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Summer 2011

Return to Wonderland

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Alberto Manguel

Of all the miracles that pinpoint the histories of our literatures, few are as miraculous as that of the birth of Alice in Wonderland. The well-known story is worth repeating. On the afternoon of July 4, 1862, the Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, accompanied by his friend the Reverend Robinson Duckworth, took the three young daughters of Dr. Liddell, Dean of Christ Church, on a three-mile boating expedition up the Thames, from Folly Bridge, near Oxford, to the village of Godstow. “The sun was so burning,” Alice Liddell recalled many years later, “that we landed in the meadows down the river, deserting the boat to take refuge in the only bit of shade to be found, which was under a new-made hayrick. Here from all three came the old petition of ‘Tell us a story,’ and so began the ever-delightful tale. Sometimes to tease us—and perhaps being really tired—Mr. Dodgson would stop suddenly and say, ‘And that’s all till next time.’ ‘Ah, but it is next time,’ would be the exclamation from all three: and after some persuasion the story would start afresh.” When they returned, Alice asked Dodgson to write out the adventures for her. He said he would try, and sat up nearly the whole night putting down the tale on paper, and adding a number of pen-and-ink illustrations; afterwards, the little volume, entitled Alice’s Adventures Underground, was often seen on the drawing-room table at the Deanery. Three years later, in 1865, the story was published by Macmillan in London under the pseudonym of “Lewis Carroll” and the title Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

The Reverend Duckworth recalled the excursion precisely: “I rowed stroke and he rowed bow in the famous Long Vacation voyage to Godstow, when the three Miss Liddells were our passengers, and the story was actually composed and spoken over my shoulder for the benefit of Alice Liddell, who was acting as ‘cox’ of our gig. I remember turning round and saying, ‘Dodgson, is this an extempore romance of yours?’ And he replied, ‘Yes, I’m inventing as we go along.’”

Inventing Alice’s adventures “as we go along”: the truth is unbelievable. That Alice’s fall and explorations, her encounters and her discoveries, the syllogisms and puns and wise jokes, should, in all their fantastic and coherent development, have been made up then and there, in the telling, seems almost impossible. Osip Mandelstam, commenting on the composition of Dante’s Commedia (another dreamlike journey of exploration), says that it is naive of readers to believe that the text they have in front of them was born full-fledged from the poet’s brow, without a long mess of drafts and trials in its wake. No literary composition, says Mandelstam, is the fruit of an instant of inspiration: it is an arduous process of trial and error, helped along by experienced craft. But in the case of Alice we know it wasn’t so: precisely such an impossibility seems to have been the case. No doubt Carroll, in the back of his mind, had previously composed many of the jokes and puns that pepper the story, since he loved puzzles and word games, and spent much of his time inventing them for his pleasure and that of his child friends. But a bagful of tricks is not enough to explain the strict logic and joyful avatars that govern the perfectly rounded plot.

Alice’s Adventures was followed six years later by Through the Looking-Glass, a story that did indeed benefit from the usual desk-time given over to a book’s composition, and yet the looking-glass chess game of the latter is not better constructed than the mad card game of the former, and all the wonderful nonsense in both stories obviously stems from the singled invented “extempore” fantasy told on the primordial afternoon. Mystics are said to receive in full dictation from the godhead, and the history of literature boasts of a few celebrated examples of such in toto compositions (Caedmon’s “Hymn of Creation” and Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” are two examples), but we have no unbiased witnesses of these poetic miracles. In the case of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the Reverend Duckworth’s testimony is unimpeachable.

No miracle, however, is entirely unexplainable. It may be that Carroll’s tale has deeper roots in the human psyche than its nursery reputation might suggest. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland does not read like just another children’s story: its geography has the powerful reverberations of other established mythical places, such as Utopia or Arcadia. In the Commedia, the guardian spirit on the summit of Mount Purgatory explains to Dante that the golden age of which poets have sung is an unconscious memory of Paradise Lost, of a vanished state of perfect happiness. Perhaps Wonderland is the unconscious memory of a state of perfect reason, a state which, seen now through the eyes of social and cultural conventions, appears to us as utter madness. Whether archetypal or not, Wonderland seems to have always existed in some form or other in the recesses of our mind: the fact is that whoever follows Alice down the rabbit hole and through the Red Queen’s labyrinthine kingdom never does it for the first time. Only the Liddell sisters and the Reverend Duckworth can be said to have been present at the creation, and even then there must have been a sense of déjà vu: after that first day, Wonderland entered the universal imagination as if it were much like the Garden of Eden, a place which we know exists without ever setting foot in it. Wonderland (though not on any map; “real places never are,” as Melville noted) is the recurrent landscape of our dream life.

Because Wonderland is, of course, our world: not in abstract symbolic terms (in spite of Freudian and Wittgensteinian readings), not as a Spenserian allegory (in spite of the serendipity of names on the storyteller’s journey, from Folly Bridge to Godstow—meaning “God’s Place”), not as a dystopian fable like those of Orwell or Huxley (as certain critics have argued). Wonderland is simply the place in which we find ourselves daily, crazy as it may seem, with its quotidian ration of the heavenly, the hellish, and the purgatorial—a place through which we must wander as we wander through life, following the instructions of the King of Hearts: “Begin at the beginning,” he tells the White Rabbit, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”



Alice (like us) is armed with only one weapon for the journey: language. It is with words that we make our way through the Cheshire Cat’s forest and the Queen’s croquet ground. It is with words that Alice discovers the difference between what things are and what they appear to be. It is her questioning that brings out the madness of Wonderland, hidden, as in our world, under a thin coat of conventional respectability. We may try to find logic in madness, as the Duchess does by finding a moral to everything, however absurd, but the truth is, as the Cheshire Cat tells Alice, that we don’t have a choice in the matter; whichever path we follow, we will find ourselves among mad people, and we must use language as best we can to keep a grip on what we deem to be our sanity. Words reveal to Alice (and to us) that the only indisputable fact of this bewildering world is that, under an apparent rationalism, we are all mad. Like Alice, we risk drowning ourselves and everyone else in our own tears. We like to think, as the Dodo does, that no matter in what direction or how incompetently we run, we should all be winners and we should all be entitled to a prize. Like the White Rabbit, we give orders left and right, as if others were obliged (and honored) to serve us. Like the Caterpillar, we question the identity of our fellow creatures but have little idea of our own, even on the verge of losing that identity. We believe, like the Duchess, in punishment for the annoying behavior of the young, but have little interest in the reasons for that behavior. Like the Mad Hatter, we feel that we alone have the right to food and drink at a table set for many more, and we cynically offer the thirsty and hungry wine when there is no wine and jam every day except today. Under the rule of despots like the Red Queen, we are forced to play mad games with inadequate intruments—balls that roll away like hedgehogs and sticks that twist and turn like live flamingoes—and when we don’t succeed in following the instructions, we are threatened with having our heads chopped off. Our education methods, as the Gryphon and the Mock-Turtle explain to Alice, are either exercises in nostalgia (the teaching of Laughing and Grief) or training courses in the service of others (how to be thrown with the lobsters into the sea). And our system of justice is like the one set up to judge the Knave of Hearts, incomprehensible and unfair in a way that anticipates Kafka. Few of us, however, have Alice’s courage, at the end of the book, to stand up (literally) for our convictions and refuse to hold our tongue. Because of this supreme act of civil disobedience, Alice is allowed to wake from her dream. We, unfortunately, are not.

Fellow travelers, we recognize in Alice’s journey the themes ever present in our lives: pursuit and loss of dreams, the attendant tears and suffering, the race for survival, being forced into servitude, the nightmare of confused self-identity, the effects of dysfunctional families, the required submission to nonsensical arbitration, the abuse of authority, perverted teaching, the impotent knowledge of unpunished crimes and unfair punishments, and the long struggle of reason against unreason. All this, and the pervading sense of madness, are, in fact, a summary of the book’s table of contents.

“To define true madness,” we are told in Hamlet, “what is’t to be nothing else but mad?” Alice would have agreed: madness is the exclusion of everything that is not mad, and therefore everyone in Wonderland falls under the Cheshire Cat’s dictum. But Alice is not Hamlet. Her dreams are not bad dreams, she never mopes, she never sees herself as the hand of ghostly justice, she never insists on proof of what is crystal clear, she believes in immediate action. Words, for Alice, are not just words but living creatures, and thinking does not make things good or bad. She certainly does not want her solid flesh to melt, any more than she wants it to shoot up or shrink down (even though, in order to pass through the small garden door, she wishes she could “shut up like a telescope”). Alice would never have succumbed to a poisoned blade or drunk, as Hamlet’s mother does, from a poisoned cup: picking up the bottle that says “DRINK ME,” she first looks to see whether it is marked Poison or not, “for she had read several nice stories about children who had got burnt, and eaten up by wild beasts, and other unpleasant things, all because they would not remember the simple rules their friends had taught them.” Alice is much more reasonable than the Prince of Denmark.

Like Hamlet, however, Alice must have wondered, crammed in the White Rabbit’s house, if she too might not be bounded in a nutshell. But as to being king (or queen) of infinite space, Alice does not merely fret about it: she strives for the title and, in Through the Looking-Glass, she works hard to earn the promised dream-crown. Alice, brought up on strict Victorian precepts and not lax Elizabethan ones, believes (as Hamlet does not) in discipline and tradition, and has no time for grumbling and procrastination. Throughout her adventures, like a well-brought-up child, Alice confronts unreason with simple logic. Convention (the artificial construct of reality) is set against fantasy (the natural reality). Alice knows instinctively that logic is our way of making sense of nonsense and uncovering its secret rules, and she applies it ruthlessly, even among her elders and betters, whether confronting the Duchess or the Mad Hatter. And when arguments prove useless, she at least insists on making the unjust absurdity of the situation plain. When the Red Queen demands that the court should give the “sentence first—the verdict afterwards,” Alice quite rightly answers, “Stuff and nonsense!” That is the only answer that most of the absurdities in our world deserve.

And yet, in spite of its apparent madness, our world, like that of Wonderland, tantalizingly suggests that it does have a meaning, and that if we look hard enough behind the “stuff and nonsense” we will find something that explains it all. Alice’s adventures proceed with uncanny precision and coherence, so that we, as readers, have the growing impression of an elusive sense in all the nonsense. The entire book has the quality of a Zen koan or a Greek paradox, of something meaningful and at the same time inexplicable, something on the verge of revelation. What we feel, falling down the rabbit hole after Alice and following her through her journey, is that Wonderland’s madness is not arbitrary, nor is it innocent. Half epic and half dream, Carroll’s invention lays out for us a necessary space somewhere between solid earth and fairyland, a vantage point from which to see the universe in more or less explicit terms, translated, as it were, into a story. Like the mathematical formulae that fascinated Carroll, Alice’s adventures are both hard fact and lofty invention. They exist on two planes simultaneously: one which grounds us in the reality of flesh and blood, and one upon which that reality can be reconsidered and transformed, like the Cheshire Cat perched on its branch, drifting from something bewilderingly visible to the miraculous (and reassuring) ghost of a smile.



Alberto Manguel is the author of The Library at Night, A History of Reading, and many other books. Born in Argentina, he now lives in France.
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