Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Fit the Fifth, Page 30, Panel 2 … boojums to right of them, boojums to left of them

Then the Butcher contrived an ingenious plan
For making a separate sally;
And fixed on a spot unfrequented by man,
A dismal and desolate valley.

The Butcher’s ingenious plan is accomplished, as we see above, by first opening one of the doors of perception that are so handily scattered about this Hunting of the Snark. Beyond this door lies a dismal and desolate valley where he can sally to his heart’s content, undisturbed by his too-frequent fellow man.

These sort of desolate Valleys of the Shadows of Various Deaths weighed heavily upon Victorian sensibilities, lurking as they did amidst the poetry of Lewis Carroll, Kings David-and-James and Lord Tennyson alike. Vast armies of betanomic chasseurs, semi-anointed sinners and gin-pickled light-cavalrymen were regularly herded into their several depths, there to endure the shot and shell of secular and sacred verse competing mano a mano, or to be more exact, pied à pied. Strong stuff but the Butcher seems up for it, he fears no evil nor anapests at all — what ho for the crystalline noggin of feckless youth!

If all this sounds a bit too allusive for you, why, there’s another picture done by another artist, a long time ago, of another inquisitive Carrollian protagonist bent upon making her own separate sally. It’s a very good drawing and I have half-a-mind to snatch it away from its rightful owner and carry it off to some desolate spot unfrequented by man where I can copy it to my heart’s content, by printing it in the infernal method, by corrosives, which in Hell are salutary and medicinal, melting apparent surfaces away, and displaying the infinite which was hid.

And there you have it, ladies and gentlemen … an infinite plenum of poetical kings, lords, dons and even nudists charging forth from this very door, all of 'em dragooned into our Snark Hunt!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Fit the Fifth, Page 30, Panel 1 … mens sana in corpore snarquo

They sought it with thimbles, they sought it with care;
They pursued it with forks and hope;
They threatened its life with a railway-share;
They charmed it with smiles and soap.

Forcible posthumous collaboration … it's not a pretty phrase and it's not a pretty sight. Sure, you could turn away, you could pretend you didn't see anything, you could tell yourself that this is just another episode in the Hunting of the Snark, and you could even shrug your shoulders and admit that its author, Lewis Carroll, deserves it.

Or maybe you'll just brush it off. You could tell your wife that you saw something on the net today, something horrible happening to somebody and you couldn't quite figure it out because you were in a hurry, you had googled the word snark, hoping to get some quickie cocktail-party-talking-points on the latest craze that’s sweeping the NYC chatteratti, but you landed up here …

Somebody ought to do something, somebody else should help out because you can’t get involved — who knows what kind of crazy people are involved in this, look at 'em! They seem to be high on something, and that girl, she’s half-naked! Probably some kind of some druid cargo-cult of home-furnishings shoplifters and they're chanting something about forks and hope, smiles and soap, some kind of wiccan juju, I bet. And that man at the far left, the Polynesian one with the glandular problem, and the other one holding the railway share from Moggs & Spicer, how do these kind of people get past Immigration?

Yes, it’s a bad scene so you better move along, somebody might get hurt and it's none of your business anyway. Instead, breathe deeply and say it slowly … forcible posthumous collaboration … forcible posthumous collaboration … when it happens to Henry Holiday and Lewis Carroll it's just a shame but when it happens to you — it’s a tragedy!

NB. If this week’s posting seems a trifle addled, I apologize … a congested brain-box, accompanied by gales of sneezing fits and a feverish inability to think clearly has rendered me semi-snarked. In addition, the current brouhaha over Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday (known here-abouts as the Boots) and the concomitant efforts in certain quarters to apologize to the unwashed masses for inadvertently exposing them to Science, the Enlightenment or even Copernican Cosmology has left me feeling vaguely … overly-evolved.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Fits the Fourth and Fifth, Pages 28 and 29 as a Spread … for he to-day that hunts snark with me shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile

With this sumptuous page spread, we are taking Lewis Carroll and his Hunting of the Snark in tow across the Channel, away from the cozy confines of the Victorian British circus in which Fit the Fourth took its spills and pratfalls, and into the Gallic flâneries of Fit the Fifth, following the baguette-crumbs-trail of the Flaubertian hierophant of La Tentation de saint Antoine.

Those readers who have been following this Snark for a long time will have noticed the considerable French influence upon my interpretation, and with good reason, for my modus operandi has always been to steal from the best! And to any nogoodniks who look askance at this francophilia, perhaps thinking it misplaced in the Snark — the very heartland of English Nonsense! — I shall reply by threatening them with this stoutly bound and suitably weighty volume of Carrollian criticism which was just published by the LCSNALewis Carroll: Voices From France, by the late Elizabeth Sewell.

Truthfully, this book’s genuine potential for mayhem is slight, for Sewell’s lack of jargon and academic doubletalk renders her work refreshingly amiable to all who follow the Way of the Snark. Her Snark comments are especially lucid and profitable, focussing on an intriguing comparison between that poem and the works of Stéphane Mallarmé. She finds a common denominator in their various inclinations towards the Great Nothing (le néant), that après-ultimate-double-plus-full-stop of fin de siècle literature and a classic symptom of the budding Modernism plaguing the youth of that day.

Sewell then closes in on her real prey, the deep structural and emotional relationship between Nonsense and the absolute sort of poetry that Mallarmé wrote, a poetry in which language breaks from the world, abandoning logic, syntax and even meaning, right down to the ultimate granular levels of the phonemes themselves. This rupture between words and the world and its fracturing of selves which Modernist hipsters so revel in is the defining moment of Western art and Sewell very neatly ties this back into the splintering of Carroll’s persona into our ten-fold Snark Hunters.

Afterwards, we are treated to a merry romp through the classic French obsessions with Marxist, Surrealist and Psychoanalytic critical methods, all of ‘em employed upon Carroll with varying degrees of success, and all of ‘em culminating in Deconstructionism, ie., talking about talking about talking.

For my part, I have never thought Carroll to be a precursor of Classical Surrealism such as the Comte de Lautréamont; the authoritarian Breton and the somewhat confused Aragon misread his texts and intentions. Sewell points out the congruencies but the essentially aggressive, utopian nature of Surrealism has little to do with Carroll. Perhaps we should reclassify Carroll as an protoOulipian of sorts, perhaps even a protoRousselian? In a similar vein, Antonin Artaud’s attack upon Carroll is a genuinely insouciant crypto-Romantic temper tantrum. The former accuses the latter of inauthenticity and dilettantism, of peddling a second-grade-fresh Nonsense instead of the undiluted linguistic chaos which Artaud (and certain other French critics) felt was his own Byronic, schizophrenic birthright.

In all such matters Sewell’s thoughts are invaluable, not only for her concision but for the exposure she might give younger readers to an older, gentler style of High Thinkery which she rather cheekily calls Englishness. Even more educational for the young ‘uns (and certain hypertestosteronic North American politicos) is her refusal to make this into an Anglo-French kulturkampf; instead, she assigns credit where credit is due, applauding the rigorous, penetrating taxonomy of French Carrollians, as they assigned his Nonsense to its rightful niche upon the surface of logic, words and mathematics. They also noted the Carrollian reluctance to descend any further into those depths where Messers Marx and Freud lurked (half-naked with painted faces and bones through their noses, one suspects) and where the French firmly placed their own Boojums of authenticity, nihilism and meaning.

And here is where Sewell draws her line in the sands of La Manche; on one side the bravura French approach of a vertical integration from the surface of art to the depths of culture and on the other side the English preference for a sort of sporting compromise, for a recognition of the essential Poetry of Carroll’s Nonsense. The English will always rap our knuckles to remind us that Carroll’s best work never succumbs to the aggressive, nihilism of pure logic-play. There is no vandalistic breaking through the surfaces of things to plumb the depths of the reductio ad absurdam favored by the French. Instead, Carroll’s art is always tempered by the gentle touch of Poetry, of Dream, and gosh! — perhaps even a quietly expressed belief in Goodness!

The implications of all this are left to Sewell’s readers to sort out (the mark of a genuine scholar); if you’re in the mood for the addictive rigors of French thinkery, you can search very deeply and very fruitfully indeed for a solution of sorts; or if you feel more Anglo-Irish, you can dabble happily upon the formal top-side of things, knowing that all art is at once surface and symbol and those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.

For myself, I shall heed Marcel Duchamp’s warning that there is no solution because there is no problem. We few, we happy few, we band of franglais Snark chasseurs!

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Fit the Fifth, Page 29 … pape Snarqué, pape Snarqué aleppe

After all that hellish ruckus in the infernal Malbowge of Fit the Fourth (sorcerers, falsifiers, circus folk and publishers), we shall now ascend ad astra, as it were, to the quieter purlieus of Fit the Fifth. This canto, the longest Fit of Lewis Carroll’s Hunting of the Snark, is known amongst illustrators as the Purgatorial Fit, for its immense length requires the consumption of vast quantities of cheap whiskey and hot curries to keep up one’s strength.

Of course, in former times, illustrators such as myself needed no such artificial stimulants to come up with the goods. Employed as we usually were in the embellishment of manuscripts by various monastic establishments, we busied ourselves with the production of all manner of fantastical and grotesque creatures in our spare time. These bizarre critters, sometimes called grylli, were invented by Antiphilos the Egyptian, according to Pliny the Elder, and they proved very handy indeed in the spicing up of what was otherwise a pretty dull sort of life in your typical 12th-century scriborium. However, the grylli soon escaped from their cages and ran amuck, as such artificial creations always do, hooting loudly while drunk on the front lawns of right-thinking folk such as St. Bernard, who had this to say to the cops later on …

"What are these ridiculous monstrosities doing in the cloisters where monks pray and study? To what purpose are these unclean apes, fierce lions, these half men … quadrupeds with a dragon’s tail … a dragon with a quadruped’s tail … a horse ending as a goat … a horned animal ending as a horse."

What purpose indeed! Let’s ask this typologically portmanteau-ish gentleman that we see pictured above, sitting on his rock and minding his own business, let’s ask him what he thinks of these oddly unreal grotesqueries that are popping in and out of Nowhere (or Unwhere, to be precise) to trouble his devotional contemplations.

Is he St. Anthony, possessing the legendary self-control of the Father of Monasticism, and thus ultimately indifferent to these sensory diversions, dismissing them as Satan’s spurious blandishments and threats? Or is he the Butcher, possessing no discernable cerebral aptitude at all and thus ultimately indifferent to these sensory diversions, dismissing them as the Beaver’s feminine blandishments and threats?

Yes, for some time now, we have suspected the Beaver of having little enthusiasm for hunting the Snark. It seems more and more evident that her function is that of a clumsy sort of romantic distraction, a distraction designed by a certain someone who wishes us to relax our vigilance and our powers of concentration — but to no avail, dear reader, for our watchword remains Snark!

Yes, it’s Snark that we are really hunting here, it’s Snarks and Boojums and all the other imaginary paraphenalia of idle illustrators, sensorily-deprived Early Christian anchorites and versifying Oxford dons! This is the Beaver’s Lesson to the Butcher!

It was a Snark that St. Anthony was hunting in the Antiphilian Egyptian Desert, it was a Snark that St. Bernard banished from the overheated monastic bullpens of the Middle Ages, and yes, it was a Snark that slapped a funnel atop its head and blustered his way into Hieronymus Bosch’s studio by claiming to be a Gov’ment Man hunting down an escaped gryllus.

The cheek! The nerve! I cannot countenance her any longer, yes, away with this Beaver’s Lesson, yes, get thee back to a punnery!