. . . Lewis Carroll

. . .

The Secondary Source Review

Language and Creativity: The art of common talk
by Ronald Carter, Routledge, 2004

An affable celebration of the formal qualities of informal conversation, backed by two big assets:

The book is therefore recommended to one and all, although it suffered a persistent limp after its first misstep into "Creativity," the gopher hole.

What Carter means by creative seems something more exactly named non-semantic, and better approximated by aesthetic, prosodic, performative, hedonic, ludic, or even politic.

What a difference a bad word makes.

For starters, and harrumphing as a math major and computer programmer, it's kind of offensive to presume (as Carter's forced to) that there's no creativity in semantics. Where do new abstractions and techniques come from? Yeah, I know some people think they're just lying around in the cave waiting for us to trip over them, but some people think that about alliteration too.

Attacking on the other front, prosodic patterning relies on formula. Tags, well-worn puns and rhymes, simple repetition, are all aspects of conversation that Carter wants to bring out, but calling them "creative" stretches the flavor out of the word.

CANCODE documents the impulse to self-consciously draw attention to the material units of supposedly transparent communication: a social need to undo meaning in favor of surface. That's worth documenting, all right. But Carter's "creative" slant gives preferential treatment to idiomatic metaphors when virtually any non-core aspect of speech or gesture can be fucked with: a proper name, for example, or an instruction manual.

Here's Carter's example of language which thoroughly "lacks the property of literariness":

"Commence by replacing the hub-bearing outer race (33), Fig. 88, which is a press fit and then drop the larger bearing (32) into its outer member followed by oil seal (31), also a press fit, with lip towards bearing. Pack lightly with grease."

Only a little earlier he had transcribed a group of friends making double-entendre hash of the job of drilling a hole in a wall. Imagine what they could've done reading this aloud. Imagine it in a political poetry anthology under the title "White Man's Burden". It doesn't take much effort to re-insert "literariness" into writing.

Re-insert the literary into writing.... That has a peculiar sound, doesn't it?

Writing, in our current origin myths, was designed to carry an ideational burden, starting with ledgers, shopping lists, and rule books. If that's the case, then it would require special writerly effort to reinstate the non-semantic balance conversation achieves so effortlessly. That special effort, which we might call "literary," would then receive special notice. When the social cues that hold conversation together changed, so would "literary" style, and, for example, the current fiction-writer's hodgepodge of brand-and-band names wouldn't be a sign of fiction's decline, but of its continued adaptability. (Man, I wish I felt this as easily as I argue it.) In a focus-driven reversal of perspective, the written, having gotten such abundant credit for its efforts to mimic ordinary prosody, would eventually become the norm for prosodic effects.

And so we end up here, praising quotidian conversation for possessing the very "poetic" qualities that originated in it. Carter's use of the term "creative" (as in "Creative Writing Department") reinforces this confusion while his evidence clears it up.

Finally, the positive self-help connotations of "creativity" somewhat obscures one of the most intriguing trails through CANCODE's walled garden: the extent to which playful, euphonic, and memorable language is prompted by hostility. Or, more precisely, how the verbal dance between meaning and surface mutually instigates and supports the social dance between individual aggression and communal solidarity.

This might help explain the peculiarly bickering or bitchy tone that emerges in the extended nonsense of Lewis Carroll, Walt Kelly, Krazy Kat, and Finnegans Wake, and why many a delightful bit of fluff begins life as vicious parody. (Also for the record, I think how the fluff ends up is just as important a part of the story as how it began. May all your unintended consequences be little ones.)


Now that's nattering!
Recognizing the essential truth of adaptability doesn't mean you have to like or even think well of the Thing, Adapted. (The eohippus was sweet, after all: was it too high a price to pay for the horse? Can't we all just get along?)

Danged good point. Almost fell into prescriptive grammarian hell there.

You were a math major?

The hows and wherefores have been mentioned here before, but, to my surprise, the whys have not, although they might be guessed at easily enough by more general remarks. In brief, given an apparent choice between paying more lip-service to my pleasures and being allowed to keep them, I preferred the latter.

But where does it all come from?

I ask the same thing every time I have a sinus infection.

"Pack lightly with grease" has such a delicate feel to it . . . very nice, very literary.

The always rewarding Tom Matrullo has found a particularly challenging angle to strike his flint against. May sparks fly high and wide.

John Holbo (aided by Vladimir Nabokov) combines the topics of abstraction, art, and aggression in a lovely meditation on chess.

. . .

Hold offe, thou raggamouffine tykke

Were any notable verse parodies written between the Restoration and the Romantics? Mockeries, sure, but Augustan good taste stabilizes its poetry to near immobility. Try to deflate Pope and all you get is better Pope.

Models have to risk ridiculousness before ridicule's forthcoming by taking a risk with diction, for example; by speaking of low things with pulpit sincerity. (A contemporary illustration of the principle is John Latta's exquisite James Wright.) The higher and more precarious the poet's seating, the more tempting the yank on a wobbly leg and the more satisfying the crash.

Keats, with his frank overreaching, has always made a mouth-envenoming dish for snobs. While often very funny, the results seem both cruel and slightly clueless about the churning cross-current of self-mockery that drew him (and that later ridiculous man, Melville) to the tasteless contrasts of Shakespeare in the first place. More ideal are risk-takers who stake their ass on a perch of dignity, such as the didactic nursery poets who so inspired Lewis Carroll. For sheer depth and range of humorlessness, Wordsworth was king. In their utter abandon, Poe, Whitman, and Swinburne still provide knock-me-down stimulation,

But "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" must be the Seventh Seal of poetic parodiability. With its instantly recognizable affectations, solemnity, and ignobility, nothing matches it till "Prufrock" and "The Waste Land".

The first parody I know is also the best. Published in 1819, when magazine contributions were usually unsigned, there seems to be, or to have been, some disagreement over its authorship. Not having found any scholarly defense of either attribution, I thank either David Macbeth Moir or William Maginn for "The Rime of the Auncient Waggonere". All it lacks is Will Elder handling the artwork.

* * *


Dissatisfied with this state of uncertainty, on the way home from work I stopped by the corner newsstand, flipped down a shiny new hapenny, picked up a discarded issue of Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, No. XXIII. February 1819. Vol. IV., and what do you know? There was the answer!

Note from Mr Odoherty


. . .

The other two poems, the Eve of St Jerry, and The Rime of the Auncient Waggonere, were composed by me many years ago. The reader will at once detect the resemblance which they bear to two well-known and justly celebrated pieces of Scott and Coleridge. This resemblance, in justice to myself, is the fruit of their imitation not of mine. I remember reciting the Eve of St Jerry about the year 1795 to Mr Scott, then a very young man; but as I have not had the pleasure of seeing Mr Coleridge, although I have often wished to do so, and hold his genius in the highest estimation, I am more at a loss to account for the accurate idea he seems to have possessed of my production, unless, indeed, I may have casually dropt a copy of the MS. in some bookseller's shop in Bristol, where he may have found it. Meantime, I remain, Dear Editor, your affectionate servant,


Eltrive Lake, Feb. 29th 1819.

Well, I can see why publishers might want to cover up a scandal like this, but still!

(Prospective subscribers should act soon. Upcoming issues are slated to include Wordsworth's much anticipated "Peter Bell", buzz on Lord Byron's "Mazeppa", and the fifth installment of that popular serial "On the Cockney School of Poetry".)


His nib's on fire! His Nibs is on fire!

Last night I heard mama and poppa talking. I heard poppa tell mama, "You let that boy boogie-woogie. It's in him and it's got to come out."

My Dearest Mr. Pod: I have it on good authority that Blackwood's was owned by CBS News, and its editor was one Jayson Blair. Mr. Coleridge's reptation is safe. - Renfrew Q. Hobblewort.

PS I recently put up Google Ad Sense on my own blog -- not from any true mercantilist impulse, but rather a morbid curiosity as to what adaptive intelligence would produce of a blog that veered from book reviews of children's bible books to accusations of electoral improprietary in the highest circles. I can only speculate breathlessly to myself what sorts of ads would be generated by the pages of Pseudopodium. Anxiously, Renfrew Q. Hobblewort.

. . .

Pull in Your Head - We're Coming to a Transvaluation

It's a foundational narrative fallacy: If I know only a few things about a situation, and those imperfectly, I'll assume they're essential and sufficient. We know that Sappho was a woman, and so a few pullquotes from an unknowable context epitomize the feminine voice. We know that Shakespeare's sonnets mention a dark lady and a sexy young man, and so this tragic triangle molded his (or the Earl of Oxford's) career. We know a monster and we know the name Frankenstein, and so the monster's named Frankenstein.

You rigored turd, you has been to a orgy wifout me!
Critic prepares a psychoanalytic reading for the MLA

We know the following about Lewis Carroll:

From this, we realized he was an emotionally arrested pedophile whose heart snapped after his obsession with Alice Liddel was discovered by her appalled parents.

However, from this we were supposed to have realized that Lewis Carroll was a very nice man who would never think about anything as scandalous as sex.

What we didn't know (via The Little Professor) is that he also liked spending time with, writing flirtatious letters to, and photographing teenage girls, young women, and mature women, and that he was as likely to worry husbands, brothers, and employers as parents. The reputation-driven repression of his executors was taken for Lewis Carroll's own perversity-driven repression.

Lewis Carroll's "little girls" might then be along the blurry lines of Henry Adams's "nieces," a social category encompassing non-relatives, adult women, and even some men. And his biographies would then be along the lines of a reticence farce like Charley's Aunt or La Cage aux Folles or, with corpse as lead dummy, maybe more like The Wrong Box or The Trouble with Harry.


In a recent issue of the TLS there's a decent article that excoriates those (and another TLS writer in particular) who would claim that Dodgson was only tangentially interested in young women. Somewhat orthogonal to your argument (more a question of degree than one of polar opposites), but worth a look.

. . .

We have always been YA

Artful Dodgers: Reconceiving the Golden Age of Children's Literature
by Marah Gubar, Oxford 2009

I. Review

Gubar's point is clear and (so far as a choirmember can judge) convincingly argued: What made the first written-for-children children's classics classic was their refusal to endorse notions of child as miniature adult (AKA cheap labor and easy sex), child as holy fool, or child as segregated embarrassment. Their creators aimed at neither spiritual guidance nor colonization more like pushy but mutally beneficial tourism and Victorian critics accordingly complained that their entertainments were too knowing for little minds, or had corrupted the pure angels of yesteryear into premature sophisticates, or (by including adults in the audience) encouraged the general infantilization of culture.

It's been a long wait for a volume worth pitting against Jacqueline Rose's The Case of Peter Pan which I liked very much, by the way, possibly because I encountered it as a voluntary corrective to habitual inattenation rather than as canonical blinders on an academic bridle. As demonstrated by both books, arguing clearly and forcefully for ambiguity and nuance is bound to lead to occasional overstatements or repetitions. (So unlike the home life of our own dear genre!) Gubar is nevertheless a worthy champion, and I cheer her.

II. Memoir

At age eighteen I retained little memory of Lewis Carroll. But I knew Nabokov approved, and so while I waited for my girlfriend to be done with her part-time job in the children's library I opened Through the Looking Glass at random and read:

"Seven years and six months!" Humpty Dumpty repeated thoughtfully. "An uncomfortable sort of age. Now if you'd asked my advice, I'd have said leave off at seven but it's too late now."

"I never ask advice about growing," Alice said indignantly.

"Too proud?" the other inquired.

Alice felt even more indignant at this suggestion. "I mean," she said, "that one can't help growing older."

"One can't, perhaps," said Humpty Dumpty, "but two can. With proper assistance, you might have left off at seven."

"What a beautiful belt you've got on!" Alice suddenly remarked.

Gubar's innocuous account of this passage she describes Humpty Dumpty as "pompous" and "absurd" rather than homicidal doesn't quite fit the generally threatening mood of the novel, Alice's abrupt change of subject, or Gubar's own argument: one could hardly find a more explicit confession of the cross-purposes and power imbalances between cultish children's authors and the children they engage as pseudo-equals.

III. Speculation

I've frequently opined that all literature is destined to be treated as children's literature. And, having usually set out to puncture certain exceptionalist assumptions, my tone implied a narrative of decline not far from some of the Victorian pundits cited by Gubar.

Her argument suggests a reconfiguration of that narrative. Gubar's heroes are defiantly unimproving; they promote "active literacy" and "simultaneously entertain and undermine the idea that the child can function as a genuine collaborator." They produce, in other words, writerly texts.

If Maisie and Strether interpreted their perceptions within strictly contextualized limits, so did Oswald Bastable. While Stephen Dedalus tempted himself into artistry with imagined Byronic groupies and refused Muscatel grapes, Jim Hawkins and Tom Sawyer (and Fabrice del Dongo and Ishmael, so-called) found the limits of text-inspired adventure by adventuring. Tormented author-heroes like Flaubert and the Brontës melodramatically renounced melodrama, allowing us to disdain our cake and incorporate it too; Carroll preserved the earworm of namby-pamby versification after stripping the propaganda which justified it. More recently, Tove Jansson produced a successful adult novel, Sun City, by swapping human senior citizens in for her previous cast of Moomins and Fillyjonks.

The affably cynical tutelage of La Fontaine and Lord Chesterfield synthesized with Romantic ideals of wisdom in Nietzsche, that eternal favorite of precocious adolescents, and synthesized with Romantic ideals of childhood in the self-conscious role-play of Andersen, Lang, and Gubar's chosen authors. It's no coincidence that the standard bearer of ambitious realist fiction has been the bildungsroman, or that the bildungsroman slides so easily into curricula: texts constructed for exploration depict what's been set aside as an explorative phase of an extended lifespan. The Songs of Innocence and of Experience were etched and bound together.

IV. Addendum

From Chapter 4, "Partners in Crime: E. Nesbit and the Art of Thieving":

... she suggests that in order to participate actively in the shaping of their own lives and life stories, children should function like the discriminating editors who often turn up as characters in her books: rather than simply accepting everything they receive from the culture at large, they should criticize, edit, rewrite, even reject the endless submissions pouring in from all quarters. Still more often, as I will show, Nesbit employs the metaphor of theft, depicting children as avid appropriators who steal a little bit from a variety of sources.... she intimates child readers should follow her lead in becoming more daring and ingenious thieves.

From Noel Coward's Present Indicative (1937):

I travelled to school daily by tram.... There was a second-hand book-shop on the way where I could buy 'back numbers' of the Strand Magazine for a penny each, and I hoarded my pocket money until I could buy a whole year's worth in order to read the E. Nesbit story right through without having to wait for the next installment. I read 'The Phoenix and the Carpet', and 'Five Children and It', also 'The Magic City', but there were a few numbers missing from that year, so I stole a coral necklace from a visiting friend of Mother's, pawned it for five shillings, and bought the complete book at the Army and Navy Stores. It cost four-and-six, so that including the fare (penny half return, Battersea Park to Victoria) I was fivepence to the good. In later years I told E. Nesbit of this little incident and I regret to say that she was delighted.


Peli contrasts:

which is why i dislike charles bernstein, whose entire corpus is devoted to proving how much he's not a teenager.

I think of him as an uncle who's always telling jokes that aren't funny. Sometimes I even worry I might be him.

iGoogle's gratis Proofread (Tee Emm) service has determined that you need to drop an R from Barstable. Thank you for your patience.

Thank you. The typo was probably a compromise between reality and the conjoined twins of "barnstable".


Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.