Definitions of Nonsense Literature

Definitions of Nonsense Literature

from Edward Strachey, “Nonsense as a Fine Art”

The Quarterly Review, October 1888

“In contradiction to the relations and harmonies of life, Nonsense sets itself to discover and bring forward the incongruities of all things within and without us. […] For while Sense is, and must remain, essentially prosaic and commonplace, Nonsense has proved not to be an equally prosaic and commonplace negative of Sense, not a mere putting forward of incongruities and absurdities, but a bringing out a new and deeper harmony of life in and through its contradictions. Nonsense in fact, in this use of the word, has shown itself to be a true work of the imagination, a child of genius, and its writing one of the Fine Arts” (335).

from Wim Tigges. An Anatomy of Nonsense

Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1988.

“A genre of narrative literature which balances a multiplicity of meaning with a simultaneous absence of meaning. This balance is effected by playing with the rules of language, logic, prosody and representation, or a combination of these. In order to be successful, nonsense must at the same time invite the reader to interpretation and avoid the suggestion that there is a deeper meaning which can be obtained by considering connotations or associations, because these lead to nothing. The elements of word and image that may be used in this play are primarily those of negativity or mirroring, imprecision or mixture, infinite repetition, simultaneity, and arbitrariness. A dichotomy between reality and the words and images which are used to describe it must be suggested. The greater the distance or tension between what is presented, the expectations that are evoked, and the frustration of these expectations, the more nonsensical the effect will be” (47).

from T.S. Eliot, “The Music of Poetry”

T. S. Eliot wrote that Lear’s nonsense “is not a vacuity of sense; it is a parody of sense, and that is the sense of it.” (The third W. P. Ker Memorial Lecture, delivered at Glasgow University, 24 February 1942. Editor’s note) in “The Music of Poetry,” pp. 56-67, T.S. Eliot, Selected Prose, ed. John Hayward. Penguin, 1953.

from Jean-Jacques Lecercle, Philosophy of Nonsense

Philosophy of Nonsense: The Intuitions of Victorian Nonsense Literature. Routledge, 1994.

“Nonsense texts are not explicitly parodic, they turn parody into a theory of serious literature. […] [N]onsense is on the whole a conservative-revolutionary genre. It is conservative because deeply respectful of authority in all its forms: rules of grammar, maxims of conversation and of politeness, the authority of the canonical author of the parodied text. […] The genre is structured by the contradiction…between over-structuring and de-structuring, subversion and support… the dialectic of excess and lack. […] Nonsense both supports the myth of an informative and communicative language and deeply subverts it–exposes it as a myth in the pejorative sense (thereby acquiring mythical force in the positive sense)” (2-3).

from Mervyn Peake, “Alice and Tenniel and Me” (a BBC talk, 1954)

Nonsense can be gentle or riotous. It can clank like a stone in the empty bucket of fatuity. It can take you by the hand and lead you nowhere. It’s magic–for to explain it, were that possible, would be to kill it. It swims, plunges, cavorts, and rises in its own element. It’s a fabulous fowl. For non-sense is not the opposite of good sense. That would be ‘Bad Sense’. It’s something quite apart–and isn’t the opposite of anything. It’s something far more rare. Hundreds of books are published year after year. Good sense in many of them: bad sense in many more–but non-sense, oh no, that’s rarity, a revelation and an art worth all the rest. Perhaps one book in every fifty years glitters with the divine lunacy we call nonsense. (The Mervyn Peake Review, no. 6 (Spring 1978), pp. 20-24. p. 22)

from Michael Heyman, “A Nonsense Naissance”

Introduction to The Tenth Rasa: An Anthology of Indian Nonsense (New Delhi: Penguin, 2007)

We may begin by classifying literary nonsense texts as those where there is a type of balance between “sense” and “non-sense.” Such balance is necessary if the text is not to become either plain sense, as in a best-selling crime novel, or utter gibberish, as in a baby’s babbling. The former is unremarkable, the latter, unintelligible and uninteresting.[1] Good nonsense engages the reader; it must “invite interpretation” (Tigges 255), implying that sense can be made, but at the same time it must foil attempts to make sense in many of the traditional ways.

In order to keep the balance, the “sense” side of the scale must weigh heavily: Nonsense thus tends to be written in tight structures, that is, with strict poetic form or within the bounds of formal prose. It also usually follows meticulously the rules of language, like grammar, syntax, and phonetics. Nonsense stories are about identifiable characters, and the usually simple plots are understandable. In short, there is much that actually makes sense in quite an ordinary way. So where, you may be wondering, is the nonsense? On the nonsense side of the scale are all the ways in which the text fights against sense, primarily on the semantic and logical levels. The specific methods by which the genre does this are outlined below, but it is important to recognize that nonsense operates not by ignoring the rules of sense, but by subversively playing with them—stretching, squeezing, flipping upside-down, but in the end, still depending on their existence. Indeed, nonsense usually emerges from an excess of sense rather than a lack of it, or as Tigges states, through a “multiplicity of meaning [balanced] with a simultaneous absence of meaning” (255). With such a simultaneous multiplicity of meaning levels, there is no way of saying, as many critics do, “Ah, it is this one, not those.

Nonsense, seen this way, thus becomes a genre that is at least as creative as it is destructive (as meaningful as it is meaningless), a reflection of the god Shiva, in his iconic manifestation as Nataraja, performing ananda tandava, literally the “dance of bliss.”[2] In this dance, Shiva executes the eternal, cyclical destruction and creation of the world. Nonsense also engages in a joyful dance of destruction, although how much is destroyed, how much is subverted, and how much is untouched, are debatable. From the wreckage of such destruction, though, comes the creation of new kinds of sense and new ways of making it.

To use one more metaphor, nonsense leads us down a path of sense, only at the last moment to turn aside from the expected destination; in the end, we find we keep walking in circles—or beautiful, infinite fractals—and that the joy, and the meaning, is in the journey, not the destination. “Meaning” in nonsense thus has less to do with our interpretation of conventions like plot, theme, and character, and more to do with how these are subverted, with how the text clashes with various kinds of sense. What we gather from the struggle reflects both ourselves and the world. The genre, as T.S. Eliot puts it, is a careful parody of sense (29), and as such it questions logic and language, our usually unquestioned, fundamental ways of making meaning of the world. We not only laugh at the absurd creations within the text, but also at our own imaginations’ courageous attempts to grapple with them, and, most significantly, at our inability to escape our fundamental nature as meaning-making machines. These self-reflexive doubts can lead, in turn, to the questioning of the world we have created, including, particularly, social and political power structures fabricated under the untrustworthy aegis of “sense.” In such a wider context, nonsense can be seen as a force for social change, linguistic exploration, political satire, religious expression, and philosophical inquiry, to name only a few. Yet, nonsense is the opposite of some dreary, didactic tome. Despite the tension, the frustration of expectation, and transgression of the sacred, it is funny, somehow. In such laughter, such meta-awareness, we briefly stand outside of our habitual selves, question everything—ourselves included—and in doing so face any potentially frightening consequences through the dance of nonsense, our own ananda tandava. [3]

[1] The perceptive reader at this point may protest, “But baby babble is not meaningless, exactly. It conveys many kinds of meaning—hunger, pain, loneliness, etc.” These kinds of meaning-making outside of the way we normally make sense of dialogue are a good parallel to one of the ways that nonsense, in a sense, makes sense(s).

[2] The idea of nonsense creation was developed in part in conversation with Kevin Shortsleeve, in a meeting of the Society for the Prevention of Sense (SFPS).

[3] These mystical senses also touch on Alan Watts’s definition of nonsense as a representation of Zen philosophy, or G.K. Chesterton’s claim that the appreciation of nonsense is the closest approximation to religious faith we can find in literature. For details on these definitions, see Alan Watts, Nonsense (1967) (Dutton: New York, 1977) and G. K. Chesterton, “A Defence of Nonsense,” in The Defendant (London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1914), pp. 42-50. See also Aldous Huxley, “Edward Lear” in On the Margin (London: Chatto & Windus, 1923), pp. 167-172.

from Anna Barton, “Nonsense Literature”

Oxford Bibliographies (2015).

“Nonsense” is a literary genre that is difficult to define in absolute terms, and examples of literary nonsense are frequently found in other kinds of text. It is, on the one hand, a fairly recent invention. The Oxford English Dictionary describes Edward Lear as “the parent of modern nonsense writers,” and it is certainly the case that “modern nonsense” originates with Lear and Lewis Carroll in the mid-19th century. However, it is equally true that the work of Lear and Carroll also belongs to a much-older literary tradition that might be traced back to 11th-century England or even further, to the literature of classical Antiquity. This broader definition understands nonsense as a kind of literature that is inseparable from the literature of sense, so that, as its name suggests, “non-sense” always exists in relation to, and as a comment on, “sense.” T. S. Eliot, whose poetry learns from that of Lear and Carroll, meant something similar to this when he wrote that Lear’s nonsense “is not a vacuity of sense; it is a parody of sense, and that is the sense of it” (“The Music of Poetry”). Eliot suggests that nonsense is latent in all kinds of literature, so that nonsense might best be described as a kind of writing that draws attention to and takes advantage of the arbitrary nature of language. Nonsense is, therefore, literature that complicates or obstructs the relationship between word and world, or word and meaning, rather than using words as a conduit to the world they describe. Nonsense might do this by drawing attention to language as a thing in itself, with its own sonic and visual qualities, or it might use puns, which demonstrate how easily meaning can be turned upside-down by a slip of the tongue. This makes nonsense a near neighbor of poetry, which is also literature that creates meaning out of sound and form. But, as Eliot suggests, it also lends nonsense a kind of anarchic potential because, by making fun of language, nonsense presents a significant challenge to the power language has to name, know, and own the world. For these reasons, nonsense has attracted attention not just from readers of children’s literature and Victorian literature, but also from linguists, theorists, and philosophers.

from Alan Levinovitz, “Slaying the Chinese Jabberwock: Toward a Comparative Philosophy of Nonsense”

in Comparative Literature. 69:3. 2017. 251-270

Nonsense is the experience of rewarding sense-juggling inspired by a semantically ambiguous text that resists conclusive interpretation.

This definition highlights a crucial fact… nonsense is a temporal phenomenon. It occurs in time, not just “in a text.” It is a reader’s rewarding encounter with semantic ambiguity, and insoar as readers experience texts temporally, nonsense must occur that way as well. Falsehoods, paradoxes, contradictions, made-up words, indecipherable symbols, silly names: these are no longer sufficient synonyms for nonsense, though they may play a part in it. Nonsense is something more than the quality of a symbol or set of symbols: it is the nexus of connection between ambiguous semantic elements ,a reader, and a context, which together determine a particular and rewarding experience.” (255)

from John Lennon, spoken to a fanatic nut

“I was just having fun with words. It was literally a nonsense song. I mean, Dylan does that…You just take words, and you stick them together and see if they have any meaning. Some of them do, some of them don’t.”

On Fantasy and Nonsense,  Michael Heyman

While nonsense is often written within the genre of fantasy, they are distinct (though related) categories. Talking animals and spell-casting wizards are fantasy—not nonsense. If a nonsense story happens to have talking animals (thereby making it a nonsense fantasy), these animals are not what make it nonsense. A good fantasy world has a discernible, logical system behind it that, while fantastical, makes demonstrable sense within itself. Magic is often used to make fantasy worlds make sense, and as long as we accept the mechanics of magic, everything does (Here, animals talk. Here, magic exists.). It’s no coincidence that nonsense worlds are usually devoid of magic. Their oddness occurs within an ostensibly “real” world—which is why they are odd. If a fictional world explains actions with magic, that is usually a sign it is not a nonsense world (the magic makes it make sense). If the nonsense world does have magic (quite rare), then it is a particularly baffling kind of magic that defies logic—and only furthers the mystery of the world, rather than explaining it. In Carl Sandburg’s Rootabaga Stories, for instance, when Jason Squiff finds the magic “gold buckskin whincher” (a nonsense item in itself), he has to live with the magic of this item that dictates (among other nonsense-rules) the following one: “You have a letter Q in your name and because you have the pleasure and happiness of having a Q in your name you must have a popcorn hat, popcorn mittens and popcorn shoes.” Accordingly, whatever hat, mittens and shoes he puts on turn to popcorn. So here, there is magic, but it is so baffling, illogical, mysterious, etc. that it qualifies as nonsense.