Inspector Lewis And The Snark

Last night PBS’ Mystery aired an Inspector Lewis that had as its lynchpin The Hunting of the Snark. As usual, the episode itself was so well presented and acted, so good looking in its production values, that it is a shame someone did not try to make the plot comprehensible. If this is PBS’ idea of replicating the mystery of Carroll’s great poem, well, they aren’t Lewis Carroll. They mangle their stories almost every single time.

The show did lead to my searching out Carroll’s poem for re-reading and some background. These quotes, from Wikipedia, resonated for me:

In the course of his career, Lewis Carroll developed an elegant and morally impeccable technique to fend off demands asking him to explain his work. However it is phrased, his answer is always the same: I don’t know. This was the truth, although not in the sense that children and reviewers understood it: Carroll would not explain the meaning of his books because “a whole book ought to mean a great deal more than the writer meant”.

The flavor of creative work can be summarized by Carroll’s “I don’t know”. He could as well have said, “I know too much. The world I created works within its own references and can’t be explained anymore than can life”. The “meanings” of that world are particular to the reader and will change over time as the reader changes.

“This means that”, is purely an academic game. Art is about feeling and resonance, reflection and meditation.

Also of interest is the way the work flowed out of Carroll, rather than his sitting down and filling in some predetermined formula.

Here is how Carroll “explained” the Snark in 1887: I was walking on a hillside, alone, one bright summer day, when suddenly there came into my head one line of verse – one solitary line – For the Snark was a Boojum, you see. I knew not what it meant, then: I know not what it means, now; but I wrote it down: and, sometime afterwards, the rest of the stanza occurred to me, that being its last line: and so by degrees, at odd moments during the next year or two, the rest of the poem pieced itself together, that being its last stanza.

Also, this to underline Carroll’s response.

“Periodically I have received courteous letters from strangers begging to know whether The Hunting of the Snark is an allegory, or contains some hidden moral, or is a political satire: and for all such questions I have but one answer, I don’t know!” According to Gardner, there are more than three such denials on record. By the Bellman’s rule-of-three, it follows that if the Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson said he did not know what the unimaginable something is, then he really did not know.