The Absurdity of the West

They dined on mince, and slices of quince,

Which they ate with a runcible spoon

Edward Lear, The Owl and the Pussycat

Recently I’ve been renewing my acquaintance with the nonsense verse of the Victorian humorist poet Edward Lear, whose preposterous fancies seem to hold up a mirror to our own deranged era. One poem in particular merits a certain bemused attention.

The Dong with the Luminous Nose is not a North Korean nuclear-tipped missile, as in today’s world some may reasonably assume, or an unintended phallic symbol, as others may knowingly contend. It is a little poetic masterpiece, depicting the wanderings of a disheveled, rather ludicrous creature over “the great Grombolian plain.” His heart broken when his “Jumbly Girl” departs, he seeks her in the night by strapping a lamp to his proboscis and roaming the plains with his “single lurid light.” But all to no avail.

For all his well-documented foibles, Edward Lear was an educated classicist who had imbibed not only “a great deal of Marsala,” as he tells us in “By Way of Preface,” but also the nobler principles of the classical world. When the Goddess of Wisdom departs, Lear seems to imply, whether she be the Jumbly Girl of the poem or the owl of Minerva, we are reduced to absurdity, no different, really, from the condition of the poor abandoned Dong. We grow ridiculous trying to illumine the darkness in which we find ourselves with the feeble, makeshift light of the Grombolian mind, ever prone to fugitive reveries and abortive dreams. As Lear writes:

But when the sun was low in the West,

The Dong arose and said, —

“What little sense I once possessed

Has quite gone out of my head!”

As I was deep in Learian territory, serendipity struck. I was asked by McGill-Queen’s University Press to peer-assess the manuscript of a novel by well-known Nietszche scholar Tom Darby, provisionally entitled Life at the Death of History, or A Global Romance. The narrative recounts the adventures of a philosophy professor, presumably gathering materials for his next book, on his travels through the Far East.

In one hilarious episode he delivers an ad hoc lecture to a group of Dong-like Nuage intellectuals and feminists at an academic conference where he dissects the beliefs and presumptions of an audience committed to the reigning follies of the day: the “end of history,” the brotherhood of man, and the idea of a feminist utopia. The universalizing of these principles, the protagonist argues, will lead to a brave new world typified by four distinctive “manifestations,” which he proceeds to enumerate.