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Chesterton on nonsense.

This website needs a new post to go up. Now whenever I have trouble thinking of what to write, I do the only reliable thing — I read some Chesterton. Fortunately much of his work is available for free on the Web — a fact which alone outweighs all the pornography out there, and let no one doubt my detestation of porn. So let’s go take a dip in the wide, clear, cool sea of Chesterton, shall we?

Now the old nursery rhymes were honestly directed to give children pleasure. Many of them have genuine elements of poetry, but they are not primarily meant to be poetry, because they are simply meant to be pleasure. In this sense "Hey Diddle Diddle" is something much more than an idyll. It is a masterpiece of psychology, a classic and perfect model of education. The lilt and jingle of it is exactly the sort that a baby can feel to be a tune and can turn into a dance. The imagery of it is exactly what is wanted for the first movements of imagination when it experiments in incongruity. For it is full of familiar objects in fantastic conjunction. The child has seen a cow and he has seen the moon. But the notion of the one jumping over the other is probably new to him and is, in the noblest word, nonsensical. Cats and dogs and dishes and spoons are all his daily companions and even his friends, but it gives him a sort of fresh surprise and happiness to think of their going on such a singular holiday. [. . .]

Of course there is much more than this in "Hey Diddle Diddle." The cow jumping over the moon is not only a fancy very suitable to children, it is a theme very worthy of poets. The lunar adventure may appear to some a lunatic adventure, but it is one round which the imagination of man has always revolved, especially the imagination of romantic figures like Ariosto, and Cyrano de Bergerac. The notion that cattle might fly has received sublime imaginative treatment. The winged bull not only walks, as if shaking the earth, amid the ruins of Assyrian sculpture, but even wheeled and flamed in heaven as the Apocalyptic symbol of St. Luke. That which combines imaginations so instinctive and ancient, in a single fancy so simple and so clear, is certainly not without the raw material of poetry. And the general idea, which is that of a sort of cosmic Saturnalia or season when anything may happen, is itself an idea that has haunted humanity in a hundred forms, some of them exquisitely artistic forms. [. . .]

Our fathers added a touch of beauty to all practical things, so they introduced fine fantastic figures and capering and dancing rhythms, which might be admired even by grown men, into what they primarily and practically designed to be enjoyed by children. But they did not always do this and they never thought mainly of doing it. What they always did was to make fun fitted for the young; and what they never did was turn it into irony only intelligible to the old. A nursery rhyme was like a nursery table or a nursery cupboard--a thing constructed for a particular human purpose. They saw their aim clearly and they achieved it. They wrote utter nonsense and took care to make it utterly nonsensical.

For there are two ways of dealing with nonsense in this world. One way is to put nonsense in the right place; as when people put nonsense into nursery rhymes. The other is to put nonsense in the wrong place; as when they put it into educational addresses, psychological criticisms, and complaints against nursery rhymes or other normal amusements of mankind.

— “Child Psychology and Nonsense” (1921).

Comments (3)

It is not merely the case that much literature directed at children is written more for the entertainment of adults, it is also that some of it is written to inculcate the dubious obsessions of modern adults. Consider, for your disedification, the title, Me I Am!", which revolves around the following piece of children's poesy:

I am the only ME I AM
who qualifies as me;
no ME I AM has been before,
and none will ever be.

No other ME I AM can feel
the feelings I've within;
no other ME I AM can fit
precisely in my skin.

If nothing else, personal acquaintance with the target audience of this work has taught me that children are quite enamored of the ME in their lives, quite assured that this ME is the stationary body in the social solar system. And while it is true that parents and educators must cultivate the gifts and aptitudes of each child, this is a process of refining, and not an exuberant affirmation of oneself - I AM ME!

And then there is that ode to solipsism - No other me can feel the feelings I've within. Really? Let us be serious; this is not a serious treatment of the philosophical problems of intentionality and qualia; it is, by all appearances, an affirmation of the idea that MY experience of sadness is unlike any other's experience of sadness, that MY sadness is sui generis. Frankly, this is redolent of the sort of world-historical, my-suffering-transcends-all-other-sufferings-the world-has-witnessed weltschmerz of goth and emo teenagers, sunken in the slough of egoistic self-regard.

I'd rather not give my three-year old an inkling of this sort of thing; to the contrary, he can come to his parents with his little troubles precisely because they remember what it was like to, say, lose a favourite toy, be bullied by a rude child, or just need a hug.

Perhaps I overreact; though it seems dubious to me that, in Chesterton's time, parents taught their children to say, "Me I Am!, and there is no other like me!", affirming them in their okayness. Self-celebration is not identical with the cultivation of one's gifts.

Well, they teach that education is self-actualization. Kant knew it well.


There is a whole range of expression between nonsense and gibberish. Chesterton is a bit cursory as he goes from nonsense to "masterpiece of psychology." More: nonsense gives us the perfect model of education fantasy, the worth of poetry, and sublime imagination. What he calls "utterly nonsense" escapes me for the moment.

What comes to mind is T. S. Eliot's description of poetry as the amalgamation of disparate experience. For that to be good poetry as we find in masterpieces, perfect models, and sublime expression, nonsense must take second place to meaning.

I agree, Maximos. What a wretched piece of doggerel.

Contrast the story of the Gingerbread Man. Now, it's not exactly an edifying tale. My own three-year-old gets a lot of mildly naughty fun out of running away when I want her, yelling, "You can't catch me! I'm the gingerbread man!"

But neither is it trying to make children be naughty and run away from their parents. It's a fun story because it isn't up to anything. I suppose you could see an extremely minor moral in the way the fox tricks him, but it would be boring to try to spell it out, and not worth bothering. It's just a fun story. Ditto the Three Billy Goats Gruff and Rumpelstilzchen.

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