Bait and Switch

You can’t say he wasn’t warned. The Baker’s uncle told him plainly you couldn’t go chasing after Snarks without running a grave risk. If the Snark turned out to be a Boojum, his uncle advised, “You will swiftly and silently vanish away/And never be heard of again!” Notwithstanding, the Baker had heedlessly sailed off on an expedition to track down the creature in Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem, The Hunting of the Snark. There were ten members of the party, whose only common trait was that their names all started with the letter B: the Boots, the Bonnet Maker, the Barrister, the Baker, the Banker, the Billiard Marker, the Beaver, the Butcher, the Broker and lastly the Bellman, who served as captain of the crew. The wonder of it all is that they managed to close in on their quarry, given that their map was entirely blank and the Bellman issued contradictory commands: “Steer to starboard, but keep her head larboard!” The Snark itself was identifiable by such “unmistakable marks” as its habit of getting up late and its slowness in taking a jest. Against all odds, the creature was found but turned out to be a Boojum – so much the worse for the Baker, who softly and suddenly vanished away.

Although Carroll seemed primarily interested in entertaining a series of favorite little girls with his whimsical stories and nonsense verse, he has long since fallen victim to literary critics and philosophers who insist on reading deeper meaning into his work. No doubt they were egged on by his admitted fondness for wordplay and mathematical puzzles. But Carroll always maintained there were no hidden meanings in his work, and the sheer absurdity of much of it would tend to support this claim.

The Hunting of the Snark is particularly vulnerable to scholarly interpretation because it ostensibly takes the form of a quest, albeit one that is best pursued with “thimbles, forks and hope.” No less an eminence than W.H. Auden has noted similarities to Moby-Dick, with the Snark serving as a stand-in for the Great White Whale of Melville’s epic. Melville scholar Harold Beaver was of the same mind, quoting from a passage on the whale’s whiteness: “Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and the immenseness of the universe, and then stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way?” Certainly the Snark – or perhaps I should say Boojum – proved as inimical to the continued existence of its pursuers as Moby-Dick did to the monomaniacal Captain Ahab.

One might argue that a certain slowness in taking a jest would apply to many of those who seek to read larger meaning into Carroll’s bit of whimsy. Not so with philosopher F.C.S. Schiller, whose own critical study of The Hunting of the Snark was itself made in jest. Entitled “A Commentary by Snarkophilus Snobbs,” Schiller’s mock-serious thesis was that Carroll’s mock-epic poem represented a search for the Absolute – Hegelian terminology for absolute spirit or God. So if Schiller’s parody of a serious academic study is of a work that is itself utter nonsense, does the absurdity in each case cancel itself out, leaving an underlying seriousness of purpose?

Whether or not the Snark – or is it Boojum? – can plausibly serve as a stand-in for Melville’s ghostly cetacean, it would appear at first to be an unlikely representation of the divine. The Snark, after all, is “hunted with forks and hope” – hope certainly being coin of the realm, but forks? As it happens, chief among the Snark’s “unmistakable marks” is its taste, which Carroll describes as being “meager and hollow, but crisp.” One might well conclude from this that the expedition had set out in search of the Snark in order to eat it – hardly the sort of thing one normally associates with a quest for the divine. And yet adherents of the Christian God often express their devotion by ritually eating his flesh and drinking his blood. And so it was that the Bellman’s uncle told his nephew, “If your Snark be a Snark, that is right: Fetch it home by all means--you may serve it with greens.”

Now consider the sequence in which the Barrister dreams that the Snark, dressed in a judicial robe and powdered wig, has undertaken to defend a pig that has deserted its sty. Although the Snark serves as defense counsel, the judge defers to him when it is time to deliver the summation to the jury. And again, when it is time for the jury to render its verdict, they defer to the Snark, who pronounces his client guilty, after which he delivers the sentence as well. Who else but God could serve as judge, jury and prosecutor, as well as counsel for the defense?

Then there is the nature of the quest itself, which in the case of the Snark is fraught with such peril. Those seeking in vain for familiar landmarks in their spiritual journey will certainly grasp the significance of the blank map in Carroll’s tale. Also significant is the uncle’s warning to the Baker that he may not survive his encounter with the Snark if it turns out to be a Boojum. We don’t realize we risk annihilation if we encounter God, as the Lord warned Moses on Mt. Sinai: “You cannot see my face; for man shall not see me and live.” So we can’t say we weren’t warned. Those who find what they seek may discover the terrible truth that God is all there is, which means there is no more seeker apart from the object of his search. The Snark is a Boojum after all, and the seeker has swiftly and silently vanished away.

Lewis Carroll, The Annotated Hunting of the Snark, annotated by Martin Gardner
Harold Beaver, “Whale or Boojum: An Agony,” in Lewis Carroll Observed: A Collection of Unpublished Photographs, Drawings, Poetry, and New Essays, edited by Edward Guiliano

Exodus 33:18-23

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