Magazine | March 22, 2010, Issue

Down the Rabbit Hole

More than half a century after I first read “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” I cannot look at a plate of oysters, let alone eat them, without some of its lines running through my head:

“A loaf of bread,” the Walrus said,

Is what we chiefly need:

Pepper and vinegar besides

Are very good indeed –

Now, if you’re ready, Oysters dear,

We can begin to feed.”

And it is only by overcoming my guilt as I recollect Sir John Tenniel’s illustration of the sweet, innocent, and unsuspecting little oysters as they gather round to attend to what the Walrus and the Carpenter have to say as they sit upon the rocks by the seashore, that I am able to proceed to the feast.

This feast, of course, puts me in precisely the same moral position as the Walrus. The Carpenter has replied to the Walrus’s remark that they have played the oysters a rather dirty trick by complaining that the butter is spread too thick:

“I weep for you,” the Walrus said:

I deeply sympathise.”

With sobs and tears he sorted out

Those of the largest size,

Holding his pocket-handkerchief

Before his streaming eyes.

This is not the first time that such perfidy occurs in the Alice books. Remember the little crocodile:

How cheerfully he seems to grin,

How neatly spreads his claws,

And welcomes little fishes in,

With gently smiling jaws.

Children everywhere (for the Alice books have been translated into every written language, despite the formidable difficulties involved in conveying the wordplay that forms so large a part of their humor) must have been introduced to the world of adult hypocrisy by these poems, and learned to see adults more as funny than as tragic or terrible. If Horace Walpole was right, that the world is a comedy to him who thinks, but a tragedy to him who feels, the Alice books must have tipped the balance in many young minds in favor of a disposition to thought rather than to feeling. Since feeling comes naturally but thought does not, Lewis Carroll may be counted as one of the world’s great educators.

Perhaps the strangest thing about the Alice books at any age of a person’s life is their inexhaustibility. I devoted hours of my childhood to copying Tenniel’s illustrations (indissolubly linked with everyone’s memory of the books), while also committing to memory many of the verses, and cannot quite make up my mind whether I wasted my time or not; I was particularly proud of my copies of the Duchess and the Frog Footman, which were as good, I thought, as the originals.

Now I feel about the Alice books almost as Betteredge, the house steward in Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone, felt about Robinson Crusoe: that they contain within them the solution to or explanation of every human predicament. For example, Through the Looking-Glass contains by far the best explanation of political correctness that I have ever seen, more than a century before it even existed. Some, of course, will deny even now that it exists because it is so difficult to define precisely, but this is mere nominalist pedantry in the service of denial.

It is Humpty Dumpty who gets to the heart of the matter, in one of the most famous dialogues in English, perhaps in world, literature. Having proved that un-birthday presents are superior to birthday presents because they can be given on 364 days of the year instead of only one, Humpty Dumpty says:

“There’s glory for you!”

“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’” Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t — till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’”

“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument,’” Alice objected.

“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.”

#page#Philosophers, of course, have had a field day with this passage, seeing in Humpty Dumpty a latter-day William of Ockham who strongly defended the idea that all universal terms were but flatus vocis, hot air without any real existence; but humbler tillers of the intellectual countryside, such as journalists, will recognize Humpty Dumpty’s statement that the question of language boils down to who is to be master only too well in the activities of politically correct sub-editors, who change Mankind for Humankind, and chairman for chair or chairperson (though never hangman for hang or hangperson). By changing what can be said, you eventually change what is and can be thought; by changing what is and can be thought, you change the composition of the elite, that is to say the elite that must form in a society above the hunter-gatherer stage of development, any ideological commitment to egalitarianism notwithstanding. An amusing passage in Through the Looking-Glass, then, is pregnant with meaning and significance; it anticipates the development of Orwell’s Newspeak, but lightheartedly, without foreboding.

The protean nature and appeal of the Alice books, achieved by goodness knows what alchemy, is illustrated by the joyful verbal pedantry of many of the exchanges between Alice and the other characters. Carroll knew that children delight to catch their elders and betters out by means of verbal trickery: What is cheek, if it is not a child’s exposure of a flaw in an adult’s attitude or argument, and what child does not congratulate himself on his cleverness on a piece of well-executed cheek, even should it bring retribution, often all the greater the more logical the child has been?

Over and over again, there are passages that exploit the ambiguities of everyday language, and the young reader is caught up short in his or her assumptions. When, for example, the Mouse begins his long and potentially boring disquisition on the early history of England (a satire on the pedagogy of the time), he says:

“‘Even Stigand, the patriotic archbishop of Canterbury, found it advisable — ’”

“Found what?” said the Duck. 

“Found it,” said the Mouse rather crossly: “of course you know what ‘it’ means.”

Every child, spotting the difficulty here, is handed a pin with which to puncture the balloon of every adult’s supposed omniscience. How easy it is to confuse, how difficult to elucidate! It was once said of Carroll, who was a professional mathematician and logician, that he would have been perfectly happy as a medieval scholastic, refuting the propositions of his opponents with clever verbal arguments; what the Alice books demonstrate is that we are all, by nature, scholastics. This is because, for most of us, most of the time, talking for victory (even if only in the form of discomfiture of our interlocutors) is more important than finding the truth.

As for those of us who sometimes find ourselves in court, either as lawyers or as expert witnesses, the Alice books are a salutary call to verbal precision. For myself, I never go into court without reciting to myself several times the verse from “You Are Old, Father William”:

“In my youth,” said his father, “I took to the law,

And argued each case with my wife;

And the muscular strength which it gave to my jaw

Has lasted the rest of my life.”

In the episode in which Alice speaks to the White King, the latter suddenly feels faint and calls for a ham sandwich to revive him. When that is eaten, he wants another, but there is only hay left to eat.

“There’s nothing like eating hay when you’re faint,” he remarked to her, as he munched away.

“I should think throwing cold water over you would be better,” Alice suggested: “ — or some sal-volatile.”

“I didn’t say there was nothing better,” the King replied. “I said there was nothing like it.”

If you don’t want to be ambushed in court by clever advocates, it is as well to remember such passages and make your utterances as short and unequivocal as possible.

It has often been pointed out that the Alice books were revolutionary — in the little world of children’s literature, that is — because they point no morals. Until they were published, children’s books were heavily moralistic. Indeed, they were stiff with morals: if, that is, unctuousness can impart stiffness.

#page#It is certainly true that the episodes do not follow any moral, or even causative, logic. Carroll makes mock of Victorian moralism and highmindedness, which must have come as a relief to children and their parents, like shedding a heavy load after a long walk. This lack of moralism is clear from the following passage from the second time Alice meets the Duchess:

Alice had quite forgotten the Duchess by this time, and was a little startled when she heard her voice to her ear. “You’re thinking about something, my dear, and that makes you forget to talk. I can’t tell you just now what the moral of that is, but I shall remember it in a bit.”

“Perhaps it hasn’t one,” Alice ventured to remark.

“Tut, tut, child!” said the Duchess. “Every thing’s got a moral, if only you can find it.”

The attentive child will have recalled, however, that in the earlier scene in which she appeared, the Duchess screamed, “Talking of axes, chop off her head!” merely because Alice had mentioned that the earth takes 24 hours to turn on its axis. The Duchess, therefore, is no moral examplar, very far from it; and nothing could make more amusingly clear the distinction between morality and moralism.

Carroll, a morally tortured man himself (because of his non-platonic longings for little girls), was obviously not an amoralist, however: He was much subtler than that. He was essentially a man of the happy medium, which all tolerant people have to be. Having just mocked the highly competitive rote-learning pedagogy of his age, for example, he proceeds within a few pages to mock the notion that there should be no competition at all. At the end of the Caucus-race, all the creatures crowd round the Dodo and ask who has won.

This question the Dodo could not answer without a great deal of thought, and it stood for a long time with one finger pressed upon its forehead . . .  while the rest waited in silence.

At last the Dodo said, “Everybody has won, and all must have prizes.”

Perhaps it is not a coincidence that it should have been the Dodo who uttered this sentimental sentiment, because by then it had been extinct for over a century. Indeed, it was (and has remained) the very symbol of extinction as a fate and a process.

It is obvious that Alice is a good, well-mannered, kindly little girl who, in her dreams and behind the looking-glass, enters a world in which everything is bizarre and arbitrary, as well as highly amusing. Goodness for Carroll consisted not of keeping moralistically to rules, or for that matter of breaking them, but of careful thought guiding a benevolent disposition applied to particular situations. Goodness was neither rule-bound nor without rules, but somewhere in between.

The location of good conduct had long been a concern of Carroll’s. When he was only 13, he wrote an amusing and witty little poem on the theme.

I have a fairy by my side

Which says I must not sleep,

When once in pain I loudly cried

It said you must not weep.

After two more stanzas forbidding laughter, drinking, eating, and fighting, Carroll asks in the final stanza:

“What may I do?” at length I cried,

Tired of the painful task.

The fairy quietly replied,

And said “You must not ask.”

The two-word moral of the poem is “You mustn’t.”

No writer ever combined such charming and instantly memorable nonsense with such matter for serious reflection, as well as such inexhaustible fodder for scholars and Ph.D. students, and it is very unlikely that any will ever do so again.

It is only appropriate that I should end, therefore, with Carroll’s discovery of the greatest truth of modern political philosophy, enunciated in “The Hunting of the Snark” by the Bellman, and known to all modern democratic politicians:

What I tell you three times is true.

– Mr. Dalrymple is the author of numerous books, including Second Opinion and the forthcoming The New Vichy Syndrome: Why European Intellectuals Surrender to Barbarism.

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