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Thursday, February 04, 2010

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

We find Alice tired and bored. Sitting on the bank on a hot day, she wants nothing to do with her sister’s book; it has no pictures or conversations, no images or dialog. The day is static and still, conventional and dull.

Then it’s down the rabbit hole and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland begin. In the next Alice book, Through the Looking Glass, it is the mirror that acts a portal, transporting Alice to another world: a world of imagination, creativity, excitement, and absurdity.

Lewis Carroll wrote his first Alice novel, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (or Adventures for short) in 1865. The second, Through the Looking Glass (or Looking Glass) followed seven years later. The books were highly popular from the very beginning. Lewis Carroll, of course, was only his pen name. (A writer of nonsense fairy tales ought never to take his real name.) The tales of Alice that he writes are funny, entertaining, and charming.

The novels can be read just for the fun of it, with no strings attached. This is one of few great novels that one can just sit back and enjoy, without feeling the need to explore “the deeper” mysteries and darkness of human existence. And yet on the other hand, these texts are not without substance. After all, Carroll was a professor of mathematics and logic and Oxford. The substance of these texts, and any potential lessons they can teach, emerge through their playfulness. Not merely that play itself is valuable, but that the context of triviality can serve as fertile ground for reflection. Perhaps this itself is one of the most profound lessons of reading these novels, especially in politically polarized societies.

So, I want to proceed in a playful manner. These novels open us to imagination and absurdity in a way that can prove quite enlightening.

“Oh dear, what nonsense I’m talking!”

The adventures of Alice play with absurdity. The novels seek to loosen the edges, allowing us to be surprised and delighted. The text continually surprises us, constantly playing off of our expectations for things to be a certain way. All dialog and interaction that Alice encounters in Wonderland inverts our conventional sense of how things should be; but it does so in a way that allows us to imagine a new possibility, if only for a brief moment. Only for a brief moment, because the text wants to shake us up in a playful way, without taking itself too seriously.

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know that I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”

When dialoging with the Cheshire Cat, Alice asks for a reason, for some rationality to explain why the Cat believes that Alice is insane. The Cat provides a reason, but it isn’t quite convincing: “You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”

Many of the characters in Wonderland abide by their own rules, by their own set of standards. The Duchess states that, “Every thing’s got a moral, if only you can find it.” But each of the dogmas of the characters is so bizarre and so unlike any other standard that the result often becomes chaotic, exasperating, and certainly quite hilarious!

Taken as a collective whole, Alice’s experiences with the creatures calls into question the point of conventionality, of fixed and rigid systems of thinking and language. At every turn, a bizarre comment or inquiry upsets another axiom.

“Better say nothing at all. Language is worth a thousand pounds a word!” (Looking Glass)

Does language master us? Or is it the means of mastering our world? A means of mastering others?

Alice always tries. She often follows out the reasoning of the characters she meets, seeking to match wits with them. In this way, Alice can come to represent conventionality. Humpty Dumpty says as much to Alice: “You’re so exactly like other people.” (Looking Glass)

Alice presses. Language, it seems, stretches us. It stretches the creatures to the full extent of their absurdity. It stretches Alice out of her conventionality. Wonderland is not the place of books with no pictures or conversations. In Wonderland, words come alive. They do something that creates excitement and new ways of seeing the world.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

Alice asks the question of morality: who has the right to change words and make them mean such different things. Humpty Dumpty changes the question. It isn’t about what we can do, it isn’t about who has the right to change words. This misses the point. Using language is a creative process. It is about asserting one’s self.

Wonderland upsets the dogmatic world of books without pictures or conversations, and to do so it stretches language in all sorts of bizarre directions. “All events in the Alice books thus feel like non sequiturs.” (“Introduction” by Tan Lin in 2003 edition) As absurd as they are, these non sequiturs are the linguistic agents that help Alice to break out of the dullness of normality.

The non sequitur is “that which does not follow.” A non sequitur works in a way that is opposite the cliché. Clichés are trite and boring, they operate only to advance the narrative to the next sequence. Clichés are dull and lifeless. Non sequiturs, on the other hand, make us think differently. They shake things up.

Clichés are easy, and they are familiar. Because of their familiarity, they are not questioned. The reader goes through them and onto something else. The non sequitur is unfamiliar and strange. It is absurd. And as such, we have to stop. In the Alice books, they are devices to make us laugh and to question our assumptions. Clichés lock us into convention, while a non sequitur can help us break out of routine and think in imaginative and creative ways.

In the first Alice novel, the Queen inverts the typical order of the courtroom and makes the absurd assertion, “sentence first—verdict afterwards.” A similar circumstance occurs in Looking Glass, where the criminal is to be punished prior to the crime. “The crime comes last of all.”

“It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards,” the Queen remarked.
“What sort of things do you remember best?” Alice ventured to ask.
“Oh, things that happen the week after next,” the queen replied in a careless tone. “For instance, now,” she went on, sticking a large piece of plaster on her finger as she spoke, “there’s the King’s Messenger. He’s in prison now, being punished: and the trial doesn’t even begin till next Wednesday: and of course the crime comes last of all.”
“Suppose he never commits the crime?” said Alice.
“That would be all the better wouldn’t it?” the Queen said…
Alice felt there was no denying that. “Of course it would be all the better,” she said: “but it wouldn’t be all the better his being punished.”

Language becomes a tool for the imagination. It refuses to settle the matter; rather, it suggests strange possibilities….even impossibilities, which paradoxically can become possible if we only try hard enough. Imagination and creative language can make the impossible seem possible.

“I can’t believe that!” said Alice.
“Can’t you?” the Queen said in a pitying tone. “Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.”
Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said: “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

Chasing after the wind

It is the white rabbit that stirs Alice out of her boredom on that hot day by the bank. So, Alice chases after the white rabbit. But the white rabbit is chasing after someone else: “The Duchess! The Duchess! Oh my dear paws! Oh my fur and whiskers! She’ll get me executed, as sure as ferrets are ferrets!” When Alice meets the Duchess, we find that the Duchess must hurry off to play croquet with the Queen. The Queen, for her part, cannot execute her subjects fast enough: “Off with his head!” And her subjects, of course, are always anxious to avoid being the object of a beheading.

The constant motion is a circle of pursuit. We find deep meaning in the motion, in the chasing, but it all has a certain futility to it. Ah, but not futility in the sense of a brooding existentialist. This is a futility with a sense of humor. The Alice novels illustrate that the futility of our motion may be worthwhile, even in the midst of its triviality and absurdity; indeed, they are important because they are silly.

“Alice’s conversations, when they don’t end unsatisfactorily in silence, tend to go in a circle.” (Tan Lin)

In the West, we tend to live in a linear world. This is particularly true in our modern world, especially in the U.S. If our economy is not growing, then we are panicked. We must always be making progress, moving forward, ad infinitum. To truly appreciate and appropriate the circularity of the Alice novels, we must change the paradigm and realize that circularity, however absurd, allows us to center and enjoy.

The circularity means that we are circling around something in order to appreciate it. This circularity of the novel gives the text a certain lightness, a lightness that is also a spiritual and psychological virtue that is rare in a linear world obsessed with progress.

Our desire to go somewhere is parodied in Alice’s dialog with the Cheshire Cat in Adventures:

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where—” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
“—so long as I get somewhere,” Alice added as an explanation.

In Looking Glass, Alice suddenly finds herself in a shop. An old sheep is keeping shop. There are many wonderful items to purchase, but Alice cannot actually find any of them. As soon as she tries to fix her eyes on an item, she finds that it shifts or fades away, and when she is able to fully focus her eyes on the shelf, the shelf is empty. But she can see that there are items on the shelves above and below, so she tries to fix her gaze on another shelf to see these items, but she finds that they also vanish.

The shop seemed to be full of all manner of curious things—but the oddest part of it all was, that whenever she looked hard at any shelf, to make out exactly what it had on it, that particular shelf was always quite empty: though the others round it were crowded as full as they could hold.

The Sheep’s shop illustrates that economic desires are always shifting and changing, like the shop that the Sheep is tending. As we read in Ecclesiastes, “The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing.” And again, “Better is the sight of the eyes than the wandering of the desire: this is also vanity...” Desire is that which we see, not with our eyes but with our desire. As such, the object of desire can never fully be brought into focus, and whatever shelf we fix our desire turns up empty.

“Quests for mastery are continually frustrated in the Alice books.” (Tan Lin) Mastery bows to absurdity. The true mastery comes from giving up mastery, from being able to laugh at ourselves and cultivate a lightness of spirit and a sense of humor.

Alice sighed and gave it up. “It’s exactly like a riddle with no answer!” she thought.


Melody said...

A few years back I was looking for a copy of this book and all I could find were abridged versions.

Re-reading it I thought, "Goodness! What did they take out?!" They're a short couple of books.

I also realized that my (and I think most people's) favorite parts are actually in the Looking Glass book.

In the first book Alice seems a bit...air-headed. In the second, I thought, she was a little more on top of things.

Of course she's a small child in the book and while many writers act if a 7 year old could be the I Ching, Carroll doesn't. Alice acts young.

I have to restart my computer...more later.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Perhaps they were abridged for children???

aeyn edwards said...

I did not re-read Through the Looking Glass, as I thought only Alice's Adventures in Wonderland was on the booklist.

I don't know about this abridged business... I've always been lucky enough to read the full Adventures.

A thought to consider: is it possible that Carroll (Dodgson) really was pointing out the arbitrariness, randomness, and seeming absurdities of his own world? I think it is. It has always struck me that this book is written directly for children, to encourage them to ask questions, stand up to the seemingly "stodgy" adult culture that asks ladies to curtsy, men to bow, us to learn to be "civilized" by reciting strange poems that don't seem to make sense, and so on.

I have always loved that about this book! Alice tells various creatures that they aren't making any sense, she questions authority, she walks away when she is bored/tired/annoyed, she asks questions, she tries things, investigates the world around her, pursues her desires (to get to the garden), and so on.

To me, the absurdity in which the Wonderland seems to exist just seems like a mirrored reflection of Carroll's (or, some Eastern culture, or our own) dominant set of social norms that are, ultimately, in dominance because of series of random and seemingly strange events. Most of what I do, in the name of social norms, honour, virtue, propriety, or whatnot... all stem from random cultural absurdities that some how continue to perpetuate themselves. And that's okay!

But, for me, ONE of the joys of this text is that it says... hey, all of it is silly! All of it is absurd. None of it makes any REAL sense. "Vanity of Vanities. All is Vanity."

And now, let's go have some tea!

(more to come in the next day or two.)

Thanks for the book readings, Jon and Co. -smile from the grand sonoran desert-

Jonathan Erdman said...

It has always struck me that this book is written directly for children, to encourage them to ask questions, stand up to the seemingly "stodgy" adult culture that asks ladies to curtsy, men to bow, us to learn to be "civilized" by reciting strange poems that don't seem to make sense, and so on.


You should see the film Phoebe in Wonderland. In it, the protagonist is a little girl who must confront the world of rules and social norms. The film really focuses a girl who doesn't fit, isn't understood, gets pushed into corners by adults who don't understand her, and seems to find release when she goes to "Wonderland," places where she can be creative and imaginative. Phoebe in Wonderland is a great film, but it is an interpretation of Carroll's Alice novels that takes its starting point directly from your above comment.

You must watch it and report back! (Tamie and I started the film just a couple nights ago and will be finishing it as soon as we can!)

-smiling back at the grand sonoran desert-

aeyn edwards said...

Jon! I'll rent it this week. Thanks for the suggestion.