For some reason, while running high on Yili ridge the other day, the poem Jabberwocky came into my head.
Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe.
All mimsy were the borogroves
And the mome raths outgrabe.
And I proceeded to sing this beautifully nonsensical poem to myself for the next ten miles, winding along knifesharp ridgelines and creeping along hairbreadth-wide paths, climbing up winding dusty switchbacks and plunging steeply into shadowy valleys.
Why did this poem come to me so suddenly? I won’t deny my mind is simply more productive while running, if in a random manner. The majority of my better ideas and thoughts arrive in my brain not through logical cognitive processes while working or studying, but randomly while running, inspirations, flashes of revelation that somehow penetrate the too-solid exterior of my skull to find the malleable grey stuff within, into which it absorbs as if into a sponge.
Or did this poem come to me simply because it’s one of the only ones I still know from memory? From a young age the willing subject of a liberal-arts education, I was rarely forced to memorize poetry. The majority of my memorization occurred in high school French class, where we memorized the occasional florid outburst of Romantic creativity, but my mental repertoire of English poetry is negligible.
But these were not the reasons the poem came to mind. It appeared in my head due to the simple beauty of the language itself. As one who spends quite a lot of time playing and listening to music, I can forget that words by themselves can be aesthetic, that the juxtaposition of letters can tickle our ears and excite our curiosity.
And the aspect of the curious is nowhere more true than inJabberwocky, the majority of which is built of words created by Lewis Carroll himself. The words are made-up, nonsensical, ridiculous at times; and yet, the listener can – from the simple magical sonority of these created, artificial words – get a clear picture of what is happening in the poem.
And this is why the poem popped into my head: Jabberwocky is the ultimate example of finding beauty – which, after all, is supposed to be meaning, or truth, or something of the like – in true absurdity. From a jumble of nonsense words and self-coinages, clashing, evocative sonorities bring a vivid picture to the mind’s eye. Amidst the wildness of the ridiculous, we have discovered strands of beauty; from the rich babble of nonsense, truth.
Such is my life in Qinghai. Whether unexpected five-day holidays, or teaching through the weekends, or being confined to one’s apartment for weeks on end, or playing Chopin on my piano to the background beat of Tibetan pop (or, more recently, 70’s-era patriotic anthems), or driving at frightening velocity towards oncoming trucks on narrowly winding two-lane roads, or having the same people yell “Hello!” at you innumerable times daily, or running through the countryside, past dirtpoor herders and farmers plowing the fields and looking up to fix you with the most intense of stares, as if you were the only other person alive on earth, and not a particularly good-looking one at that – my life is a constant confusion and celebration of beauty in absurdity. It was only today that I walked by a vendor selling bags with the slogan “Made in China Means Quality”.
And now I wonder why this was the first time I had thought of the poem since coming to Qinghai nearly two years ago. The nonsensical, or at least the seemingly nonsensical, is the vast majority of existence. Life is not always an intentional comedy, with scripted jokes and routines. But life is always, invariably, forever a comedy of the absurd, a comedy of missed lines and dropped cues and unrelated events, a randomness so widespread and multifaceted and pervasive that it appears intimidating, dauntingly impossible to face and comprehend – until I start to laugh.
And that’s where beauty comes in. Everything has its essence in absurdity; by accepting that absurdity, we are free to see beauty and truth wherever and whenever we wish, unprescribed and unproscribed, on its own terms and on ours. An overly conscious search for truth or meaning will likely lead us only to confusion – especially here in Qinghai, where even on their surface things seem to have little organization or meaning (as opposed to in America, where a surface-level structure and organization cloaks the reality of the chaos beneath). Simply accept that nothing is truly fixed or related, that we will be teaching this weekend for no reason at all, or that the prices of the same Rebgong pear juice differ in two adjoining shops simply because theydo, and you’ll find a beauty in the chaos – and in life – that you may not have ever truly seen before.
And if you don’t, start by going back to Jabberwocky, and just listen. You’ll start to find the beauty amidst the nonsense sooner or later.