Excerpts from "Some Species of Nonsense"—part III of Strange Concepts and the Stories They Make Possible: Cognition, Culture, Narrative (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008), pp. 133-141 and 146-156

 

[Recommended background reading for this excerpt: "Essences and Identities" and "Cognitive Foundations of the Frankenstein Complex"]

 

 

1. How Nonsense Makes Sense in The Hunting of the Snark

 

Nonsense makes sense. From the cognitive perspective advocated by this study, this paradoxical statement is much truer than we have ever imagined. Consider the "types of impossibilia" listed by Noel Malcolm in his book The Origins of English Nonsense (1997), which were already present in medieval nonsense poems: "the reversal of roles by animals (hens seizing hawks), the animation—or, to be more precise, the animal-ization—of inanimate objects (flying millstones being particularly common), and the performance by animals of complex human activities (such as spinning or building)."[1]

 

You can see how all three types build on our evolved cognitive adaptations for categorization. The reversal of animal roles plays with our essentialist proclivities: because it is "in the nature" of hawks to prey upon hens and it is "in the nature" of hens to be wary of hawks, a turnaround in these "natural" hierarchies is bound to strike us as fascinating. Similarly, the performance by animals of complex human activities crosses the subcategories of "animal" and "human" nested within our larger category of "living beings." Because it is not "in the nature" of animals to engage in activities that we associate with human beings, the image of such an animal remains perennially attention-catching. Finally, the "animal-ization of inanimate objects" presents us with entities that cannot be fully assimilated either by the cognitive domain of artifacts or by the domain of living beings.

 

Such animated artifacts are of course closely related to the robots and cyborgs of science fiction as well as to various talking objects in cartoons. The crucial difference between the two is that science fiction stories and cartoons typically provide us with descriptions of the imagined worlds in which such counterontological entities might exist. Or, to put it differently, they provide us with enough textual cues to engage in what Jonathan Culler has called "naturalization" on the first level of verisimilitude.[2] That is, when we approach a fictional narrative, our default expectation is that the world that it depicts will "derive directly from the structure of the world."[3] Should the narrative then "explicitly violate" our expectations and present us with entities and events impossible in the "real world," we start naturalizing it. That is, "we are forced to place the action in another and fantastic world,"[4] thus constructing an alternative reality whose rules will now constitute a verisimilitude of its own.

 

Note that this still does not help us to process any of our counterontological entities within a single conceptual domain, but at least we have bracketed their "reality" as systematically different from ours, on several counts. We thus "know" that in Norika (in Piercy's He, She and It) the technology has advanced to such a degree as to make possible embodied artificial intelligence, that the dancing candelabra, mantel clock, and teapot are in fact people transformed into objects by the enchantress (as in Disney's Beauty and the Beast), that the talking rabbits, mice, birds, and caterpillars inhabit the special world of "Wonderland," the whole of which later turns out to be Alice's dream, anyway (a double insulation, so to speak, of our world from the world swarming with ontological violations), or that because we are watching an animated feature or reading a fairy tale, we should be prepared for such chimeras. By contrast, nonsense poetry offers us little or no such framing. It thrusts the "flying millstones" in our faces and blithely challenges us to deal with their strangeness as well as we can.[5]

 

Hence we learn from "the earliest known nonsense . . . written by a German Minnesinger, 'Reinmar der alte,' who died in 1210," that "[b]reastplate and crown want to be volunteer soldiers." [6] Try as we may (and we have been trying for eight hundred years now) these ambitious artifacts will never be fully assimilated in our minds as your regular everyday breastplate and crown. These two specimens possess a human-like Theory of Mind. If they are capable of wanting to be volunteer soldiers, it means (our essentialism kicks in) that they are also capable of feeling tired, jealous, curious, flabbergasted, socially inferior or superior, thankful for being cheered up on a bad day, resentful for being thought stupider than they perceive themselves to be, and so forth. No human mental state is alien to them.

 

Then there is also the "'Lugendichtung' genre of German nonsense poetry" (I am quoting from Malcolm again) that "enjoyed a long life" and reached "its high point" in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.  One "very popular example from the fourteenth century was the 'Wachtelmare'"—a "long and elaborate narrative, [which] tells the story of a vinegar-jug who rides out to joust against the King of Nindertda in the land of Nummerdummernamen, which lies beyond Monday."[7] I turn to this example to illustrate, among other things, what I mean by the title of this part—"Some Species of Nonsense" (emphasis added). Although I do think that any successful piece of nonsense engages our cognitive predilections, I focus here on only a few types of nonsense. I do not analyze, for example, the nonsensical images that conflate time and space (e.g., "the land which lies beyond Monday") or those that build on a word play (e.g., "Nummerdummernamen"). The vinegar-jug who rides out to joust against a king, however, is just my jug of vinegar—an artifact that reaches over to the domain of human beings and gets stuck in between the two domains—a unique, wishing, feeling, thinking, if rather too-pugnacious-for-its-own-good artifact.

 

But if you want to see an entity stuck not just between two domains, but among three domains, and as such rebuffing with a particular ease all our attempts at assimilating it within any of those domains, look at the title "protagonist" of Lewis Carroll's classical nonsense poem The Hunting of the Snark (1876). Here are the opening stanzas:

 

"Just the place for a Snark!" the Bellman cried,

As he landed his crew with care;

Supporting each man on the top of the tide

By a finger entwined in his hair.

 

"Just the place for a Snark!" I have said it twice:

That alone should encourage the crew.

Just the place for a Snark! I have said it thrice:

What I tell you three times is true.

 

The crew was complete: it included a Boots—

A maker of Bonnets and Hoods—

A Barrister, brought to arrange their disputes—

And a Broker, to value their goods.[8]

 

This opening contains an unfamiliar concept—"Snark." To understand how the introduction of such a concept affects us, think again of the fake words from our discussion in Part II: zygoons, thricklers, and kerpa. When we hear that 1) "zygoons are the only predators of hyenas," 2) that "thricklers are expensive, but cabinetmakers need them to work wood," and 3) that to make a certain dish, we have to take one pound of boiled spinach, two teaspoons of butter, a pinch of salt, and a spoon and a half of kerpa, we are immediately able to deduce that 1) a zygoon will most probably die if you cut it in two, 2) that a cut-in-two thrickler might be of use to a thrifty cabinetmaker, and 3) that it might be possible to transport kerpa on a plane in a plastic jar.[9] Although we have never heard these words before (indeed, they do not exist), our cognitive adaptations allow us to categorize a zygoon as a living being, a thrickler as an artifact, and kerpa as a substance, and by doing so to gain immediate access to a large set of inferences about each of these entities.

 

            Now "Snark" is also a word that does not exist, which means that upon first hearing it, we are on the lookout for information that would allow us to place it within a familiar category to start immediately to infer new things about it. Carroll is intuitively aware of this, and he plays with us by seemingly telling us something about the Snark but really giving us no inference-building material at all. By the beginning of the third stanza, we have heard the word "Snark" mentioned three times, accompanied by the assurance from the Bellman that what he tells us "three times is true," but we have no leads for inferences!

 

            Well, almost no leads (and now we are scrambling desperately), for apparently "Snark" is valuable enough to get together to hunt for. Although even this is not at all obvious—the Snark-hunting "crew" that Carroll then proceeds to describe is such a odd crew that what they may consider worthy of obtaining might not be considered so by others. This brave band of bachelors includes the Bellman, the maker of Bonnets, the Barrister, the Broker, the Billiard-Maker, the Banker, the Beaver, the Baker, and the Butcher. Many of them are incompetent (the Bellman buys a blank map; the Baker can't really bake; the Butcher can only butcher Beavers), and as we learn more about them, it becomes nearly impossible to speculate about the qualities of the "Snark" that brought them all together.

 

            But, finally about sixteen pages later (and I think the reason that Carroll can afford so long an interruption is that he intuitively knows that we've been hooked and are now looking and looking for any inference-building cues), we get back to the Snark proper. For the benefit of his crew members, the Bellman lists the five essential qualities of the "warranted genuine" Snark:

 

Let us take them in order. The first is the taste,

Which is meager and hollow, but crisp:

Like a coat that is rather too tight in the waist,

With a flavour of Will-o-the-Wisp.

 

Its habit of getting up late you'll agree

That it carries too far, when I say

That it frequently breakfasts at five-o'clock tea,

And dines on the following day.

 

The third is its slowness in taking a jest.

Should you happen to venture on one,

It will sigh like a thing that is deeply distressed:

And it always looks great at a pun.

 

The fourth is its fondness for bathing-machines,

Which is constantly carries about,

And believes that they add to the beauty of scenes—

A sentiment open to doubt.

 

The fifth is ambition. It next will be right

To describe each particular batch:

Distinguishing those that have feathers, and bite

From those that have whiskers, and scratch.

 

Later on in the poem we get another relevant description of the Snark, this time provided by the Baker:

 

I engage with the Snark—every night after dark—

In a dreamy delirious fight:

I serve it with greens in those shadowy scenes,

And I use for striking a light.[10]

 

Here is, then, what I mean when I say that good nonsense makes complete sense from a cognitive point of view. Hearing of something referred to as "it" and learning that it is "crisp" and "hollow" to the taste, we assume, as we would with kerpa, that the Snark is a substance, most likely a foodstuff. That allows us to make a series of inferences about the Snark that we usually make about edible substances (e.g., some people may find it tastier than others; it may spoil with time; it can be cooked, though it may also be consumed raw, etc.). Immediately after, however, we are bombarded with information about the Snark's habits and personality traits: laziness, bad sense of humor, love of unwieldy gadgets, ambition, and, later yet, pugnacity. This lets us assume that the Snark is a creature with a fully developed theory of mind—capable of an infinite array of human mental states.

 

Generally, once we have assumed that about any entity, no subsequent information can force us to classify that entity with mere birds, animals, substances, and artifacts, even though we may learn that some Snarks "have feathers, and bite"; that some "have whiskers, and scratch"; that some are "serve[d] with greens"; and that some can be used "for striking a light." We are thus not surprised to hear that one of the members of the team (fittingly, the Barrister) had a dream in which the Snark, "with a glass in its eye, / Dressed in gown, bands, and wig, was defending a pig / On the charge of deserting its sty."[11] For giving long speeches before the jury of one's peers is just one of innumerable activities that creatures with theory of mind—such as people—are capable of.

 

And yet through all this speech giving and pig defending, the Snark is referred to as "it," and we cannot simply forget that it tastes crisp, can be served with greens, and can be used for striking a light. The Snark thus remains an entity that crosses three conceptual domains—human beings, substances, artifacts—and as such cannot ever be fully assimilated to any of them.[12] This accounts for the fact that the Snark remains subject to endless symbolic interpretations—by intuitively spreading its ontology all over our conceptual map, Carroll has ensured that his readers will forever be attempting to put this impossible creature "together again."

 

I shall now quote at length from one such attempt, brought forth by a prominent Carroll scholar, Edward Guiliano. Guiliano reads the poem in the context of Charles Dodgson's overweening awareness of death (The Hunting, after all, was conceived when Dodgson was nursing his dying twenty-two-year-old cousin) and his general fascination "by states of being (which include not only dying but dreaming and even spiritualism)."[13] Hence Guiliano's interpretation of the Baker's dream:

 

The Baker also describes what can be viewed as a state of existential dread:

I engage with the Snark—every day after dark—

In a dreamy delirious fight:

I serve it with greens in those shadowy scenes,

And I use it for striking a light.

 

This stanza provides an excellent illustration of the tension that exists between the comic tone and the underlying terror that characterizes the poem for readers today. It also provides us with a glimpse at the nature of Carroll's artistic temperament. The first two lines, "I engage with the Snark—every night after dark—/In a dreamy delirious fight:" can be read as a statement that parallels Dodgson's own experience. He was an insomniac kept awake at least partially by haunting and troubling thoughts. In fact, he published a book of puzzles devised to ease the pain of his sleeplessness—some mental work to help free his mind of its troubling thoughts, thoughts that surely occurred to many of his contemporaries as well. . . .

But although we can find suggestions of Dodgson's anxieties in the Baker's dread, in the closing lines, "I serve it with greens in those shadowy scenes,/And I use it for striking a light," we find only whimsy and nonsense. They change the tone completely.[14]

 

Let me start by quarreling with Guiliano about one minor point before agreeing with his larger argument. While he views the closing lines ("I serve it with greens . . .") as "only whimsy and nonsense," I insist that they are profoundly logical and sensible, indeed necessary at this point in the poem. Considering the larger project of its author—which I am now recasting in explicitly "cognitive" terms—Carroll had to prevent his readers from getting too comfortable with the idea of the Snark as either a person, or as an artifact, or as a substance. The stanza in which the Baker first "engages" with the Snark every night after dark, then serves it with greens, and then uses it for striking a light hits roughly all three domains and as such forcefully reminds us that the Snark is not quite a person, not quite an edible substance, and not quite an artifact, even if it apparently has some qualities of each of the three.

 

I say that it hits roughly all three domains because of the ambiguity of the word "engage." Engage is not the strongest verb out there—one can engage with an entity that doesn't have a theory of mind. "I argue with the Snark," for example, would imply the Snark's "personhood" stronger, but of course it does not scan. Moreover, Carroll can afford such relatively abstract verbs as "engage" in his reference to the Snark because by this point he has already firmly established in his reader's conscience that the Snark has a human-like theory of mind.

 

I have pointed out already that once we have assumed that a given entity has the potential for a broad variety of states of mind, it is pretty much impossible to make us classify that entity with something that lacks such potential. (And that is not surprising. Throughout our evolutionary history, it must have made more survival sense to overattribute capacity for intentionality to an entity that has shown some agency than to underattribute it. It's better to mistake a tree for an enemy than to mistake an enemy for a tree.)[15] Thus the word "engage" in the first line of the stanza implies that the Snark has some intentionality at least and specifically human intentionality at most, and it is this implication of the possibly human intentionality that is then undercut neatly when we are told that the Snark can be served with greens and can be used for striking a light.

 

To repeat, where Guiliano sees mere "whimsy and nonsense" (i.e., the intrusion of first the edible Snark and then the match-like Snark), I see a cognitive logic. But then it is precisely because I disagree with Guiliano on this point that I can endorse his larger view of the Baker as expressing his own, our, and Carroll's "existential dread." Because the Snark can never be fully assimilated to any single conceptual domain while consistently activating inferences from all three domains, our search for the meaning of the poem never stops. This search may lead us to inquire into the circumstances attending the writing of the poem, into the socio-historical, cultural, and aesthetic milieus into which the Snark was "born," and into the state of mind of the person who wrote it and the person who reads it. It also may—as in this particular case—help us to understand and articulate our feeling of "existential dread." Moreover that feeling must be intensified rather than dissipated by the images of the Snark served with greens and used for striking a light. For it seems to me that the cognitive vertigo induced in us by the entity that resists—and continues resisting with every new description—conceptual assimilation should make even stronger that sense of helplessness and "existential agony" that several critics see as pervading the poem.[16]

 

I need now address the limits of my "cognitive" analysis of Carroll's poem. For it may appear that any author can follow the recipe outlined above and write a brilliant piece of nonsense. Just present the reader with an entity that straddles several conceptual domains—two domains is good, three is apparently even better—and presto: the poem will hold our attention, will resist a settled interpretation, and will be beloved by generations of readers as Carroll's The Hunting has been.

 

You can see already the problems with this recipe. A rhymed narrative about a counterontological entity may indeed hold our attention by resisting a settled interpretation and thus qualify, technically speaking, as a nonsense poem and still remain a pedestrian exercise in rhyming. In fact, I can think of at least one contemporary author of children's nonsense poems who does follow this recipe very faithfully (intuitively, of course, not consciously: he's been writing since long before cognitive scientists came along with their research on essentialism and functionalism), but his work seems utterly lacking in charm, much less approaching the magic of Carroll's The Hunting.

 

To some extent, this is a question of personal preference. Still, my larger point remains. There are many ways to tell a story about counterontological creatures, and the way Carroll does it is unique. I hope to have uncovered one underlying technique that he uses to keep the Snark mysterious; what I do not address here—and what is absolutely crucial for our understanding of the poem—is how this technique is intertwined with other aspects of The Hunting.

 

It matters, for example, that the poem builds a series of complicated relationships among its various alliterative bachelors; that the protagonists are concerned about their social status within the group; that the hunting adventure touches something deep in each of them and transforms some of them. We usually reserve such terms of analysis for novels, but they seem to be relevant in the case of The Hunting. Thus, a more comprehensive conversation about this specific poem (as opposed to just any nonsense poem) would inquire into the ways in which the emotional and social concerns of its protagonists interact with the ontological quandary implied by the image of the Snark. Or, to put it differently, from whatever interpretive angle you approach The Hunting, you may eventually want to ask how your interpretation engages with the fact that the central image of the poem, the nexus of the dreams, anxieties, and ambitions of its protagonists, is a cognitive conundrum that cannot be solved.

 

 

2. The "Strings of Impossibilia" and What They Tell Us About the Value of Nonsense

 

[ . . . ]

 

 

3. "Painters of the Unimaginable," or More About Really Strange Concepts

 

My argument is useful only as long as we remain clear about its limits. When I talked about nonsense poetry, I insisted that my analysis applied only to some nonsensical structures and, in the case of The Hunting of the Snark, only to one, very specific aspect of the poem. The same principle holds in my present cognitive inquiry into surrealist art, as it was practiced under the watchful eye of AndrŽ Breton from the early 1920s to the 1960s. Surrealism came in so many different forms and personal styles, and featured so much evolution of personal styles, that I would not dream of trying to explain all of it via my cognitive framework. I am arguing instead that such a framework could elucidate the effect of some visual concepts that surrealist artists strove to express in their work, and that as long as we are in agreement about the strictly defined scope of its application, it represents a useful interpretive tool.

 

For Breton, surrealism was a way of life—an ongoing revolution of perceptual practices. In particular, the aim of surrealist art was to "express the unconscious activity of the mind," resisting "as long as we live" its intelligibility along the comfortable lines of familiar everyday experience.[17] As Breton wrote, quoting pointedly a 1913 text by Giorgio De Chirico, a surrealist painter who by the late 1920s would arguably forfeit his claim to "true" surrealism because his art began to conform to "human proportions":

 

For a work of art to be truly immortal, it must thoroughly transcend the limits of the human: common sense and logic must be lacking. In this manner it will be more like a dream, closer to the mentality of children . . . The revelation we have of a work of art, the conception of a painting reproducing whatever it might be, which has no sense on its own, no subject, which from the point of view of human logic doesn't mean a thing—that revelation, that conception must be so strong within us that they procure such joy or such pain that we are obliged to paint, driven by a force greater than that which drives a famished person to throw himself like an animal onto the piece of bread he has suddenly found.[18]

 

Yet to "transcend the limits of the human" did not mean to abandon oneself to conceptual and interpretive nihilism (hence Breton's disaffection, in the early 1920s, with the Dada movement). On the contrary, as Breton put in 1934, surrealism has "always . . . expressed for [its true practitioners] a desire to deepen the foundations of the real, to bring about an even clearer and at the same time ever more passionate consciousness of the world perceived by the senses." To achieve these effects, surrealists attempted to juxtapose "interior reality" (the unconscious workings of the mind) with "exterior reality" (the result of conscious and habitual perception) and to confront "these two realities with one another on every possible occasion."[19]

 

            Breton's explication of the surrealist project does not map neatly onto my cognitive theorizing. Hence my using a sentence from his Nadja (1928) as an epigraph for this book is a bit of sleight of hand. However, I am struck by how gracefully that sentence seems to express one of my main arguments, which is that our cognitive adaptations for categorization ("a mind's arrangements in regard to certain objects") may structure our emotional responses to certain aspects of our cultural representations (our "regard for certain arrangements of objects"), even while I do not claim that Breton was developing some protocognitive evolutionary stance. Note, too, how well the Freudian concept of the unconscious, which Breton took quite seriously even while he was aware of the limitations of psychoanalysis, meshes with our present understanding of cognitive processes as closed off to our conscious awareness yet powerfully impacting our perceptual and interpretive practices.[20]

 

            In other words, there is a cognitive method to some surrealist madness, and it is because the artists intuitively followed that method that their work may claim to "deepen the foundations of the real." Consider, for example, Joan Mir—'s The Carnival of Harlequin (1924), which features, according to fellow surrealist Sarane Alexandrian, "an extraordinary fancy-dress ball, where not only human beings, but also animals and everyday objects, are wearing masks"[21] (fig. 5). When somebody's wearing a mask, it signals not merely a deliberate concealment of his or her facial expression but also a public "announcement" of the intention to conceal one's mental state (our faces being a crucial source of information about our thoughts and feelings). In its pointed intentionality, mask donning is thus distinct from mimicry as practiced by many animal species. It implies a fully developed human theory of mind on the part of the masquerader, and it is the presence of that intentionality that transforms the cat, the fish, and the several insects populating the painting into conceptual hybrids. For each of them is thus part animal and part human, and none can be fully assimilated to either of those subdomains within the larger domain of living beings.

 

 

Now turn to the ladder in the far left corner, the one with no rungs on the bottom and a big colorful ear sticking out from its upper part. The missing rungs are important: they speak to our functionalism, making us uncertain about the ontology of this erstwhile artifact. Is the ladder that you cannot use for climbing still a ladder or is it now some other object "masquerading" as a ladder? The curious ear complicates matters further. It implies either a sense of hearing that we associate with living beings, both animals and humans, or—if we choose to focus on how colorful the ear is—a fully developed theory of mind that we associate with humans. For if the ear is not merely an ear but a part of the ladder's "costume," it signals the ladder's intention to participate in the carnival and even "mask" itself as something else.

 

The color scheme of the painting also emphasizes the hybrid nature of the portrayed entities. Mir— uses the same color (light slate blue in the reproduction of the painting that I have in front of me) to represent an artifact (the table on the right), one of the insect's wings, the body of the guitar-playing creature in the center, and the right half of the Harlequin's face.  Similarly, the coloration of the cat on the far right echoes that of the guitar. Finally, the ladder's ear is part red (the same red that covers the other half of the Harlequin's face), part green (the same green as that of the levitating sphere on the right), part black (the black of the long arm transecting the painting in the middle), and part yellow (the yellow of the body of a little merry mammal—or rodent?—on the bottom of the painting). The use of the same color to portray an animated being and an artifact deepens the impression of ontological uncertainty pervading The Carnival.

 

It is difficult to say how much of this uncertainty we register consciously when we simply take in the picture as a whole without trying to analyze it; say, when we pass by it in a museum.[22] A fleeting glance at The Carnival leaves one with an impression of overflowing activity but also with a peculiar feeling of being watched. For we are being watched by its numerous creatures (some of whom also listen quite attentively—as the big ear attests), who themselves are protected from our inquiring gaze by their masks. They see us—and know us—better than we do them, an impression that is further intensified if we pause by the painting and take a longer look and begin to realize (so to speak—for much of this realization remains unconscious) that we cannot safely "place" any of those entities in a familiar category.

 

Is that all there is to The Carnival of Harlequin? Of course not! I haven't even begun to discuss various symbolic meanings and cultural references implied by the interplay of shapes and colors of the painting. Nor do I intend to—for that has been done and will continue being done by professional art critics and historians, who are much better at it than I. I just want to point out that dissimilar as their interpretations may be, they all draw on our differential conceptualization of living beings and artifacts. For what is our rhetoric of "objectification" and "anthropomorphization"—which is invariably present in the analysis of surrealist art—but an attempt to put in words our intuitive awareness of the patterns underlying our categorization processes? I see my contribution as bringing those patterns into the open and showing that the elements of surrealist artwork that we may view as nonsensical actually make a lot of sense from a cognitive perspective. They are, in fact, tightly bound by the regularities of our categorization processes.

 

Think too of the surrealists' abiding fascination with objects. As Salvador Dal’ saw it, "the surrealist object serves no purpose other than to deceive, to extenuate and to cretinize mankind . . . it exists only to honor thought."[23] Among such cretinizing or thought-honoring entities, surrealists counted the found object, the natural object, the interpreted found object, the interpreted natural object, the readymade, the incorporated object, the phantom object, the dreamt object, the box, the optical machine, the poem-object, the mobile and mute object, the symbolically functioning object, the objectively offered object, the being-object, and others.[24] Below I focus on only three of those categories—the readymade, the phantom object, and the natural object—because, as I have already observed—the theoretical framework that I am offering in this study is useful only as long as we remain selective about its application and do not foist it on everything that seems to resonate with it in some vague way.

 

According to Alexandrian, the term readymade "can be applied only to an industrially mass-produced object whose function is altered, and which is dragged from its context of automatic reproduction in the most ingenuous way possible."  At this point, the best-known example of a readymade is perhaps Man Ray's Gift (1921), "a flat-iron with its ironing surface bristling with nails"[25] (fig. 6). If we "translate" the striking visual effect of such objects into our cognitive terminology, we can say that they tease our strong predisposition to think of artifacts in terms of their function. Once the function is subverted as radically as it is in the case of the flatiron—which from now on will destroy garments instead of improving their appearance—we are faced with a cognitive challenge. We have in front of us an artifact that has to be conceptualized not merely in terms of its altered function (for that we can do relatively easily) but in terms other than its function altogether. How do we do it? How do we arrive at that alternative conceptualization? And once we have arrived at it, how stable is it?

 

 

It seems to me that, unable to think about the spiky flatiron in terms of its function, we focus squarely on the mind behind it.[26] We try to figure out who and why would thus transmogrify a mundane household utensil. Helping us in this intuitive quest is the title of the piece. The word "gift" strongly implies intentionality, and so we begin to ask ourselves, who would give such a "gift," to whom, and why.[27] What kind of message would the giver want to convey? Should we even retain the usual positive connotations associated with giving when the emotions suggested by this particular "gift" range from inability to communicate to malevolence? Taking on those complex overtones, the former mass-produced object emerges as anything but "mass-produced" and so much more than just an object. Again, let me emphasize that had Man Ray not tapped, in a particularly focused fashion, our cognitive predisposition for thinking of artifacts in terms of their function, his Gift would have no shock value, no enduring mystery, and no aesthetic value.

 

The phantom object (also known as an object of "counterenchantment") is an object "which might be made, but which is instead merely suggested by a verbal or graphic description."[28] Or it can be an object that "does not exist, but whose existence, by some subterfuge, is made to be felt and its absence regretted."[29] This concept is particularly interesting for the purposes of the present discussion because many phantom objects were produced by combining living beings and artifacts in a way that cancelled out some essential qualities of the living being and the function of the artifact.

 

Hence Victor Brauner's Wolftable (1947)—a creature with the head and tail of a wolf and the body and legs of a table (fig. 7). To understand how this chimera plays with our cognitive predispositions, think again of the experiments conducted by cognitive psychologists and described in the first part of this book, in which various body parts of an animal were altered and the subjects were then asked if the resulting hybrid was "still" the original animal or something else. Remember how the skunk retained its underlying "skunkness" even when made to look like a zebra?—our intuitive belief in an invisible but enduring essence frequently prompts us to still discern the original animal in a hybrid that does not look anything like it anymore. Similarly, Brauner seems to be testing how much of a wolf one can take away before it loses all "essential" qualities of that animal and becomes something else. And the tentative answer that emerges at least from my emotional response to this object is that something of the "essential" wolf lingers even after it has been transformed to the point of no return.

 

 

 

To put it slightly differently, it is as if Brauner was consciously trying to locate and freeze that moment in time when the animal is on the cusp of becoming something completely different—but only on the cusp, for enough of the wolf remains to make us, for example, reluctant to use that table in accordance with its original function. Tables are made to hold food so that people can reach it. Clearly, this table fails this function utterly, for would you want to keep foodstuffs so close to a wolf's mouth and would you dare to sit down to a table that can bite your hand or head off? As far as its function goes, the wolf-table has in fact become an anti-table, similar in this respect to Man Ray's anti-flat-iron. We see the snarling head and the upright tail, and our essentialism gets in gear. It is "in the nature" of wolves to snap, to snarl, to attack, and to devour, and it is this suite of behaviors that we ascribe to our anti-table.[30]

 

It must be the snarling head with its immediate implication of intentionality that really does it. Or not. To "test" this idea, look at Meret Oppenheim's The Squirrel (c. 1960), which features a sealed jar with a vibrant squirrel tail attached to it (fig. 8). I am having a difficult time figuring out if this phantom object retains any "essential" qualities of a squirrel. I feel that some "squirreliness" lingers, but I cannot construct any narratives about this artifact exhibiting a squirrel-like behavior (more about this foreclosure of narratives by certain surrealist images later).

 

 

Moreover, not only is the jar sealed (and so cannot be used in accordance with its original function as a container), but its would-be handle (the squirrel's bushy tail) is too soft to hold on to, were we to try to use it as a handle. The lingering "squirreliness" thus works toward further subverting the function of this former artifact.

 

These artists intuitively rely on their audiences' essentialism to turn artifacts into anti-artifacts. It is "in the nature" of squirrels to have bushy tails, so this "squirrel's" tail ensures that the jar's handle is not really a handle, and the jar is not really a jar. It is "in the nature" of wolves to bite and attack, and so the table becomes "anti-table."[31]

 

As an anti-table strongly reminiscent of a wolf (but titled ambiguously "Wolftable"[32]) and an anti-jar somewhat reminiscent of a squirrel (but, in contrast, titled unambiguously "The Squirrel") the phantom objects create and explore various nodes of conceptual impossibility. Once more I am tempted to call on my favorite Breton to illustrate vividly the idea that surrealist artwork plays with a wide spectrum of conceptual violations, as it forces its viewers to deal with entities that resist assimilation through any number of conceptual domains:

 

I am concerned, I say, with facts which may belong to the order of pure observation, but which on each occasion present all the appearances of a signal, without our being able to say precisely which signal . . . Such facts, from the simplest to the most complex, should be assigned a hierarchy, form the special, indefinable reaction at the sight of extremely rare objects or upon our arrival in a strange place . . . to the complete lack of peace with ourselves provoked by certain juxtapositions, certain combinations of circumstances which greatly surpass our understanding and permit us to resume rational activity only if, in most cases, we call upon our very instinct of self-preservation to enable us to do so.[33]

 

Whereas our cognitive architecture may encourage us to parse the world in terms of artifacts and living beings, some forms of surrealist art strive to articulate the areas between the two domains. The sheer "hereness" (what Breton calls the "fact") of those cognitively inassimilable entities—they are right here in front of you, which means that every second that you spend looking at them your categorization processes have to deal with them—reliably forces us into a state of cognitive uncertainty.

 

This is to say that some surrealist artwork functions similarly to the "strings of impossibilia" in poetry. When we come across Oppenheim's Squirrel, it reliably brings to a screeching halt our automatic categorizing. As such, it makes us tacitly aware of the functioning of our categorization processes. Once more the value of nonsense—this time visual rather than verbal—may reside in its ability to disrupt our unreflective perception in a particularly focused way and to make us aware of the disruption.

 

The last category of surrealist objects that I discuss here comprises "natural objects." As Alexandrian observes, a natural object "may be a root or a seashell, but the surrealists always preferred stones."[34] Breton felt that "stones—particularly hard stones—go on talking to those who wish to hear them. They speak to each listener according to his capabilities; through what each listener knows, they instruct him in what he aspires to know." Moreover (this is Alexandrian again), the "divinatory nature of stones, and the 'second state' which they induce in the connoisseur, are found only where the stones have been discovered as the result of a special expedition. Breton said that an unusual stone found by chance is of less value than one which has been sought for and longed for."[35]

 

We can see how the special category of "natural objects"—e.g., the stones that enter into a conversation with the artist—is constructed by bringing together the domains of substances and living beings. The stone is endowed with something like a human theory of mind—it can "hear" the surrealist's half-articulated question and provide him or her with an answer. Note how different this exchange is from our everyday casual anthropomorphizing, such as seeing faces in the clouds and discerning human silhouettes in particularly shaped natural formations. In fact, it seems that a stone that easily lends itself to such anthropomorphizing—that is, anybody can see a human nose sticking out from the middle of it—would be the least likely candidate for a surrealist "natural object."

 

The surrealist endeavor of reading a mental stance into a stone thus plays in a very specific way with our theory of mind. The artist has to attribute a mental state to an inanimate entity and then convince others that one can indeed read this particular mental state into that entity in the absence of any features that would make such an attribution easy.  On some level this is comparable to the playful challenge to our mind-reading adaptations represented by a masquerade. For it is one thing to interpret a mental state of a person based on her facial expression (e.g., she is smiling, so she must be happy or amused), and quite another to interpret a mental state of a person whose face is completely hidden by a mask. We know that the masked person is signaling her intention to conceal her state of mind, but this is all we can know. Interpreting the "facial expression" of a stone is like reading emotions into . . . a stone. It demands a particularly creative exertion of our mind-reading ability. It is not for nothing that several languages have a term for stone-faced, which is used to signal the person's emotional unreadability.

 

The original domain of the natural objects—they all seem to be natural substances—is also significant. Unlike animals (to whom we ascribe a broad range of emotions) and artifacts (which could bear the marks of human intentionality), substances such as stones, sand, and seashells do not yield themselves readily to such cross-domain imagining. For a quick illustration, compare the amount of mental effort that goes into thinking of such entities as a happy cat, a happy chair, and a happy stone. The  "happy cat" comes easily to you; the "happy chair" requires some mental maneuvering (sunlight falling on the chintz?); the "happy stone" makes you work even harder. The challenge of reading a complex mental stance into a stone—or a bed of stones—is a challenge worthy of an artist who intuitively cultivates her ability to explore new domain-crossing opportunities.

 

[ . . . ]

 



[1] Malcolm, 55-56.

[2] Culler, 161. Note that Culler uses the term vraisemblance, which I am here substituting with verisimilitude. For an important related discussion of the "mechanisms of integration," which allow readers to make sense of "textual incongruities," see Yacobi, 109-112.

[3] Culler, 164. As Culler puts it, drawing on Roland Barthes' S/Z (1970), "whatever meanings a sentence liberates, it always seems as though it ought to be telling us something simple, coherent and true, and that this initial presumption forms the basis of reading as a process of naturalization" (165). See also Marie-Laure Ryan on the principle of minimal departure (Possible Worlds) and Tarar Yacobi on the "mechanisms of integration," which allow readers to make sense of "textual incongruities" (109-112).

[4] Ibid., 164, 165. See also Kendall L. Walton's Mimesis on fictional worlds as opposed to possible worlds (62-67).

[5] Of course, lyric poetry also forces us to deal with its strangeness often in the absence of any helpful framing (for a discussion, see Empson, Seven Types, and Culler, Structuralist Poetics), but, as I argue later, unlike lyric poetry, nonsense poetry resists metaphoric and symbolic readings much more strongly than lyric poetry.

[6] Malcolm, 53.

[7] Malcolm, 57.

[8] The Hunting of the Snark, 3-4.

[9] Boyer, 58-59.

[10] The Hunting of the Snark, 22-24, 32-33.

[11] Ibid., 33, 63.

[12] Compare to Culler's observation that learning about a certain hypothetical entity that "'he was small, green, and demographic' . . . would . . . require us to construct a very curious world indeed" (165-166).

[13] Guiliano, "Lewis Carroll," 106.

[14] Ibid., 108-9.

[15] For crucial discussions of this issue, see Bering and Barrett.

[16] See, for example, Martin Gardner (whose analysis Guiliano takes as his starting point): The Hunting of the Snark is "a poem about being and nonbeing, an existential poem, a poem of existential agony. The Bellman's map is the map that charts the course of humanity; blank because we possess no information about were we are or whither we drift. . . . The Snark is, in Paul Tillich's fashionable phrase, every man's ultimate concern. This is the great search motif of the poem, the quest for an ultimate good. But this motif is submerged in a stronger motif, the dread, the agonizing dread, of ultimate failure . . . " (Quoted in Guiliano, 107).

[17] Quoted in Durozoi, 63, 68.

[18] Quoted in Durozoi, 97-98; emphasis in the original. For a discussion of De Chirico's "betrayal" of the surrealist cause, see Durozoi, 96-98.

[19] Breton, What is Surrealism? 115; 116

[20] See, for example, Nadja, in which Breton wonders if psychoanalysis "does not simply occasion further inhibitions by its very interpretation of inhibitions" (24).

[21] Alexandrian, 73.

[22] Breton, of course, rejected the conventional manner of attending to objects in museums. Surrealists "could imagine nothing more boring than the usual long line of visitors to a museum walking slowly and impassively past a collection of works of art" (Alexandrian, 151). They wanted to put their spectators into a highly emotional state of mind: to both disturb them and heighten their receptiveness, and, quite frequently, they succeeded.

[23] Quoted in Durozoi, 230.

[24] I am lifting this registry from Alexandrian's Surrealist Art, 140-150. For a further discussion of surrealist objects, see Durozoi, 221-231.

[25] Alexandrian, 142.

[26] Compare the flatiron to the ancient Roman coin unearthed at an archeological site, which I discussed in Part I. We now perceive that coin—also a formerly mass-produced object—as very special because of its history of participation in the social and cultural networks of a long-lost civilization.

[27] The active, frequently ironic interplay between the verbal and the visual was of course an integral part of the surrealist project.

[28] Durozoi, 655.

[29] Alexandrian, 143.

[30] You can see why the effect produced by this specimen could not be explained by the "conceptual blending" paradigm developed by Turner and Fauconnier. The hybrid (the "blend") does not merely combine the salient features from both original domains (i.e., furniture and animals)—it actively overrides the features we associate with furniture. The reason I think it works this way is that the overascription of agency made much more sense in our evolutionary history than the underascription of agency. Better to be safe than sorry and to think that the table can bite you than to think that the wolf can't hurt you. In this sense, the influential paradigm of conceptual blending would be strengthened if combined with cognitive evolutionary theory.

[31] Or so we think—the historical misperception of wolves is the reason that some species are now nearly hunted out of existence.

[32] It is interesting that in naming his phantom object, Brauner put "wolf" before "table." Similarly, in Lucian's A True Story, when the narrator encounters a set of hybrid creatures—living ships—they are described as "at once sailors and ships" (353), with "sailors" thus coming before "ships." See Yeshayahu Shen, David Gil, and Hillel Roman's "What Can Hybrids Tell Us about the Relationship between Language and Thought" for an important discussion of experiments in which the participants were asked to name a series of hybrid objects (half people-half animals, half animals-half artifacts, etc) and consistently followed the animacy hierarchy. The animacy hierarchy is "part of our ontological knowledge, pertaining to the basic categories of existence. According to the AH, humans > animals > plants > non-animate objects, where the sign - ">" stands for 'higher than')." http://www.redes.lmu.de/igel/abstracts.htm

[33] Breton, Nadja, 19-20.

[34] Alexandrian, 141.

[35] Quoted in Alexandrian, 141, 142.