Readers of this blog who already possess a copy of my GN version of The Hunting of the Snark will know that the artist's afterword which graces that already gracious volume is a fine thing indeed. It purveys information animal-vegetable-and-mineral about all things Snark in a handy, easy-to-swallow format.
This afterword was actually the second draft of the primal Ur-Wort which follows below. After some reflection, both I and the publisher, Melville House, deemed this original text to be too "hot" and "spicy" for the average North American reader. Apparently the latter prefer their Snarkiana al dente, as opposed to we Indo-Germanic Snarkistas, who prefer our Snark well-oiled and lascivious.
NB. Follow me on Twitter … and find out why oulipo is words crucified upon numbers but epistemology is numbers crucified upon words. Plus lots of naughty shop-talk as I illustrate the next volume in J.C. Valtat's New Venice steampunk series, Luminous Chaos, coming soon from Melville House.
The Inking of the Snark
Our hunt began with a stroll. On the morning of July 18, 1874, a Christ Church mathematics tutor, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, happened to be taking one around Guildford, a village in Surrey. He had spent the night nursing his consumptive nephew and as he now walked through the bright English countryside, a curious and unexpected thought came to him, a random line of Nonsense verse that flashed through his mind:
For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.
Even more to our purpose, at that precise moment a startling personal transformation took place, a metamorphosis, in fact: the rather unassuming personage of C.L. Dodgson suddenly vanished and in its place reappeared the celebrated literary genius, Lewis Carroll.
The more flamboyant Carroll had already made his reputation with British readers as the author of two masterpieces of children’s literature and high Nonsense: Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Yet he had not produced any other significant work for several years afterwards until that July morning when an odd fragment of unexpected and semi-intelligible verse set in motion his final and most controversial work of Nonsense.
The obliging Dodgson withdrew from public view for the next two years to allow Carroll the time and privacy necessary to compose the remaining 563 lines of that poem which we know today as The Hunting of the Snark. It was a difficult and time consuming task; the poem was essentially composed backwards in bits and pieces from the initial fragment and Dodgson’s hectic schedule often required the poet to set aside his pen so that the busy academic could attend to his less glamorous professional and family duties.
The epic was eventually published in 1876 to lackluster critical reviews yet the public paid them no heed, so much so that the book has remained in print till this day and in at least 16 languages to boot. Yet the Snark’s literary and commercial success also proved to be Carroll’s literary Boojum. From this point onwards, Dodgson demanded a far greater creative role at Carroll’s expense, a difficult state of affairs which culminated in the debacle of Sylvie and Bruno a few years later.
In any case, the Snark itself thrived as only genuine Nonsense can in this supposedly hard-nosed world. Proving to be a subversively addictive earworm for connoisseurs of linguistic and logical mayhem, it exerted a cult-like spell upon many of its readers and equally important, the many artists who seized upon its raw matter for their own uses over the years. Its curious, almost symbiotic ability to re-evolve itself to fit the changing needs of its artist-hosts eventually put it in the ranks of such archetypical works as the Faust-Buch or the Odyssey; classic texts which transmogrify themselves so often that one could say that they have literally taken on a life of their own.
Yet the poem’s appeal and purpose seem to have mystified the author. Carroll repeatedly stated that he had no idea what the Snark meant or even what it actually was and he would often ask his questioners to inform him post haste if they ever discovered the meaning. Hence, if we were in a charitable mood, we could put his mind at posthumous ease by informing him that we have classified his Snark as an independent minded and rather prolific creature endowed with such evolutionary and metamorphic super-powers that its hidden meaning is impossible to pin down and hence open to all.
But alas, charity can go only so far in the cut-throat world of Carrollian research! Our Symbiotic Theory of Snarkian Evolution would be swiftly pooh-poohed by those legions of up-to-date Snarkistas who would point out the poem’s many references to contemporary Victorian events and issues as furnishing a good enough sort of meaning.
They would bandy about certain facts, facts of both a public and personal nature. To begin with, the resemblance between the Baker and Carroll himself is striking: the Baker’s boxes numbering 42, which was Carroll’s age in 1874; the Baker’s references to a dear uncle, possibly the same greatly loved uncle from whom Dodgson gained his middle name (and who was murdered by a lunatic armed with a sharpened nail); and finally the descriptive similarities between the meek and rather comical personalities of both the Baker and the author.
The Bellman’s Rule of Three could be a reference to a popular Victorian arithmetical crib and perhaps even the American philosopher Charles Peirce and his trinitary obsessions. The Barrister’s Dream smacks of both the infamous trial of the Tichbourne Claimant and Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta Trial by Jury, while the Beaver’s Lesson pokes fun at Dodgson’s own wearisome profession of teaching mathematics to the disinterested progeny of the upper classes.
On closer inspection, even the word Snark seems to be a linguistic rat’s nest of tattered references. Carroll himself claimed, jokingly as was his frustrating wont, that the word was a portmanteau of snail and shark (with a soupçon of snake) while more sober minded etymologists have laid the beast’s paternity at the promiscuous feet of the modern German verb schnarren, to jar or buzz, which itself is cognate with the Low German snarren, to snarl. One Australian researcher has even unearthed an obscure 18th-century reference to the tattooed face of a Maori warrior as being “a face all snark’d”, a usage which bodes ill for today’s ubiquitious tattooed hipsters.
In short, the entire poem is bursting at the seams with topical references to all of the above and much more besides: English banking practices and naval history, sea-side bathing, Shakespeare, music hall crosstalk and even poolhall loafers; so much so that even the most jejune reader is bound to notice that Something Is Going on Here.
Unfortunately for the jejune amongst us, the quest for meaning in modern Snarkonomics has higher standards of proof than a mere suspicion about a certain something. Simply saying that Lewis Carroll had embarked on a protofreudian, hyperontological or even crypto-existential Snark Hunting crusade may sound impressive at cocktail parties but we Snarkards are made of sterner stuff, we demand proof with our drinks!
This writer could present a second theory at this point, even more bloviated than his earlier Darwinian concoction. He could point out that a drearily earnest Snarquistadore might consider regenerating all 4,452 words of the Snark’s verses into a matrix roughly congruent in morphology, syntax and grammar to the original, commencing on or about July 18, 1874. The resulting text file might provide them with an optimized WYSIWYG explanation of the meaning of the Snark, assuming of course that they had not taken religious orders beyond the level of Deacon but that they did have a minimal pedagogical experience in college-level mathematics; and also assuming that they could "read" the resultant codex with a false recursive memory of having composed it themselves whilst seeing it for the first time; all while bearing in mind that the physical location of this generation process would be unimportant, that anywhere in the English rain while wearing scratchy woolens and mudcaked wellies would do.
This second theory, the so-called Pierre Menard Theory, leads us inevitably into the pythonesque coils of a yet another and mercifully terminal theory. This one summarizes the entire, teeming expanse of the Snarkian Multiverse and the multiply occluded meanings of Carroll’s Agony in Eight Fits thus: maybe.
Alas, if only things were that simple! For it so happens that when this artist decided to take up his inking of the Snark, he did so knowing that starving artists such as himself have a certain traditional obligation to provide employment to their equally impecunious academic brethren. Call it noblesse oblige if you must, but every page, every panel, every inky jot and tittle of this Snark would have to be imbued with a gallant spirit of selfless fraternal thing-um-a-jig with the above-mentioned what-you-may-call-ums. In short, only an impenetrably recondite version of Carroll’s Snark would provide those legions of graduate students and other itinerant savants with sufficient gainful employment to justify their generations of stipends to come.
But how to make good on such a philanthropic promise? Metamorphic verse composed by a metamorphic poet poses a certain problem for the conscientious illustrator, that is to say it requires a good amount of hard work and as another metamorphic poet once noted, work is the curse of the inking classes.
Fortunately for this ink-stained wretch, his handpicked team of elite ninja-cum-nautch-girl research assistants quickly unearthed the necessary dirt on the Admirable Carroll. They discovered that Lewis Carroll had long ago been appropriated by the French Surrealists as one of their own; the Pope of Surrealism, André Breton, and his faithful henchman, Louis Aragon, had anointed Carroll quite early on as a worthy precursor to their own utopian crusade of remaking the human race in the image of its own dreams. The poet’s disdain of the usual variety of quotidian logic on offer in most Victorian bookstores in favor of his own concoctions of the finest dreams money could buy had always fascinated the founding fathers of Surrealism. Like all good revolutionaries, these founding fathers secretly craved the bourgeois respectability of an illustrious pedigree and so they eagerly inducted the long-dead Carroll into the elect ranks of their so-called protosurrealist saints.
What Carroll himself would have thought of being lumped together with the likes of the Marquis de Sade, Raymond Roussel and the Comte de Lautréamont is beside the point, we can’t all of us choose the company we posthumously keep anyway. But with a bit of deft legwork to avoid the aforementioned zombie protosurrealists (a bit too much for the kiddies, even in these postlapsarian times) a clever artist could easily scavenge the more genteel quarters of Surrealism and its antecedents for sufficiently toothsome goodies to flesh out the mutated words and ideas which roam the Snark.
With all of that in mind, this artist established an entirely new stylistic school exclusively for the production of this Snark, the artistic genre of Protosurrealism. This would allow him to illustrate the verses of the 19th-century Surrealist precursor, Lewis Carroll, with suitable images referring to a future the poet never knew or probably would have cared to know.
One moment, the alert reader will now ask, just what is this thing called Surrealism? The simultaneous dream-memory of everything, we answer back rather too quickly. So what then is Protosurrealism, continues this persistent reader? The same as above with an added frisson of remembering an impossible future, we smugly reply. We might also add that Protosurrealism is the 21st-century application of 19th-century answers to 20th-century problems or even that the true Protosurrealist is a postmodernist (or even a postpostmodernist) who telescopes his Surrealist past into a Victorian intellectual’s expected future until his own past becomes his future and his nostalgia becomes his anticipation.
Even better, we might simply announce that this Protosurrealist Snark you hold in your hands is the full text of the finest Nonsense poem ever written, now copiously illustrated with the dream imagery of Surrealism. You can safely read and even recommend this book knowing that its attempt at believing in a brighter future by building upon the better rubbish of the past is at worst nothing more than a bit of middle-aged nostalgia slightly run amuck.
In short, there is no cause for concern or need for panic amongst the well-oiled literary set; it’s just that the Snark, the only truly epic poem of all Victorian literature, has metamorphosized itself here into an artist’s homage to those masters and their works — not only Surrealist — who form our visual, literary and philosophical collective conscious*. Each drawing tries to follow in some manner the tangled web of meaning and allusion which binds together the cultural history of art and thought. So for example, do not be alarmed by the curious fact that the second panel on page 4 depicts the Baker’s 42 boxes on the beach as being labeled with his alias “candlestub” by using the Chinese ideogram known as “xié”. The boxes and the girl with the fan are directly taken from one of Carroll’s own photographs, a portrait of Alexandra “Xie” Kitchins posing as an off-duty Chinese tea merchant. The gentleman at the easel is the late and sorely missed British author Douglas Adams, whose Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy proved conclusively that the Answer to the Meaning of Life, the Universe and Everything In It is 42. The painting of a box that he is working at is labeled with a variation upon Magritte’s famous anti-dictum, “this is not my box” and is itself a play upon the Belgian’s seminal work, The Human Condition I.
In short, this artist will have his little jokes and he begs your pardon for his inky sense of humor. He would like to submit certain mitigating circumstances in his favor to his more easily pixillated readers by pointing out that the true worth of this enterprise, our ever so ‘umble Snark, will only be realized when curious readers, particularly the younger ones, are intrigued enough by what they glimpse here to further pursue on their own that immense cultural heritage which silently — and so faithfully — awaits them.
At the very least, such selfless ambitions might gain this author a brief respite from the otherwise chilly reception he expects from the poet, Lewis Carroll, when we eventually meet in whatever hereafter has been laid on for us.
* Including but not limited to, in either direct or indirect reference: Douglas Adams, Agesander, St. Anthony of Egypt, Aristotle, Jean and Hans Arp, Athenodoros & Polyclitus LLC, Hans Bellmer, Denise Bellon, Jean Benoit, Arnold Böcklin, Hieronymus Bosch, Constantin Brancusi, Sebastian Brant, Augustus Caesar, John Coates and George Dunning and Heinz Edelman, Diogenes the Cynic, Salvador Dalí, Charles Darwin, Jacques-Louis David, Giorgio De Chirico, Eugène Delacroix, C.L. Dodgson (appearing here as Lewis Carroll), Marcel Duchamp, Albrecht Dürer, Max Ernst, Gustave Flaubert, Sigmund Freud, Théodore Géricault, Jean-Léon Gérôme, Gilbert and Sullivan, Vincent van Gogh, Mathias Grünewald, Beatrice Hatch, Heraclitus, George Herriman, Martin Heidegger, William Hogarth, Henry Holiday, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Judas Iscariot, Edward James, Alfred Jarry, Alexandra Kitchins, the Comte de Lautréamont, V.I. Lenin, Dora Maar, René Magritte, Édouard Manet, Karl Marx, Masaccio, Michelangelo, Joan Miró, Kiki de Montparnasse, Richard Müller, Friedrich Nietzsche, Edgar Allan Poe, Plato, Raphael, Man Ray, Madame Récamier, Oscar Rejlander, Raymond Roussel, Erik Satie, Alberto Savinio, Socrates, Duns Scotus, Yves Tanguy, Sir John Tenniel, James Tissot, Titian, Leonardo da Vinci, Jean-Antoine Watteau, et alia. In a final nonsensical twist to all of the above, the most-quoted artists in this work (de Chirico, Magritte, Savinio, Dalí and Bosch) were never card-carrying Surrealists to begin with, being either expelled from the ranks of the elect by Breton or just too dead to qualify. As for the actual works of art, literature, music and even locales referred to in this Snark, hunting down their names and provenances should provide even the most obsessive reader with sufficient fodder for his tediously baroque fantasies of world domination through better systems of information management.