Where Legless Men Run and Water Burns: On Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland


Hollywood is no place for nonsense. That’s presumably why Alice Through the Looking Glass, the sequel to Disney’s 2010 movie Alice in Wonderland, features organizing principles absent from Lewis Carroll’s books: Alice’s search for a “chronometer” — a time travel device that’s also a pacemaker for Father Time (Sacha Baron Cohen, with mutton chops, German accent, and mustache) — paired with a search for the missing family of the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp, eyes painted yellow like a gecko).

For the story to make sense, director James Bobin needed a proper quest with proper villains attached; most of all, he needed a linear story that unfolds in time. But time is almost totally meaningless in Carroll’s Wonderland. On the contrary, a timeless, dreamy indolence prevails. In Carroll’s books, there isn’t any story in the conservative Hollywood sense, and there’s certainly no systematic antagonist to satisfy a Hollywood film editor.

The only villain in Carroll’s Wonderland is overzealous conscience, and the means available to combat it are wholly stylistic, a unique brand of literary anarchy that owes much to the repressive Victorian era: Carroll was born in the teeth of the Evangelical religious revival that defined it. As Josef Altholz writes, “The most important thing to remember about religion in Victorian England is that there was an awful lot of it.” Threatened by the advance of science and secularism in the 18th century, clergymen of the 19th fought to defend the old moral order by clamping down firmly on new ideas. Lewis Carroll’s father was a reverend and archdeacon in this reactionary Evangelical movement, which also conscripted Carroll himself. Biographer Derek Hudson writes that “it is beyond dispute that Lewis Carroll modeled his outward character largely on his authoritarian father.” Carroll was ordained a clergyman like his father and his colleagues in mathematics at Oxford. But this proper “outward character” had a rebellious counterpart in an inner character that authored puckish, nonsensical books.

Verbal humor was from childhood Carroll’s favored means of breaking rules. When he was 13, he wrote a satirical poem called “Rules and Regulations” and another called “My Fairy.” His “fairy” was an inner voice of conscience whose basic message was You mustn’t…do anything. This was the beginning of Carroll’s career undermining authority figures by impersonating their voices, a strategy that would culminate in hilarious creations like the King and Queen of Hearts, the Duchess, and the Mock Turtle. Their lunacy derives not so much from disregard for rules as from rigid observation of rules that don’t make any sense. The system of Wonderland runs on madness and everybody living there abides by it. Thus the Cheshire Cat judiciously assures Alice that she needn’t bother avoiding mad people in Wonderland. “Oh, you can’t help that,” he says, “we’re all mad here.”

Consider how the Duchess, depicted by 19th-century illustrator John Tenniel as a man in a squared Elizabethan headdress, nurses her baby in a kitchen full of pepper. “I speak severely to my boy, I beat him when he sneezes,” she sings. And then this:
‘Here! You may nurse it a bit, if you like!’ the Duchess said to Alice, flinging the baby at her as she spoke. ‘I must go and get ready to play croquet with the Queen,’ and she hurried out of the room. The cook threw a frying-pan after her as she went, but it just missed her.
It’s telling that the insane Duchess’s favorite word, as Carroll later observes, is “moral.” It is her devotion to a crooked dogma that makes her seem unhinged: an infant is not allowed to sneeze; a game of croquet outweighs the baby’s needs. Invitations to the Queen’s officious game of croquet, meanwhile, arrive in large wax-sealed letters, whence footmen read them aloud. To make all this ceremony even more preposterous, the game is ultimately played with flamingoes and hedgehogs instead of mallets and balls. The courtiers’ fastidious efforts at croquet quickly bring about nothing but chaos as the animate balls, mallets, and wickets wander off. The game is mad, not the players.

Sigmund Freud said that good jokes free us from the prohibitions of reserved, polite society, and Carroll sets us all free: authority figures so corrupt and ridiculous can’t enforce their prohibitions. The Queen of Hearts, Carroll says, has “only one way of settling all difficulties, great or small” — and that is to cry, “Off with his head!” She and the King, who eventually serves as the most maddening trial judge in all literature, are a perfect picture of the excess and irrationality of a neurotic conscience. Alice accordingly rejects their corrupt judgments; when the Queen hysterically demands Alice’s head, Alice silences her with this assessment of her moral code: “Nonsense!”

The Cheshire Cat is one of the few characters who seems in on the joke of Wonderland. So is the Gryphon, who doesn’t fear “that savage Queen.” In fact, he says, she’s “fun.” “It’s all her fancy, that,” says the Gryphon in his candid patois. “They never executes nobody, you know.” The Gryphon pronounces a similar verdict on his companion, the sorrowful Mock Turtle, whose name derives from a Victorian dish called “mock turtle soup.” “It’s all his fancy, that,” says the Gryphon. “He hasn’t got no sorrow, you know.” In Wonderland, sorrow is just another preposterous rule. Carroll illustrates this point when Alice asks the source of the Mock Turtle’s woe and receives this sniffling and incomplete explanation: “Once, I was a real Turtle.” His sorrow derives, it seems, from an affectation, a “mock sorrow” to which he feels unaccountably obliged. But the reader recognizes instantly the absurdity of this obligation. We have as little to fear from mock sorrow as we do from the Queen’s mock executions.

Throughout the books, it’s Alice who is the principal skeptic of Wonderland’s regulations and the spurious sorrow, guilt, and fear they entrain. By appointing a child the cynosure of wisdom in his books, Carroll broke with the standard approach to children’s literature in Victorian times. Victorian children’s literature treated children as eminently corruptible and sought to provide them with stern moral instruction. Carroll used Alice like a mini-Friedrich Nietzsche to do the opposite — to critique the bad morals of adults — and as a sort of straight man in a comic routine. She points out absurdity so that the reader can not only appreciate its latent social commentary, but enjoy it, revel in it, laugh at it. Nonsense is a relief to the child from the bullying strictures of reality, but it’s perhaps an even bigger relief to adults, who suffer even more of reality’s insults and constraints, and who have lost the childhood method of defying reality through nonsense.

Lewis Carroll, however, seemed to have recovered the pleasurable nonsense available to children by retaining in himself the ability to be a child. As is well-known, Carroll composed the earliest version of the Alice stories to entertain a real little girl, 10-year-old Alice Liddell, daughter of a lexicographer of ancient Greek at Oxford. His unorthodox friendships with Alice and other little girls have led some scholars to call him a pedophile; the intensity of Carroll’s interest in the Liddell girls may indeed have precipitated the break with the Liddell family that eventually ensued. Regardless of the ultimate propriety of these relationships, Carroll’s urge and ability to see the world through the eyes of a child is inseparable from his artistic vision. Among the many rules that Wonderland warps to the breaking point is that which divides big and small, adult and child. When Alice literally grows and shrinks in Wonderland, she seems to illustrate Carroll’s wish, and his corresponding ability, to toggle between child and adult by an act of mental flexion or extension. Age, like time, does not exist in Wonderland.

Carroll’s personal interest in the world of childhood, his professional interest in symbolic logic, and his rebellion against over-finicky rules all came together in nonsense verse like “Jabberwocky,” which famously begins, “Twas brillig and the slithy toves / Did gyre and gimble in the wabe.” Seth Lerer writes, “[T]he idea of nonsense as a force of the imagination, of nonsense as a challenge to the logic of adulthood and the laws of civil life — this was a new idea in Victorian England. The masters of that nonsense were, of course, Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear.” Carroll’s nonsense has indeed been influential and long-lived; it gave English the portmanteau word “chortle” and inspired The Beatles’s famous song “I Am the Walrus.” John Lennon told the BBC that his 1967 nonsense song refers to “The Walrus and the Carpenter” from Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. A century after Carroll made war on the Victorians, Lennon channeled his nonsensical idol to continue the very same culture war, to relieve us of our mock sorrows.

It is this joyous relief and freedom that resounds throughout Wonderland. Adults continue to return to Lewis Carroll in order to retrieve what Freud called “the lost laughter of childhood.” Unlike J.M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan, or A.A. Milne, author of Winnie-the-Pooh, Lewis Carroll grants no asylum to wistful acknowledgements that childhood must come to an end. The lost laughter of childhood needn’t be lost forever, he seems to say. Whether Hollywood, with all its starched conventions and obligations to the Almighty Dollar, can ever retrieve the lost laughter as well as Carroll did is an open question. The Alice movie currently in theaters now doesn’t really aim to. It peddles instead a familiar spectacle, manipulating the audience’s attention, which suited my kids just fine. This grown-up, though, finds more sense in Carroll’s nonsense. Maybe that’s why Carroll’s books are still in print. Nothing funnier has ever been written.

A Long Winter of Oblivion: On the Forgotten Genius of Irish Literature

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James Joyce discarded Catholicism, but he religiously observed Groundhog Day. February 2 was his birthday, and Joyce took his birthday seriously throughout his adult life. He didn’t look for the groundhog’s shadow, however. He looked for his own, and believed he’d found it in the person of another, lesser-known Irish writer who he came to consider his spiritual twin. Joyce claimed the other man had also been born on Groundhog Day in Dublin in 1882, just like him, though scholars have been unable to verify the exact birthdate of this other, lesser-known scribe. Little of the other man’s biography is in fact known with certainty.

The man may have been two years old when his father died and possibly six when he entered a Dublin orphanage, never to return home. It’s all a bit unclear; a fog of rumor hangs over his origins as it does over John Henry or Jesus Christ. This much is known: he was very small as a child; when he grew up he was still so short that one journalist said he was no taller standing than sitting; others called him a leprechaun, and he didn’t much like that; he told a cartoonist, “Eh, you want to caricature me, eh? Well, the Almighty beat you to it.” This too is known: notwithstanding his diminutive beginnings, great men would come to worship at his feet.

The Irish playwright Seán O’Casey called him “the jesting poet with a radiant star in his coxcomb.” Eugene O’Neill asked him to name his children and so Oona and Shane O’Neill got their names. James Joyce asked him to complete Finnegans Wake should Joyce himself go blind. He published plays, novels, stories, and poems, including a series of them in The New Yorker in 1929, and his voice once pervaded the Irish airwaves like rainbows south of Skibbereen. This so-called leprechaun with a voice “nimble as a goat’s foot,” as one commentator puts it, was called James Stephens.

Some evidence suggests Stephens was born not on February 2, 1882 like Joyce, but rather on February 9, 1880. Perhaps Joyce asserted they were twins because he regarded Stephens as a particularly worthy rival, and because Joyce conquered his rivals by appropriating them — and because, after being enemies, they became good friends. In a letter dated May 31, 1927, Joyce reports that for years he carried three portraits in his pocket: one of his father, one of himself, and one of James Stephens. When Ulysses was published on February 2, 1922 — on Joyce’s 40th birthday, by his own design — he inscribed a copy to his poetical twin. Stephens in turn wrote a theosophical poem called “Sarasvati” for Joyce’s birthday and for the rest of Joyce’s life gave him the kind of respect that Joyce demanded of every animal, mineral, and vegetable. Stephens called Joyce a king, encouraged him to carry on with Finnegans Wake, and when it was published, told Joyce that its last chapter was the “greatest prose ever written by a man” — praise that deeply moved Joyce, and with which he surely concurred.

But the two men didn’t like each other at first, and one senses that their rivalry forever chafed at Stephens, beginning with their first meeting in 1912, when Joyce feared and envied Stephens. In 1907, Joyce had published a small volume of poetry called Chamber Music that garnered its author little attention; Stephens’s poetry meanwhile had so impressed the famous Irish poet AE (a.k.a., George Russell) that in 1907 Russell adopted Stephens as his protégé. Stephens had by 1912 furthermore upstaged Joyce in prose. When the two first met on Dawson Street in Dublin, Stephens’s second novel The Crock of Gold was already at the printer, while Joyce was still struggling to publish his first prose work, Dubliners. According to Joyce’s biographer Richard Ellmann, Joyce dumped his publishing frustrations on Stephens, the writer whom Joyce described to his brother as “my rival, the latest Irish genius.” Stephens had of course faced trials and difficulties himself, but Joyce neither knew nor cared. Stephens says that Joyce gazed down at him in Pat Kinsella’s pub with blues eyes so magnified by his spectacles as to be “nearly as big as the eyes of a cow” before commencing a verbal assault. Stephens narrated the meeting thus on the radio in 1946:
He turned his chin and his specs at me, and away down at me, and confided the secret to me that he had read my two books; that, grammatically, I did not know the difference between a semi-colon and a colon: that my knowledge of Irish life was non-Catholic and, so, non-existent, and that I should give up writing and take to a good job like shoe-shining as a more promising profession.

I confided back to him that I had never read a word of his, and that, if Heaven preserved me to my protective wits, I never would read a word of his, unless I was asked to destructively review it.
Stephens had had the upper hand in 1912, but by 1946 Joyce had thoroughly overshadowed his old rival. The word “non-existent” in the foregoing passage calls out the name of another of Stephens’s wounds, a possible turning point in the Stephens-Joyce rivalry. It was in a 1915 essay in The New Age entitled “The Non-Existence of Ireland” that Joyce’s influential champion Ezra Pound dismissed Stephens as “a mild enough writer.” It enraged Stephens, who wrote a bitterly funny letter to The New Age deriding Pound in doggerel form. Stephens concludes that having written Pound’s name, he had to go “fumigate” his sullied pen.

Such injuries were perhaps fresh in Stephens’s mind when, in a 1917 letter, he conceded to his American publisher that Joyce was “a clever, competent writer, but…by no means a great writer.” Stephens went on in that letter to slag Joyce as “a disappointed, envious man” and Joyce’s work as “unpleasant” and “thin.”

In later years, after Stephens and Joyce had become close friends, and after Stephens had affably accommodated himself to Joyce’s international fame, he repented of those criticisms and praised Joyce at every opportunity. And the two friends celebrated their shared birthday together. On February 2, 1933, Stephens wrote from Paris to thank his children Iris and Seumas for their birthday wishes. His letter calls February 2 “that most noble of dates.” “Tis Candlemas,” he writes, “and it is also the end of most things, and the beginning of everything…[W]ill go thence at 8.30 to the Joyces where a party of some kind is to be held to celebrate our mutual birthday…It was bitterly cold here until three days ago, and I had a cold — your mother has it now, but I didn’t need it anyway.”

Stephens was famous for his wit, and Richard Ellmann and others have observed that his humor depended on his modesty and self-deprecation. Being under five feet tall, he identified with the little guy. An editor of Stephens’s letters, Richard Finneran, asserts that Stephens celebrated his birthday on February 2 long before his acquaintance with Joyce; if so, perhaps that’s because, as Ellmann speculates, “Stephens was invariably sympathetic to the intrusions of small creatures into the universe.” Those sympathies are plainly evident in Stephens poems like 1924’s “Little Things” in which Stephens writes, “Little things that run and quail, / And die in silence and despair. / Little things that fight and fail, / And fall on earth and sea and air.”

Ellmann notes that unlike Joyce, Stephens “often chose to appear as elfin.” He was unlike Joyce in his temerity before the possibility of oblivion. David McCord wrote in 1962 of Stephens: “the man put his books out the way one would plant a tree, each to grow to its own size, each to gather in its shade those who have traveled a long way through the mire, the dust and the anxiety of the world.” There is something sagacious and honorable in Stephens’s retiring attitude to posterity, but one sad outcome may be that “the readers of Joyce — a big lot of them too — have overlooked a fellow genius,” as McCord says. Stephens is for one thing much funnier than Joyce, McCord contends, and it’s impossible to disagree with him. “The surrealist in Stephens is always spacious,” McCord goes on, “his hells and heavens (for me at least) have both an altitude and depth that I do not find even in Finnegans Wake.”

Could it be that the shabby, out-of-print volumes that keep custody of Stephens’s legacy are, as McCord argues, “vintage wine in a rain barrel?” Could it be that underneath a homely title like Irish Fairy Tales, which Padraic Colum notes was “never sufficiently praised” and which is now mislabelled as children’s literature, there lies a work of true genius?

Having read Irish Fairy Tales, I add my voice to those who sing in praise of the long-lost leprechaun of Irish literature. For Irish Fairy Tales is more than good. It’s a work of genius on the Joyce and W.B. Yeats level, though stylistically different in almost every way from that of his taller and more famous peers. Stephens writes in that work:
I became the king of the salmon, and, with my multitudes, I ranged on the tides of the world. Green and purple distances were under me: green and gold the sunlit regions above. In these latitudes I moved through a world of amber, myself amber and gold; in those others, in a sparkle of lucent blue, I curved, lit like a living jewel: and in these again, through dusks of ebony all mazed with silver, I shot and shone, the wonder of the sea.
No wonder no one ever wrote Stephens a fitting epitaph; no one could say it quite as well as him! But perhaps what Stephens wrote of the king of the salmon is good enough for himself. He is brave, skilled, honorable, and as unconcerned with either fame or revenge as his hero Fionn.

In “The Boyhood of Fionn,” a piece of magical realism in Irish Fairy Tales to stand aside Gabriel García Márquez and Franz Kafka, Fionn encounters a wise poet sitting on the bank of a wild, remote river. He asks the poet, “Why do you live on the bank of a river?” The poet answers:
‘Because a poem is a revelation, and it is by the brink of running water that poetry is revealed to the mind.’
‘How long have you been here?’ was the next query.
‘Seven years’ the poet answered.
‘It is a long time,’ said wondering Fionn.
‘I would wait twice as long for a poem,’ said the inveterate bard.
Retiring into Joyce’s shadow, Stephens remarked that Finnegans Wake is both “unreadable” and “wonderful.” His own works are readable and wonderful. Groundhog Day seems a fitting time for Stephens to step back out into the light after a long winter of oblivion in Joyce’s shadow. Or, if that’s not to be just now, later then. However long it takes. Stephens would wait twice as long for a poem.

Image Credit: Wikipedia.