An Edwardly Learical World

Alright. I’ve only included a mere smattering of Lear’s work here. There’s tons and tons more, hundreds of lyrics and limericks, thousands of illustrations. Fake cook books and botany books, full-fledged kids’ short stories (The Four Little Children and The History of the Seven Families of the Lake Pipple-Popple, and I strongly recommend both for their immensely strange, dark flavor of nonsense). Even Lear’s correspondences include his illustrations and catch the “glorious absurdity and noble inconsequence” (as Ian Malcolm masterfully called it in 1908) of his work. I have the urge to move on from Lear, but not without a brief meditation. Since all of Lear’s writing, all of it, falls under the category of nonsense, I thought that to wrap up this sadly brief foray into the Learical world, we could glance at what makes something a nonsense work.  

There are plenty of definitions, philosophical-academic discussions, wiki and dictionary entries that attempt to pinpoint the essence of nonsense.  It’s fantastical, whimsical, fanciful.  Sometimes it plays with words, championing sound over meaning.  Sometimes it’s uncomfortable, sometimes it’s amusing, sometimes it’s dark. Sometimes it paints a moment, sometimes it tells a story of sorts, often it doesn’t.   Overall, though, the common consensus is that nonsense lit stoutly rejects and refuses comprehension. It is empty of meaning and instead revels and rejoices in sound for sounds sake, surprising images, the frustration of meaning, and it’s own nowhereness.

Lear is a Father of nonsense lit. He brought the limerick to common attention, and he was one of the first authors to be credited with such works. Before him, nonsense rhymes and songs existed, but in a more or less unauthored, culturally nebulous sort of way. Like folk-tales. Or songs. Think of Hey Diddle Diddle.

 But history often forgets Lear, and perhaps this nowhereness, this rejection of comprehension accounts for its memory lapse: Lear’s works do not allow readers to say, “Ah, this is what he’s getting at”. Because he isn’t getting at anything. He doesn’t even make the statement that making statements is useless. Instead, he forces his readers to revel in moments without creating unifying connections. And memory works best by association. It’s not that we don’t like the moments he creates. In fact we love them. But we simply have nothing to hold onto outside of it’s happening… And so we dismiss its author as dealing with frivolities.

 And should we dismiss Lear? Can we find no value in his work other than its gloriously ephemeral moment? Yes, we like nonsense lit, but we like meaning even more. The saving grace, however, is this: I might say that even more than meaning, we like masters. Mastery gives its own meaning. It’s obsession and perfection and dedication. It’s a real product we can hold and use as proof. If Lear was anything, he was a master of nonsense. In fact, I might even say he was achingly and desperately serious about it….

I end with a thank you, Edward Lear. You rock.

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