- The Senses of Nonsense
Alison Rieke's The Senses of Nonsense is an informative and enjoyable book. The clarity of its prose and the ease with which it explicates the various dense and elusive texts combine to create an appealing piece of critical work. Anyone reading the sections on James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, Gertrude Stein's Stanzas in Meditation, Wallace Stevens' "An Ordinary Evening in New Haven," and Louis Zukofsky's "A" will find them stimulating. Rather than placing these texts within the straitjacket of a critical system, Rieke releases these complicated pieces—opens them upand uncovers the possibilities of "sense" hidden beneath their confusing surfaces. She introduces the reader to the "dialogue of sources," the allusions and echoes that inform the works she discusses. Especially convincing and enlightening is her discussion of Stevens' use of Edward Lear's travel journals and letters.
Throughout the book Rieke maintains that on the surface each of these texts is nonsense—that is, according to her understanding, each disrupts the conventions of language and syntax, each crosses a semantic border and enters a place that refuses to name and chooses instead to evade being explicit or to make sense. Rieke suggests that Joyce, Stein, Stevens, and Zukofsky had a number of reasons for wanting to "cover their tracks" with this nonsense. All of them, for one reason or another, desired to "hide" the meaning—they wanted to "erect barriers" to block a reader's comprehension. For instance, Stein created confusing linguistic surfaces to hide the story of her sexuality, and Stevens composed texts with intricate networks of allusions to honor the enigmatic. To get at the meaning, then, one must uncover the "sense" that lies secluded beneath the unfamiliar and sometimes playful surfaces. For Rieke, therefore, nonsense takes its character not only from a disruptive language and syntax but also from the writer's desire to evade, to be secretive, to baffle, and to "relocate mystery in reality."
It is with this definition or understanding of nonsense that I have some trouble. I wonder if Rieke's description of nonsense is too reductive or narrow. Having just completed a survey of nonsense theory for a book on Edward Lear, I am, perhaps, more than usually sensitive to other ways in which critics characterize nonsense—ways which Rieke bypasses and, as a result, cuts off some fruitful areas of exploration. What about the sense of release or escape—the delight—that nonsense offers; what about its role as a revealer of incongruity; what about its anti-establishment nature; what about its autonomy—its creating a world of its own rules; what about its tendency to disengage itself from any emotional involvement; and, especially, what about its traditional reliance upon images—its association with image (so many nonsense writers, for example, illustrate their work)? In addition, I find myself disagreeing with some of Rieke's assumptions about nonsense. It seems to me, for instance, that nonsense does not cramp or fill space or hide meaning through the density of its linguistic mask worn [End Page 436] on its surface. Contrary to what Rieke implies, I suggest that a text qualifies as a piece of nonsense when it relaxes the tightness and exposes gaps (often through its linguistic acrobatics) which invite, rather than obscure, a meaning. Nonsense to be nonsense needs the kind of space that is available in metaphors. It cannot really exist when there is both a mesh of sounds and puns on the surface and a dense and intricate web of references underneath. There have to be breathing spaces in which the nonsense exists for its own purposes and through which it can emerge. In fact, I wonder if nonsense is ever on the surface of a text. When one reads a piece of nonsense, there is a certain superficial meaning that immediately, unwittingly, asserts itself. It is only when one tries to dig though the gravel of its words that each phrase or syllable tumbles over the other and obscures the "sense."
Perhaps my remarks are too closely married...