Tuesday, August 25, 2009

14 August, Leiden, The Netherlands

Friday, 14 August, 2009, Heyman at the helm

Today was a hallmark for us, as we were to meet with one of the icons of nonsense scholarship, Wim Tigges, now an emeritus professor at Leiden University. In order to explain the significance of this meeting, let me take you back into the trysts of mime, to 1993, when I was a wee lad snibbling my way through Oxford’s M.Phil program in English Romantics, of all things (by the way, Keats was a fine writer of nonsense, for those who might look askance at the Romantics. He invented the “amen” to nonsense: “T wang dillo dee”). During my readings of Locke, Hume, Burke, Wordsworth, Godwin, and Godknows what else, I somehow came across the name of Edward Lear and the phenomenon of literary nonsense. I had read Lear as a child, but I never imagined that one might study nonsense, that one might twists one’s Romantic M.Phil dissertation to write about it, or that one might actually get a doctorate in nonsense. Such a perilous course was unfathomable, unmentionable. I tucked such ideas into a corner of my noodle and looked to the immediate task: investigate the possibility of academic study of nonsense. Of course, I thought such an endeavor was unique: that I would be the trailblazer, bushwhacking my way with a sharpened flamingo through the forests of rhetorical rhubarb, to find the Golden Nonsense Nubbin. With fissures of grandeur and trailing clods of glory, I made my way to the Bodleian Library, for to make my Mark upon the World of Scholarship, plopped myself down in front of the three (or was it four?) different catalogues (oh the wonders of the Bod!), and promptly found that, wonder of wonders, I would not be the first. In fact, nonsense scholarship had started in the nineteenth century, and slowly gained ground and followers through the twentieth. While the field was not aswim in scholarship, as so many others were, it was still an established Topic. No mater, I thought, as I wiped off the figurative academic shaving-cream-pie-to-the-face, and promptly went on with the unmentionable course I mentioned above. My first real look at scholarship, then, came in the form of Wim Tigges’ seminal book An Anatomy of Nonsense, which defines the genre so sharply and so cogently, that I fell in love with it and decided to devote myself to it. That was sixteen years ago, and as you all know, I am as ever on the same swath of swag. I had limped my way into Romantics because, in the application process to Oxford I was forced to pick a time period, but now I had found my calling, an area of study that was both rigorous, hilarious, and, at least it seemed to me, two fingers up the snout of Academia. I went on to read many books of nonsense theory and criticism, but I always came back to Tigges, to his careful study that is indeed an anatomy, a careful dissection of a genre that desperately needed it, and an argument for its importance in literature, and indeed, life. You could say that I was a strict Tiggesian for some time, and while I’ve backed off somewhat from his hardline (something he, himself has also done, by the way), I still consider myself nestled against his theoretical bosom.

So! Enough background! Kevin and I found ourselves on our way to meet Wim Tigges, at his office in Leiden, a university town not too far outside Amsterdam. We took the train out there, had a quick breakfast, and proceeded to his office. We thought that he might be 9 feet tall, 90 pounds, and have 9-foot wild hair blowing in every 9th breeze, but he in fact turned out to be, well, quite like us: a fellow nonsense noodle. He graciously brought tea, sat down, and proceeded to tell us much about Dutch nonsense and to show us the many Dutch anthologies of nonsense.

I don’t think that in all our travels we have seen such a keen awareness of nonsense as here in The Netherlands. Poland, the Czech Republic, Norway, these and other countries did indeed have rich traditions, and keen awareness, yet to have so many anthologies, going back to the 1950s, shows an exceptional understanding and appreciation of the genre.

After much discussion, we went to the university canteen for lunch and then on a short tour of the town, with Wim as our guide. It is a city of canals, bridges, cobbles, and bikes all running through the narrow lanes of the old town.


We climbed the earthen mount and took in the cityscape, then hit some of the bookstores, where I bagged a copy of his very own translation of Edward Lear, whose title needs no translation: Babbels en crabbels van Edward Lear.

We went back to his office, where we had more tea and nonsense discussion on such topics such as the nature of Dutch nonsense and the potential aesthetic and political motivation behind it. He was incredibly generous not only in his offer to help us in various ways with the anthology, but also in giving us multiple copies of both of his nonsense books (the other being Explorations in the Field of Nonsense, an excellent collection of scholarly essays). These books are extremely hard to come by, and we will be distributing them to nonsense scholars around the world hungry for his work.

Lastly, as if he had not done enough for us already, we asked him if he might record some Dutch nursery rhymes. He was only too happy to do so. The first is a choosing rhyme and the second a song that is almost entirely Dutch gibberish—yet a piece that almost all Dutch people grow up knowing.


We left his office in a state of giddiness, bags full of books and photocopies of nonsense texts, had a celebratory beer by a canal (where we were not the only people in such a jubilant mood apparently),


and we made our way back to Amsterdam. As Lewis Carroll would say, it was a white stone day.

PS. I could tell you how to pronounce his name, but I would have to kill you. Hint: you'll find the answer somewhere in this blog entry.