“If mamma, sir, sold the baby
To a gypsy for half a crown;
If a gentleman, sir, was a lady,—
The world would be upside-down!”
William Brighty Rands, “Topsyturvy-World” (1864)
Preposterous is a Latinate euphemism for the state of affairs that a rough-hewn vulgarian describes as ass-backwards. It means the posterior precedes that which properly precedes the posterior, and thus the backend is where the frontside ought to be. Persons who shy from both Latinate euphemisms and rough-hewn vulgarity say the cart has been put before the horse. Persons who prefer vertical imagery say things are upside down, or topsy-turvy.
Terve is a word from Middle English that means to roll, flip, or turn. In the middle of the fifteenth century the chronicler John Hardyng gave this commendation to legendary king King Heli of the ancient Britons.
“The law and peace he kept, and conserved,
Which him upheld, that he was never over terved.”*
There is political wisdom in this couplet. If you are on top and want to stay there, you had best not terve the laws or the peace of your land. Topsy-turvy is contagious, so before you know it, you may find yourself sitting at the the bottom of a topsy-turvy world.
I must note that Christianity is, in the eyes of the world, a preposterous, ass-backwards, upside down, and topsy-turvy creed. Consider all of its talk about the first being last and the last being first. But then there is this to suggest that nearly everything humans do looks preposterous and ass-backwards to someone:
“For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God”**
Because we live in a topsy-turvy world where those who will be last are presently first, and where folly gloats on Wisdom’s throne, the New Creation will have to be its own sort of topsy-turvy world. Or perhaps this Great Restoration is better described as turvy-topsy. This line is from a very old poem called “Dispute Between Mary and the Cross,” and it describes how the world will one day be (unlike King Heli) “over terved.”
“Þe riȝt schal ryse to ryche reynygne
Truyt and treget to helle schal terve”
This translates as “the right shall rise to the throne and reign; wrong shall to Hell be overthrown.”
* * * * *
“For it’s all in some language I don’t know,” she said to herself. She puzzled over this for some time, but at last a bright thought struck her. “Why, it’s a Looking-Glass book, of course! And if I hold it up to a glass the words will all go the right way again.”
Readers who know the story of Alice Through the Looking Glass will recall that, when this book was held to the glass, the words did go the right way again. But this correction revealed that the problem with the poem “Jabberwocky” ran deeper than words.
“It seems very pretty,” she said when she had finished it, “but it’s rather hard to understand!” (You see, she didn’t like to confess, even to herself, that she couldn’t make it out at all.) “Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas—only I don’t exactly know what they are!”
Behind everything preposterous, ass-backwards, upside down and topsy-turvy, there is, in other words, a deeper nonsense. Or perhaps I should say an elemental madness. And this is the lesson Alice should have learned rather than setting down that backwards book and running deeper into Looking-Glass World.
Deeper nonsense beguiles! Elemental madness fascinates! It fills your head with ideas, but you do not know exactly what they are.
“When you say ‘hill,’ the Queen interrupted, “I could show you hills in comparison with which you’d call that a valley.”
“No, I shouldn’t,” said Alice, surprised at contradicting her at last; “a hill can’t be a valley, you know. That would be nonsense—”
“You may call it ‘nonsense’ if you like,” she said, “but I’ve heard nonsense compared with which that would be as sensible as a dictionary.”
Haven’t we all, sister, haven’t we all.
* * * * *
“Quœ fuerant vitia mores sunt.”
(“What once were vices are now the fashionable manners of the day.”)
So wrote the statesman Seneca around A.D. 50, as the Roman Empire went through the looking glass into Topsyturvy-World. Nearly two thousand years later, Friedrich Nietzsche called this sort of moral inversion a “transvaluation of values,” which is a preposterous locution when you think about it. Although I am not sure you should think about it, since, behind everything preposterous, ass-backwards, upside down and topsy-turvy, there is a deeper nonsense—an elemental madness
And deeper nonsense beguiles. Elemental madness fascinates. It fills your head with ideas, but you do not know exactly what they are.
* * * * *
“‘O Looking-Glass creatures,’ quoth Alice, ‘draw near!’
’Tis an honor to see me, a favor to hear;
’Tis a privilege high to have dinner and tea
Along with the Red Queen, the White Queen, and me!”
*) John Hardyng, Chronicle of England, chap 12 (c. 1450).
**) 1 Corinthians 3:19