Making Sense of Nonsense



This summer I had the good fortune to attend a session of the New York Center for Jungian Studies’ elegant annual production, Jung on the Hudson. The subject of my seminar was Sense and Nonsense, a subject that has fascinated me since I first heard the word “nonsense” as a little girl. “Nonsense” promised other worlds and different ways of being. It never failed to deliver. Following “nonsense” I discovered Wonderland, the hundred Acre Wood, Toad Hall and Mrs. Pigledy Wiggle’s upside down house. For a while they became my true home. They still occupy a corner of my heart and every time I write I find traces of their influence in my words. I think the importance of “ nonsense” needs a bit more attention. In my case, it provided great relief from the never-ending struggle to make sense of the adult world.

Children are hit from the moment they are born with an incredible barrage of sensation – smells, colors, pitches, tones and textures appear at an alarming rate. The task of sorting, crowdestablishing contexts and learning to recognize patterns is further compounded by the addition of language and the incomprehensible emotional demands of their parents.  This chaos is presented to them a “real,” “sensible” and “normal.”

alice Nonsense provides a little breathing space. It actually reflects the chaotic nature of their lives in which inexplicable things are the norm. But those fictional worlds have boundaries and internal logic, and everything comes out all right in the end. The nonsense worlds are safe.


The seminar has had me thinking about sense and nonsense for months now. I hoped to figure out in the seminar why the subject seemed so important to me, but though the speakers were interesting and erudite, I didn’t figure it out until now.

Sense has several meanings. First and foremost it has to do with our physical sense organs sensesbut it also has to do with rationality and intention. It is a word of conveyance in that it connotes an impression or awareness of something. Finally, particularly when paired with the word “good,” it stands for “sound mental capacity and understanding typically marked by shrewdness and practicality.”

 It seems that sense is all about what is real and rationale. Nonsense would be the opposite – silly, illogical, irreverent and irrelevant.

But, in fact, it turns out that most people, much of the time do not think sensibly or rationally. They make decisions based on misconceptions, false assumptions and innuendo. Most of all they act and make decisions on the emotion they are experiencing.

As we know those emotions are powerful and complex.face masks They link back through an intricate pattern of other decisions to strong emotions in the past. They connect us directly to chaotic impressions formed in early childhood when we made life-long decisions about the way of the world based on very little information. Furthermore, these emotions are chemically based and, once triggered, persist in the body for hours, skewing our thoughts and controlling our minds.

In fact, most of us make many nonsensical decisions about sex, money, religion and politics (all the stuff we aren’t supposed to talk about). The child escapes to the nonsense world, which holds topsy-turvy lessons in which he can understand and delight, from the totally confusing “sensible” world that holds stress inducing mixed-messages she is unable to decipher.

Sense has another other, more arcane, meaning. In mathematics, it means one of two clockwise counteropposite directions in which a vector (especially of motion) may point or one of two opposite directions of rotation, clockwise versus anti-clockwise.

Here sense becomes nonsense, pointing in the opposite direction of where one wants to go, exactly as happened to Alice when she wanted to get into the garden and had to walk away from it in order to enter.

In other words, the study of nonsense is important because it allows us an opportunity to make sense of our nonsensical actions. It opens a window on reality we cannot afford to overlook.

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