January 27, 2016KR BlogBlogEnthusiamsRemembrances

The Rhinoceros and the Hippopotamus

Where is the great nonsense of our time? You might say that our political world is replete with nonsense, but that’s not the kind of nonsense I mean. True nonsense is aware of itself as nonsense—in fact, that’s one of its defining features. It’s what allows us to laugh along with it, rather than at it. Things are not as they seem, the nonsense writer muses. Babies turn into pigs. Cats vanish, reappear, and vanish again. A Mad Gardener may actually be (the argument goes) the Pope. But look again: the argument’s now a bar of mottled soap.

Nonsense (or non-sense, as it’s occasionally written) isn’t only a negation. It’s a philosophy; it tells us that objects and ideas are less fixed than we might imagine. We spend so much time trying to connect dots and score points, but to what end? (From Tom Chitty’s great 2014 New Yorker cartoon: “Wake up. It says here I was right about that thing I said.”) If we’re paying close attention, we notice that the world shifts, sometimes abruptly. As George Santayana writes in “Carnival” (1922), “Existence involves changes and happenings and is comic inherently, like a pun that begins with one meaning and ends with another.” Later, in the same essay, Santayana adds, “This world is contingency and absurdity incarnate, the oddest of possibilities masquerading momentarily as a fact.”

But why write about such things today? Of course! It’s January 27! Lewis Carroll’s birthday! And while politicians prepare to out-debate one another tomorrow evening, Carroll reminds us that our true debates lie between the waking world and the dream world, between the two sides of the looking-glass. He was an ordained deacon in the Church of England, yes; but he was also, in some ways, a Taoist. Chuang-Tzu’s famous reflection (you know it: the one where he wonders if he’s a man who dreamed he was a butterfly or a butterfly now dreaming that he’s a man) matches up well with the end of the Alice tales. Carroll, finally, takes no position (or perhaps takes both positions) in the “dream vs. no dream” debate. The final sentence of Through the Looking-Glass throws the question to the reader: “Which do you think it was?”

Carroll wasn’t a big drinker, so I won’t ask you to raise a glass to him on his birthday. But maybe you could do a little dance? From a letter he wrote when he was forty-one years old:

As to dancing, my dear, I never dance, unless I am allowed to do it in my own peculiar way. There is no use trying to describe it: it has to be seen to be believed. The last house I tried it in, the floor broke through. But then it was a poor sort of floor—the beams were only six inches thick, hardly worth calling beams at all; stone arches are much more sensible, when any dancing, of my peculiar kind, is to be done. Did you ever see the Rhinoceros and the Hippopotamus, at the Zoological Gardens, trying to dance a minuet together? It is a touching sight.

Carroll