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On Jabberwocky: Why We Do the Things We Think We Aren’t Doing

Alice succeeded in reaching the looking-glass hill only when she stopped trying to reach it and let a little aimlessness gallumph into her life.

by
David Solway

Bio

January 4, 2013 - 7:00 am
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The text, said Aldous Huxley, is the pretext. We read not only to learn or process information. We read—or at least we did once upon a time—to revel in the sheer opulence of language. “‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves/Did gyre and gimble in the wabe,” is how Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” begins. Humpty Dumpty parses the words for Alice and explicates their “portmanteau” nature, but the pleasure resides not only in sense-making but in the sensual flair and appetite of our potential engagement with the language.

All our activities may be viewed in the same light. We do things not only to get them done but to embroider our personalities around them: in talk, exchange of pleasantries and jokes, shared reverie. What is specifically human is what is civilized, that is, what remains after function has been subtracted. Packing for a trip, washing the dishes, receiving a massage, for example, are activities that may all be accomplished more or less mechanically. What is specifically human is the excited talk about the forthcoming trip while the bags are being packed, perhaps badly; the chatter over the dishes, though several may break; or the tickle in the massage. In other words, what is essentially human is what is gratuitous, the whole range of being which is not function-related, the non-utilitarian, the element of play taken in the widest possible sense.

The philosophic distinction going back in part to Plato’s Parmenides, sometimes phrased as the opposition between Reality and Necessity, is the appropriate discrimination here.* Necessity refers to the domain of activity in which the purposes of subsistence are exclusively served. It is what we may call the economic sphere of confined exertion—that of which John Travolta, playing the archangel Michael asked to revive a dead puppy, says, “It’s not my area.” Reality is the realm of spirit or of the non-replaceable, in which the sense of being is enhanced in the circuitous attainment and expression of either joy or wisdom or both. It is what John Donne is getting at when he writes: “On a huge hill/Cragged, and steep, Truth stands and he that will/Reach her, about must, and about must go.” Similarly, Emily Dickinson: “tell all the Truth, but tell it slant—/Success in Circuit lies.” And so, Polonius: “By indirections find directions out.”

*Celebrated logician Willard van Orman Quine in The Ways of Paradox and Other Essays reverses the terminology when he writes that empiricists argue that “necessity resides in the way we talk about things, not in the things we talk about.” The term “necessity” is used rather casually here and is synonymous with “freedom” or “reality.” The distinction holds.

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