Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Fit the Fifth, Page 33, Panel 3 … oh brave new world that hath such snarks in it!

The Beaver had counted with scrupulous care,
Attending to every word:
But it fairly lost heart, and outgrabe in despair,
When the third repetition occurred.

When Lewis Carroll sat down at his writing desk to compose his masterpiece of passive-aggressive nonsense, The Hunting of the Snark, he often chewed reflexively upon his quill pen as he pondered what effect his words might have upon future readers.

Words, words, words! They have naughty bits which we cover up in polite company, they have sad bits to make the grownups cry, and sometimes, if you push ‘em together just so, their silly bits will make the kiddies giggle!

Of course, every word needs a voice and the above stanzel’s assemblage of words, birds, quills, desks and notes is stuffed with ‘em. Alas, poor Beaver, chronically outgrabed and all those voices in your head to boot! One of them, sounding suspiciously like the Mad Hatter, is wondering why a raven is like a writing-desk? Another (rather familiar) voice is telling her that this is so "because it can produce a few notes, tho they are very flat; and it is nevar put with the wrong end in front". Yet another voice (craftily mimicking Sam Lyod) is telling her that the correct answer is simply that Poe wrote on both. There’s even a voice chiming in about them both having quills dipped in ink.

These words are all meant to answer those other arrangements of words which more evolved thinkers call riddles, that is to say, an augural flock of words meant to signify something despite themselves. Replete with all the requisite overtones of linguistic juju, riddles were once all the rage in the Good Old Days. They served as social icebreakers for all manner of homicidal and imaginary beasts such as sphinxes, trolls, dragons and even — yes! — Jubjub Birds!

I shall cue the evil laughter now for our jolly little metafictional cabal stands revealed at last! Outgrabe all you like, Miss Beaver, but the bird you are really riddling here is no mere raven, it is the Urschreckvogel, the dreaded Jubjub itself!

And so, dear reader, can you enlighten the Beaver as to why a Jubjub is like a writing desk? Simple, you reply — because none has an o in it (pace Huxley). Then run as fast as you can before all these birds wreak their Hitchcockian vengeance upon your person!

NB. Apropos of none of the above, the unwelcome news of J.G. Ballard's death. Young people following this blog who might be unfamiliar with his work are recommended to search it out. Ballard's work in SF is a sharp reminder to many mainstream authors and artists that the genuine avant-garde of the last third of the 20th-century was SF, in particular the British flavor. Deeply influenced by Surrealism throughout, at times he also pursued a less aggressive vein of visionary art (more palatable, I think, to many Carrollians), in such semi-neglected novels as The Unlimited Dream Company. Eschewing the transatlantic temptation of commodifying and infantilizing the imagination, Ballard upheld the grand tradition of Blake, Carroll, Peake and Angela Carter.