Sunday, December 4, 2016
Neither More Nor Less, or, Beware the Jabberwock
I've been trying to read more, as well as trying to read things that will take me out of what passes for reality these days.
One would think that a Victorian children's story - and one of the most beloved of all, to boot - would do the trick, but I've discovered to my cost that this simply isn't so. Lewis Carroll, it seems, was something of a political prognosticator, on top of all his other varied accomplishments. I've been reading the Alice books on and off for the better part of five decades, and yet I came on Through the Looking-Glass this week as if for the first time - and a savage, surreal little book it is. Just the thing for a savage and surreal era.
First of all, I confess to having forgotten - if ever I realized - what an insanely beautifully written book this is. It moves like the wind, with a fierce economy of language that might seem at odds with nineteenth-century fulsomeness but that somehow seems both timeless and absolutely of its age.
Alice may not be a particularly realistic seven-and-a-half-year-old, but she's a shockingly real character, stolid as Gibraltar as the world she moves through shifts and mutates ruthessly around her. The turning of a drawing-room mirror into mist is only a faint presage of the transformations that await - a queen into a shopkeeping sheep, the shop itself into a punt on the river, and more and more. And all the while the ineluctable logic of chess propelling her forward (in what Martin Gardner, in his brilliant and invaluable Annotated Alice, elucidates is a perfectly possible game), from one unlikely incident to another.
Ah, but what (as everything comes back to, in the end, these days) of politics? Well, Alice discovers as soon as she hops down from the mantelpiece that Looking-Glass World is a relentlessly competitive world, a struggle for power that, while it seems to have wildly inconsistent stakes (Tweedledum and Tweedledee go to what proves to be far-from-mortal combat over a brand-new rattle, while the battle between the Lion and the Unicorn seems far more convincing in its violence), is nonetheless the central thread of virtually every relationship. It's a far darker place, in many ways, than Wonderland, this strange reverse world on the other side of the mirror, and the rare moments of calm and even tenderness (Alice's encounter of the highly Dodgsonische White Knight chief among them) stand out all the more.
The presiding genius of Looking-Glass World, it seems to me, is Humpty Dumpty, a monstrous creation of ill-temper and ego, someone who bends even language to his own ends. The story is full of royalty, but none of them are half as frank with Alice as the strange, ovoid, vainglorious (and paradoxically fragile, in the end) Humpty about the necessities of power. One line of his defines the primal nature of Looking-Glass life:
"When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in rather a 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."
And there's the lesson for today: the one who controls the meaning of words (living in a world, as now we do, we've been told, in which facts don't matter) controls the narrative; and sadly, for us it's not a fictional tale, to be ended in a burst of chaos and a slow awakening in our favorite parlor chair.
It's the carpenter's world we live in, and I increasingly wonder if we're not all just oysters, waiting for suppertime.