26 January, 2006

Sylvie and Bruno: tangent III

Language, then. Readers have always been somewhat disturbed, even disgusted by Carroll's twisting-up of Bruno's speech-patterns with silly infantilisms: oo, he says, instead of you, and welly for very, wiss for wish, comfable for comfortable, and so forth. Wordplay is omnipresent; common is the trope of amphibology, where a metaphor or figurative expression is mistaken for a literal proposition. As with Joyce, the wordplay in its ubiquity acquires a heightened emotivity; there is less linguistic joy here than in, say, Finnegans Wake, but rather a mournful quality, a desperation—that word again!—at the limits of language, the pathos of childish wit. It is one more manifestation of Carroll's frustrated fantasy of innocence, an attempt to reach and delight the young, doomed to failure.

There is also Carroll's dog-language, of which are given 18 different words. Raymond Queneau, the French novelist and essayist who wrote several pieces about what he called les fous littéraires, also penned an article in the Carroll journal Jabberwocky, issue 29 (1977), about the grammar of Sylvie's canine talk, comparing its syllabic composition to what he claimed were the utterances of real dogs:
What are the relationships between this imaginary dog language and real dog language? That is the question, and a very delicate one. We are short of serious data for resolving this problem, but we can establish a comparison on one precise point: the proportion of monosyllabic, disyllabic and longer words. Francois Rostand ('Development of barking in a young dog, methods of study and preliminary results', Journal of Normal and Pathological Psychology April-June 1957) established that by its seventh month, a puppy makes use of

37% monosyllables
35% disyllables
27% trisyllables
1% tetrasyllables.

In Lewis Carroll we find

44.44% monosyllables
44.44% disyllables
11.11% trisyllables
0% tetrasyllables

The divergances [sic] which can be noted may be explained either by the fact that Lewis Carroll's subjects are all adults, or by the 'Britishness' of one lot and the 'Frenchness' of the other.
Queneau is, like any good avant-gardiste, only ever half-serious. He also remarks on the fact that the language possesses the word 'not to be', Wooh, distinct from 'to be', Hah. But what else can we deduce about the language? Here are the given sentences:

1. "Oobooh, hooh boohooyah! Woobah yahwah oobooh! Bow wahbah woobooyah? Bow wow?"

"Humans, I verily believe! A couple of stray Humans! What Dog do you belong to? What do you want?"

2. "Bah wooh wahyah hoobah Oobooh, hah bah?"

"She's not such a bad-looking Human, is she?"

3. "Hooyah wah!"

"Come in!"

4. "Yah! Hooh hahwooh!"

"Well! I never!"

We can deduce for certain the following words:

Oobooh: human (and it sounds like a nursery-pronunciation, or, to a Queneau, like Ubu)
hooh: I
boohooyah: 'verily believe'
bow: what
wow: want
bah: she
wooh: is not (probably)
hah: is
yah!: Well!
hahwooh: never (related to 'wooh', no doubt)

There seems to be little inflection in the language, like Chinese, and like Bruno's own speech (he confuses were for was, am for are, do for does), being merely an isolating mixture of nouns/pronouns and simple verbs; the syntax appears to follow nursery English. We even recognise traditional nursery formulae such as 'bow wow', which, we now understand, means 'What do you want?' And why is this interesting? Well, it demonstrates that the dogspeak is merely another reflection of Carroll's preoccupation with the cadences and idiosyncrasies of childspeak: and with the cadences and idiosyncrasies of childthink. Everywhere we look we come again across that reflected image of innocence which pervades the book.

It's easy to see why Joyce picked up on all of this. A glance at the relevant chapter of Atherton's widely-read introduction to the Books at the Wake will make clear some rather obvious parallels between Sylvie and Bruno and Joyce's late opus: the punning [Dodgson, dogs, gods, Sons, and dodging all favourites in Joyce], the use of dream, the cut-and-paste composition (for which see Carroll's remarkable preface), the nostalgia, the scene-switching (I noted earlier Carroll's trope of starting mid-sentence, most famous in the Wake), and keenest of all, the incestuous sexuality. It was almost a foregone conclusion that Joyce would weave Isa Bowman, who modelled Sylvie and whose name is acrostiched in Sylvie's opening doggerel, into the fabric of his recurring Issy / Isolde cipher, particularly given the preoccupation with split personality in both works (Sylvie reflects Lady Muriel, and Issy becomes Is-Is / Isis). Not only do the names match, but the fetishization of Issy by her father (realised in constant taboo-deformation of his dream-speech) replies to the prurient voyeurism of Carroll for his young female cohorts. The same quasi-sexual obsession of man for daughter-figure, sublimated in denial, haunts both works.


These four posts have been leading somewhere. Fairies, photography, drawing-room science, and renditions of language: all these bespeak the most awful lament in English literature. Sylvie's personality is at once the core of the work, and its least-defined element. She defines herself primarily by an eternal love for the world: her magic locket reads 'Sylvie will love all'. Apart from this, her only emotion is an amused impatience with her mischievous brother. She is a fairy, but Furniss was instructed to draw her without wings, and with the barest attire permitted by Victorian decency (Carroll would have wanted her naked, ideally). Unlike Bruno, and unlike Alice, Sylvie—by name a creature of the woods—is not sullied with character. Like Issy, therefore, she functions as a cipher. At the heart of this rich tapestry is a blank, a turning-away, a denial of things as they are. Hence fairies, hence genteel thought-experiments and pleasant Anglican parlour-rhetoric, hence stylised, simplistic fantasy language, not so much signifying as performing an innocence. These are the products of a mathematician: a man whose professional thought tended always away from that 'horrid' world, towards whimsy and the abstraction of pure number.

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