Henry Holiday’s Boojum

June 23, 2017 3 Comments

Martin Gardner, in his annotated edition of Lewis Carroll’s comic poem The hunting of the Snark, includes all of the wood engraved illustrations made by Henry Holiday for the first edition in 1876.  He also reproduces a drawing Holiday made for the book, but which never appeared – a picture of the Boojum, which makes its famous and fatal appearance at the very end of the poem.

The reason the picture didn’t appear in the book was that Lewis Carroll vetoed it as ‘inadmissible’.  As Holiday explained it in 1898, ‘all his [Carroll’s] descriptions of the Boojum were quite unimaginable, and he wanted the creature to remain so’.  Holiday was reluctantly forced to withdraw ‘what I am still confident is an accurate representation.  I hope that some future Darwin, in a new Beagle, will find the beast, or its remains; and if he does, I know he will confirm my drawing’. It was not until 1932, 34 years after Carroll’s death and 100 years after his birth, that the sketch was first published.

The hunting of the Snark, an ‘agony in eight fits’, concerns a sea voyage and land search made by a crew of ten characters, whose only connection is that their names, or rather their professions since they are nameless, all begin with the letter ‘B’: a Bellman, a Boots, a maker of Bonnets and Hoods, a Barrister, a Broker, a Billiard-marker, a Banker, a Beaver, a Baker and a Butcher.  Their mission is to find a creature, the Snark, though why is unclear.  When they reach land, their captain and leader, the Bellman, tells the rest how to identify the signs of a Snark (among them, ‘a slowness in taking a jest’ and a ‘fondness for bathing machines’), and warns them that some Snarks are in reality highly dangerous Boojums.  The hunt begins:

They sought it with thimbles, they sought it with care;
They pursued it with forks and hope;
They threatened its life with a railway-share;
They charmed it with smiles and soap.

The Baker recalls his uncle’s warnings long ago about the dangers of encountering a Boojum (‘you will softly and suddenly vanish away’).  The Butcher overcomes his killer instinct and befriends the Beaver.  The Barrister dreams about a Snark, a defence lawyer who turns judge and sentences a pig to transportation.  The Banker meets a Bandersnatch and is driven insane.  Finally, the Baker pushes on ahead to the ‘top of a neighbouring crag’.

Erect and sublime, for one moment of time,
In the next, that wild figure they saw
(As if stung by a spasm) plunge into a chasm,
While they waited and listened in awe.

The Baker shouts first that he has found a Snark, and then, amid ‘a torrent of laughter and cheers’, he corrects himself: ‘it’s a Boo –’.

In the midst of the word he was trying to say,
In the midst of his laughter and glee,
He had softly and suddenly vanished away –
For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.

Carroll was used to being asked what he meant by the Snark (and the Boojum).  His stock answer was, ‘I don’t know’, though sometimes he would indulge questioners by seeming to agree with a ‘lady’ who saw ‘an allegory for the pursuit of happiness’.  But he did concede once that ‘words mean more than we mean to express when we use them’.   Unsurprisingly, dozens of interpretations have been offered over the years.  As well as happiness, the Snark has symbolised material wealth, social advancement, the North Pole, the Absolute, sexuality and nuclear power (with the Boojum as atomic bomb).  Each age is drawn to a different aspect of the Snark.  Today, post-crash, we might be specially interested in the figure of the Banker, who, ‘engaged at enormous expense, had the whole of their cash in his care’, and was driven crazy by his irrational pursuit of the Snark.

I’ve always found one of Gardner’s own, more universal explanations completely persuasive.  He thinks ‘the Snark is a poem about being and non-being, an existential poem, a poem of existential agony’.  The Snark, never spotted in the poem except in a dream, represents meaning in life, or, for traditional people, God.  The Boojum represents the stark truth – of nothingness, of unending death.

Lewis Carroll was, to all appearances, a highly conventional Christian.  He took holy orders and was careful to utter only the most platitudinous religious opinions in letters and conversation.  But the Snark surely reveals the darkest of doubts, conscious or unconscious, not only about the absence of an afterlife, but about any sort of human teleology.  Holiday was on to something when he detected in the poem ‘that dark, unconscious substratum of intent that underlies all great creative acts’, and when he summed it up in a note as more than an ‘agony’ – ‘a tragedy’.  His image of Charles Darwin cataloguing the Boojum is significant, since Darwin had done more than most to remove God and purpose from the Victorian universe.

Where Holiday went wrong was to believe that it was possible, or wise, to try to embody nothingness or absence in anything as definite as a monstrous creature.  In his ‘suppressed’ sketch the poor Baker stands of the edge of the ‘chasm’, still dressed in his seven coats and three pairs of boots, and confronts his nemesis.  The Boojum is a huge monster, in the form of a bloated fish, equipped with whiskers, sharp teeth, bulging eyes and two flapping fins.  A circular pulse of energy, sonic or maybe nuclear, radiates from the creature’s mouth.  Its power seems to pass straight through the Baker’s body, making it translucent.  It’s an immensely powerful image – probably the best of Holiday’s uneven series of Snark illustrations – and its Boojum, far as being ‘delightful’, to quote Carroll, is a nightmarish creation.  But Carroll was surely right in insisting that the drawing could not appear in his book.

Henry Holiday, ‘Aspasia on the Pnyx’

In any case, if the Boojum really stands for nihil or nullity, then the sketch was not just unsuitable but unnecessary, because Carroll and Holiday between them had already signalled the ‘nothing’ theme, twice, earlier in the poem.  In the first Fit, the Baker, the Boojum’s victim, is described in much greater detail than the other voyagers (there are some signs that Carroll identified himself with the character).  His chief feature is that he suffers from that classic 21st century disease, dementia.

There was one who was famed for the number of things
He forgot when he entered the ship
His umbrella, his watch, all his jewels and rings,
And the clothes he had bought for the trip.

‘But the worst of it was, he had wholly forgotten his name’.  In other words, the poor man was already a ‘living nobody’, well on the way to Alzheimer oblivion before he got anywhere a Snark, let alone a Boojum.  The Baker, incidentally, is not alone in his lack of identity: all of the Snark crew have been stripped of their names.

In the second Fit, we’re back on the ship and the Bellman has brought with him ‘a large map representing the sea, without the least vestige of land’.  Not only without land, but without longitude and latitude:

‘What’s the good of Mercator’s North Poles and Equators,
Tropics, Zones, and Meridian Lines?’
So the Bellman would cry: and the crew would reply,
‘They are merely conventional signs!’

In fact, to the crew’s delight, here was ‘a map they could all understand … a perfect and absolute blank!’  An uncharted ocean, an invisible geography, a tabula rasa seems the ideal habitat for the vacuous Boojum (perhaps it’s no coincidence that Holiday’s version is a giant sea fish?).  Holiday’s map is reproduced in the text, a frame surrounding Nothing.  The scale is left blank, of course.  When Carroll returned to the ontological enigmas of mapping in Sylvie and Bruno concluded (1893), he imagined a map on the scale 1:1 – the world obliterated by its own map.  (Borges borrow the idea for his one-paragraph story On exactitude in science.)

Gerges Perec includes the Snark map in his 1974 writing ‘Species of space’ (Espèces d’espaces), in which his gaze moves ever outwards, from the paper in front of him to outer space.  Absence and loss were Perec’s big theme.  ‘Space melts like sand running through one’s fingers.  Time bears it away and leaves me only shapeless shreds.’

The only work I can think of, apart from Tristram Shandy, that has the same comic nihil-ism as the Snark is Flann O’Brien’s  The third policeman.  This novel is also about a (not so soft) vanishing and absence, made all the more horrifying by the reader’s very late realisation of where the truth lies.

The hunting of the Snark, says Martin Gardner, ‘is a poem over which an unstable, sensitive soul might very well do mad’.  I fear he’s right.  As is G K Chesterton, when he writes, ‘It is not children who ought to read the works of Lewis Carroll; they are far better employed making mud pies’.  The Boojum is not a creature we would wish to spend long thinking about, let alone imagining in visual form.

Comments (3)

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  1. Goetz Kluge says:

    This is about the “Ocean Chart”.

    The poem and the illustrations have been published by C. L. Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) in 1876. On the cover page we read: “With nine illustrations by Henry Holiday”. However, there are ten illustrations.

    That is no mistake: Among these ten illustrations (plus the two front-cover and back-cover illustrations), probably it is the Bellman’s “Ocean-Chart” which is not made by Holiday. I assume that Dodgson commissioned a typesetter with arranging that map.

    See also: Article by Dough Howick in “Knight Letter”, 2011, Volume II Issue 17, Number 87.

    Source (with more links): https://redd.it/4jhvty

    And there is more about Henry Holiday’s Boojum: https://redd.it/3otqkl

  2. Goetz Kluge says:

    About the “Baker”:

    I don’t think that the Baker was on the way to Alzheimer oblivion. He just may have “forgotten” things which could threaten his life. He left his 42 boxes behind – similar to Thomes Cranmer, who “forgot” his 42 Articles (which later became the 39 Articles), which clearly were associated with Cranmer’s name. Cranmer tried to protect himself with seven recantations. The Baker protected himself with seven coats. But that didn’t save them. Carroll’s humour at its darkest: When the Baker met the Boojum, he, who was called “Fry me!”, “Fritter my wig!”, “Candle-ends” and “Toasted-cheese” got baked (https://redd.it/4iiuud).

  3. Chris Edwards says:

    Your reference to Perec’s outwards gaze reminds me of Charles & Ray Eames’ remarkable short minute film “Powers of 10” in which the camera pulls away from a Chicago picnic at the rate of 10x per second, until the entire known universe is on screen – and then zooms back, into the skin of a picnicker’s hand until the screen shows a single carbon atom. Google Earth makes the opening look commonplace, and I suppose the whole film could be quickly wrapped up by a CGI technician today, but back in 1977 it was all done with artwork, arial photography, electron micrography, analogue cameras and pots of glue. The result is astonishing, and as existentially troubling as any Boojum. It’s on YouTube, and slate.com has a good article about how it was done. The film was projected at the Eames exhibition at the Barbican a couple of years back.

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