JF Ptak Science Books Post 2537
"Just the place for a Snark!" the Bellman cried, As he landed his crew with care; Supporting each man on the top of the tide By a finger entwined in his hair."
So opens the semi- and fully-immortal The Hunting of the Snark. an Agony in Eight Fits, by the fully-and-not-partially-immortal Lewis Carroll, which (if it can said what the book is about) is about eight guys whose professions all begin with a letter "b" plus a beaver in search of a Snark. In the second of eight Fits that comprise this lyrically nonsensical poem, we encounter a map of the route of possibilities taken by the group, this being in the charge of the Bellman. This is not only the finest map illustrating a Fit that exists, it is also (as I've stated earlier in this blog) one of the most beautiful maps ever published. It is a beautiful map of nothing, showing nothing, and marking the route of nothing. Perfect for the Snark story.
The Bellman himself they all praised to the skies-
Such a carriage, such ease and such grace!
Such solemnity too! One could see he was wise,
The moment one look in his face!
He had bought a large map representing the sea,
Without the least vestige of land:
And the crew were much pleased when the found it to be
A map they could all understand.
"What's the good of Mercator's North Poles and Equators,
Tropics, Zones, and Meridian Lines?"
So the Bellman would cry: and the crew would reply,
"They are merely conventional signs!
"Other maps are such shapes, with their islands and capes!
But we've got our brave Captain to thank"
(So the crew would protest) "that he's bought us the best-
A perfect and absolute blank!"
Sometimes there is nothing so fine as something that beautifully illustrates the nothing that isn’t there, and this lovely map, unencumbered of all of the elements and details that define the mapness of something, perfectly explains the origin of its need.
The Snark evidently occurred to Carroll while he was out walking on one bright summer day, on a hillside--actually, it was one line of poetry, and it wound up being the closely line of the book.
In the midst of the word he was trying to say, In the midst of his laughter and glee, He had softly and suddenly vanished away—- For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.
So we had those eight guys and a beaver, setting out from points unknown and going to places not seen.
This was all started by that string of poetry that entered Carroll's head on his walk. He didn't know what it meant, and didn't know where it was going; he did however set out to figure it out for himself. ("I know not what it meant, the; I know not what it means, now..."1) I find it such a lovely thing that Carroll would spend so much time trying to retrieve the intellectual evidence of where this line came from. And what his investigation revealed was The Hunting of the Snark. And at the end of the day, Carroll was no closer to knowing what a Snark was, in spite of all of the writing and commentary and criticism. Throughout the rest of his life Carroll insisted that he didn't know what the poem meant, though it could have meant something. It was supposed to have been a work of nonsense and illogic, but I think it fits with the rest of his work on nonsense and the logic of it, so my best guess is that there was nothing quite so logically in his works as the reach of the illogical in pursuit of a logical end.
- Full text of the Snark, here, via Project Gutenberg. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/13/13-h/13-h.htm Also a pdf with illustrations: http://www.archive.org/stream/huntingofsnarkan00carruoft#page/n27/mode/2up
1. This line occurs in Morton Chase's Lewis Carroll, a Biography, published by Macmillan in 1995, p 404.