Archive for July 24th, 2018

Down the rabbit hole, through the looking glass

I can’t honestly remember whether I have read Lewis Carroll’s Alice novels before. I think I may have read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland when I was about ten or so, but I have never returned to it: it wasn’t among my childhood favourites, as were, say, Treasure Island or The Hound of the Baskervilles. And Through the Looking Glass, I don’t think I have read at all. But these are books one thinks one has read, even when one hasn’t. One recognises the scenes and characters – the Cheshire Cat whose grin remains after it has disappeared; the Mad Hatter’s tea party; Humpty Dumpty explaining the meaning of “portmanteau words”; and so on: these are all iconic. The poems – “Jabberwocky”, “The White Knight’s Song” – are standards in just about every anthology of English verse, and rightly so. One even recognises the allusions: when Eliot writes of “the door we never opened into the rose garden”, it is inevitably Lewis Carroll who comes to mind. (Well, my mid, at least.) When so much about these books is so well known, we frankly can’t help wondering whether they need to be read at all.

Well, in the recent heat, with the mind too hot and bothered to be focussing on books that stretch the brain further than it is willing to be stretched these days, I thought I’d give them a try. And I am glad I did. They did not surprise: I found them every bit as charming, as funny, and as delightful as their reputation would suggest. I was surprised also at the depiction of Alice herself: stereotypes might suggest that a seven-year-old girl, intended to be delightful in English novels written in the 1860s and 70s, would be sweet, gentle, well-mannered, and respectful of her elders and betters; but Carroll presents instead a girl with a mind very much of her own, who is capable of losing her temper, who can at times be obstinate, who has not always paid the greatest of attention to her lessons, and who is prepared to talk back … in brief, a girl well short of the standards of what a Good Well-Behaved Girl should be. And best of all, while she finds what she sees distinctly odd, she never seems unduly put out by anything: she takes it all within her confident stride.

And yes, it is very funny. At least, I laughed a lot. Carroll was himself a mathematician, and well versed, presumably, in the rules of logic, and the ingenuity with which logic is constantly turned on its head is delightful. When the Red Queen speaks of having seen hills “compared to which that is a valley”, we know there is something not quite rational about this, but it is not entirely easy to explain where precisely the absurdity lies.

Carroll touches on a great many philosophical conundrums, but he is careful always to remain playful: never is the narrative in any danger of becoming heavy-handed. For, whatever delight an adult reader may take in these books, they are written for children, and Carroll never forgets this. But can a descriptive feature of a subject exist independently of the subject itself? The Cheshire Cat’s grin remains for a while when the Cat itself has gone, and the fact of a grin, Carroll insists, remains meaningful even in the absence of the grinner. In Through a Looking Glass, Alice at one point wanders into a wood in which she forgets the name of things – including her own name. And with this forgetting of names, she forgets what everything is – her own self included. Does existence itself depend upon our ability to identify, and to classify?

And so on. I am sure those versed in philosophy would have a whale of a time identifying all those allusions to various philosophical problems. But those of us who, like myself, are not versed in these matters, can still find themselves intrigued by the subtle questions implicit in all the absurdity and the nonsense. And never for a moment does Carroll lose his lightness of touch: these books are primarily intended for children, and whatever delight generations of adults may have taken in them, it is by its ability to delight children that they stand or fall.

Like every great comic writer, Carroll has a fine ear for the rhythms of language. A stand-up comedian can get laughs with the timing, but in writing, the timing is more up to the reader than the writer: what a comic writer must have is mastery over the rhythms of prose. All great comic writers – Austen, Dickens, Wodehouse – had this mastery, and Carroll certainly does not disappoint. For instance:

`Once upon a time there were three little sisters,’ the Dormouse began in a great hurry; `and their names were Elsie, Lacie, and Tillie; and they lived at the bottom of a well–‘

`What did they live on?’ said Alice, who always took a great interest in questions of eating and drinking.

`They lived on treacle,’ said the Dormouse, after thinking a minute or two.

`They couldn’t have done that, you know,’ Alice gently remarked; `they’d have been ill.’

`So they were,’ said the Dormouse; `very ill.’

Now, there’s nothing particularly comic about the content of that: three sisters live down a well, they eat only treacle, and are very ill: not, frankly, the greatest flight of comic fancy. But Carroll’s phrasing is so perfect, his ear for the rhythm of the language so sharp, that he gets a laugh even where, one might have thought, there isn’t one.

Throughout these books, we are challenged to interpret, but even to make the attempt is folly. Carroll’s primary interest seems to me language, and what it signifies. There are games with language throughout. Words are signifiers: they exist as labels for things that are not words. A “chair” is, after all, simply a monosyllabic sound, consisting of five letters when written: but we use this sound to signify the piece of furniture we sit on. The word itself is a symbol for something other than itself, and we are happy with this kind of symbolism, because it works, and serves our purpose. But Carroll was neither the first nor the last to detect something slippery about words, and, throughout, he exploits this slippery quality, forcing words to signify all kinds of unexpected things. In the famous virtuoso poem “Jabberwocky”, he uses nonsense words – word that are utter gibberish – to tell a story that we can nonetheless understand.

Humpty Dumpty knows all about words: he explains at one point the various possible meanings of the word “impenetrability”, and when Alice comments “That’s a great deal to make one word mean”, the words suddenly become real entities in themselves:

“When I make a word do a lot of work like that,” said Humpty Dumpty, “I pay it extra.”

And soon, he is describing words coming round to him on Saturday night to get paid.

He then proceeds to interpret the opening lines of the poem “Jabberwocky”, and it makes sense … of sorts. And that in itself is worrying …

I am not sure why it took me so long to get round to reading these iconic books (if, indeed, I haven’t read them before: I can’t quite remember), but it was a sheer pleasure. And part of the pleasure too were John Tenniel’s illustrations: others have illustrated these books since, and often very well, but none has superseded Tenniel.

Possibly, Carroll runs out of steam a bit towards the end of Through the Looking Glass: the chapter about the Lion and the Unicorn isn’t among the most memorable, and while the White Knight’s Song is a masterpiece, the running gag about the White Knight constantly falling off his horse seems a bit forced and uninspired given the brilliant flights of comic fantasy in the rest of this work. But it’s wrong to cavil. These two books deserve all the praise that has been heaped on them over the years.