To start by approaching one author who had a profound shaping effect upon the younger me by means of another author who had a profound shaping effect upon the younger me. Here's Robert Graves’ poem ‘Alice’ (from Welchman’s Hose, 1925):
When that prime heroine of our nation, Alice,This is a specifically postwar poem; Graves, still shellshocked by his experiences, looking back on one of his favourite childhood books and finding everything it had meant to him turned contrariwise by the trauma of conflict. It’s a poem about the way travelling to a land of unreality (a land of death) estranges normalcy. It’s also about the White Goddess, at least in nascent form—1925 was before Graves had properly formulated his ideas on this, but it’s interesting to consider the extent to which the sexless inviolability of this ‘prime’ female figure feeds into Her; the way She is not the same thing as her mundane-life, feline analogues. ‘The dead end where empty hearses turn about’ is an especially resonant phrase, I think. Not the mud of the trenches, but the paraphernalia of a High Victorian funeral. It intimates, without being too literal-minded about it (and the whole point of this poem, as of Graves’s whole poetic output, is also what he identifies as the ground of the appeal of the Alice books: namely not taking the world too literally or scientifically)—this poem intimates that the world behind the mirror is a kind of afterlife. Which of course it is. To fall from a great height is to die; to crash through glass is to die; to eat strange foods and mushrooms is to risk of being poisoned; to approach wild animals is to risk fatal mauling; to plunge unprepared into the salt sea is to risk drowning. All these things happen to Alice, and yet she does not die.
Climbing courageously in through the Palace
Of Looking Glass, found it inhabited
By chessboard personages, white and red,
Involved in never-ending tournament,
She being of a speculative bent
Had long foreshadowed something of the kind,
Asking herself: 'Suppose I stood behind
And viewed the fireplace of Their drawing-room
From hearthrug level, why must I assume
That what I'd see would need to correspond
With what I now see? And the rooms beyond?'
Proved right, yet not content with what she had done,
Alice decided to enlarge her fun:
She set herself, with truly British pride
In being a pawn and playing for her side,
And simple faith in simple stratagem,
To learn the rules and moves and perfect them.
So prosperously there she settled down
That six moves only and she'd won her crown—
A triumph surely! But her greater feat
Was rounding these adventures off complete:
Accepting them, when safe returned again,
As queer but true, not only in the main
True, but as true as anything you'd swear to,
The usual three dimensions you are heir to.
For Alice though a child could understand
That neither did this chance-discovered land
Make nohow or contrariwise the clean
Dull round of mid-Victorian routine,
Nor did Victoria's golden rule extend
Beyond the glass: it came to the dead end
Where empty hearses turn about; thereafter
Begins that lubberland of dream and laughter,
The red-and-white-flower-spangled hedge, the grass
Where Apuleius pastured his Gold Ass,
Where young Gargantua made whole holiday . . .
But further from our heroine not to stray,
Let us observe with what uncommon sense—
Though a secure and easy reference
Between Red Queen and Kitten could be found—
She made no false assumption on that ground
(A trap in which the scientist would fall)
That queens and kittens are identical.
That Alice’s adventures have, in some sense, to do with death has been argued by more than one critic. Back in the 1950s Peter Coveney insisted that there was something fundamentally unhealthy in Carroll's (and also in J M Barrie’s) preference for children over adults. And we can hardly deny that there was something a bit oddball about Carroll the man: the stammering, shy-mannered, purple-handed fellow—he stained his hands purple-blue working with the chemicals necessary for his photographic pursuit, and always wore white kit gloves as a result—expending all his emotional energies on prepubescent girls. Nowadays we’re most likely to frame our sense of disquiet about this in terms of paedophilia, the great moral panic of our generation. Coveney sees in it broader but rather more morbid terms:
The justification of secular art is the responsibility it bears for the enrichment of human awareness. The cult of the child in certain authors at the end of the nineteenth century is a denial of this responsibility. Their awareness of childhood is no longer an interest in growth and integration, such as we found in The Prelude, but a means of detachment and retreat from the adult world. One feels their morbid withdrawal towards psychic death. The misery on the face of Carroll and Barrie was there because their response towards life had been subtly but irrevocably negated. Their photographs seem to look out at us from the nostalgic prisons they had created for themselves in the cult of Alice Liddell and Peter Pan. [Peter Coveney, The Image of Childhood: the Individual and Society: a Study of the Theme in English Literature (1957; 2nd ed 1967), 241]I don’t think this is right, actually, and it’s worth dwelling for a moment on why. Coveney goes on:
The innocence of Alice casts its incisive but delicately subtle intelligence upon Victorian society and upon life. But it is not simply that. It is not simply anything. Even in this first and greatest work, there is a content not far removed from nightmare. Alice in Wonderland has the claustrophobic atmosphere of a children’s Kafka. It is the frustrated ‘quest’ for the ‘Garden’ which in the event is peopled with such unpleasant creatures.It’s not that this is wrong per se, I think; it’s only that it misses the distinct quality of joy we find in Kafka. I’m tempted to say that Carroll brings out the fun in Kafka better than Kafka does himself (Deleuze, in his Coldness and Cruelty book, says that when Kafka first read his stories out to people in Vienna, the audience fell about laughing. That seems to me very possible).
But, look-see: the elephant had padded into the room. There are several ways of addressing the ‘paedophilia’ angle as far as Carroll was concerned. One way, of course, would be simply to sweep him into the box marked Monster and refuse to engage with his tainted art. I think that would be a pity, not because I’m certain that his heart was perfectly pure when he took his photographs of naked nine-year-old girls, but because the art itself doesn’t seem to me tainted. The paedophile’s fantasy (I assume) is that of the sexually available child; but the striking thing about Alice is how unavailable she is, how expertly she resists attempts to assimilate her to our agenda. That she is her own person is the ground of her splendour. Indeed, her curious inviolability is, I think, absolutely integral to the way she works in these stories. I also tend to think that the best reading of the ‘Freudian’ symbolism of the books—all those vaginal doors, tight entrances, all those phallic swellings and shrinkings, swimming through seas of bodily fluids, the oedipal anxieties of the Queen of Heart’s pseudo-castrating cry of ‘Off with his head!’—that the best reading of all that stuff is William Empson’s ‘The Child as Swain’ chapter in Some Versions of Pastoral. Empson engages enthusiastically with all the ‘Freudian’ symbolism in the books, but does so within the conceptual framework of Some Version’s larger agenda: putting the complex into the simple; the ironies of class; the relationship between heroic and pastoral modes. In fact, recently re-reading 'The Child as Swain' was a revelation to me. It brought home to me how far the account is from being a straightforward Freudian decoding of Carroll's books, despite the fact that Empson, tricksily, insists that it is ('the books are so frankly about growing up that there is no great discovery in translating them into Freudian terms', 253). In fact Empson’s stress is on the way the (sexual) world of adulthood becomes nonsensical when it is, in E.'s rather brilliant phrase, 'seen through the clear but blank eyes of sexlessness.' That’s right, I think.
Instead of this, I think, we can read Wonderland and Looking-glass-world, Graves-ishly, as that place where:
Begins that lubberland of dream and laughter,Apuleius and Rabelais could also be construed as Kafkaeque nightmares if they weren’t so joyful. And I’d say that Apuleius is closer in tone to Carroll’s fantasy than is Rabelais, because both Asinus aureus and Alicia aurea understand the extent to which desire is construed by frustration. Gargantua is a creature of giant appetites which he indulges on a giant scale. Apuleius’s ass is a man reduced to mule-ishness, repeatedly baulked of his yearnings as he travels through a land of fantastical adventures. And this latter is the logic of the Alice books. After arriving in Wonderland Alice peers through the door to ‘the loveliest garden you ever saw’ (‘How she longed to get out of that dark hall, and wander about among those beds of bright flowers and cool fountains!). But she cannot get to it. She is much too big to fit through the door. Then she finds a way of magically shrinking herself so that she can fit through, only to realise that she has left the key to the door on the table and out of reach. She grows too tall again, and then shrinks down. She has the ability to alter her body, to enlarge it, to shrink it, and yet always seems to find that whatever size she thinks she wants is the wrong one. When she meets a group of animals she scares them away by talking about how her pet cat likes to eat such beings (‘I wish I hadn’t mentioned Dinah!’ she says at the end of chapter 3, as if it wasn’t something under her control!) She approaches a table with many empty seats and places laid for tea and tasty food, but the Hatter, Hare and Dormouse sing out ‘no room! No room!’ Upon finally arriving at the beautiful garden she discovers it in the possession of a homicidal monarch (‘Alice began to feel very uneasy: to be sure she had not as yet had any dispute with the Queen, but she knew that it might happen any time’). When she tries to play croquet, the mallets—being flamingos—keep twisting away from the shots she wants to play. In Looking Glass frustration becomes, as it were, a formal principle of the story-world: one must go backwards to go forwards, must run as fast as possible to stay in the same place, and vice versa.
The red-and-white-flower-spangled hedge, the grass
Where Apuleius pastured his Gold Ass,
Where young Gargantua made whole holiday . . .
The reason the books themselves don’t feel frustrating to read, despite being stitched together out of frustrations, is that Carroll understands how far our desires are structured precisely by what thwarts them. Alice encounters a delightfully varied, diverting, idiosyncratic and funny succession of individuals, but at a deeper level her story is a general story. To quote Adam Phillips:
All our stories are about what happens to our wishes. About the world as we would like it to be, and the world as it happens to be, irrespective of our wishes and despite our hopes. Our needs thwarted by the needs of others; our romances always threatened by tragedy; our jokes ruined by the people who don’t get them. The usual antagonism of day-dream and reality. [Adam Phillips, The Beast in the Nursery (Faber 1998), 1]Phillips’ argument in this book is about growing up, about how we accept disillusionment as the price of adulthood, how we shed childhood’s vitality—or indeed it is about whether we do these things. His point is more than than ‘desire without something that resists it is insufficient, wishy-washy, literally immaterial’ , although that’s obviously part of it (Phillips adds the concomitant: 'a world that too much resists my desire is uninhabitable, unliveable in’). Of course it is only my hunger than can transform food into a satisfying meal. But it’s more than that. It is that children understand desire in a more forceful way than adults ever can.
Children are fervent in their looking-forward to things; whereas adults can lose a sense of what is there for the taking. The child, it seemed to Freud, was the virtuoso of desire. That’s true in a general sense, I think, but particularly true of the Alice books.
What do we find, through the Looking-Glass? We find what Apuleius found: a queen. I first read the Golden Ass in Robert Graves' splendidly counter-intuitive, yet (I still think) effective 1951 Penguin Classics version; counter-intuitive because he deliberately renders Apuleius's ornate, game-playing, fancy Latin in plain, expressive English. He attempts to reproduce Apuleius's baroque intricacy with plainness. I think he succeeds, too. It shouldn't work, yet somehow it does. Certainly, by the time he came to translate that book Graves had reached his crucial, intensely personal conclusions concerning the White Goddess. Apuleius' Lucius ends his asinine peregrinations by receiving a vision from The Queen of Heaven: he can be returned to human shape by eating the crown of roses being carried by the priests of Isis in procession. He does so, and afterwards becomes an acolyte of the goddess, worshipping her in Rome as Campensis. Why does she have three names (Regina Coeli/Isis/Campensis), I hear you ask? That's because she's actually the triple goddess. All this had personal resonance for Graves: his own bestial manliness, his bashed-about youth, his eventual female-determined sanctuary, all of which undeniably informs his translation. But it has resonance for Carroll's text, too, which retells this fantasy narrative from, as it were, the other side. The human-beast mutations happen to other people, not Alice. What happens to Alice is that she reveals her true nature. She is Al-Isis; she is the new White Queen. She is the White Goddess. That's why this blogpost starts with that splendid Tenniel illustration of the three queens, the three goddesses, all one as maiden, mother and crone.