Why I... think we need a chair of sottismics to evaluate academic jabberwocky

February 1, 2002

People write the most daunting books without a thought for those obliged to read them. Only after toiling through mountains of recondite folly do we find the courage to pronounce them worthless. Some way to unmask nonsense before we devote half our lives to it would revolutionise scholarship. A half-decent theory of nonsense, its taxonomy, natural history and varied disguises would be a major academic advance.

There is no lack of research material: ' Just the place for a Snark!' the Bellman cried, As he landed his crew with care; Supporting each man at the top of the tide By a finger entwined in his hair .

Nonsense? But that is the challenge - can we be deep-down sure? Lewis Carroll's contemporaries saw meanings in The Hunting of the Snark , thinking it commented on a polar expedition or the "Titchborne claimant" case. Louis Aragon thought it a proto-Marxist blow against bourgeois morality. Its first Latin translator detected a plea for pacifism, while Wallace Donham believed the Boojum was the Great Slump, 80 years foreseen. Carroll himself, asked if anything was hidden in his writing, claimed not to know.

Many texts that appear to carry information convey nothing. We think they have a lot to tell us because in life, unfamiliarity in a message is generally a measure of how much it has to convey. In the case of a scholarly or scientific text, replete with difficult ideas and strange jargon, the feeling is more plausible. But The Snark is nonsense - seeing a hidden message is folly. This is true Snark Effect - the ability of texts to persuade us that there is more in them than meets the eye.

If a deep message is thought to be hidden by jargon or code, Snark Effect is strongest. Whether a text is of surpassing importance, trivial or total nonsense is hard to decide. Hence Nostradamus. In 1555, he published The Centuries , interminable stanzas of rhymed doggerel said to contain revelations of the future. The snag is that Nostradamus disguised his quatrains impenetrably, so any deep meaning is inaccessible. He knew it himself, writing to Henri II that there is no way of interpreting them. They might as well be jabberwocky. Yet still people fish for something there. It just shows how seductive Snark Effect can be.

Academics live by Snark Effect. Because of the difficulty of the ideas (and our unwillingness to leave well alone), our texts are extensive and unfamiliar, yet not self-evident nonsense - precisely what generates powerful Snark Effect. A body of work facilitating Snark Effect can be as advantageous to an academic's reputation as to an astrologer's. People find in our words whatever they fancy. But erudite and mysterious writing, even when executed at great length, is not a reliable indicator of real insight - it may be only Snark Effect makes us think so. Perhaps there is nothing beneath the grandiloquy. At best, apparently profound texts mean what they seem to mean, and sometimes much less.

Where does this leave us? If only to evaluate the pervasive influence of Snark Effect, well-funded research on nonsense is needed today as never before.

But who will begin it? Universities awash with professors of history boast no chairs of nonsense, though nonsense has far more influence than history. Perhaps the name puts people off; maybe this is not a title academics wish to assume. The difficulty is easily resolved.

As a compliment to our Gallic colleagues who have made great contributions in the field, we might borrow a French word. If a professor of nonsense is out of the question, perhaps we could have a chair of sottismics - much the same thing, I guess.

William Gosling
Professor emeritus
University of Bath
and past president, The Institution of Electrical Engineers

 

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