Ten years ago (it shocks me that it was really that long!) Telstra had a very clever little advertisement that they used to use to plug their burgeoning broadband service. The ad featured a little boy in the back of the car completing his homework.
“Dad?” he asked his father. “Why did they build the Great Wall of China?”
The father at the wheel, visibly panicking, refuses to appear ignorant in front of his son.
“Oh. That was during the time of...errr… Emperor Nasi Goreng, and it was to keep the rabbits out.”
The boy happily records the answer in his book, and we are treated to a close up shot of him in front of the classroom, ready to give his report on China. He is, we realise, about to make an utter fool of himself. The message of the commercial is simple: take the pressure off yourself and get the internet, because the internet has the right answers. Making things up is bad.
I for one lament this obsession with empirical facts. When I was in high school I memorised Lewis Carroll’s fabulous poem, “Jabberwocky,” and it is one of the few things I can still remember with great clarity. Like Alice, I knew roughly what the poem was about, though not specifically what time “brillig” was, or what it meant to “gimble,” or even what a “jabberwocky” might look like (though plenty of films have come along and tried to fill my mind with their own versions of it now). Could you even write a book like Alice in Wonderland now and get it published? Would anyone even think to? Writers from Seuss to Shakespeare have gleefully made up words with abandon, yet I’ve been prone to argue over whether something is a “real” word before I accept it’s usage. And what is a “real” word, anyway? It seems to me that sometimes nonsense can be better than believability, because nonsense opens up our imagination. It leaves blank spaces for our minds to feel with beautiful images. In nonsense, we can dream.
I have had wonderful eccentric teachers who have convinced their students that they are the grandchild of Tutankhamun discoverer Howard Carter, or a witch who would love to take her young friends for a ride on her broomstick, if only they would wake when she visits them in the night! (They are always so disappointed.) Most of us have grown up with grandparents who enthralled us with stories that stretched our disbelief to its very limits. But didn’t we love them just the same? Didn’t we love silliness? Didn’t we want to believe, even if we knew in our hearts that it couldn’t be true?
So call this, if you will, in praise of nonsense. A call to nonsense. Let us make up words and tell far-fetched stories. Let us tell of the trees that spoke to us and told us their secrets, and the quenzifinas and the tantalopians that can sometimes be spotted racing like shooting stars in the shadows of the moon. Let us - just for the hell of it - imagine what might have happened if an emperor called Nasi Goreng built an enormous fence in China to keep the rabbits out.
In the modern world, the truth is easier to find than ever. Just for a moment, let’s embrace the wonder of a well told lie.