective existence, or the center. Instead, any word that Humpty Dumpty speaks is little more than what nominalism would call flatus vocis, that is, verbal utterances (251). Carroll makes Humpty Dumpty’s position clear when he writes the following in his text Symbolic Logic:
I maintain that any writer of a book is fully authorised in attaching any meaning he likes to any word or phrase he intends to use. If I find an author saying, at the beginning of his book. “Let it be understood that by the word ‘black’ I shall always mean ‘white’ , and that by the word ‘white’ I shall always mean ‘black’,” I meekly accept his ruling, however injudicious I may think it. (Symbolic Logic 166)
In other words, Carroll — Humpty Dumpty by proxy — is echoing the idea of circulation posited by Deleuze. He is saying that so long as the author circulates the definition which she means to use, particularly in the instances when she sways from that definition that is most routinely circulated, then the author has done her part. In fulfilling her role she has not necessarily conveyed the truth, but in any case, as has been shown above, to convey truth is an impossibility. Carroll makes clear that the signified is slave to the signifier. He shows that the impossibility of ever reaching the signified makes any understanding of truth absolutely reliant on metaphor. With this understanding in mind, having been armed with the knowledge that truth is nothing more than metaphor, Carroll is ultimately revealing another concept from Deleuze, mentioned above, regarding sense. Carroll shows that sense is not analogous to truth, but rather, that sense occupies a position of greater importance than truth, for when one so often thinks it is truth she is seeking, what she is really after is sense, knowing on some subconscious level that the search for truth is futile. Signifier as master suggests that truth is not supreme, and rather, that truth occupies human existence and understanding at a level that is beneath sense. It is sense that one longs for because it is sense that is solely capable of creating any sort of comfort. Nietzsche writes:
Only through forgetfulness can man ever reach the point of fancying he possesses a “truth”. . . If he does not want to make do with truth in the form of tautology, that is, with empty husks, then he will forever trade illusions for truths. (Nietzsche 454)
To seek sense above truth, to make sense, is to forget the notion of a platonic truth, a center, or an origin. Recognizing sense as the master to truth is an acknowledgement that despite being unable to speak on the same wavelength as another human being, and despite being unable to refer back to the center, the origin, or the truth, one still has some capacity to communicate sense to another human being.
While Carroll, by means of Humpty Dumpty, makes his position clear regarding sense’s greater importance than truth, he turns to nonsense in the poem “Jabberwocky” in order to hammer his point home. The first item to note here — it has been said previously but bears repeating — is that nonsense is not analogous to not-sense. Deleuze offers a succinct version of his definition of sense: “Sense is always an effect” (Deleuze 70). Sense creates an effect between subjects, whether linguistically, verbally, casually, optically, positionally, or merely on the surface. Sense allows for a common effect that leads to, at minimum, a base or perceived form of shared understanding. Nonsense does the same, though unlike sense, nonsense makes use of the schizophrenic in order to create its effect. When readers confront the nonsense that Carroll writes with, they are faced with strategies such as portmanteau words, apparent cognates, and close succession word pairings. All of the prior are strategies which Carroll employs in order to make schizophrenic readers of those who would engage in his work. The notion of the schizophrenic reader refers to the assault that is laid upon readers, an assault of language that combines dozens of meanings in order to create one, singular, intended meaning. When a person reads “Jabberwocky”, she walks away with a general sense of what is going on. She has made sense of the poem as a common hero’s tale, of a boy who takes on and defeats the frightful Jabberwock. The other animals, and even the newly created words, manage to create some sort of sense. The portmanteaus, the cognates, and the words found in succession all serve to create a lineage, all of which contribute to a new, singular, and unique definition or sense while calling and echoing back to their ancestors of their lineage. There are multiple voices in each word, that is, multiple meanings, all of which claim to be true. Nonsense fails to be not-sense, in that it still establishes an effect on the reader. But where nonsense dramatically differs is in its ability to always create “too much sense: an excess [that is] produced and over-produced” (Deleuze 71). Nonsense does not possess a one to one relationship among signifier and signified, but rather points multiple signifiers towards a single signified that at the same time encompass multiple signifieds, perpetually switching places with the ancestors in the lineage Carroll creates. The nonsense of “Jabberwocky” forces readers to recognize that all language is a metaphor for a separate entity. The nonsense of “Jabberwocky” acts as sense by proxy, much in the same way that sense acts as truth by proxy. Nonsense enacts sense through its opposition to the absence of sense, just as sense effectively enacts truth through its opposition to the existence of a truth.
One of the most prominent strategies that Carroll employs to exhibit the effect of nonsense or schizophrenia is that of the portmanteau word. The notion of a portmanteau word was minted by Carroll in the book wherein the entirety of “Jabberwocky” was originally presented: Through the Looking-Glass. When Alice comes to meet Humpty Dumpty she realises that the egg-man philosopher is good with words and asks him to help her decipher the poem she had found, “Jabberwocky.” Humpty Dumpty goes on to give a wealth of definitions to words such as “slithy” or “gyre.” Slithy, Humpty Dumpty informs readers, means both lithe and slimy and lithe means the same thing as active. “You see, it’s like a portmanteau – there are two meanings packed up into one word” he says (253). Humpty Dumpty’s given definition relates strictly to the notion of schizophrenia and nonsense. Portmanteau words such as mimsy, which Humpty Dumpty later describes as meaning something like flimsy and miserable, infuse a single sign-image, or word, with multiple voices, or signifieds. When one reads the word “mimsy,” she might be able to grab hold of the effect or general sense that the neologism attempts to create, but she cannot do this without, at some level of mental process, sensing the ancestors of mimsy calling out their own separate definitions to her. The reader can only experience Carroll’s portmanteau neologisms as schizophrenia; she can only experience the portmanteau neologisms as nonsense. Sense is still implied, and meaning is still given, a fact that would not be true had the neologisms created not-sense, which allows for any arbitrary definition and possesses no lineage to create an effect.
Another common strategy that Carroll uses comes in the form of apparent cognates, which call to a lineage of words that sound and mean the same as the apparent cognate. Gyre is the verb for the object that its sign-image ought to suggest, a gyroscope. To gyre, Humpty Dumpty says, “is to go round and round like a gyroscope” (253). Similarly, gimble is a verb for the object that its sign-image suggests, a gimblet. To gimble, Humpty Dumpty says, “is to make holes like a gimblet” (253). These cognates function in a similar fashion to the portmanteau in that when a reader comes across gyre or gimble, she may well have a general idea of the effect the words create, but she is unable to fully separate them from the objects they invoke: the gyroscope and the gimblet. Here, when the reader sees gyre or gimble, she hears the voices or their objects calling out to her and telling her what motions they are apt to make. The reader can only experience Carroll’s apparent cognates as schizophrenia; she can only experience the apparent cognate neologisms as nonsense. Here again, sense is still implied and meaning is still given but each is applied while assaulting the reader from each direction with the calls from the lineage of the apparent cognates.
Carroll further exemplifies the schizophrenia that portmanteaus and cognates create by assigning definitions to his neologisms in his “Stanza of Anglo-Saxon Poetry” that differ from those he gives via Humpty Dumpty in Through The Looking Glass. Carroll originally wrote the first stanza of “Jabberwocky” under the title of “Stanza of Anglo-Saxon Poetry” in 1855. Alongside this stanza he offered definitions for his neologisms that are distinctly different from those offered in Through the Looking Glass. In the case of the portmanteaus, he redefines mimsy as meaning “mimserable and miserable,” or more generally, the state of being unhappy. He has more noticeable and drastic changes for the cognates. Gyre, in the Anglo-Saxon case, is defined as “Gyaour” or “Giaour” which refers to a dog and is a verb for “scratching like a dog” (140). The word wabe changes from its Humpty Dumpty definition as the grass plot around a sun dial, the part that goes a long way before, behind, and beyond the dial (“Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There” 253), and instead becomes, in Carroll’s Anglo-Saxon poetry, the side of a hill. The word wabe, in the Anglo-Saxon case, is derived from the verbs to soak or to swab and the side of the hill, Carroll explains, is often soaked by rain water (“Stanza of Anglo-Saxon Poetry” 140). By providing even more definitions for the portmanteaus and cognates, Carroll further accentuates the idea of schizophrenia that nonsense produces. He avoids the concept that a word can mean whatever the reader decides it to mean by explicitly making clear what his neologisms mean, much in the same way that he says writers should be able to require that black mean white and white mean black. Still, while Carroll’s words and definitions manage to instill sense into his nonsense poems, they do so by creating an abundance of sense that assaults the schizophrenic reader from all sides, dismantling her and forcing her to recognize that truth and sense exist only in metaphor.
Carroll, Lewis. “Stanza of Anglo-Saxon Poetry.” The Rectory Umbrella and Mischmasch (1932). British Library, n.d, pp. 133-141. www.bl.uk/collection-items/lewis-carroll- juvenilia-stanza-of-anglo-saxon-poetry. Accessed 14 Apr. 2017.
—. Carroll, Lewis. Symbolic Logic and The Game of Logic. Dover, 1958.
—. “Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There.” The Annotated Alice. Edited by Martin Gardner and Mark Burnstein, W.W. Norton, 2015.
Deleuze, Gilles. The Logic of Sense. Edited by Constantin V Boundas, Columbia University Press, 1990.
Durham, Jessica. “Jabberwocky and differance: Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass as a Satire of Logocentrism.” Transcultural Studies: A Series in Interdisciplinary Research. vol. 6-7, 2010-2011, pp. 91 – 101.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense.” The Critical Tradition Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. Trans. Harry Heuser, Ed. David H. Richter. 3rd ed., Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007.