The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

When Lewis Carroll wrote that the "Snark was a Boojum, you see," he clearly had no idea what he was inflicting on the world. As far as he was concerned, he was attempting to insure through the structure of his work that the work be perceived only for what it was, and not some other thing. He didn't expect, therefore, that his work would be at once trashed as "not just nonsense, but gibberish, and the only thing that saves it is the childish humour and absurd situations."

These were the sour words of Avery Pennarun, as humourless a worthy as might be found anywhere, who also decried Catch-22 as a novel that uses absurd situations like a candy coating to help the reader swallow the harsh theme. Fortunately, other fine researchers stood up to be counted in Carroll's defence, and indeed extended his thesis to domains that he scarcely conceived of. In my self-importance, I consider it of paramount importance to restore Carroll to his rightful stratospheric heights. I purport here, therefore, to provide a brief overview of the wide-ranging studies that encompass his finely wrought concept of an object that is multifarious, covetable, and of intrinsic value, and yet one that is fraught with the possibility of disappearance.

If your Snark be a Snark, that is right:
Fetch it home by all means - you may serve it with greens,
and it's handy for striking a light...

But oh, beamish nephew, beware of the day,
If your Snark be a Boojum! For then
You will softly and suddenly vanish away,
And never be met with again.

In A Snark or a Boojum? - Exploring Multitaxonomic Possibilities and Building on Widiger's Commentary, T.M. Achenbach and his colleagues vigorously endorsed the use of multitaxonomic strategies in psychopathology, and claimed both that top-down and bottom-up strategies yielded normed, quantitative scales and categorical cut points, and multiple taxonomic approaches can help to avoid reifying categories and labels. Sadly, they were remiss in pointing out exactly which of these taxonomies were delightful (and therefore Snarky) and which caused the agents to vanish gently. They had not taken to heart Frank Beach's warning: psychology, the man had said, was becoming the study of the white rat and the college sophomore; despite professing to compare the psychologies of multiple species, the experimental results pertained only to the albino rat. But do not panic completely, exclaimed W.M.Struthers - the integration of psychology with Christianity was proceeding well apace. The theory was on solid foundations; now if only the empiricists could come up with an integrated framework.

In philosophy, no less than psychology, Snarks and Boojums have been invoked as exemplars of evanescence and reality. In 1925, H.C. Brown wrote feelingly in the Journal of Philosophy that the alternatives for the existence of the material world are real and vital
The consequent trepidation of the Baker in participating in the hunting of the Snark is much like that of the philosopher in tracking matter to its lair. He hopes that his toils may capture something philosophically palatable or at least capable of illuminating the darkness of metaphysical ignorance. If the quarry turns out to be a Boojum, however, the philosopher himself, as a nucleus of hopes, aspirations, and ideals, as a personality palpitating with spiritual yearnings, will softly and suddenly vanish away, perhaps into an attempered dance of atoms.
And yet, how sadly was he mistaken in his contention! Only four years later, the redoubtable C.A. Baylis had quashed his views on emergence and reification with a subtle paper in the Philosophical Review: spite of the fact that emergence is more widespread than even its most ardent advocates have claimed, for it is indeed ubiquitous, nevertheless it solves none of these problems [mind-body? mechanism-vitalism controversy? refutation of the New Realism that claims reality accrues to an object when it is perceived? evolution?], supports no one Weltanschauung rather than any other, and does not even imply evolution.
In oncology, the issue is even more dire.
Angiogenesis, the process of new blood vessel formation, plays a central role both in local tumor growth and distant metastasis. Healthy adults require angiogenesis only for wound healing, endometrial proliferation and pregnancy. Thus the inhibition of angiogenesis offers an attractive therapeutic target with little expected toxicity. Based on the low mutation rate of the genetically stable endothelial cells, antiangiogenic therapy was initially touted to be "a treatment resistant to resistance". Initial xenograft studies supported these theoretical predictions - widespread activity, limited toxicity and no resistance. For a time it was argued that the long-sought oncologic ‘Snark’ - disease control if not outright cure - was close at hand.

But could this Snark be a Boojum in disguise? Might the hard-learned lessons of chemotherapy resistance pertain to the novel antiangiogenics as well?
At the end of long and involved investigation, the researchers were forced to conclude that the Snark is neither captured nor Boojum; the hunt continues.

Low-temperature physicists were more fortunate. In 1976, David Mermin
pondered how so-called anisotropy lines would arrange themselves in a spherical droplet of superfluid helium-3, an unusual phase of matter attained by cooling the rare isotope of helium to near absolute zero. It turned out that a symmetrical pattern of lines, although geometrically simple, is not stable and collapses to form a new pattern. Mermin realized this new pattern could be called a boojum, since it can enable the otherwise stable flow of the superfluid to "softly and suddenly vanish away."
And he made it his inflexible intention to promote the use of the boojum in the scientific literature, attempting to publish his paper and fighting with the editors of vaunted journals, until they caved and accepted it.

Surrealists such as Max Ernst and Rene Magritte had much to learn from the Hunting of the Snark, via the metaphysics of de Chirico, that most enigmatic of nihilists and painter laureate of loneliness. Any of the titles of his works (many of them Italian townscapes, bleak, dreamlike studies of mystery, melancholy and enigma) - ('The Enigma of the Oracle', 'Mystery and Melancholy of a Street' (see above), `Nostalgia of the Infinite') - could be replaced with any other, with no diminution of flavour or validity. The Snark, in his mind, was this elusiveness of the difference between reality and unreality, and this struck a chord with the Surrealists, who were ready for an appreciative laugh at whatever they interpreted as anti-authoritarian aesthetic philosophy. Too bad for them that he had by then turned away from his doctrine of metaphysical art, entering classicism with a vengeance and heaping scorn on the Surrealists as masters of 'modernistic imbecility'. 'Two events ... excessively harmful for humanity ... were modern painting and Nazism', he added for full measure, earning the undying hostility of his once fawning acolytes. [Italics quoted from here]

Much to their honour, linguists were not hesitant in taking up cudgels in favour of the Boojum, deprecated as it was in the literature as a monster of hideous deviousness. The Snark had hitherto received much favoured press, but in his seminal work, V. A. Friedman, said:
It is ... true, as any linguist who does field work involving morphology knows, that the notion of paradigm is a linguistic abstraction whose "reality" in "the mind of the speaker" is not a conscious one. Moreover, we do need a term for non-paradigm-forming variation. I would therefore suggest a term wholly divorced from paradigmaticity: boojum. The boojum is defined in Webster’s New International Dictionary (second Edition, 1954: 380) as "a species of snark the hunters of which ‘softly and silently vanish away.'" By a process of metonymy, I apply the effect of the boojum to the boojum itself when using it as a linguistic term and define it as a grammatical element signifying discourse-pragmatic variation rather than paradigm-formation. A linguistic boojum is thus capable of "softly and silently vanishing" without forming the paradigm that its hunters seek.

In 1956, the US Air Force test-fired the Snark, a turbojet propelled surface-to-surface guided missile. It was supposed to fly out into the Caribbean, turn around and return home. Instead, it veered off to the west, ignored frantic abort and self-destruct commands from its controllers, and flew over the South American horizon. This contretemps blew a hole into the State Department's plans to negotiate with the Brazilians for the construction of missile-tracking stations along the Brazilian coast. The Rio government, under pressure from ultranationalists and Communists, played ever more hard to get. That Snark, a department official muttered, might just as well have landed on our negotiators. Obviously, he was somewhat embittered by the whole experience; a moment's thought should have revealed to him that it was the Brazilian government that was the Snark, elusive and hard to pin down; meanwhile, no doubt, at mission headquarters for the Snark (the missile), the bosses should have renamed it the Boojum. The missile's failure would have led to the quiet disappearance of those in charge of it...


Anonymous said...

Fëanor: This is another one in your weird but wonderful essays.

At this rate, I think by the time you are 50, you may be able to publish a tome called "The Weirds And The Wonderfuls Of A Polymathic Scrivener" (apologies to Martin Gardner). What say? And when you do, send me a 1st edition, signed, and a small cheque for suggesting the name! ;-)

PS You could also call it The Boojums of a Polymath!

Fëanor said...

Ahem. Were the book a Boojum, it would make me vanish away - and then how would I send you the cheque? :-)

I've been fascinated for long by James Burke's Connections (which I blogged about here). His take was a linear romp through facts, whereas my approach is more of a web. But of course I need much more practise at this.

Anonymous said...

Fëanor: I am assuming you will have an agent who will do your bidding ;-)

On a serious note, I hope you have backups for all this writing you do. I have started using Microsoft LiveWriter so that a copy of the post is always on my machine.

Linearity versus web. Hmm. Mine is more kaleidoscopic - at least we know of all the pieces and can try and build the picture as it emerges not as we imagine it to be...

Fëanor said...

Hiya. I tried LiveWriter - it's not bad, but the lack of 'justified' formatting bugs me. You're right, though - it's an idea to backup backup backup. Haven't done so far. Any ideas on backing up existing blogposts? There's something called a Blogger Backup but for some reason doesn't install on my box. Whattapain this Vista is. Should have stuck to Mac...

Space Bar said...

Just wanted to point you to this post and there on to the pdf.

Fëanor said...

SB: Thanks, I say. It took me a while to understand what exactly was discussed (protosurrealism?), and I'm still not entirely sure I understood anything at all. And therein lies the beginnings of wisdom, heheh.

Goetz Kluge said...

As for the Snark, many of Henry Holiday's illustrations are connected to Marcus Gheeraerts, a booman from Belgium: (7MB)

goetzkluge said...

Update on Henry Holiday's Illustrations to the Snark: could help in analyzing the illustrations in order to identify possible sources (se also

Happy new Year!

Fëanor said...

Goetz: thanks for the updates and links. Excellent stuff. Happy new year to you as well!

goetzkluge said...

Long time no see. The stuff grew a bit.

In the meantime I came to believe that the Boojum turned Snark is what Lewis Carroll's and Henry Holiday's (and Joseph Swain's) "The Hunting of the Snark" mainly is about. As an example, I think that Henry Holiday and Lewis Carroll alluded to Thomas Cranmer's burning in that context. Shortly before Carroll's Snark ballad was published, Henry Holiday left a handwritten note in a letter (1876-01-04) from Carroll: "L.C. has forgotten that 'the Snark' is a tragedy." But I think, that Carroll didn't forget it. In contrary, he may have been scared of his own work and therefore added the "Easter Greetings" to it.

So you got it right in your blog post.

Best regards & happy holidays,

Post a Comment