There’s a word for it, this feeling of wanting to say something biting and nasty when you catch the day’s news, triggered by a constant sense of absurdity overwhelming logic, of contradictions without consistency, of shifting sands. The word is snark, and it has two origins, one perhaps from Low German or Swedish, meaning a snide remark, and the other from Lewis Carroll.
The Carrollian Snark is a mythical creature, the object of the pursuit in the nonsense poem The Hunting of the Snark. Carroll described this as an “agony in eight fits”. Many writers have argued that more than straightforward nonsense for children’s amusement, it is an allegory with hidden meanings and references. The best of these critiques is still The Annotated Snark by Martin Gardner.
Gardner was a science and mathematics writer. For 25 years, he wrote a column in Scientific American called Mathematical Games. He was also a renowned debunker of myths, urban legends, so-called ‘psychic’ phenomena and pseudo-science. But he ranged beyond, to writings on religion, philosophy, literary criticism and fiction. When he died in 2010 at the age of 96, apart from his many writings on science and mathematics, he had published a semi-autobiographical book of fiction, short stories, a philosophical book (which, in a beautiful piece of snarkery, he himself trashed in the New York Review of Books writing under a pseudonym) and “annotated” versions of The Innocence of Father Brown, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and Lewis Carroll’s Alice and Snark books, among others. The introductions and notes in The Annotated Alice and The Annotated Snark are masterpieces in their own right.
Carroll’s Snark is apparently about the quest for this mythical species, which comes in many forms. Some have feathers. Some bite. Others have whiskers. The boojum is the most terrible: encountering it makes one “softly and suddenly vanish away, and never be met with again.”
The Hunting of the Snark :: The hunting party
The hunting party is of ten, all described by their occupations; all beginning with B: the Bellman, the Bonnet Maker, the Barrister, the Broker, and so on. Gardner opens his introduction by pointing out that this is hardly a children’s poem; it is one “over which an unstable, sensitive soul might very well go mad”. He claims—and I think Gardner had his tongue very firmly in his cheek when he said this—that this is “a poem about being and non-being, an existential poem, a poem of existential agony. The Bellman’s [blank] map … charts the course of humanity; blank because we possess no information about where we are or whither we drift.” It is about the search for ultimate good, always doomed to failure. And then, discussing the significance of the letter B in the poem, Gardner serves up this delicious morsel:
“Consider for a moment that remarkable four-letter word bomb. It begins and ends with b. The second b is silent; the final silence. B for birth, non-b for Nothing. Between the two b’s (to be or not to be) is Om, Hindu symbol for the nature of Brahman, the Absolute, the god behind the lesser gods whose tasks are to create, preserve and destroy all that is.”
There is cleverness everywhere in the Snark, from the ingenious acrostic in the ‘inscription’ at the beginning. The first letter of each of the 16 lines spells the name of Carroll’s child-friend, Gertrude Chataway; and the first word of each stanza also indicates her name. And contradictions abound: the map is blank; the bowsprit gets mixed up with the rudder sometimes (both valid comments today perhaps on the UPA government as “that frequently happens in tropical climes/when a vessel is, so to speak, ‘snarked’”); and blank cheques are endorsed and crossed. These contradictions have become the rules of the Snark Club: Rule 8 is blank. Rule 5: That the fine for non-attendance of the annual dinner be a cheque drawn to bearer for seven pounds ten, which shall be crossed.
The poem has influenced many, from writers to film makers,1 and even judges (Justice Breyer’s dissent in Medellin v Texas2); and it lends itself to almost any situation. The Bellman’s Rule of Three, for instance—what is said thrice is true; or this, from Fit the Fourth for today:
Though the Barrister tried to appeal to its pride
And vainly proceeded to cite
A number of cases, in which making laces
Had been proved an infringement of right.
So. When petrol prices go up thrice and come down twice; when FDI is allowed, but not allowed, yet allowed for single-brands; when companies with animal names become telecom operators; when one politician says she never said what she said; when leaders are silent and followers are loquacious; when the Lokpal is, except when it isn’t; when a minister for information stomps on the media; well, now you know what’s happened. You’ve been snarked.
Douglas Adams, Larry Nivens, Jack London, Game of Thrones, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Stark Trek II: The Wrath of Khan all feature the Snark. ↩
128 S. Ct. 1346, 1381-82: “At best the Court is hunting the snark.” ↩
Guess What, You've Been Snarked
There's a word for it, this feeling of wanting to say something biting and nasty when you catch the day's news, triggered by a constant sense of absurdity overwhelming logic, of contradictions without consistency, of shifting sands. The word is *snark*, and it has two origins, one perhaps from Low German or Swedish, meaning a snide remark, and the other from Lewis Carroll.