In a letter to a literary agent, Flann O’Brien described his first novel as “a very queer affair, unbearably queer perhaps.” The book in question was At. Flann O’Brien’s innovative metafictional work, whose unruly characters strike out their own paths in life to the frustration of their author. O’Brien found his novel branded as the book you read for more of the same after you had finished Finnegans Wake. Since few survived the Wake, and even.

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Its aim is to try and delineate the linguistic and pragmatic parameters separating sense from nonsense in language, and thus propose a redefinition of nonsense. In texts and discourse, parameters of meaning can be described as microlinguistic structures or as larger discursive units.

My analysis focuses on textual meaning, which implies broadening parameters to encompass pragmatic criteria such as illocutionary intention, text-cohesion, situational context and inter-subjective relations. Understanding what opposes meaning to its opposite would then enable us to circumscribe it.

The notion of limit is essential here, all the more so as it is often blurred and elusive: It is impossible, for Wittgenstein, to try and define meaning from a meta-physical point of view, since we would then be outside of it, and we would not make sense.

What strikes me in this logic is that it necessarily excludes nonsense precisely as what cannot be circumscribed and cannot be talked about. How then can we attempt a linguistic reflection and sdim-two-birds configuration of the phenomenon itself, other than by dismissing nonsense as mere non-sense whatever lies outside of the realm of sense?

Such instances show that nonsense can only be comprehended through its realization within a context of meaningful discourse. It thus reveals the elasticity of meaning as much as it exposes itself as one of its extreme variations.

His novels and chronicles describe diglossic angst and the constant hesitations of speakers who are never quite sure when they are making sense or talking nonsense. Such games can be traced back to different literary traditions, flnan, but by no means limited to, Victorian Nonsense literature. It also reveals their essential deformability. Thus I wish to avoid reducing nonsense in literature to either a cadavre-exquis type of discourse, or to Jabberwocky Nonsense where I believe the official, capitalized name has already led to limiting a very wide linguistic and literary phenomenon to a historically narrow genre.

Therefore, if we take it the other way round, nonsense swim-two-nirds correspond to either symbols with no meaning content, or to symbols with legitimate meaningful content but arranged in a non-legitimate way.

The 100 best novels: No 64 – At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien (1939)

The following examples illustrate this definition: This in turn raises the question: If there is such a thing as utter nonsense then we cannot possibly conceptualize it. My premise is that pure nonsense flznn outside the realm of analysis — simply because the very fact of analysis requires minimal sense in the object of study.

Or to put it in terms of possible worlds, pure nonsense would not fit in any possible world and therefore cannot be grasped by our understanding. He awoke as if from sleep. Are not these terms synonymous and one as a consequence redundant? He arose from his flann and examined his stomach, lower chest and legs.

What parts did he not examine? His back, neck and head. Can you suggest a reason for so imperfect a survey? His vision was necessarily limited by the movements of his neck. However, the textual context of this excerpt enables us to outline a number of criteria highlighting how sense and nonsense interact here.


The comedy mostly relies on puns, nonsensical jokes and absurd situations, as well as a series of embedded narratives, which have earned the book its epithet of post-modern from many critics Hopper The novel features an unnamed first-person narrator who lives with his uncle and studies at University College Dublin but spends most of his time in bed, writing a novel about Trellis, a tyrannical author who writes stories and so on and so forth.

Trellis, the fictional author, is tried by his own characters, then found guilty of exploitation and cruelty and sentenced to a horrible death. He defines nonsensical discourse based on four main criteria Lecercle As his judge remarks, synonyms saturate the paradigmatic axis of the utterance and thus paradoxically, deplete its meaning. The repetition itself is nonsensical because it effectively voids the utterance of its strength.

Nonsensical repetition is also to be found in the list of body parts at the end of the scene. For Lecercle, nonsense relies on the exhaustion of lists and series. Swim-two-birdd, the nonsensical logic of series means that speakers exhaust the list of possible questions, regardless of any form of pragmatic relevance; in this case, the last two questions are obviously unnecessary since swimt-wo-birds non-examined parts of the body are clearly those left out of the previous list of examined parts.

Trellis answers consistently with this nonsensical logic of series, since he responds literally to all the questions, thus flouting the Gricean rules of clarity, and quantity, and overall relevance Grice The metalinguistic comment on language is therefore necessarily embedded in the nonsensical trial dialogue.

First, as we have seen, this dialogue fits the definition of Victorian Nonsense as laid out by Jean-Jacques Lecercle, both structurally and in its goal: However, I believe that much more than being nonsensical, meta-discourse in fact accurately reveals the inner opacity of language itself. It suggests that nonsense is a constitutive part of language and that it needs to be construed as another variable inherent to the process of meaningful utterances, making us realise that there flajn no clear-cut distinction between sense and nonsense.

From swim-two-bird pragmatics point of view, what we have analysed is a set of rules for a type of discourse. This is where the problem eludes us: Hence Nonsense as a literary genre, though based on transgression of meaning and cooperation, ay the very same principles as those which it seeks to subvert.

Example one thus shows that nonsense can be traced within sense itself, as an extreme variable in the pragmatic parameters of cooperative conversation, and as a dynamic force which playfully distorts and unsettles our received conception of meaning. Light, as he points out truly enough, has an ascertained and finite rate of travel.

Hence before the reflection of any object in a mirror can be said to be accomplished, it is necessary that rays of light should first strike the object and subsequently impinge on the glass, to be thrown back again to the object — to the eyes of a man, for instance. There is therefore an appreciable and calculable interval of time between the throwing by a man of a glance at his own face in a mirror and the registration of the reflected image in his eye.

True to the genre of Nonsense, this passage depicts the same dialectic of excess and loss, contrasting the lengthy and exhaustive reasoning of De Selby with his complete disconnection from reality.

More specifically, this example presents us with a piece of nonsensical scientific reasoning. Everything is fine until De Selby brings in the concept of logical necessity: This sentence presents a double modality, with the extraposed clausal subject emphasizing the modality of logical necessity, and with the further insistence of the modal should. It seems as if De Selby protests too much here: His insistence on necessity comically betrays the fact that De Selby is not only mistaken, but also that he has no idea what he is talking about.


Secondly, De Selby mistakes quantifiable for ahthus swim-tw-birds up the infinitely small into humongous proportions. Swim-two-bitds Selby follows through with his logic further on in the scene, declaring that with a very big glass and a system of embedded mirrors, he can see himself at birth. Instead of using facts of the real world as evidence to keep his imaginative reasoning in check, De Selby makes the world fit his meandering logic.

Again, this is not really nonsense: We call his theory nonsense because he is wrong both about the world and about how language refers to the af. I wish to point out here that the notion of truth-value, according to Wittgenstein, does not enter in the determination of nonsense v.

At Swim-Two-Birds – Wikipedia

As he explains in the Tractatusnonsense is neither true nor false: The signal distinction of the manuscript is that not one word of the writing is legible. Attempts made by different commentators to decipher certain passages which look less formidable than others have been characterized by fantastic divergences, not in the meaning of the passages of which there is no question but in the brand of nonsense which is evolved.

Such disagreement, it must be confessed, does little to enhance the reputation of either writer. The Third Policeman, p. Here, nonsense seems to carry strong pragmatic significance, as it both protects and signals the existence of a secret meaning to be uncovered. There is a shift here: What remains meaningful in this nonsensical manuscript is its phatic dimension, as if its sole intention was to establish a contact with the audience i.

It is also a game of make-believe as an imitation of meaningful communicative behaviour. Again, the pragmatic criterion takes pride of place, in the sense that what is left here is an inter-subjective relation between speakers, regardless of the nature of its linguistic content.

As the Wittgenstein hypothesis reminds us, we can never completely step outside of meaning. The next time he took it up he was confronted with a mass of diagrams and drawings which he took to be the plans of a type of dwelling he always had in mind and immediately wrote many pages explaining the sketches.

Thus nonsense is what we cannot talk about, since by giving it meaning, we change it into something else. In the Tractatus, Wittgenstein states that all meta-discourse is a form of nonsense. He discards ethics and metaphysics as a waste of time; this implies however, that the Tractatus itself, being a philosophical treatise, and thus a piece of meta-discourse, belongs de facto to the same category My propositions are elucidatory in this way: He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.

He must transcend these propositions, and then he will see the world aright. What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.

Bearing that in mind, we can say that nonsense shows itself in our examples, beyond language-mediated explanation and description, as what remains unexplained once we have made sense of everything else. Nonsense as non-cooperative discourse: Introduction 1 The issue of mapping parameters of meaning can be broached from two different angles and at different levels. Revue de sciences du langage Editeur: