The SemiotiX Review of Books: Nonsense, semiotics of. By David Lidov.

Raymond Moody,  Making Sense of Nonsense: The unintelligible afterlife.  2016.  Donner du Sens au Non-sens : Comment concevoir la vie après la vie, 2017. Translation, Alessia Weil, Preface by Jean Staune.  Guy Trédaniel, Quebec.

Lisa Smartt, 2017.  Words at the Threshold: What we say as we’re nearing death. Foreword by Raymond Moody, New World Library, Novato, California (Hard Copy and Kindle)

[Making Sense of Nonsense is not published in English.  Citations from Moody in this article show page numbers for the French edition, but quotations are from my private copy of the original English ms.  In this version of my review, citations from Smartt show ‘locations’ in the Kindle edition.]

What would we say of a science of biology that included no notion of pathology?  A science of engineering with no concept of stress and risk?  “Nonsense!”  And is it not equally nonsense if our semiotics has no general notion of nonsense?  No way to say what goes wrong in semiosis?  I don’t know any semiotics theory that will clearly say what is the same and what are the relevant differences if we compare Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland,  Dr. Seuss’s Cat in the Hat, Escher’s drawings, the self-contradictory pronouncements of mystics, Zeno’s paradoxes, wild gesticulations, reports of incredible miracles, illogical political arguments, out-of-body experiences, “Hickory dickory dock / The mouse ran up the clock”, question begging in the court room or the police station, untenable scientific theories, and/or aphasic word salads.  Those examples, or very similar ones, and many others quite different are the objects of study in Dr. Raymond Moody’s new book. The metaphors heading this paragraph fail in that unlike diseases and collapsing bridges, nonsense can be joyful and pleasant.  This difference only amplifies the case for a semiotics of nonsense.

“And nonsense operates by a coherent internal logic of rationally discernable principles. This books sets out the logic of nonsense, which turns out to be a bridge that connects scientific thinking and religious thinking.” pXVII

Dr. Raymond Moody, Ph.D., M.D., a life-long enthusiast of nonsense, studied philosophy and taught philosophy for some years before entering medical school and eventually specializing in psychiatry.  His book’s subtitle refers to a matter which is essentially an epilogue in this book, and which I will largely avoid in this essay, though we must acknowledge it.  That subtitle also connects us with his enormously popular, yet exquisitely cautious and deeply thoughtful earlier publication, Life after Life, documenting interviews with persons who have survived clinical death or other severe and threatening injuries and who recount what he came to call “near death experiences,” (NDEs) the term now widely adopted in a burgeoning field of study of such “nonsensical” accounts.  The range of examples and quotations in “Making Sense” is a constant pleasure and impressive as scholarship; however, neither this book or Smartt’s is directed to a specialized or academic readership.  

Lisa Smartt’s Words at the Threshold is not primarily about nonsense, per se.  Her ongoing project  ( collects and studies pronouncements of persons within weeks of dying.  It is not a statistical study of that population as a whole.  Her repertoire consists of selected instances that felt transformative to the transcriber.  Some of the texts she collected  herself, primarily in hospices.  Other texts were transcribed by other people holding a close relationship with a dying person.   Persons providing materials are simply identified as “participants”.  She encounters much nonsense in this body of accounts and finds it close to the language Moody reports from his interviews with survivors of near death experiences.  (Based on his own experience with patients who died, he had commented on this similarity in his first book.)  That “nonsense” witnesses ineffable sensations, out-o-body experiences, the collapse of spatio-temporal orientation, telepathy, visions and surprising emotional reactions.  She has worked with Moody and borrows some of his methodology and, I think, makes some improvements to it.  Smartt also draws on a number of other authors who deal with closely related material and with the comments and opinions of other writers about dying.  Her book is one of great warmth that puts us in touch with the dismay of persons who loose or fear to loose the possibility of communicating with their loved ones.  Her focus on discourse analysis would be the book’s chief novelty in the literature about dying, although her fairly short book has mixed purposes.

My review article deals with semiotic issues, not spiritual questions; however, where their interests overlap, Smartt and Moody combine to demarcate a fairly well defined corpus of nonsense.  To say how distinctive this corpus is and describe its internal coherence suggests a test case for a  discourse theory and certainly for semiotic theory.  

Lisa Smartt is trained in linguistics and also writes poetry.  The reader is the beneficiary of her poetic skills.  Some of her accounts are at once strikingly economical and strongly evocative.  The one kind of nonsense that Moody declines to analyze is abstract modernist literature.  To make this quasi-contradiction into a triangle, let us also consider here, very briefly, some lines of Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) and E. E. Cummings (1894-1962)—just a bit of nonsense poetry for grown-ups.

What Moody’s book did for me was most importantly consciousness raising.  The breadth of his references is a continuous delight.  He brings home the scope of nonsense, its phenomenology and its effects.  Now, as a convert, I urge semioticians to focus more on nonsense.  It’s our birthright.  Surely, we can do it best!  Shouldn’t we have courses on nonsense in our universities?  (Moody teaches such a course.)  More books looking comprehensively at nonsense?  We have relevant particular studies a plenty as you well know.  There’s Paul Bouissac’s work on clowns, a host of anthropologists tracking tricksters, Bakhtin on carnival, and so on and, on the side of theoretical frameworks, post-structuralist arguments about limits of system and rationality.  We might make a long bibliography.  Despite these abundant, relevant resources, I believe the  questions whether nonsense is a cohesive phenomena and whether it can be dealt with as category exhibiting general characteristics are largely unexplored.  Many of the studies that might be collected in that still imaginary bibliography aim principally at decoding.  But to get at the heart of the problem, we might want decoding off limits.  Moody writes, “From the viewpoint of an author trying to write good nonsense poems or stories, accidentally meaning something is a failure of art.”  p120.  And yet, that art has its limits In an interview conducted by Robert Haas, Gertrude Stein said. “I made innumerable efforts to make words write without sense and found it impossible . . .Any human being putting down words had to make sense out of them.” (1) 

Moody is  a Christopher Columbus twice, first with his pioneering voyage in reporting NDE’s and now, it may be, with nonsense.  Let semiotics send imperial  cartographers to map the continent  and provide a census of its many sophisticated and civilized inhabitants.  Columbus, for all his prowess as naval commander, navigator and fund raiser, confused the West Indies and East India.  Perhaps we can find equally egregious errors to correct in Moody.  If not, we have a leg up; if so, all the more reason to investigate.  Semiotics is our tool kit.  There being, fortunately, little consensus on semiotic theory, my compass and protractor for general semiotic principles, when not otherwise specified, is my own Elements of Semiotics (1999/2017) (2).  I depend particularly on its theories of comparative articulation and double structure in the latter part of this essay.  Although I think the applications will be transparent; however, the principles I appeal to are presented ex cathedra. I do invite you to check my logic: references to chapters in Elements are indicated (Ch.1) and the like.

What is Nonsense?

It is not easy to say.  Moody insists from the beginning on a purely linguistic definition.    “Nonsense is language that is unintelligible due to lack of meaning.”  But he doesn’t stick to it.  In his Introduction, he says, with references to our ecological and political disasters, that we live in a nonsense world.  He takes Escher’s paradoxical drawing of a perpetual waterfall as well as some other visual representations to be nonsense, and there are other instances of nonsense where it is not clear that the lack of sense has anything to do with language.  He hints in a couple of passages that he regards a situation or a non-verbal sign as nonsensical if a verbal description or paraphrase of it would be nonsensical, but if that really is his position, it is problematic and would need a much more extensive development to be justified and clarified.  It may also be, though he doesn’t say it, that he wants to think of “language” as a general term that could include other systems of signs as in, e.g., the ‘language of music,’ or the ‘language of chemistry’.

Perhaps it is more straightforward to think of nonsense as a sign or text in any medium, that doesn’t work right because it has a little something wrong with it.  This notion immediately invites two methods of development (neither pursued in this essay), one in terms of sign functions—like Jacobson’s scheme of six functions—the other, in terms of sign factors.   Invoking functions, nonsense might result from a disconnect between the perspectives of  the Addresser and the Addressee.  Smartt will call this “situational nonsense.”  Further, we might look for something non-functional in the channel, code, context and/or message.  

As for sign factors,  we might want to know whether the defect of sense is in the sign itself (the representamen, the signifier), in its construction of an object and/or in its interpretant.   But if the semiosis is thoroughly screwed up, the  sign factors may not be distinguishable.  Ultimately, all these approaches may merit a turn.  Nonsense is a big topic.

Any definition must skirt tautology.  To define nonsense, “sense”+”non”, the negation of sense, in terms of intelligibility is nearly tautological.  Perhaps defining sense and nonsense is no more possible than defining beauty and ugliness.  Moody’s formulation and my broader variations above seek a logical construction.  We might alternatively approach the problem in terms of sentiment. Moody’s sharpest observations do deal with emotion, situation, the pragmatic and phenomenological dimensions of nonsense.  The words “ridiculous” and “silly” which I believe are not encountered in the book, cover much the same territory as “nonsense” but capture feelings, not logic.  Moreover, silliness prolonged into giddiness, the psychedelic silliness most evident before adulthood or in the night of December 31st, can be shared and can secure bonding in a state that may qualify as altered consciousness.  (Moody will attend both to bonding and altered states as associated with nonsense).  Moody’s principle that nonsense is neither true nor false is suggestive of a definitional strategy, but it is hard to cash in.  Some nonsense is clearly false because it depicts the impossible.  And I would say some nonsense is a package for truth.  For example, Edwin Abbott’s Flatland, A Romance of Many Dimensions, which Moody, with good reason, considers nonsense, conveys an impossible experience of vision in a two-dimensional space; however, the power of that book as amusement and pedagogy, rests in its submission to projective geometry, pursued with stark discipline and with the serious intention to stimulate or imagination of a fourth spatial dimension.

We don’t know what nonsense is, but we can talk about it.  Are reports of miracles nonsense? Moody’s position would seem to require a yes.  Here he takes sides in the contest between spontaneous perception (of the observer of the miracle) and common language as a thought police system, well known to semioticians. Much nonsense is entirely intelligible.  Seuss’s Cat in the Hat  is perfectly intelligible but the imaginary object constructed by words and pictures together relegates it to the nonsense of impossibilities.  Similarly, in Carroll’s Alice, some descriptions are proven intelligible because we can imagine quite definitely what is described, impossible as it may be.   At other times Carroll’s games with the signifier defy imagination and cause real unintelligibility. Part of Carroll’s art is to lend urgency to the ridiculous, so that it is not just funny.  The Mad Queen is not merely absurd but also frightening. and that quality is an interpretant gone haywire.  Nonsense in front of us, nonsense behind us, nonsense all around.

Moody and Smartt often refer to “reality” as if it were fundamentally unquestionable, universal and true to common sense.  Yet, their ultimate orientation is towards the possibility that the nonsense of mystics, NDEs and dying persons makes sense in the context of a “reality” that those persons are experiencing.  Both books seem a bit old fashioned in assuming the consensual “reality” that may have held command and prestige seventy-five years ago and adherence to which marked a good education.  In our time, greater popularization of quantum physics, more prominent radical spirituality, deeper awareness of cultural differences, Photoshop, reality shows and virtual reality are eroding  our faith in what we see, though substantial vestiges of believing what we see rest in habits of speech.  Smartt ultimately defines “situational nonsense” to recognize this inconsistency.  Moody simply acknowledges that what may seem nonsensical now may become sensible later (or vice versa).  Although I think she does better than he, neither author fully grabs the bull by the horns.  When toward the end of the book, Moody endorses and recapitulates Hume’s skepticism about afterlives, one has a sense of a straw man being set up to oppose his final plea on behalf of nonsense as visionary.  Too much relativity may be nonsense, but much in nonsense is relative.

Psychological and Pragmatic aspects of nonsense.

For me, Moody’s most valuable contribution is to show how important, various, indispensible, and widespread our involvement with nonsense is.  His demonstrations are very resistant to any brief summary.  His examples, individually, may sometimes seem trivial and tiresome; and yet, as they accumulate, we discover a whole that is weightier than expected and come to respect his patience.  

Nonsense is among our most dependable and prevalent delights and entertainments. At the same time, “Nonsense!” is among our strongest and most pejorative responses to ideas and opinions we disagree with.  I don’t know to what extent this is so beyond European culture, at home and diasporic, but the disgust nonsense evokes is readily evident.   

“The recurrent, ancient image of nonsense as an inchoate nothingness is a frightening archetype. Thinking of nonsense can make people feel dizzy and disoriented. Socrates described the sensation when he was trying to think his way through a thicket of puzzling philosophical concepts. He said that the prospect of ‘falling into a bottomless pit of nonsense’ horrified him.  p18″   

I wonder how many of us may have read these words of Socrates without accepting his expression of feeling as literal, not as empty rhetoric?  I appreciate Moody rubbing my nose in it.  Our negative feeling about nonsense is insidious; indeed, I still find myself battling a dismissive reaction to nonsense as a legitimate topic and wondering how many readers I may have lost just because it was silly on my part to have undertaken to engage it.  

Moody observes contexts where nonsense promotes bonding, situations where nonsense provokes more nonsense.  Nonsense emerges in or after stress.  Nonsense is inseparable from falling asleep and dreaming.   (He discusses hypnagogia, citing Andreas Mayromatis).  His discussion of nonsense as a medical symptom notes William James’s account of his own experience with nitric oxide and  Lincoln’s brief dependence on a pain remedy that included mercury.   (He does not say much about aphasia, a symptom of cerebral trauma which supports a large, highly analytical literature and which has been of interest to semiotics because of Jacobson’s work with the great Russian neuropsychologist, Alexander Luria.)  An observation of his that took me by surprise was of recurring instances or nonsense portending murder—true cases (Moody says he studied several in his work as a forensic psychiatrist (p114-5) and the children’s nonsense rhyme that furnished his name for that “Fee-fi-fo-fum” syndrome:


I smell the blood of an Englishman.

Be he alive or be he dead

I’ll grind his bones to make my bread.


Moody notes the power of performing magicians’ double talk to incite self-doubt, the effectiveness of nonsense to win attention in advertizing.  He shows that nonsense can provoke a search for its meaning even to an extent that is obsessive and compulsive.  As well as arising in hypnogogic states, nonsense, in return, induces something akin to hypnogogia.  With koans, nonsense is used to induce states of ‘enlightenment’.  In glossolalia, nonsense conveys ecstasy.  p143

          For Moody, a sensibility for nonsense is an inherent faculty of the mind.  This faculty includes the capacities to recognize nonsense, to learn its types, to analyze nonsense, to appreciate it (its aesthetic, emotional, cognitive values), to create voluntarily any type, to extend the command of nonsense to novel cases.  (Note though that he does not assert is that this faculty is distinct in the sense that we can not reduce it to our general capacities for play and for analysis.)  He shows (p100 ff) that the ability to recognize, appreciate and voluntarily produce nonsense begins quite early in childhood.   

Nonsense questions are prescribed in the CIA’s torture handbook, a usage that depends in turn on the  perlocutionary force of questions which, Moody points out, blurs the distinction between interrogative and imperative sentences.   Even though “abracadabra” may now be a conventional symbol, we are reminded that magic nonsense words have been believed to make changes in the physical world in many cultures.  The renowned astronomer and physicist, Arthur Eddington held that nonsense is an essential place holder in the development of scientific theories, and he argued, though scientists consider nonsense despicable, that science tolerates nonsense more than we suppose.

Ineffable experiences bring nonsense in their train, as William James noted, a principle important to Moody and Smartt in dealing with the nonsense expressions and reports concerning dying.  “James noted that starkly self-contradictory expressions are common in the writings of eminent mystics. As examples, he cited ‘dazzling darkness,’ ‘whispering silence,’ ‘the soundless sound,’ and ‘the All-One.’ ”  (p146.)

Among his final topics, Moody considers misuses of nonsense for imposture, bogus prophecies, totalitarian control, mock profundity, pseudoscientific theories and self-deception.  Separately from those, he analyzes the dependency of theology on nonsense (3).

The Structure of Nonsense and its Types.

Very much a classicist, Moody starts with definition and classification.  His three chief types are structural:  Categorical Nonsense, which preserves sentence grammar and known words but includes uninterpretable lexical selections;  Self-contradiction; also grammatically correct but logically impossible [“I come before you to stand behind you,” (p89)] and Near [English], with my brackets meaning any specific language will do.  Nonsense words fall in this later category.  Many other types are described.  It is not always clear to me whether some of these are intended as sub-types of others or perhaps specific genres which combine more fundamental types.  His discussions mention, inter alia, nonsense questions, nonsense recipes, nonsense travel narratives, nonsense arithmetic, nonsense times and dates, pronouns without reference, nonsense personifications of abstract words, nonsense figures of speech (particularly reduplication and aposiopesis, which is interruption).  But he has absolutely no intention to be comprehensive.

Categorical nonsense, a term and type that Smartt adopts, is a very big basket.  One of many, many quoted or invented examples:

A scholarly hiccough musically baked numerical stares in a gnawing circle. p32

With all category errors lumped together, Moody and Smartt bypass the question which Chomsky highlighted in Aspects of the Theory of Syntax, When do the errors is such a sentence reflect a breach of rules about words and when a deficiency of knowledge of the world?  I don’t know whether a theory of nonsense can afford to be mute on this issue, as Chomsky ultimately is in his theory of grammar. One interpretation points to a fault in the construction of the sign; the other to a problem in the construal of its object.

The pervasive principle of nonsense for Moody is that it preserves some rules while breaching others.  His types are partly determined by what is preserved and what is let go.  The rules kept or lost may be of sentence grammar, narrative grammar, generic discourse structures, phonemic rules, and so on.  They can be stated in the negative.  Thus, discussing nonsense magic words, he writes:

Nonsense words that could supposedly transform reality by magic have a similar, mysterious exotic sound and appearance in various times and climes. To seem obscure and incomprehensible to everyone, magical nonsense must not resemble any known, familiar languages. Nonsense that supposedly causes magical changes should sound and look foreign to everyone who hears or reads it (p138.)

As the interpretation of nonsense requires understanding what rules are retained and which breached, supervenience is a critical characteristic of nonsense for Moody.  The one word stands for his principle that nonsense is a superstructure based on the competence to make and understand expressions that do make sense.

To comprehend or elucidate unintelligible nonsense, . . . we must understand both the rules it follows and the rules it breaks. Accordingly. . . , nonsense presents more complicated challenges to the mind than ordinary, meaningful language does. . . . . This inherent complexity makes nonsense a second tier of language, an upper level built on top of ordinary, intelligible language. Hence, nonsense, which is a meaningless, unintelligible supervenient form of language, might sometimes be in a position to become a higher form of language.  (p126.)

I welcome the final “sometimes”.  I think Moody often reduces the force of his insights by claiming generality for principles that would serve better to make differentiations.

From here on, I propose to distinguish rich and poor nonsense.   Rich nonsense intrigues us or possesses our attention in various ways; poor nonsense does not interest us at all, at least not for its own sake.  For example of poor, following a stroke, the patient’s word salad may be a significant symptom of particular brain damage and of interest to the physician on that basis, while the particular words in the salad  scarcely attract attention.  Take rich and poor to mark endpoints on a continuous scale and allow that rich for one of us may be poor for another.  Normally we process defective data by supplementation and ‘correction’.  Rich nonsense evokes these capacities but frustrates them.  Poor nonsense, like gibberish and wild gesticulation, may not evoke those instincts at all.  Supervenience is not universal.

Smartt does not propose a typology near the beginning of Words at the Threshold.  Her method is to illustrate clusters of figures, metaphors, discourse forms, and so on, that stand out in the corpus of reports.  In themselves these need not be nonsensical.  In their contexts they generally are for reasons she is not especially concerned to analyze.  Her successive chapters treat expressions of ineffability, metaphors (especially metaphors and recurring figures for an anticipated momentous experience); images of an approaching voyage (very resonant with Moody’s nonsense travel narratives) and intensifiers such as repetition.  Prominent figures include circles, boxes, voyages, parties and particular numbers.  She reports this nonsense as being generally happy and optimistic and reassuring.  If so, this trait differentiates her corpus from pathological nonsense.

Later, in her ante-penultimate chapter, Chapter 6, “Nonsense or a New Sense,” she offers a division of nonsense into three categories: “Three kinds of nonsense are uttered by the dying: nonsense babbling, linguistic nonsense, and situational nonsense.”  (l-1406.)  She says that babbling, which I understand to include both word salad and nonsense words barely appears in her data, perhaps because no one bothers with it.  Her “linguistic nonsense” is essentially what Moody calls categorical nonsense.  In contrast, sentences that constitute situational nonsense make sense to us.”  But from our perspective they are fictions. Here is what she calls a typical example along with her explication.

 “ ‘The white butterflies coming out of your mouth are so beautiful.’  (Butterflies do not come out of mouths.)” (l-1428.)

The point I understand Smartt to ultimately insist on, is that the person uttering these words may have actually seen those butterflies or, equivalently, actually seen something ineffable for which the butterflies serve as a metaphor or stand in of some sort.  Within the situation of the one who speaks, there may be no nonsense.  In the situation of the listener, butterflies can not come out of mouths.  Earlier, she had written

“It does seem that many of those who are crossing the threshold enter a private reality, and nonsense may track this extraordinary passage.  As a linguist, I do not use the term nonsense pejoratively, I use it simply to refer to language that does not make sense in terms of what we know about our five-sense, three-dimensional world. (l-1392.)

Despite some vacillation, I find her franker than Moody  in confronting directly the relativity (not “subjectivity” !) of judgments that assign an expression to nonsense.  The matter ought to be on the table from the outset if, in the long run, we hope to distinguish between, on the one hand, language not making sense and, on the other, the private reality of the speaker not making sense or not making sense to us.  Smartt’s tri-part division is productive.

“One form of situational nonsense that I consistently found in the transcripts  . . .is what I call a ‘prepositional shift.’  The words often make linguistic sense, but they do not make sense in terms of what we currently know about movement, bodies, direction, and space.” (l-1479.)  

Her examples of prepositional nonsense are not self contradictory or inconsistent internally.  The nonsense rests in appeals to movement.  “I’ve got to get down to earth.  Help me.”  “I am crossing up!  Crossing up!”  And she compares such expressions to Moody’s NDE accounts of people who insist they were watching the doctors from the ceiling or passing through walls.  It does seem that the richest nonsense is very grammar dependent, one way or another.

The Survival of Grammars in Nonsense.

“. . . the notion ‘grammatical’ cannot be identified with ‘meaningful’ or ‘significant’ in any semantic sense.  Sentences (1) and (2) are equally nonsensical [sic], but any speaker of English will recognize that only the former is grammatical.

  1. Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.
  2. Furiously sleep ideas green colorless.

Presented with these sentences, a speaker of English will read (1) with normal sentence intonation, but he will read (2) with a falling intonation on each word; in fact, . . . He treats each word in (2) as a separate phrase.  Similarly, he will be able to recall (1) much more easily than (2), to learn it much more quickly, etc.  (my emphasis)”

p15. Noam Chomsky, Syntactic Structures.  1957/2002.

Chomsky does not have a theory of nonsense so far as I know.  We can let “equally nonsensical” pass as a casual  judgment.  I would call (1) rich and (2) poor.  It is (1) that became famous and inspired the English faculty at Stanford University to launch a contest in 1985 for the best paragraph that provides a context lending that sentence a metaphorical reading.  The second ‘sentence’ has faded into oblivion.

Moody and Smartt both take more interest in grammatical nonsense than agrammatical nonsense, especially if we take “grammar” in the wide sense that Moody suggests when he speaks of “rules” rather than grammar and notes that all nonsense follows some rules and breaks others.  Thus we have most prominently rules (or grammars) for combining words as sentences but also phonological grammars or rules for combining phonemes as words, narrative grammars for stories, logic and rhetoric as grammars for argument, tonal and metrical grammars to combine notes in music, rules of discourse in various contexts, and so on.  Rules of grammars are attract strong opinions with emotions invested in them as much as in any issue of obedience and disobedience.

Perhaps the negative emotional load of nonsense is the flip side of our deep emotional investment in rules.  Moody quotes from Lewis Carroll, the Mad Hatter’s personification of abstract nouns.  

Alice sighed wearily. “I think you might do something better with the time,”

she said, “than wasting it in asking riddles that have no answers.”

“If you knew Time as well as I do,” said the Hatter,

“you wouldn’t talk about wasting it. It’s him.” (p53.)

As a child, I found these passages frightening because—I now think—of the power grab represented to me in the Hatter’s changing the rules.

A strong, instinctual attachment to rules in general is fundamental to semiosis [Ch. 8].   I don’t think the rules for intonation, which interpret and communicate syntactic structures are, themselves, a grammar.  For one reason, intonation is not independently combinatorial.  The force of grammar and patterns of intonation are both essential for understanding nonsense.

William James held that relations, including syntactical relations, have feeling tones just as surely as colors do.  William James was Gertrude Stein’s most important teacher at Radcliffe and he was also a neighbor and family friend to the parents of her younger colleague, EE Cummings.  I wonder what either of them may have heard from him about the emotional perception of grammar.

I want only a snippet from Stein, but to give it more context, here in full are the first two lyrics in “Objects” published as the first section of Tender Buttons:


  A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt color and an arrangement in a system to pointing. All this and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling. The difference is spreading.


   Nickel, what is nickel, it is originally rid of a cover.

   The change in that is that red weakens an hour. The change has come. There is no search. But there is, there is that hope and that interpretation and sometime, surely any is unwelcome, sometime there is breath and there will be a sinecure and charming very charming is that clean and cleansing. Certainly glittering is handsome and convincing.

   There is no gratitude in mercy and in medicine. There can be breakages in Japanese. That is no programme. That is no color chosen. It was chosen yesterday, that showed spitting and perhaps washing and polishing. It certainly showed no obligation and perhaps if borrowing is not natural there is some use in giving.

Now, consider first long “sentence” of GLAZED GLITTER with added punctuation and a few suggestions of accent—an interpretation which we need not agree on except as a laboratory experiment.  Please read it out loud a couple of times:

But there ís . . . there is that hope and that interpretátion; and sómetime (surely, any is unwelcome). . . sometime there is bréath.  And there wíll be a sínecure, and charming—véry charming—is that!, cléan and cleansing.

As we grapple for a coherent syntax, it becomes ever more clear how much Stein is oriented to the sound of live conversation with its intonations and interruptions—interruptions often  repaired by repetitions.  I’ve placed three dots for those.  A syntactical interpretation does not eliminate the nonsense.  We see Moody’s category errors.  We don’t know what reference the first “that” might have, though in conversation, “that” as an pronominal adjective often has no definite reference or points ahead to an emphasis still to be explained.  (E.g., “. . .it gives me that special feeling. . .”).  The reference of the underscored parenthesis is utterly confusing.  Indeed, the excerpt as a whole has no topic (recalling Moody’s nonsense type of non-referential pronouns) and is, therefore, nonsensical.  But the passage has melody.  In speaking we modulate tempo and pitch range according to syntactical segmental hierarchies.  As I parsed it, the underscored phrase is likely to be the fastest segment and is likely to center on pitches either higher or lower than the rest.  The syntactical hierarchy I imposed with my added punctuation might be a bit different from one you would find, and my way of intoning it would not be yours.  We needn’t find the same melody, but there is melody.  If Gertrude Stein had more fully punctuated these lines, the melody wouldn’t sing out as much; it would be muted.  The mute is off not so much because we are energized by the sport of finding a way to parse the sentence for ourselves as because notated punctuation readily becomes a substitute for the oral one rather than a sign of it.  That is why I had to ask you to read out loud.

Much of Tender Buttons reads as if the intonational melody had come first and Stein had set nonsense words to it.  Of course many other poetic structures contribute to the melody besides syntax, but leave that for another study.  There is a collection of recordings Stein made in the 30’s at  which are now archived at Penn State and available online (4).  Nothing from Tender Buttons but much other nonsense poetry and prose is there.  Her intonation is not demonstrative at all, rather, the opposite, restrained, with more emphasis on rhythms that at times accelerate to make an excited pulse. The serious sound of urgent communicative intention  is what stands out in these recordings.  Variation of pitch and pace is quite constrained, reflecting I would guess the kind of educated conversational English she grew up with in Pennsylvania.  But still, within her constraint and without exaggeration, syntactic intonations still come through.

At first glance we might take grammar to be problematic again in the next example.  I suggest a different analysis. The  nonsense of E.E. Cummings’s memorial poem for his father hardly problematizes grammar at all in its first quatrain, and later, when the poem does exhibit more radical agrammaticality, it is still not primarily our mental reconstruction of grammar that guides the song.  

my father moved through dooms of love
through sames of am through haves of give,
singing each morning out of each night
my father moved through depths of height  

In the first line (which is also the title), it is surely the force of normal syntactic intonation that sets a frame for the licenses that ensue.  If we follow Moody, we might call these  ‘errors’ categorical nonsense.  Guided by Smartt, we might say prepositional nonsense.  The nonsense can be attributed to lexical choices within a coherent sequence of parts of speech.   If you change the three “of’s” at the ends lines 1, 2, and 4 to be “and”, most of the syntactical nonsense is resolved, with a considerable loss of emotional force. In her instances, prepositional nonsense appears as a form of “situational” nonsense.   Is there not a trace of that in Cumming’s song, mourning his dead father?

“And” would merely join the pairs of opposites side by side.  “Of” suggests some sort of possession or inclusion or interpenetration and encourages us to ascribe emotional range and fluidity to Cumming’s father.  The fourfold repetition of “through X of Y”  with a variation in line three is exemplary of a syntax in which pattern takes over from grammar (Elements, Ch 14) and might be considered  in this case as showing musical syntax taking over from language syntax, so strong are the rhythms and other sound patterns.  Smartt’s explication of prepositional nonsense as involving movement, evident in the quality of these “of’s” makes a further link to music.  The semantic field of music includes motions and flows.  I suggest that a transmutation of language grammar to musical pattern could be a key element in marking the nonsense corpus that both Moody and Smartt highlight in nonsense near death.

Linguistic Nonsense And Music

Moody discusses nonsense syllables and words in magical incantation, in double talk and in nursery rhymes, in doo-wop and in jazz scatting.  In the last three cases, there may be some advantage in simply thinking of the nonsense syllables as percussive music, performed by the human voice and as making musical sense.  He very much enjoys these two nonsense poems:

Hickory dickory dock.

The mouse ran up the clock.

The clock struck one,

The mouse ran down.

Hickory dickory dock.

Fee fi fo fum

I smell the blood of an Englishman

Be he alive or be he dead

I’ll grind his bones to make my bread.

In both, the first line establishes a rhythm and a pace which is maintained throughout.  “Hickory dickory dock” implies triple pulses in a framework of four beats; the fourth beat is silent.  The silence (equivalent to  doubling the length of the third beat) is observed in the first, second and final line.  Lines three and four are two halves of one four-beat group with the fourth beat filled in this one instance.  The whole stanza is a standard musical form, making sense as meter.  Making sense and perhaps we could say lending sense, as the musical impulse carries us through the linguistic nonsense, giving it a certain inevitability.

This kind of logic holds in the second poem, but notice how different the musical feeling is.  “Hickory dickory” bounces, a gig.  “Fee Fi Fo Fum is s heavy march, with  scary sibilants, semi-vowels and duple rhythms and a slower pulse.  The music of the first line permeates the whole stanza with its brutal, funereal tone; indeed the heaviness of tone is so salient that it may partially mask the full equivalence proclaimed in “be he alive or be he dead”.

“There is so much so in  sorrow.”   Smartt refers in a few different contexts to this nonsensical phrase repeated by her own father in his final days.  On the page it is suggestive but  impenetrable.  This is so because “so” has so many grammatical roles in English.  Smart does not describe the intonation.  Yet, she leaves a hint by telling us (without saying how she knows) that in this phrase, “so” replaces a noun.  If so, and it if seemed self-evident to her, then I gather that the word was intoned as accented and probably elongated either by a lengthened vowel or subsequent pause; those intonational traits would mark it as a noun in this context (5).  Stressed and lengthened, the word could readily be mournful, a musical gesture.  Indeed, the whole phrase, compact with alliteration and recurring vowels is a musical pattern.  Here, if my guess is correct, musical sense is not supplementing linguistic sense but replacing it.

Why might music intervene in nonsense?  There could be many reasons including not wanting to say something.  Some nonsense is coded.  It may be more politic to say “Hey diddle diddle. . . the dish ran away with the spoon” than “the maid ran away with the groom.”  I have no general explanation and will spell out just one possibility that seems relevant here.

A fundamental difference between musical sense and language sense derives from the different articulatory principles of the two media.  (Elements, Ch13.)  Although language has its “suprasegmental” structures,  notably the intonation curves we have been attending to, the decisive characteristic of  articulation in language is the principle that it combines distinct and discrete units into distinct and discrete larger groups.  Music, on the other hand, is fundamentally continuous because the end of one unit can be and often is, the beginning of the next.  Basically, distinct words associate with distinct objects, particularly with distinct visible objects.  Visual parsing, like linguistic segmentation, determines distinct objects by preference, as illustrated by the grouping tendencies summarized in Gestalt theory.  Normal visual and linguistic segmentation reinforce each other.  Music finds its readiest objects of reference in movements and flows and waves, in kinesthetic and propioceptive patterns which, like music, are available to continuity.

In the special corpus of nonsense that links Smartt’s and Moody’s studies, the nonsense of the dying, one can find much that suggests a motivation for realignment of articulatory orientation, although there is not enough data to draw conclusions either about the exclusivity of this tendency in difference from other nonsense nor about the prevalence of the tendency within that corpus.  For a poster example that might serve to keep this hypothesis in mind, take the metaphor of death as river travel, frequent metaphors that Smartt and Moody find for dying.  The two traditional spirituals “Michael Row Your Boat Ashore, Hallelujah”  and “One More River to Cross” along with the ancient Greek myth of the River Styx might stand comparison to nonsense travel metaphors from Moody and Smartt.  Whereas as their figures are of a passive movement with no distinct agency as cause and without any distinct or discrete end points—flowing like music, my three counterexamples have beginnings and endings and separate force from agent—like a world segmented as language is.  Crossing a river segments space; floating down the river does not.

More generally, Moody’s NDE nonsense especially highlights discourses that erase a distinction between unity and diversity (‘the one and the many,’ in a more mystical idiom) or that violate our orthogonal dimensions of space and time.  Learning to attribute sensory data to distinct positions on a matrix of three spatial and one temporal dimension is an enormous cognitive task.  Whether abandoning that straight jacket is an advance or a retreat, whether it emerges from an expansion of cognition or a failure of some faculty, that is hardly the task of this essay to ponder.   My only point is that it may have some correspondence to a semiotic reorientation from language, with its obligation of segmentation, to music, with its invitation to continuity.  Of course, my hypothesis would not resolve the nonsense.  Slipping from language to music is still, prima facie, a sort of nonsense even if we discern a motivation.


In her Introduction to Final Words, Lisa Smartt apologizes that she has not controlled in the transcripts for medications that might have an effect on sense.  The apology is not needed.  First, she articulates the issue and quotes another author who has confronted it.  Second, we are still at the stage of sketching a system, and a discourse analysis is not a drug trial.  There is another kind of ‘control’ that would seem to me more pertinent to the project.  Having identified patterns, where else might they occur and if they are found, are they quite the same?  Perhaps in dreams, in folk lore, in particular, documented medical conditions?  (My example of boats in spirituals shows what I’m getting at.)

Both her study and Moody’s invite enrichment by deeper cross-cultural research.

Raymond Moody’s fanfare announces a “logic of nonsense.”  He is echoing Hume’s ironic insistence that afterlife is a concept that can not make sense without a new logic.  I don’t find or miss a new logic; but perhaps I don’t because I don’t know how Moody intends the term.  Given his affiliation with analytic philosophy, I may have assumed too quickly that the contemporary concept of logic, inseparable from mathematics, since Boole and then Russell and Whitehead, would be his reference.  Such logics deal with the interdependency or mutual exclusion of statements.  Older logics are also concerned with the meanings of words.  If the latter, he can think of his system of classification and his observations of structure as a logic.  

The rational principles of nonsense that this book developed can be roughly characterized as a new kind of logic, (p172.)

I wonder what other classifications might be possible.  His own is absolutely splendid for displaying the pervasiveness and variety of nonsense.  With few exceptions, (such as his formulation of requirements for magic nonsense words) his classification has not yielded much in correlations of structure and function and context—perhaps the gold standard for a logic.  (Smartt’s “prepositional nonsense” scores pretty well by this test.)  I don’t have a better idea and have no way to know what can be accomplished.  

All of us with a certain claim to post-mature status should applaud what I understand to be a late-career synthesis by Moody of two long-standing but fairly separate interests, NDEs and nonsense.  I have heard him advance the hypothesis that an individual who has studied nonsense analytically and then undergone a near-death experience might be able to report on it more coherently.  In his very helpful Preface to the French edition, Jean Staune suggests that an analysis of nonsense could furnish a Rosetta stone for our understanding of mystical language such as that in NDE accounts.  I am drawn in an opposite direction which I think Moody, Smartt and others are  actually pursuing if not programmatically.  That is simply to decide—at least as a heuristic—that NDE reports and final words are not nonsense.  This means to recognize that they communicate, as well as linguistic abilities permit, a real experience and to figure out the  situation, the perspective, relative to which they are intelligible literally or metaphorically.  Perhaps that would be  a problem requiring more metaphysics and phenomenology than semiotics, but it doesn’t put us out of work.

What Moody proves is that there is a lot of nonsense out there for us to study and that it can be studied rationally.  Further semiotics attention to it will surely reap rewards.

(1) A Primer for the Gradual Understanding of Gertrude Stein, ed. Robert Bartlett Haas p18 (Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press, 1971) cited by Joshua Schuster in “The Making of Tender Buttons.” accessed July 17, 2017

(2) Elements of Semiotics.  1999.  St. Martins, NY;  2nd Edition, digital, scheduled Summer 2017.  See

(3) These topics are in two short chapters ommitted in the French edition.


(5) Compare: “There is so much sált in salsa” “There is so much so paínful in sorrow”

David Lidov, a composer, a founding member, now emeritus, of the Department of Music at York University in Toronto, writes on general and musical semiotics.  Publications include Is Language a Music? (2004, Indiana University Press) and his general theory, Elements of Semiotics (1999, St. Martin’s Press) to be released in a new digital edition this summer at

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