Meaningful Nonsense

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Introducing the Genre

When we speak about meaningful nonsense, two most important writers come to my mind—Sukumar Ray and Dr. Seuss. Both of them hold a very special position in the world of children’s literature. They were both portrayed as beloved children’s authors of all time. Their use of repetitive, rhythmic, and whimsical language has excited readers, of all ages, for decades. Writing nonsense is a great way to expand a person’s imagination by turning humdrum situations into scenes full of fantasy, magic, nonsense, and silliness. This can also be considered as an effective method for teaching young children that language and reading are exciting and interesting tools that can be fun and playful.

Sukumar Ray (1887–1923)

Sukumar Ray was a Bengali poet, playwright, story writer, and editor. He was one of the most renowned writers within the Indian subcontinent, who is remembered especially for his notable contributions for the children’s books. He was the father of Oscar winning filmmaker Satyajit Ray. His beautiful creations such as the collection of poems Abol Tabol, short story collection Pagla Dashu, novella HaJaBaRaLa, and play Chalachittachanchari are considered equal in prestige to Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Ray is celebrated in the realm of Bengali literature even after more than 80 years of his death.

Dr. Seuss (1904–1991)

Theodor Seuss Geisel, or popularly known as Dr. Seuss, was an American children’s author, poet, political cartoonist, screenwriter, animator, and artist. He was best known for his work illustrating and writing more than 60 books. By the time of his death, his works have been sold over 600 million copies and are translated into more than 20 languages all over the world. In 1927, he left Oxford to seek out his career as a cartoonist and an illustrator for various publications such as Life and Vanity Fair. In 1937, his first children’s book was published which was named And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street. His life was full of adventures. While working in the film and animation department of the United States Army, he produced, wrote, and animated several productions. But he took a hiatus from children’s literature during World War II as he wanted to concentrate on producing illustrations of political cartoons. These works included the famous Design for Death. This bagged him the 1947 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. His brilliance is shown in his famous works such as How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, If I Ran the Circus, The Cat in the Hat, Horton Hears a Who!, Green Eggs and Ham, and If I Ran the Zoo. His works are well acknowledged all over the world and was adapted into four feature films, 11 television specials, four television series, and a Broadway musical. An initiative on reading was created by the National Education Association and his importance is reflected in the fact that his birthday March 2 has been adopted as the annual date for National Read Across America Day.

What is Literary Nonsense?

The literary nonsense genre is very intriguing to people of all ages. Basically, nonsense can be considered as a communication that is done with the help of speech, writing, or any other symbolic system, which lacks any comprehensible meaning. In ordinary usage, literary nonsense celebrates the absurdity and the ridiculousness of the mundaneness of daily lives most of the times. Nonsense literature is considered as one of the favorites of many novelists, poets, and songwriters and they have preferred using nonsense in their works time and again. Often, this helped them to create an entire work applying nonsense genre for several reasons which ranged from satire to pure comic amusement, and also to illustrate a point about reasoning or language. Philosophy of Science and Philosophy of Language distinguished nonsense as being completely away from meaningfulness and sense. Thus, several attempts are made over time to squeeze out sense and logic with several consistent and coherent method of distinguishing sense from nonsense. In cryptography, it is also a crucial field of study and focuses on separating a signal from noise.

But do not ever forget the most important thing. Literary nonsense is never devoid of meaning; rather it expresses very grave and serious issues of life. Shakespeare always said that we must never avoid the sayings of a fool or a madman, an old man, and a child. He mentioned about these particular people because in our sophisticated society, we tend to attach the stamp of insanity on the individuals who does not behave the way we want them to. We tend to say that people are saying meaningless nonsense when we fear that some grave issues may be revealed in front of everyone. This is because “nonsense” is such a word that immediately instigates the thought of meaninglessness around it. But if you truly want to understand what the real meaning of literary nonsense is, you will definitely have to put aside your preconceived notion about nonsense.

The legendary baseball player Yogi Berra prefers to speak in witty nonsense. When we will hear his sayings for the first time, we will feel completely helpless and lost. Most of us may give up and say, “He makes no sense at all!” All of his well-known expressions appear to be utter nonsense. But if you have the patience of examining further, you will be astonished to unveil the deep, inherent truth about all his quotes. When we follow his famous sayings, we will definitely understand that “Yogisms” can elaborate the meaning of literary nonsense.

To state the truth, literary nonsense is the most difficult of all literary genres. We can all understand how difficult it is to create texts which will portray beautiful meanings out of utter nonsense. Nonsense has that mesmerizing power of creating an entirely new world with the help of manipulation of language. Nonsense loves playing with construction and deconstruction. To tell the truth, words are nothing but signs. We humans prefer to maintain a strictness in our decorum and thus have assigned meaning to these cluster of signs. But when a novice reads a different unknown language or when a child looks at book full of words, they will think of it as complete nonsense as they will fail to understand the meaning. Barthes and Derrida explained this elaborately in their respective theories. They explained that if words were really able to make a proper meaning out of this vast world, then every single thing would have only one specific name. But this is not at all the case. Every single thing is assigned with several names by different people belonging to different corners of the world. Thus the whole authentic world of word structure stumbles down to the ground helplessly. We can then come to the conclusion that “the whole world order is based upon a lie,” that is it is just an image of meaningful nonsense.

Indian Dr. Seuss—Anushka Ravishankar

Anushka Ravishankar writes nonsense verse for children and is one of the most well-known authors of the modern world. She says that her inspiration comes from several sounds all around her. Her famous works include Elephants Never Forget, Catch that Crocodile!, and Tiger on a Tree, inspired by real-life events, as well as Excuse Me, Is This India? that is considered as nonsense in Carrollian sense.

Her style is unique and has a certain essence which appeals to people of all ages. She stated that most of the time people tend to write humor or satire when they feel an urge to write nonsense. From this we can understand that according to her, nonsense literature is tougher than satire and humor. Strange! But true nonetheless!

But the most astounding thing of all is that Ravishankar discovered India’s own rich legacy of literary nonsense only around 2006; the truth dawned on her when she came face to face with a book project that was being written in an attempt to study the nonsense traditions of India. She encountered Michael Heyman’s The Tenth Rasa: An Anthology of Indian Nonsense as a member of an online group that was devoted to the late Edward Lear. Ravishankar said, “Once we began to correspond, I offered help on the nonsense from the southern states. Until I started working with this project, I didn’t realize that there was so much nonsense in Indian languages.” Heyman’s book was co-edited by Ravishankar, Sumanyu Satpathy, and Heyman himself. Many considered this book as the first non-Western anthology of nonsense in translation. This book is mainly for adults, and this book is a compilation of a wide variety of nonsense literature from the ancient times till the modern period of India’s rich cultural history. The list of poets includes great poets such as Kabir, Tenali Ramalinga, Sukumar Ray, Kunjunni, Mangesh Padgavkar, Shreekumar Varma, Sampurna Chattarjee, as well as Ravishankar herself. Ravishankar was mesmerized by the book’s mastery in bringing out the rich language tradition of India. It also beautifully compiles the folk tales and nursery rhymes which all Indians are fond of as they grew up by hearing these beautiful verses.

Ravishankar is completely engrossed in these beautiful Indian writings and is proud about our cultural heritage. She said, “Mangesh Padgavkar, who writes in the Marathi language, was very aware of the idea of nonsense and even coined his own term for it—Vaatratika. But he was also aware that a lot of the time, when one tries to write nonsense, one ends up writing satire or humor. The problem is, if you write nonsense, there is a good chance that you will be taken seriously. It happened with The Hunting of the Snark. People wrote to Lewis Carroll explaining to him what the deep profound meaning of the poem was. And actually he wrote it as just nonsense.”

She also said, “I dream about the things I forget to do. If I’ve forgotten to write an email to somebody, they pursue me in my dreams.” And thus, she builds up a beautiful world of meaningful nonsense. The mysterious aura of her works affects the readers as an enchanting spell. She is loved by all and we proudly celebrate her fame.

Food for Thought

The fact that you have had a proper introduction to literary nonsense is clear by now. Right? Now let me ask you something. Are you not puzzled by the fact that Ravishankar was completely unaware of her own literary culture? Before reading Heyman’s book, how can she not know about such beautiful books by the great authors of India? Now that’s something which will definitely be a “food for thought,” isn’t it?

When we trace the timeline, we will see that Dr. Seuss acquired fame much later than our great authors. Sukumar Ray was someone whose works were considered to be of equal status to the works of Lewis Carroll. Then why is Ravishankar given the title of “Indian Dr. Seuss”? Why not someone from her own origin? It seems absurd that she never even knew about all these brilliant works of the famous Indian writers.

Another thing may peek into our minds as well. Sukumar Ray and Dr. Seuss share a close timeline, Dr. Seuss being the later to venture into the genre of literary nonsense. Then we may sometimes or the other think that Dr. Seuss was well aware of Ray’s works. It may even be that Ray was the one who has inspired Dr. Seuss. Isn’t it? Then how does people only celebrate Dr. Seuss’ brilliance all over the world and the Indian authors are somewhat lost in an unknown abyss of ignorance?

I would also like to apologize in advance as many of you may be offended by my way of thinking. But I would want you to remember one thing that all these are hypotheses that popped up in my mind. So please refrain from taking it personally. In the end, let us just enjoy the meaningful world of literary nonsense and venture into an unknown world of ecstatic reading.

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Nirmala is a passionate reader and loves to write. She has been writing since a very young age. Reading books of different genres has always been her most favorite hobby. Reading books from various genres helps to kindle her thought process and helps her to experience the unique essence of each of them. She took English as her subject of study and loves to venture into the world of literature to discover new things that thrills her to no end. She loves to travel and meet new people. Thinking out of the box is something she has never been tired of. She loves to speak her mind and penning down her thoughts has helped her to reach many like-minded souls. She strongly believes in finding solace through writing.