‘Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις, not ποίησις. The rules of the IMAGINATION are themselves the very powers of growth and production. The words to which they are reducible, present only the outlines and external appearance of the fruit. A deceptive counterfeit of the superficial form and colours may be elaborated; but the marble peach feels cold and heavy, and children only put it to their mouths.’ [Coleridge, Biographia ch. 18]

‘ποίησις’ (poiēsis) means ‘a making, a creation, a production’ and is used of poetry in Aristotle and Plato. ‘μóρφωσις’ (morphōsis) in essence means the same thing: ‘a shaping, a bringing into shape.’ But Coleridge has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the KJV translates as ‘form’: ‘An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form [μóρφωσις] of knowledge and of the truth in the law’ [Romans 2:20]; ‘Having a form [μóρφωσις] of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away’ [2 Timothy 3:5]. I trust that's clear.

There is much more on Coleridge at my other, Coleridgean blog.

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Further Thoughts on Alice


Further, that is, to these old posts:

1. Through the Looking-Glass and What Apuleius Found There.

2. Up With The Smoke And How Alice Flew; or, How I'd Like To Write A New Alice Book.

3. Animals in Wonderland.

It is surprisingly hard, with a book one has loved and read since early childhood, to find a way of coming back to it with fresh eyes. A problem for any critic, really. At any rate, recently I've been re-reading, and trying to re-think, Wonderland and Looking-Glass (mostly Wonderland, actually) and this post is by way of logging the resultant jottings. It's in three slightly disconnected parts, in honour of the fairy-tale rule of three. Or, something. Life, what is it, but a dream?


:1. Logic:

I tried re-reading Alice in Wonderland straight through with as few preconceptions as possible. Not easy (the parking of preconceptions, I mean: the read through was very easy, and a delight as ever). If I notate my reactions here in a rather disconnected manner, that's in part because the surface of the novel is itself so gloriously disconnected. The plot hops from place to place, domestic animals to fantastic beasts, Alice herself abruptly grows bigger and smaller: all this is the point of the novel, in one sense, and Carroll's success is in rendering all these dislocations in a beguiling, flowing manner. Wonderland is never herky-jerky, the progression feels in some sense logical, even if the logic informing it is not that of, and indeed sets itself playfully in opposition to, the logic of rationality and science. It is a dream-logic, as many commentators argue, which is to say, a surrealogic.

Invoking 'dream logic' makes it look as though I intend to proceed immediately to Freud, without passing Go, but, appropriately perhaps, I'm going to tack against the Freudian sea-breeze for a little first. Because Freudian dream-logic is a logic of content and coherence, like mathematical or scientific logic. It's just that the location of that content is downshifted into the murky realms of the subconscious. Your random accretion of successive dream images is meaningful, Freud says, once you apply the tiny golden key of whichever unconscious anxiety or desire is secretly motivating it. The Alice books aren't like that, I think. They cannot be satisfactorily decoded as being 'really' about sexual desire, or the anxieties of growing up, or whatnot.

That's not to say that the novels' accretion of successive dreamlike episodes is random. I don't think it is. But I wonder if the 'sense' underlying the playful nonsense of the books is formal, rather than being an affective content like 'desire' or 'anxiety'. In Looking-Glass, indeed, this formal logic is spelled out very clearly: all the weird 'surface' aspects of the story are the superstructure of a chess game. That novel, in a sense, asks the question: 'what would it be like, to experience a game of chess as one of the pieces?' and answers: 'it would be reverse-mimetic, as through a glass fantastically.' The novel is not wholly estranged from mimesis, and in many ways is closely representative of the quotidiana of later nineteenth-century bourgeois life; but all those elements are, of course, subject to a glorious fantastical shift. The story of the novel is about a series of transitions from stages to stages, and all those transitions in Looking-Glass are determined by a small number of chess-derived transitions: primarily the notion of travel as something punctuated by a series of discrete borderlines where things swap from one mode (black, say) to its opposite (white); but also things like relationships between people as fundamentally antagonistic, individuals as agents in a vertiginously hierarchical network, a chain-of-being stretching from pawn to Queen. That the novel is troped as a game works both to reinforce this in-story conceit and also to justify the fundamental point of the whole enterprise: that it is playful.

In Wonderland the equivalent pastime to Looking-Glass's chess-game is the game of cards, but playing cards are not a structural element of the story in the same way. For one thing, the cards don't appear until quite late on: in chapter 8, out of 12. For another, no actual game appears to be being played with them. Rather, the cards themselves are agents, not patients, when it comes to game-playing, for it is they who play croquet (for instance) rather than being played with or upon.



Still, there is a structural principle underlying the elegant dislocation of Wonderland's surface plot, I think. It's just not as obvious as Looking-Glass's chess game. I might thumbnail this as 'inversion', if that didn't sound vague. I think Carroll was being particular in this, though.

So: one of the constants of Alice's adventures through Wonderland is that she keeps changing size, bigger and smaller. Until the very end of the book (when she starts spontaneously growing in the courtroom) these alterations in size are always provoked by ingesting food or drink. So: one the one hand this is a very canny point-of-entry into the world of the child. This is because children (pre-pubescent and not sexual in the adult sense of the world) cathect much of their libido into the pleasures of eating and drinking, especially eating and drinking sweet and delicious things. This is something the best Children's Literature understands very well, from Lucy relishing Mr Tumnus's high tea in Narnia through Charlie cavorting through the chocolate factory and the Very Hungry Caterpillar. I'm not saying anything terribly original when I add that Carroll's version of eating and drinking is oriented both inward as desire (the pleasure a child has in eating something) and outward as anxiety (the fear a child has of being eaten), externalised in Wonderland as encounters with a series of predator animals: cats, dogs, lions, gryphons, little dogs called 'Fury' who eat mice, panthers who eat owls and so on. It is on precisely this topic that Alice's otherwise impeccable etiquette blunders: she is forever scaring mice by telling them of how her pet cat, at home, likes to devour rodents, or terrifying birds by blithely announcing how much she enjoys eating eggs, or having to bite her tongue in conversation with a Gryphon ('"Perhaps you were never even introduced to a lobster—" Alice began to say "I once tasted—" but checked herself hastily' [10]). Freud has a thing or two to say about the reasons for such 'slips'.

That's not my main point though, here. I'd suggest that we can see a formal sense behind the surface nonsense of these comestible-provoked alterations in size. In chapter 1 she discovers 'a little bottle' on the label of which are 'the words "DRINK ME"' which shrinks her down and 'a very small cake, on which the words "EAT ME" were beautifully marked in currants'. So the liquid makes her smaller and solid makes her larger. In chapter 4 the reverse happens: this time it is drinking (from 'the little bottle that stood near the looking-glass') that makes Alice grow very large, where eating the little cakes she finds on the floor makes her shrink. In chapter 5 growing and shrinking are amalgamated to the same cause, as getting big or small is occasioned by eating one or other side of a giant mushroom. In chapter 6 it is the ideas of 'drink' and 'food' that are amalgamated, as the Duchess's peppery soup (a drink and a meal!) leads, via a process not spelled-out, to a different sort of metamorphosis, and the Duchess's boy-baby (inedible) turns into a pig (very tasty!).

What's clear from this, I think, is that Carroll is orchestrating the events of the novel according to a particular pattern. Having established a fantasy premise, whereby drinking something makes you small and eating something makes you big, he first inverts it, then combines the cause, then inverts the combination. This takes us to the novel's halfway point, and the Hatters tea-party. Here 'tea' figures almost as a conceptual pun; since tea is both a hot liquid which people drink and the term for an afternoon meal where people consume solids (cakes, scones, toast and so on). It is fitting that this tea-party is construed as a never-ending process and that it is wrapped-up not with any kind of closure but with Alice transitioning to the Queen of Heart's palace. Here key players from the novel's first half reappear in reverse order. So in chapter 6 we meet the Duchess and then the Cheshire cat, in chapters 8 and 9 we meet the Cheshire cat and then the Duchess. The order of food in the first half is: drink, cake, soup, in the second it is soup ('Soo—oop of the e—e—evening/Beautiful, beautiful Soup!' [11]), then cake—well, tarts—and finally, well, waking up beside the river.

There are, of course, many many instances of curiosa and comedic moments fashioned out of inversion, combination and the reversal of the previous elements in this book.
"That's very important," the King said, turning to the jury. They were just beginning to write this down on their slates, when the White Rabbit interrupted: "Unimportant, your Majesty means, of course," he said in a very respectful tone, but frowning and making faces at him as he spoke.

"Unimportant, of course, I meant," the King hastily said, and went on to himself in an undertone, "important—unimportant—unimportant—important——" as if he were trying which word sounded best.

Some of the jury wrote it down "important," and some "unimportant." Alice could see this, as she was near enough to look over their slates; "but it doesn't matter a bit," she thought to herself. [12]
It doesn't matter on the level of content, of course, because Wonderland exists under the aegis of joyous nonsense. But it matters in terms of how we choose to read the underlying structure, Wonderland's equivalent to Looking-Glass's chess-game. It adds a transformation function to simple repetition (the caterpillar's repeated 'who are you?' [5]; the Hatter and Hare repeating 'no room! no room!' [7]); in one sense a fractal transformation, of the 'London is the capital of Paris, and Paris is the capital of Rome, and Rome ...' [2] sort. This trio of processes—repetition, inversion, amalgamation—collaborate via such devices as wordplay, conceptual puns, pastiche and so on, formally to constitute the whole novel.



:2. Unnoticed Jokes:

One thing I found myself doing as I re-read these books was wondering about jokes that Carroll might have inserted that generations of readers and scholars have missed. There's one, I think, in Looking-Glass [3], when Alice wanders into the forest in which nothing has a name:
She was rambling on in this way when she reached the wood: it looked very cool and shady. 'Well, at any rate it's a great comfort,' she said as she stepped under the trees, 'after being so hot, to get into the—into what?' she went on, rather surprised at not being able to think of the word. 'I mean to get under the—under the—under this, you know!' putting her hand on the trunk of the tree. 'What does it call itself, I wonder? I do believe it's got no name—why, to be sure it hasn't!' She stood silent for a minute, thinking: then she suddenly began again. 'Then it really has happened, after all! And how, who am I? I will remember, if I can! I'm determined to do it!' But being determined didn't help much, and all she could say, after a great deal of puzzling, was,'L, I know it begins with L!'
Scholars explain: 'L is for Liddell', which was the real Alice's surname of course. But this is surely not right: for when she recovers her name she does not call herself 'Liddell', but 'Alice.' No, the joke is otherwise. She is in a forest, but she cannot remember it is a forest. She meets a fawn, who cannot remember it is a fawn. When it leaves the forest it does remember ('I'm a Fawn!' it cried out in a voice of delight, 'and, dear me! you're a human child!' A sudden look of alarm came into its beautiful brown eyes'). So what of our heroine? 'I know it begins with L!' she says. What begins with an 'l' is: lice. I used to wonder if the joke is that for a moment she thinks she is a louse, which would have the added resonance of closing a chapter on looking-glass insects by positioning Alice as the biggest insect of all. The problem is that lice is a plural and my sense is that Carroll was too particular to countenance describing a plural noun with the singular article. So now I'm wondering if the joke is that she is a lys, as the 'lice' element in her name is pronounced: which is to say, a lily (this old form of lily is retained, for instance, in the term 'fleur-de-lys').

A couple of other examples. maybe. I don't know. I puzzle about 'Lobster Quadrille': is the joke here a dancing and cooking ('Lobster grill') thing? What about Alice's confusion of the lobster's head and feet? She recites:
"'Tis the voice of the lobster; I heard him declare,
'You have baked me too brown, I must sugar my hair.'
As a duck with its eyelids, so he with his nose
Trims his belt and his buttons, and turns out his toes." [10]
This puzzles her auditors. '"She can't explain it," said the Gryphon hastily. "Go on with the next verse." "But about his toes?" the Mock Turtle persisted. "How could he turn them out with his nose, you know?"' Alice can't explain it; but confusing head and tail was, it seems a common thing with lobsters in the nineteenth-century. See?


So maybe the joke's in there, somewhere.

I definitely think there's a (heroically obscure, really) theological joke in chapter 8, when Alice first comes into the Queen's gardens, a joke that nobody has hitherto noticed. White roses have been planted instead of the red roses the Queen demanded, and Alice sees some cards trying to make up for this error by painting the roses red. Two of these cards talk with one another, and later converse with Alice: a Five of Spades and a Seven of Spades. Then the Queen comes in and, in a fury, demands that the gardener-cards be decapitated. I think the '5' and the '7', via quintus and septimus, are Carroll's way of gesturing towards Quintus Septimius Tertullianus, the hugely influential second-century theologian who used the natural beauty of roses as an argument for the goodness of God: Rosam tibi si obtulero, he insisted, non fastidies creatorem ('if I offer you a rose, you cannot despise its Creator'). If there's a serious point about this deeply buried gag, it might be that it was Tertullian who said, famously: fiunt non nascuntur Christiani; 'Christians are made, not born'. Or, we might say: it doesn't matter which rose seeds were planted; the true nature of the rose comes later.

A couple more things I noticed on this read-through. One is that the Mad Hatter's wonderful non-riddle, "Why is a raven like a writing-desk?", is a line of prose when the Hatter asks it, but when repeated back by his baffled interlocutor, by way of admitting defeat and requesting the answer, it becomes a perfect iambic pentameter: "Why is a raven like a writing-desk?".  And later in the same chapter, I found myself thinking more about all the 'M's.
"They were learning to draw," the Dormouse went on, yawning and rubbing its eyes, for it was getting very sleepy; "and they drew all manner of things—everything that begins with an M——"

"Why with an M?" said Alice.

"Why not?" said the March Hare.

Alice was silent.

The Dormouse had closed its eyes by this time, and was going off into a doze; but, on being pinched by the Hatter, it woke up again with a little shriek, and went on: "——that begins with an M, such as mouse-traps, and the moon, and memory, and muchness—you know you say things are 'much of a muchness'—did you ever see such a thing as a drawing of a muchness?"

"Really, now you ask me," said Alice, very much confused, "I don't think——"

"Then you shouldn't talk," said the Hatter.
This rudeness is too much for Alice, and she leaves. But we can't help wonder what, or rather in what manner, all this business with 'M' means. It's striking that Alice herself, a book in which much happens, and in which there is much delight, and which contains several mice (not least the doormouse speaking here), also plays with memory. Almost as soon as she arrives in Wonderland Alice forgets who she is. Perhaps, she thinks, she is Mabel? Later the white rabbit mistakes her for 'Mary Ann', a servant girl. The card-gardeners call her 'Miss'. Why might 'M' be Alice's alter ego in this manner? I have a theory as to why, and it brings in the last of the (door)mouse's terms, there: moon. I dilate upon that theory here, if you're interested in it, so won't hold the present post up any further.



:3. Nonsense and Endings:

The previous link prompts me also to post this, related one (they're all at the head of the post anyway, I know, I know). That's a post in which I speculate how a third Alice book might go, which in turn raises the questions of endings. I might put it this way: do Wonderland and Looking-Glass end? I don't mean in merely practical sense that they are finite textual artefacts, because of course no novel printed on paper can go on forever. I mean in the sense of closure. Do they round-off their stories in such a way as to block-off the possibility of a third installment, of the kind I propose in the post linked-to a few lines above? Do they do what the Narnia books do, and incorporate a distinct telos in their textual progress? Or is the flow of Carroll's nonsense, here, one that could in theory spool on and on?

Of course, we could say that Alice's adventures end 'when she wakes up', which is clearly true in one sense. But it seems pretty weak beer. In real life, dreams play a subsidiary role to the business of really living, but in Carroll's textual universe this relationship is inverted. Of course her dream is realler than her reality, or we wouldn't have these two novels. More to the point, waking up from a dream may stop it, but doesn't end it. It's one of the curious features of the human mind that a dream ends only if not remembered in the first place, if it has already gone from our brains when we wake—if, that is, it has never really gotten going in the first place, conscious-mind-wise. It is precisely waking up from a dream that brings the dream out of its chrysalis and into the butterfly palace of consciousness itself.

This larger point is the important one, I think. 'Stopping' is not at all the same as providing closure. It's one of the oldest of clichés of narrative theory that stories never really 'end'; they just break off. We may yearn for closure, but its neatly-horizoning margin fades for ever and for ever as we move. If that sounds laborious, well, perhaps it is. Freud talks, after all, of Traumarbeit (‘dream-work’). He doesn't talk of Traumspiel. What better term, though, for Carroll's fiction?

So, yes, this is where I return to Freud, or more precisely to the post-Freud of Donald Winnicott. There is an essay by Adam Phillips I like a lot about the process of psychoanalysis as nonsense. Phillips' essay does not discuss Carroll. It is, rather, concerned with exploring the consequences of two premises: that 'it is impossible to know the consequences of one's words' and that 'to adapt Valéry's famous remark about completing a poem, an analysis is never finished, it is only abandoned.'
What are loosely called endings in analysis should often be called something else, but that a capacity for abandon, and the abandon that is abandonment, could be one of the things we might hope to get from psychoanalysis. Giving up, or giving up on, is better than finishing because it acknowledges limitation in the way that the sense of a good ending never can. [Adam Phillips, 'Talking Nonsense and Knowing When to Stop', Side Effects (Penguin 2006), 24]
One thing clear about Alice is that she is good on giving-up, in this sense. When she has had enough of the Mad Hatter's rudeness she simply walks away ('"At any rate I'll never go there again!" said Alice as she picked her way through the wood'). Phillips takes one key strategy of analysis, free association, and talks about it in terms of the (pleasurable) play of nonsense. What he has to say, via Winnicott, about these things strikes me as very illuminating for a reading of the Alice books.
Winnicott is the first analyst who wanted to let the nonsense speak. There is clearly, he acknowledges, a desiring subject as described by Freud and Klein. But there is also an incoherent, chaotic, nonsensical, eccentric subject, described by nobody in psychoanalysis but suggested by the idea, the method, of free association, but free association listened to in a certain way. This is the person Winnicott wants to introduce us to. The chaotic person who needs, however temporarily, to speak nothing but his own nonsense. [Phillips, Side Effects, 28-29]
Winnicott 'finds it extremely difficult to marry, or even link, the nonsensical person with the desiring person' but does offer this distinction:
The desiring person, as he develops, is always involved one way or another, in having to know when to stop. But knowing when to stop is the enemy of chaos, or it is the omnipotent delusion that chaos can be under control. Perhaps, Winnicott intimates, what we need most to defend ourselves against, what most needs to be stopped, is not the appetite, but the nonsense. And nonsense can only be stopped by making sense. [29]
'Why, he asks us to wonder—but in a psychoanalytic context and language—can't we let the nonsense be? Why couldn't an aim of analysis be to enable the patient to speak and bear, and even enjoy, his nonsense?' Carroll might frame this question a little differently, since many of the assumptions of the psychoanalytic context and language would surely have shocked and distressed him. But I think the Alice books understand the need to hold in tension these two different subjects.

So, for example: one thing that struck me quite forcefully on my latest re-read was the way Carroll's novel uses 'nonsense' in two distinct ways. The main usage is to refer to something that doesn't make sense ('Oh dear, what nonsense I’m talking!’ [2] and so on). But the word is also invoked, very precisely, as a way of giving up on something, or stopping it in its tracks.
‘How should I know?’ said Alice, surprised at her own courage. ‘It’s no business of mine.’

The Queen turned crimson with fury, and, after glaring at her for a moment like a wild beast, screamed ‘Off with her head! Off—’

‘Nonsense!’ said Alice, very loudly and decidedly, and the Queen was silent.
This is a very powerful, instrumental use of the term 'nonsense'; one capable of silencing a Queen, no less. Nonsense, then, is the (pleasurable) ongoing free play of deranged significance and the signifier of a (psychologically healthy) breaking-off the engagement.

Thinking about the novel in these terms helps me (if nobody else) understand the strange little coda to Wonderland, where Alice having woken-up, runs off to get her tea, 'thinking while she ran, as well she might, what a wonderful dream it had been.' Then we get the following five paragraphs from the point-of-view of Alice's sister:
But her sister sat still just as she left her, leaning her head on her hand, watching the setting sun, and thinking of little Alice and all her wonderful Adventures, till she too began dreaming after a fashion, and this was her dream:—

First, she dreamed of little Alice herself, and once again the tiny hands were clasped upon her knee, and the bright eager eyes were looking up into hers—she could hear the very tones of her voice, and see that queer little toss of her head to keep back the wandering hair that would always get into her eyes—and still as she listened, or seemed to listen, the whole place around her became alive with the strange creatures of her little sister's dream.

The long grass rustled at her feet as the White Rabbit hurried by—the frightened Mouse splashed his way through the neighbouring pool—she could hear the rattle of the teacups as the March Hare and his friends shared their never-ending meal, and the shrill voice of the Queen ordering off her unfortunate guests to execution—once more the pig-baby was sneezing on the Duchess' knee, while plates and dishes crashed around it—once more the shriek of the Gryphon, the squeaking of the Lizard's slate-pencil, and the choking of the suppressed guinea-pigs, filled the air, mixed up with the distant sob of the miserable Mock Turtle.

So she sat on, with closed eyes, and half believed herself in Wonderland, though she knew she had but to open them again and all would change to dull reality—the grass would be only rustling in the wind, and the pool rippling to the waving of the reeds—the rattling teacups would change to tinkling sheep-bells, and the Queen's shrill cries to the voice of the shepherd boy—and the sneeze of the baby, the shriek of the Gryphon, and all the other queer noises, would change (she knew) to the confused clamour of the busy farm-yard—while the lowing of the cattle in the distance would take the place of the Mock Turtle's heavy sobs.

Lastly, she pictured to herself how this same little sister of hers would, in the after-time, be herself a grown woman; and how she would keep, through all her riper years, the simple and loving heart of her childhood: and how she would gather about her other little children, and make their eyes bright and eager with many a strange tale, perhaps even with the dream of Wonderland of long-ago: and how she would feel with all their simple sorrows, and find a pleasure in all their simple joys, remembering her own child-life, and the happy summer days.
It's going to seem like a rather heartless thing to say, but the problem with the sister's 'dream' is its banality. Heartless and rather perverse. 'Banality' is another word for 'psychological health', after all, and the sister's vision of Alice growing up normally, and having a normal and happy family life, is surely what any sane person would want to transpire. This epilogue still feels like a clanking wrong step in the novel itself, though: not because it describes Alice as grown-up and happy, but because it insists upon translating the nonsense of the novel out of the idiom of nonsense and into the idiom of sense (the sneeze of the baby, the shriek of the Gryphon, and all the other queer noises merely the clamour of the busy farm-yard dimly apprehended by Alice's sleeping mind and rendered into dream phantoms. Boo! What this coda is, is an attempt to close-off the world of nonsense by making sense of it, which violates the whole jouissance of the original text.

Looking-Glass is much cannier where this matter is concerned. Instead of the clumsy explaining-away of the above passage, we have a final chapter in which Alice ponder whether she dreamed her dream, or whether the elements of her dream dreamt her, and the last line of the novel is that most open-ended of syntactic forms, a question: 'which do you think it was?'

This, I would argue, licenses a sequel. Indeed, it licenses more than that, an open-ended Winnicottian reconfiguring of 'interpretation' (finding meaning, reading the novel) as the play of nonsense itself. But it also reverts back upon the matter of the novels themselves. If Carroll anticipates Freud, it is not because his fictional 'dreams' are liable to simple decoding from nonsense into sense, but quite the reverse, because Wonderland and Looking-Glass grasp the way nonsense is more than sense. A little Slavoj Žižek goes a long way, I find, but his account of Freud's theories on dreaming is relevant here. 'Why do we dream?' Žižek asks. 'Freud’s answer is deceptively simple: the ultimate function of the dream is to enable the dreamer to stay asleep.' I quote the next portion of Žižek's critique with an eye on Carroll's unsatisfactory Wonderland coda:
This is usually interpreted as bearing on the kinds of dream we have when some external disturbance – noise, for example – threatens to wake us. In such a situation, the sleeper immediately begins to imagine a situation which incorporates this external stimulus and thereby is able to continue sleeping for a while longer; when the external stimulus becomes too strong, he finally wakes up. Are things really so straightforward? In another famous example from The Interpretation of Dreams, an exhausted father, whose young son has just died, falls asleep and dreams that the child is standing by his bed in flames, whispering the horrifying reproach: ‘Father, can’t you see I’m burning?’ Soon afterwards, the father wakes to discover that a fallen candle has set fire to his dead son’s shroud. He had smelled the smoke while asleep, and incorporated the image of his burning son into his dream to prolong his sleep. Had the father woken up because the external stimulus became too strong to be contained within the dream-scenario? Or was it the obverse, that the father constructed the dream in order to prolong his sleep, but what he encountered in the dream was much more unbearable even than external reality, so that he woke up to escape into that reality[?] [Žižek, 'Freud Lives!', LRB 28:10 (25 May 2006), 32]
There's something very touching, almost heartbreaking, about that story of the bereaved father. Nothing so grim in Alice, perhaps; although she certainly emerges from this book as a virtuoso of maintaining the dream. This point brings me back to the start of this post: Alice's dreaming is not a business of 'sense' coded as 'nonsense'. It is, rather, a much fuller dramatisation of the structural principle of inversion (and collation) that makes plain the paradoxical truth of dreams as such, that they precede, and are not pendant to, reality. Žižek illustrates via the Holocaust:
Adorno said that the Nazi motto ‘Deutschland, erwache!’ actually meant its opposite: if you responded to this call, you could continue to sleep and dream (i.e. to avoid engagement with the real of social antagonism). In the first stanza of Primo Levi’s poem ‘Reveille’ the concentration camp survivor recalls being in the camp, asleep, dreaming intense dreams about returning home, eating, telling his relatives his story, when, suddenly, he is woken up by the Polish kapo’s command ‘Wstawac!’ (‘Get up!’). In the second stanza, he is at home after the war, well fed, having told his story to his family, when, suddenly, he imagines hearing again the shout, ‘Wstawac!’ The reversal of the relationship between dream and reality from the first stanza to the second is crucial. Their content is formally the same – the pleasant domestic scene is interrupted by the injunction ‘Get up!’ – but in the first, the dream is cruelly interrupted by the wake-up call, while in the second, reality is interrupted by the imagined command. We might imagine the second example from The Interpretation of Dreams as belonging to the Holocaust survivor who, unable to save his son from the crematorium, is haunted afterwards by his reproach: ‘Vater, siehst du nicht dass ich verbrenne?’
I'm not suggesting that Carroll's texts articulate anything so politically charged as that; but the core point does seem to me to the point: 'the ultimate lesson of The Interpretation of Dreams,' Žižek thinks, is that 'reality is for those who cannot sustain the dream.'


4 comments:

  1. I know I'm playing to type by picking up the theological joke, but I yam what I yam, and when you invoke Tertullian there I find myself recalling that he is also famous for saying Certum est quia impossibile est and here we have a book in which someone boasts of believing six impossible things before breakfast. Might The Tertullian Subtext — a good unused Ludlum title — be more pervasive than we suspect?

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    1. Of course! I slap my forehead with the palm of my hand at my obtuseness. Also C Dodgson Snr, Carroll's father, translated the works of Tertullian into English (for Pusey's "Library of the Fathers"; the translation appeared when young Charles was 10), so it's not as though he wouldn't have known him. Maybe the reference is more likely than I was allowing.

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  2. The Alice books were given to me when I was five, and they remain essential to me. Reading this, though, I am impressed with how very different sorts of writers find what they need in Carroll. I tend to judge myself as having a whimsical memory that dissolves a lot, dumps a lot, retains curious details--lots of rendering of solids down to a strange alphabet soup. You seem (now that I am considering your mind because reading "The Thing Itself" and this) much more akin to Carroll in retentiveness and analytical gifts, and you're capable of leaping a very long way and of establishing slender but real connections, a sort of tightrope linkage on which you dance. No doubt the Caterpillar would tell me that I am quite impertinent to say so, but I am once again thinking that you have an interesting mind.

    Perhaps closing on the sister's "real" explanation of things is not abolition and explanation of what came before (though it is to the sister) but something more like the double seeing, double reality in ch. 2 of "The Thing Itself." In the case of Alice, perhaps the ending in its very disappointment wants to confirm that there is an enchantment and a more vital, joyous world that stands behind our weaker, daily, more banal realm....

    I am always fascinated by endings that are widely considered failures (like the last part of "Huckleberry Finn" and the coda to "The Scarlet Letter") and like to think about why they are as they are. Why the author might have thought them the exactly right way to close and how they might be seen in that light is always enlightening to me. There's a kind of parallel with Finn and Alice with the returning of the bright and meaningful journey to stasis and a realm that is less vital--and since Tom Sawyer gets involved in Huckleberry Finn, one that involves fictions that are lies. Perhaps Alice could also be seen as ending in a proper, banal lie, at least in Wonderland terms.

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    1. Very interesting Marly (though too kind to me, I think; appreciated, though!) I share your interest in endings to great novels that don't work. I do think that Looking Glass's ending is more effective, mind you.

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