October 26, 2011

A Defense of Nonsense

Our claim that nonsense is a new literature (we might almost say a new sense) would be quite indefensible if nonsense were nothing more than a mere aesthetic fancy. Nothing sublimely artistic has ever arisen out of mere art, any more than anything essentially reasonable has ever arisen out of the pure reason. There must always be a rich moral soil for any great aesthetic growth. The principle of art for art’s sake is a very good principle if it means that there is a vital distinction between the earth and the tree that has its roots in the earth; but it is a very bad principle if it means that the tree could grow just as well with its roots in the air. Every great literature has always been allegorical—allegorical of some view of the whole universe. The ‘Iliad’ is only great because all life is a battle, the ‘Odyssey’ because all life is a journey, the Book of Job because all life is a riddle. There is one attitude in which we think that all existence is summed up in the word ‘ghosts’; another, and somewhat better one, in which we think it is summed up in the words ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ Even the vulgarest melodrama or detective story can be good if it expresses something of the delight in sinister possibilities—the healthy lust for darkness and terror which may come on us any night in walking down a dark lane. If, therefore, nonsense is really to be the literature of the future, it must have its own version of the Cosmos to offer; the world must not only be the tragic, romantic, and religious, it must be nonsensical also. And here we fancy that nonsense will, in a very unexpected way, come to the aid of the spiritual view of things. Religion has for centuries been trying to make men exult in the ‘wonders’ of creation, but it has forgotten that a thing cannot be completely wonderful so long as it remains sensible. So long as we regard a tree as an obvious thing, naturally and reasonably created for a giraffe to eat, we cannot properly wonder at it. It is when we consider it as a prodigious wave of the living soil sprawling up to the skies for no reason in particular that we take off our hats, to the astonishment of the park-keeper. Everything has in fact another side to it, like the moon, the patroness of nonsense. Viewed from that other side, a bird is a blossom broken loose from its chain of stalk, a man a quadruped begging on its hind legs, a house a gigantesque hat to cover a man from the sun, a chair an apparatus of four wooden legs for a cripple with only two.
This is the side of things which tends most truly to spiritual wonder. It is significant that in the greatest religious poem existent, the Book of Job, the argument which convinces the infidel is not (as has been represented by the merely rational religionism of the eighteenth century) a picture of the ordered beneficence of the Creation; but, on the contrary, a picture of the huge and undecipherable unreason of it. ‘Hast Thou sent the rain upon the desert where no man is?’ This simple sense of wonder at the shapes of things, and at their exuberant independence of our intellectual standards and our trivial definitions, is the basis of spirituality as it is the basis of nonsense. Nonsense and faith (strange as the conjunction may seem) are the two supreme symbolic assertions of the truth that to draw out the soul of things with a syllogism is as impossible as to draw out Leviathan with a hook. The well-meaning person who, by merely studying the logical side of things, has decided that ‘faith is nonsense,’ does not know how truly he speaks; later it may come back to him in the form that nonsense is faith.

~ Gilbert Keith Chesterton, The Defendant, 1902

How true! It is definitely impossible to draw out the soul of things with a syllogism. Do you remember Dante’s Paradiso (Canto X)?

O Thou insensate care of mortal men,
How inconclusive are the syllogisms
That make thee beat thy wings in downward flight!

Nonsense is therefore about as actually an instrument of the search for the ultimate truth as faith. Of course, as Chesterton pointed out elsewhere (“Child Psychology and Nonsense” in Illustrated London News, October 15, 1921), there are “two ways of dealing with nonsense in this world,”

One way is to put nonsense in the right place; as when people put nonsense into nursery rhymes. The other is to put nonsense in the wrong place; as when they put it into educational addresses, psychological criticisms, and complaints against nursery rhymes or other normal amusements of mankind.

And now, after making it clear that, somewhat unexpectedly, nursery rhymes and the Book of Job have something very important in common, let’s make “the well-meaning person” say that faith is nonsense—he does not actually know how truly he speaks…

Giovanni Di Paolo, Illustration of Dante's Paradiso (Canto X) 
The First Circle of the Twelve Teachers of Wisdom (British Library - London)

Recommend this post on Google!


  1. Lewis Carroll's parodies of the moralistic poems of his time, have far outlived the originals, and have virtually become immortal and thus more meaningful than the originals. Perhaps this is also because he created the precedent of rightly questioning the validity of such set, staid and dated Victorian moral indoctrination.
    In order to come to terms with the world, we often have to come to terms with the absurd. What is taking place in Europe right now is a good example..
    The classics are also often based on nonsense, including the Iliad, in which great men who admire each other are bent on killing each other, with the absolute approval of the Gods.


Related Posts with Thumbnails