Necessary Nonsense





Nonsense necessary in a nonsensensical world .

” To write about nonsense is like going to sea in a sieve .”  W Tiggs

Nonsense  is necessary in an increasingly nonsensical world . ” A little nonsense now and then is cherished  by the wisest men ” said Roald Dahl  . To which Dr. Seuss added” I like nonsense … It’s more than a matter of just laughing . If you can see  things are out of whack, you can see how things can be back in whack .” Nonsense is a double edged sword . It is not just a matter of hysterical laughter .  It is a finely honed balance of  recognising the levity  and nonsensical nature  of whatever it is – and at the same time acknowledging reality  and acting on that awareness .

We do need that levity – things can’t all be solemnity .    There are the masters  of  nonsense for the sake of nonsense . Edward Lear is a past master . Lewis Carroll an obvious choice . But because Carroll , when open to present day interpretation, is far more complex Carroll will be discussed separately . For the present several uncomplicated examples : As a child  I loved the American poet Ogden Nash :

” The ant has earned a name illustrious , by proving constantly industrious  But who can blame him, would you be placid  If you were full of formic acid ? “

Valley Of the Ants  ~ Miniscule.

And the Australian artist John Olsen’ paintings of the frog .  ” The frog is a key motif … The artist is attracted to the theatre of the frog, their flamboyance… the big eyes.. elongated legs .” John Olsen Art Series .

Frogs.  ~  Artist John Olsen

Artist John Olsen                             ” Be kind and tender to the frog… ”  Hillaire Belloc

” Be kind and tender to the frog  And do not call him names  The frog is justly sensitive  To epithets like these .”  Hillaire Belloc

The ant and the frog . Nonsense in its simplest form – just nonsense for the sake of nonsense, Nonsense though has, as above , a further purpose . As in work of another Australian artist .


Michael Leunig is an Australian  artist, writer, philosopher and poet . His unique artistry and humour – which can vary from gentle contemplation to blistering satire – mean there are few Australians who do not have a Leunig among their possessions . The whimsical Mr.Curly , accompanied by his whimsical duck, offer a curly view of  a curly world .  Then from the security of a seaworthy ship officials shout at refugees huddled in an open, sinking boat . No humour in that .  But this is part of what makes Leunig’s social commentary so effective .There is an expectation of humour . Instead Leunig deftly twists the knife .

For over forty years Leunig has provided Australia and the world with gentle humour and critical insight . Leunig’s personal website  describes him as exploring the ” fragile ecosystem of human nature and its relationship to the wider natural world – a related and recurrent theme .” Leunig himself describes his work as ” regressive, humorous, messy,  mystical, primal and vaudevillian  . “

I am restricting  myself in writing on nonsense to simplistic ants and frogs . Were I to venture into Monty Python and the Holy Grail  and the Goons territory I would be treading on sacred ground . So I will restrict myself to the celebrated Charles ” Dodo ” Dodgson ~ Lewis Carroll  – and a few others  such as Roald Dahl .

Lewis Carroll

” I know what you’re thinking about ” said Tweedledee ” but it isn’t so, no how .Contrariwise … if it was so , it might be ; and if it were so, it would be, but as it isn’t , it ain’t . That ‘s logic . “

Charles ” Dodo ” Dodgson  was a mathematics lecturer at Oxford – a studious, retiring unknown  . He assigned the nickname Dodo to himself as he stuttered .Then an idyllic rowing boat trip on a sunny Oxford afternoon changed everything . ” Thus grew the tale of Wonderland .”  In 1865  Alice In Wonderland was published . And in  1871 Through the Looking Glass .

Carroll’s work  would seem the very epitome of nonsense . Alice asked for a story with ” lots of nonsense in it . ” And the characters are surely among the most extraordinary, rich and diverse created – the time rattled rabbit , the mad cheshire cat and his equally  mad acquaintances…  In their simplest form they are absolute , utter nonsense .


Yet Carroll was not only a particularly clever writer , he was a mathematician and a scholar with a vast wealth of knowledge to which was added a fine sense of irony and wit . Reading – and re-reading  – Alice as an adult reveals a  world of  significant ideas hidden in the fantasy genre of a children’s book . Read it – and read it again . And supplement with present day analysis  written about Carroll . The reading provides thought provoking perceptions . As an example : Alice In  Quantumland : An Allegory Of Quantum Physics  written by physicist Robert Gilmore has Alice exploring the “nonsensical ” world of quantum physics .

The following may be taken as personal nonsense , but I wonder at Alice’s fall down an extremely large rabbit hole – down, down , down . What sort of world was the mathematician creating ?

Alice , for the artist  , offers an extraordinary cornucopia of images. For me, with due respect to  John Tenniel – the first artist to illustrate the Alice books – the artist who most effectively captures  the imagery and inanity of Alice is Salvador Dali . In 1969 Dali created an extraordinary  series of lithographs – characteristically surreal , a style which evokes the complex and surreal Alice herself . And the unreal  wotld Carroll created .

The Lobster Quadrille  .                    Down the Rabbit Hole   –  Dali

Jabberwocky  – Through The Looking Glass,

Jabberwocky : ” ‘ Twas brillig and the slithy toves Did gyre and gimble in the wabe All mimsy were the borogroves And the mome raths outgrabe… ” Surely the ultimate in nonsense . And the lilting, rythmic , alliterative , extraordinarily creative mastery of the English language : .” Twas brillig… gyre and gimble.. snicker-snack ! ” ” O frabjous day ! ” What a wordfest !

Jabberwocky though is not all nonsensical nonsense . With ” eyes of flame ” and ” jaws that bite… ” it is monster made all the more frightening by the alien world Carroll’s wordplay creates .

It is tempting to write at indeterminate length on the complexity of Carroll’s character . In addition to Alice… Carroll/Charles Dodgson was also the author of a Manual Of Euclid ” its main features (the) sequence and numbering of Propositions and… Parallels ” .  In the context of the Manual  though he manages to call into question the undue solemnity of scientific reasoning . ” Thinking it far better that the purchaser of this little book should read it… with a smile .” And who better than Dodgson to leaven the seriousness  of science with a little necessary nonsense ?


In writing on nonsense one could also be entirely serious . And follow a scholarly approach beginning with the work of the ancient Greek playright Aristophanes . And The Frogs  – singing a chorus of nonsense verse . ” A shoal of little songsters…  mere degraders of their art .”  Dionysus says ” Search where you will, you’ll never find a true Creative  genius… ” And Heracles replies ” I vow its ribald nonsense .” Shakespeare layers sense and nonsense – with a ” hey nonino .” (As You Like It .) And there are modern masters aplenty .

I would like to conclude though with personal choices . Initial choices were  Maurice Sendak and Roald Dahl . Sendak for his talent in entering the world of childhood and at the same time making meaningful nonsense of the adult world . When Where The Wild Things Are was published in 1963 , an American reviewer wrote that the book was entirely unsuitable for adults as it may well scare them . Dahl I have chosen for his unique ability to make something seemingly nonsensical carry a significant meaning .

Sendak’s work , like Carroll’s , is also replete with ” terrible teeth and terrible eyes .”- (Where The Wild Things Are .) Sendak’s monsters though have a very special meaning – Max conquers the Wild Things .and becomes their king . But unlike Carroll’s Alice who would find pleasure in ” remembering her own child-life and the happy summer days ” , Sendak’s memories are sombre . There is a little known and particularly  haunting photo of Sendak’s cousin . A solemn little six year old, still resident in wartime Poland , in a dark jacket – and stitched to it a yellow star . Sendak never saw his childhood friend and other members of his family again . And the loss affected him deeply . So while Sendak makes a nonsense of the constraints of adulthood, he is also seeking to capture the unconstrained delights of childhood . As in the The Sign On Rosie’s Door – make beleive that most young children act out when growing up . Sendak, as an adult , sought to recapture ” the simple pleasures  ” of childhood . Imbued with a rich and vivid imagination . And again from Alice :” Imagination is the only weapon in the war against reality .”

Maurice Sendak – wartime photo of his six year old cousin in Poland  .

And eventually  I decided I could not place Sendak in the context .of nonsense . There was too much underlying sadness in his life .The final choice then is Dahl – aided and abetted by the wonderful Quentin Blake. The artist’s exaggerated line drawings – as in James and the Giant Peach and The BFG  – complement Dahl’s writing perfectly . And the exuberant illustrations for Matilda convey perfectly Matilda’s indefatigable spirit . The original meaning  of the word Matilda  is ” mighty in battle . “

There is ” rommytot ”  aplenty  in Dahl’s writing . ” A catasterous situation is very bad indeed, and a catasterous disastrophe is the the worst of all .”  Dahl’s work, like Sendak’s could well have an underlying solemnity . His eight year old daughter daughter Olivia died of measles related encephalitis . And his first wife suffered a series of debilitating strokes . Yet Dahl’s genius  somehow allowed him to turn these savage losses into a deeper understanding of childhood tribulations – and allow them to inhabit  a courageous and wonderful, highly imaginative world . Matilda is not squashed by her appalling parents , but instead travels far and wide . ” She went to Africa with Ernest Hemingway and to India with Rudyatd Kipling …”   Matilda says.     ” Be outrageous . Make sure everything you do is so completely crazy it’s unbeleivable . ” Dahl’s courageous little character carries a timeless message for both children and adults .

Dahl created a Phiz Wizzing collection of characters  –  Willy Wonka, Fantastic Mr Fox,, James and the Giant Peach , the BFG – forty five books in all .And each with its own unique characterers . And Dahl’s writing is enhanced by Quentin Blake’s artwork . And further enhanced both by the  writer and the artist’s sense of nonsense .


Frabjous Beasts and Frumious Birds  .     Artist Quentin  Blake

In conclusion I would like to quote the words of a student of Bryn Mawr College . From Serendip Studio – and with the kind authorisation of Ann Dixon – a definition of nonsense : ” Nonsense . It is the absence of logic … At the  same time, nonsense is a challenge . It forces us to encompass a different mindset… Nonsense is a tool that can aid us in discerning our reality .”(  Shayna 26/3/2010 ) Nonsense entertains and amuses, relaxing inherent defences . And arousing a search for sense iñ the nonsense . Presented with a perfectly coherent, logical, well structured academic proposition , we would seek to answer in a similarly coherent manner . But a generôus helping of nonsense allows us the freedom to explore and to question .


Artist Quentin Blake . Road Dahl-The BFG . Quote Robert Frost

And  I will finish with my own piece of nonsense :

A Nonsense Verse
WHAT ? A Nonsense Verse



Acknowledgements :  Serendip Studio, Michael Leunig, John Olsen, Graphics AE:  Adobe Photoshop, Typorama,  @gpiczoo#PICZOO . Google search free images  .

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