Précis for a Short History of Nonsense

For Edward Lear’s (1812-1888) birthday: some brief jottings on a topic I’ve been turning over in my head for years. At a talk I gave on the Marx Brothers and their influences a few years ago at the New York Public Library I mentioned that I’d love to do a book on the topic I’m about to lay out, and was encouraged by the response. Still, I can’t imagine the number of people who’d buy a book of this type would justify the time it would take to research and write it. But in the interest of circulating ideas, I offer this truncated version. I chose Lear’s birthday for reasons that should be obvious. Like many, I discovered him through John Lennon, one of his best-known acolytes. My wife is a fan as well, in particular a fan of the Edward Gorey illustrated edition of The Jumblies. I recited “The Owl and the Pussycat” at our wedding.

Despite the title of this excursion (and I’m undoubtedly going to sea in a sieve) I am going to be markedly IMprecise in my use of the term “nonsense”. Academics have strict (and to my view, asinine and arbitrary) hard definitions of such literary categories. I too, have my definitions, which are roughly the same, but I feel that there is generally so much overlap between the various categories in practice, that it’s impractical to attempt to assign works of literature to exclusive hog pens. I am extremely interested in comedy; nonsense overlaps the comic but is by no means synonymous with it. At any rate, let’s call these categories my own, with my own definitions. I have zero interest in arguing with some pedant about the “official” or “correct” definitions of them.

The various categories I want to talk about are these: 1) Literal Nonsense, or Gibberish; 2) The Surreal or Dada; 3) Literary Nonsense; 4) The Whimsical-Fantastical; 5) Parody, Burlesque, or Travesty; 6) Satire.

The original or “pure” nonsense is the pre-verbal babble of infants. Articulated sounds bearing no meaning, the “words” and phrases are, when spoken, fairly identical to music, and often play a major role in nursery rhymes and songs of all types. Examples include: “Hickory, Dickory, Dock” (Mother Goose), “Da Doo-Doo-Doo, Da Dah-Dah-Dah” (The Police), “Vrekekekex koax koax, vrekekekex koax koax!” (Aristophanes). This stuff bubbles up from oral folk culture and in time becomes communal property, eventually part of the cultural canon.

The second two categories (the surreal and nonsense proper) rely on such devices as absurd, disorienting or surprising juxtapositions; the breaking or inversion of logical, grammatical or empirical laws; and such-like warpings and distortions of the normal order of things at the level of the line or the sentence. The surreal is COMPLETELY disorienting (example: Groucho in Animal Crackers: “…east is east and west is west and if you take cranberries and stew them like applesauce they taste much more like prunes than rhubarb does.”) Whereas literary nonsense deceives us with a modicum of sense, and relies on strategies like neologisms and portmanteau words that sometimes result in a certain degree of partial meaning: (“Twas brillig and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe.” — Lewis Carroll).

As to the Whimsical or Fantastical, it has more to with a parallel reality, and less to do with subverted meaning than it does an alternate concrete. A world that contains a giant or a talking duck or purple trees satisfies this idea. It’s less about the word than the portrait it paints. And of these various categories it is the furthest from the comic per se. 

Burlesque (or, parody or travesty) exaggerates something familiar, usually another work of art, for the specific purposes of mockery, often employing some of the elements we have already discussed. It can be purely verbal or literary play (i.e. twisting words and proper names) or, in a theatrical context, it can be visual. In this form, the humorous intentions are strictly for the purposes of entertainment. Obviously, my professional pseudonym is a play on “travesty” (which has taken some people decades to get). Music hall performer Arthur Roberts is credited with coining the word “spoof”, which originally referred to a nonsensical card game he had invented, but has migrated toward meaning “parody”, a further illustration of how the two concepts can be associated.

As for satire, it can draw from all the above but with the added agenda of political or social criticism. I consider satire the highest of all literary forms. Some of my favorite writers in this vein, like Swift and Voltaire, mix satire and fantasy into an intoxicating and potent cocktail.

In addition to the writers we’ve named, my favorite sources for these forms of expression include folk songs, nursery rhymes, children’s literature (L. Frank Baum, Dr. Seuss), comic strips (Krazy Kat), and the writings of W.S. Gilbert (not just his plays and librettos but humor and poetry), and humorists like S.J. Perelman. And SO much in the theatre, from the plays of Henry Fielding, to English panto, to music hall, minstrelsy, vaudeville and burlesque comedy (not just the Marx Brothers, but so many of their contemporaries: Weber and Fields, Clark and McCullough, W.C. Fields, Joe Cook, Ed Wynn, Fred Allen, etc. And believe it or not: sideshow! going back to the days of P.T. Barnum, e.g., the whimsical names for born different performers like General Tom Thumb, with suggestions of fairy tale. And more recently the British comedy of the Goon Show, The Beatles, Monty Python, etc.

It just dawned on me today. The best answer to the question which I frequently get asked (“Why do you write about vaudeville etc?”) is “To make the world safe for Trav S.D. — to educate people about my own influences to make my own plays, songs, monologues, sketches (which seem to bewilder some people) less bewildering. And so this will prove a handy post to link folks to. I’m bound to add to it over time. Perhaps a book will result after all!

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