Alexander Stone 11, Remarks at Commencement

May 22, 2011

Twas brillig, and the slithy toves/ Did gyre and gimble in the wabe/All mimsy were the borogroves/And the mome raths outgrabe.

What beautiful nonsense (with a smile).

For those of you that recognize these lines they’re from a famous poem by the great Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. He’s better known as Lewis Carroll and he wrote that passage in Jabberwocky from the classic Alice in Wonderland. For those of you who are familiar with the poem you may remember the kind of nonsensical rhyming that, as a child, entered the mind into fantasy. As an adult, it may have some of you chortlingin amusement. Yes, chortle is in fact a word made famous by the very same poem; a combination of “chuckle” and “snort.”

Carroll created other words through this use of portmanteau – blending two or more words using sounds or meaning. For example uffish, and wabe (to name a few). It’s worth drawing attention to the meaning of these words, not for the sake of academic analysis but, for an admittedly personal reason. More on that later, for now; I’ll continue with this nonsense.

Carroll describes “uffish” as, “seem[ing] to suggest a state of mind when the voice is gruffish, the manner roughish, and the temper huffish." And wabe - The characters in the poem suggest it means "The grass plot around a sundial", called a 'wa-be' because it goes a long way before it, and a long waybehind it". These are just a few of his nonsensical gems. 

So, why did I pick these words? Why Carroll for that matter? Partially because I’m jealous he writes in a world that accepts made-up words. It certainly would’ve made writing papers a LOT easier. My SYE comes to mind - Multiculturo-socioeconesis: The process by which multiculturalism is enacted across socio-economic disparity. COPYRIGHT, thank you very much! But, again why these words, why nonsense?

For one, the way nonsensical words find meaning in other languages speaks to the translatable qualities of nonsense. Some words find no definition at all, not even in their native tongue. Imagine reading English text as a foreigner, or sitting down with a foreign-speaking person, and trying to describe the meaning of a word that has no definition, merely a concept. For some of you, it’s an all-too-familiar experience. For others, it requires deeper thought, a deeper translation.

Forget Jabberwocky for a moment; imagine translating the world of Dr. Seuss into French. It’s easy to arrive at “Les Oeufs Verts au Jambon” (Green Eggs and Ham) or “Horton Entend un Zou!” (Horton Hears a Who). How about “El Gato en Sombrero” (The Cat in the Hat) or “El Lorax?” Easy enough, but there are others that stump translation. 

Words like Sala-ma-goox, bippo-no-bungus, humpf-humpf-a-dumpfer, and diffendoofer. Even then, the intentioned nonsense translates; some are better understood through pictures. Only from the mind of Seuss, I suppose. A brief, but interesting enough mention, the man we all know and love is not the man we think we know.

He is un-famously known as Theodore Seuss Geisel – Seuss being his middle name and Geisel being a surname of German descent. He actually intended his pen name to be pronounced in a German fashion, making it rhyme with “voice.” Alexander Liang wrote a short poem on this twist of reality:

You’re wrong as the deuce
And you shouldn’t rejoice
If you’re calling him Seuss.
He pronounces it Soice.

Alright, so he’s still the man we all know and love (point to head I can imagine Soice-ical the musical might not have been such a hot prospect). Whether it is Seuss or Soice it will never change how he introduces someone to nonsense and curiosity. Imagine your first time reading Seuss, or any other childhood favorite for that matter. As you read through the pages, your mind peaks with an innocent curiosity and naïve confusion. Some things are clear, but others take time to process. For Alice, in her own curious Wonderland, the Jabberwocky reflects this perfectly, 'It seems very pretty,' she said when she had finished it, 'but it's rather hard to understand!' (You see she didn't like to confess, even to herself, that she couldn't make it out at all.) 'Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas---only I don't exactly know what they are! However, somebody killed something: that's clear, at any rate'

THAT’S why I chose this topic for today. It’s where the world of nonsense can actually make sense. As we sit here, ready to move forward, I think it’s fitting to look back on the smaller version of us. We all had that kind of curiosity and wonderment, the kind that made Alice so characteristically innocent. Her head full of ideas and hardly the words to express inner flights of fancy. I want to remind you of your inner Alice and test your memory of being lost in a world all your own.

What was it that used to fill your head with ideas? What was it that made you ask questions? Did you ever think to yourself, “What what what wh-would you do?” Did a friend ever ask you, “Are you Afraid of the Dark?” Or the eternal question, “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” Perhaps you had Clarissa explain it all or Summer Sanders helped you “Figure it Out.” Whatever the outcome, thoughts and ideas all begin with a question.

What was it that you wanted to figure out when you came to college? Were you searching for knowledge of the unknown or simply going through the motions of life? Regardless of your motivations, we now find ourselves here. While St. Lawrence has helped us shape the world in ways we could have never imagined without “proper” instruction, we still have a very distant memory to address – your fantastical roots of nonsense. I want to assure you that our creative fantasies are still alive, however un-well they might be.

Personally, when I leave here, I plan on leafing through my old imaginative classics. Re-reading “A Wrinkle in Time.” Flip a page or two of “The Hobbit” before Peter Jackson rips the Shire out of my mind in December of 2012, look out for that release. Maybe I’ll see what James and that peach are up to. What will you do now that you have the time?

As I draw to a close I’d like to share a passage from another timeless classic; this time from J.M. Barrie’s opening lines of “Peter Pan.”

“All children, except one, grow up. They soon know that they will grow up, and the way Wendy knew was this. One day when she was two years old she was playing in a garden, and she plucked another flower and ran with it to her mother. I suppose she must have looked rather delightful, for Mrs. Darling put her hand to her heart and cried, ‘Oh, why can’t you remain like this for ever!’ This was all that passed between them on the subject, but henceforth Wendy knew that she must grow up. You always know after you are two. Two is the beginning of the end.”

As we sit here in our final days at St. Lawrence, together with friends and family, may all of you remember what it was like when the world was curious and odd; when it was wrapped in nonsense we couldn’t wait to unravel. Parents, you always know best, which is why now more than ever you know that all childrenmust grow up. So, instead of reminding everyone of the classic Seuss line of the “places we’ll go,” I want to remind you all of how you used to think of a world filled with nonsense; remind you of that which gave us our original direction – our imagination. If two is the end, remember what it was like to have been exactly one and three-quarter years old; however long ago that may be.