Slaying the Snark: What Nonsense Verse Tells Us About Reality
From The Hunting of the Snark, by Lewis Carroll, 1876. Illustration by Henry Holiday.
by Nina Lyon
The English writer Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem The Hunting of the Snark (1876) is an exceptionally difficult read. In it, a crew of improbable characters boards a ship to hunt a Snark, which might sound like a plot were it not for the fact that nobody knows what a Snark actually is. It doesn’t help that any attempt to describe a Snark turns into a pile-up of increasingly incoherent attributes: it is said to taste ‘meagre and hollow, but crisp: / Like a coat that is rather too tight in the waist’.
The only significant piece of information we have about the Snark’s identity is that it might be a Boojum. Unfortunately nobody knows what that is either, apart from the fact that anyone who encounters a Boojum will ‘softly and suddenly vanish away’ into nothingness.
Nothingness also characterises the crew’s map: a ‘perfect and absolute blank!’
‘What’s the good of Mercator’s North Poles and Equators,
Tropics, Zones and Meridian Lines?’
So the Bellman would cry: and the crew would reply,
‘They are merely conventional signs!’
Nonsense such as this might get tiresome to read, but it can make for a useful thought-experiment – particularly about language. In the Snark, as in the Alice books of 1865 and 1871, the commonsense assumptions that usually govern language and meaning are turned upside down. It makes us wonder what all of those assumptions are up to, and how they work. How do we know that this sentence is trying to say something serious, or that where we are now is not a dream?
Language can’t always convey meaning alone – it might need sense, which is the governing context that framed it. We talk about ‘common sense’, or whether something ‘makes sense’, or dismiss things as ‘nonsense’, but we rarely think about what sense itself is, until it goes missing. The German logician Gottlob Frege in 1892 used sense to describe a proposition’s meaning, as something distinct from what it denoted. Sense therefore appears to be a mental entity, resistant to fixed definition.
Shortly after Carroll’s death in 1898, a seismic turn took place in both logic and metaphysics. Building on Frege, logical positivists such as Bertrand Russell sought to deploy logic and mathematics in order to establish unconditional truths. A logical truth was, like mathematics, true whether or not people changed their minds about it. Realism, the belief in a mind-independent reality, began to assert itself afresh after a long spell in the philosophical wilderness.
Sense and nonsense would therefore become landmines in a battle over logic’s ability to untether truth from thought. If an issue over meaning seeks recourse in sense, it seeks recourse in thought too. Carroll anticipated where logic was headed, and the strangest of his creations was more than a game, an experiment conceived, as the English author G K Chesterton once wrote of his work, ‘in order to study that darkest problem of metaphysics’.
In 1901, the pragmatist philosopher and provocateur F C S Schiller created a parody Christmas edition of the philosophical journal Mind called Mind!. The frontispiece was a ‘Portrait of Its Immanence the Absolute’, which, Schiller noted, was ‘very like the Bellman’s map in the Hunting of the Snark’: completely blank.
The Absolute – or the Infinite or Ultimate Reality, among other grand aliases – was the sum of all experience and being, and inconceivable to the human mind. It was monistic, consuming all into the One. If it sounded like something you’d struggle to get your head around, that was pretty much the point. The Absolute was an emblem of metaphysical idealism, the doctrine that truth could exist only within the domain of thought. Idealism had dominated the academy for the entirety of Carroll’s career, and it was beginning to come under attack. The realist mission, headed by Russell, was to clean up philosophy’s act with the sound application of mathematics and objective facts, and it felt like a breath of fresh air.
Schiller delighted in trolling absolute idealists in general and the English idealist philosopher F H Bradley in particular. In Mind!, Schiller claimed that the Snark was a satire on the Absolute, whose notorious ineffability drove its seekers to derangement. But this was disingenuous. Bradley’s major work, Appearance and Reality (1893), mirrors the point, insofar that there is one, of the Snark. When you home in on a thing and try to pin it down by describing its attributes, and then try to pin down what those are too – Bradley uses the example of a lump of sugar – it all begins to crumble, and must be something other instead. What appeared to be there was only ever an idea. Carroll was, contrariwise, in line with idealist thinking.
A passionate logician, Carroll had been working on a three-part book on symbolic logic that remained unfinished at his death. Two logical paradoxes that he posed in Mind and shared privately with friends and colleagues, such as Bradley, hint at a troublemaking sentiment regarding where logic might be headed. ‘A Logical Paradox’ (1894) resulted in two contradictory statements being simultaneously true; ‘What the Tortoise Said to Achilles’ (1895) set up a predicament in which each proposition requires an additional supporting proposition, creating an infinite regress.
A few years after Carroll’s death, Russell began to flex logic as a tool for denoting the world and testing the validity of propositions about it. Carroll’s paradoxes were problematic and demanded a solution. Russell’s response to ‘A Logical Paradox’ was to legislate nonsense away into a ‘null-class’ – a set of nonexistent propositions that, because it had no real members, didn’t exist either.
Russell’s solution to ‘What the Tortoise Said to Achilles’, tucked away in a footnote to the Principles of Mathematics (1903), entailed a recourse to sense in order to determine whether or not a proposition should be asserted in the first place, teetering into the mind-dependent realm of idealism. Mentally determining meaning is a bit like mentally determining reality, and it wasn’t a neat win for logic’s role as objective sword of truth.
In the Snark, the principles of narrative self-immolate, so that the story, rather than describing things and events in the world, undoes them into something other. It ends like this:
In the midst of the word he was trying to say,
In the midst of his laughter and glee,
He had softly and suddenly vanished away –
For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.
Strip the plot down to those eight final words, and it is all there. The thing sought turned out, upon examination, to be something else entirely. Beyond the flimsy veil of appearance, formed from words and riddled with holes, lies an inexpressible reality.
By the late-20th century, when Russell had won the battle of ideas and commonsense realism prevailed, critics such as Martin Gardner, author of The Annotated Hunting of the Snark (2006), were rattled by Carroll’s antirealism. If the reality we perceive is all there is, and it falls apart, we are left with nothing.
Carroll’s attacks on realism might look nihilistic or radical to a postwar mind steeped in atheist scientism, but they were neither. Carroll was a man of his time, taking a philosophically conservative party line on absolute idealism and its theistic implications. But he was also prophetic, seeing conflict at the limits of language, logic and reality, and laying a series of conceptual traps that continue to provoke it.
The Snark is one such trap. Carroll rejected his illustrator Henry Holiday’s image of the Boojum on the basis that it needed to remain unimaginable, for, after all, how can you illustrate the incomprehensible nature of ultimate reality? It is a task as doomed as saying the unsayable – which, paradoxically, was a task Carroll himself couldn’t quite resist.
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
About the Author:
Nina Lyon is working on a PhD on The Hunting of the Snark at Cardiff University. Her essay Mushroom Season (2013) was a runner-up for the FT/Bodley Head Essay Prize, and her first book, Uprooted (2016), was the recipient of the Roger Deakin Award. She lives in Hay-on-Wye in Wales.