Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Joyce and Lewis Carroll--similarities and differences

Our recent East Coast commenter, Steve, has asked if I might like a post about James Joyce and Lewis Carroll. And, of course, I do:

"I was interested to read the recent columns about Lewis Carroll’s identity in the Wake, and whether there were parallels between Joyce and Carroll. Certainly both authors created radical comic visions dealing with dream states and absurdity. Verbally, however, there couldn't be more difference between what Carroll did in Jabberwocky and what Joyce did in theWake.

The thing that’s so brilliant about Jabberwocky is the opacity of it. It’s exuberant and musical, as well as hilarious, but its appeal is in the carefully sculpted word sounds. Even Alice says, “Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas – only I don’t exactly knowwhat they are!” Carroll was playing with phonemes, making comprehensible verse out of nonexistent words. There's not supposed to be double meanings or suggestions of English words in the weird verbiage. As long as you're told what'mome raths' are, and what 'outgribing' is, the line 'the mome raths outgrabe'makes sense.

Joyce, too, wrought the language of the Wake carefully,but he was using words precisely for the multitude of meanings they could suggest to English speakers. The notion of Finnegan being "wobecanned andpackt away" describes the sad fate of the hero, whose body is canned for consumption, a cheap Eucharist in the society of consumer convenience. And the words aren't just nonsense syllables: wohlbekannt in German means "wellknown," suggesting perhaps that ancient knowledge nourishes the communityin a degraded and unrecognizable form.

The sound of the words is important in both cases, but with Joyce the meanings of the words are many."

Thanks, Steve!


  1. I like the distinction. The only thing I'd slightly differ on is that I don't think you have to know what the momeraths are or what outgribing is. I think it's enough to know English sentence structure, and then you fill in what the momeraths are and what they might be doing from context.

  2. Seana,

    Exactly my point, and probably Carroll's as well. He's playing with our familiarity with the structure of verse, to tell a heroic story using sounds that stand for recognizable words. The problem of comprehension is a theme that runs throughout the Alice books. Not for nothing does Humpty Dumpty tell Alice that words mean whatever he says they mean. So the human brain fills the gaps in the narrative of Jabberwocky; Carroll is creating a cognitive mirage with carefully chosen phonemes.

    Thanks again for letting me guest-blog!


  3. Anytime you feel the urge to put up something else here, Steve, just let me know.