On nonsense

There is nothing that needs more fastidious care than our choice of nonsense. Sense is like daylight or daily air, and may come from any quarter or in any quantity. But nonsense is an art. Like an art, it is rarely successful, and yet entirely simple when it is successful. Like an art, it depends on the smallest word, and a misprint can spoil it. And like an art, when it is not in the service of heaven it is almost always in the service of hell. Numberless imitators of Lewis Carroll or of Edward Lear have tried to write nonsense and failed; falling back (one may hope) upon writing sense. But certainly, as the great Gilbert said, wherever there has been nonsense it has been precious nonsense…

I have suffered as much as any man from the public insult of the misprint. I have seen my love of books described as a love of boots. I have seen the word ‘cosmic’ invariably printed as ‘comic’; and have merely reflected that the two are much the same. As to Nationalists and Rationalists, I have come to the conclusion that no human handwriting or typewriting can clearly distinguish them; and I now placidly permit them to be interchanged, though the first represents everything I love and the second everything I loathe. But there is one kind of misprint I should still find it hard to forgive. I could not pardon a blunder in the printing of ‘Jabberwock’. I insist on absolute literalism in that really fine poem of Lear, ‘The Dong with the Luminous Nose’. To spoil these new nonsense words would be like shooting a great musician improvising at the piano. The sounds could never be recovered again. ‘And as in uffish thought he stood’. If the printer had printed it ‘affish’ I doubt if the first edition would have sold. ‘Over the Great Gromboolian Plain’. Suppose I had seen it printed ‘Gromhoolian’. Perhaps I should never have known, as I know now, that Edward Lear was a yet greater man than Lewis Carroll.

The first principle, then, may be considered clear. Let mistakes be made in ordinary books — that is, in scientific works, established biographies, histories, and so on. Do not let us be hard on misprints when they occur merely in time-tables or atlases or works of science. In works like those of Professor Haeckel, for example, it is sometimes quite difficult to discover which are the misprints and which are the intentional assertions. But in anything artistic, anything which avowedly strays beyond reason, there we must demand the exactitude of art. If a thing is admittedly not possible, then the next best thing it can do is to be beautiful. If a thing is nonsensical, it ought to be perfectly nonsensical.

The Illustrated London News, 11 March 1911.

Published in: on July 27, 2011 at 6:57 am  Comments (1)  

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Angela. How purely fragrant!

    Saphir. How earnestly precious!

    Patience. Well, it seems to me to be nonsense.

    Saphir. Nonsense, yes, perhaps – but oh, what precious nonsense!


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