‘Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις, not ποίησις. The rules of the IMAGINATION are themselves the very powers of growth and production. The words to which they are reducible, present only the outlines and external appearance of the fruit. A deceptive counterfeit of the superficial form and colours may be elaborated; but the marble peach feels cold and heavy, and children only put it to their mouths.’ [Coleridge, Biographia ch. 18]

‘ποίησις’ (poiēsis) means ‘a making, a creation, a production’ and is used of poetry in Aristotle and Plato. ‘μóρφωσις’ (morphōsis) in essence means the same thing: ‘a shaping, a bringing into shape.’ But Coleridge has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the KJV translates as ‘form’: ‘An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form [μóρφωσις] of knowledge and of the truth in the law’ [Romans 2:20]; ‘Having a form [μóρφωσις] of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away’ [2 Timothy 3:5]. I trust that's clear.

There is much more on Coleridge at my other, Coleridgean blog.

Thursday, 29 October 2015

Alice 3: Animals in Wonderland



I'm rather intrigued by the notion (which, I'm ashamed to confess, only recently occurred to me) that Tenniel's Alice's Caterpillar is amongst other things a satirical dig at the British judiciary. Martin Gardner notes how Tenniel made the first two rows of caterpillarian legs the creature's nose and chin, which is very neat; and I remember thinking as a child how like a treble clef the curling of the hookah's line is. But to look at the image is surely to note the resemblance of the caterpillar's back to a judicial wig (Thomas Woodcock and Dominique Enright's Legal Habits: a Brief Sartorial History of Wig, Robe and Gown (2003) makes plain that in the nineteenth-century, and unlike today, Judges wore 'a larger full-bottomed style of wig' where attorneys and lawyers wore 'bobwigs' and 'pigtails' respectively); and the sleeve looks very like the sleeve of a judicial gown. The question is whether Tenniel had any larger point, beyond linking Judges with the indolence and orientalism associated with the hookah? He (the caterpillar, I mean) is certainly fairly adversarial in the way he questions Alice; and he instructs her, rather imperiously, to recit Southey’s ‘You Are Old Father William’ (the actual title of Southey’s poem is 'The Old Man’s Comforts, And How He Gained Them’)—a text about deeds and consequences of the sort that might be thought to appeal to a legal mind.

Then I found myself thinking about the way pre-chrysalis and post-pupaic insects figure in Victorian literature. Think of the dragonfly in Tennyson’s ‘Two Voices’, or the even more magnificent (because so much larger relative to its human observer) invertebrates Tom encounters in The Water Babies. They are types of transformation, of spiritual metamorphosis and deployed as such. But Carroll’s caterpillar is a topsy-turvey version of this, a sort of trope of anti-metamorphosis. We might expect a caterpillar to look forward to metamorphosis, to be anticipating a dazzling, yet-to-come maturity. But this caterpillar seems already old—a High Court Judge sitting on his sofa, smoking, grumpily quizzing and snapping at the impertinent youngling who has come along disturbing his rest. We don’t, I think, imagine this caterpillar ever changing into any kind of butterfly. Like the law (like the law, say, in Dickens’s 1852-3 Bleak House, a novel Carroll admired) he represents deep-rooted inertia. There’s a particular sort of genius in embodying the principle of stasis in a caterpillar, of all animals.

Which leads me on to say something about animals in Carroll’s book. It would do a kind of violence to the Carroll’s nonsensorium to want to construct a bestiary or rigid taxonomy of Carrollian animals, of course. Part of the way the animals function here is by unexpectedness, by twitting our expectations and as a means of adding vitality and variety to Alice’s progression. So, in place of a taxonomy, a list, with chapter references in square-brackets: in Wonderland Alice meets a rabbit [1]; a mouse [2]; ‘a Duck and a Dodo, a Lory and an Eaglet, and several other curious creatures’ (including, if we trust Tenniel, a monkey, a crab and a parrot) [3]; the white rabbit again, Bill the Lizard—apparently an obscure dig at Disraeli, though exactly in what way is not clear—and a puppy-dog [4]; a caterpillar [5]; a frog footman, a fish footman and a pig-baby—plus, of course, the Cheshire Cat [6]; March Hare and dormouse [7]; uncooperative flamingos and the Cheshire Cat again [8]; Gryphon, Mock-Turtle and sugar-haired lobster [9]; and, finally, several of these animals return to the story for the trial scene at the end [10-12], including a whole jury box full of beasts. Looking-Glass is a little less bestial, although we do have the black kitten [1]; the chesspiece horse on the poker—and the Jabberwock [2], various Looking-Glass insects and the fawn [3]; the walrus and the oysters he eats [4]; the White Queen turning into a sheep [5]; Humpty Dumpty, whom I suppose must be considered an animal of some type or other [6] and the lion and the unicorn [7]. That’s quite a spread.



We could start to talk about this menagerie by observing that there are two kinds of creature Alice encounters. By which I mean—there are many kinds of creature in the book (of course), but two sorts of provenance for animals and people: domestic and display. By this I mean that (a) some of the animals and artefacts Alice meets derive, in magnified and magical forms, from the sorts of pets a middle class girl might have at home (rabbits; cats; dogs; fishes) or the sorts of pastimes which she would have enjoyed playing: playing cards, chess-sets and so on. By the same token (b) some of the animals are the sort of thing a nice middle-class child might encounter at museums, art galleries or zoos. The dodo in Wonderland is one example of the latter category, the sort of thing you can see in the Natural History Museum, though not of course in real life (they’d been extinct since 1690, although one has been on display at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History since the late 1850s): the Duchess, in Tenniel’s illustration, is a version of Quentin Massys ‘A Grotesque Old Woman’, hanging in the National Gallery, and so on.



We can take this a little further, I think: the mundane and the fantastical function, to use a wearily over-deployed word, dialectically in these novels. In a sense, that’s kind of the point of the Alice books.

Another aspect of the way the book ‘uses’ animals occurs to me. In Wonderland the figures in authority, or as near to authority as the carnivalesque logic of the imagined world permit, are human: Alice herself; the Duchess; the King and Queen of Hearts (in a lesser sense this is true of the Mad Hatter too, who lords it over his hare and dormouse friends in his insane little way). Figures lower down the social order tend to be animals: either actual servants—the frog footman—or else characters like the white rabbit, fearfully subordinate to the queen, or the parrot-form court officials in the frontispiece to Wonderland. This iterates a clear enough logic: that humans are ‘superior’ to animals. Except it also put particular symbolic emphasis on those animals that resist this great chain of being—the slippery Cheshire Cat, say; the Dodo who takes charge during the Caucus Race; the bossy caterpillar.

The case is a little more complicated in Looking-Glass. The animals in chapter 3, from the deer to the punning insect-minibeasts, exist in a special zone where names do not apply. Otherwise animals are either fabulous monsters, such as jabberwocks and unicorns, or rare. The final transformation from queen to kitten retroactively informs the semiology of the looking-glass animals, which either specifically represent the transformation from human to beast (as the white queen turns into a sheep) or exist, like the Lion, somewhere halfway between an actual lion and a caricature William Gladstone. See also: half-man, half-egg, Humpty Dumpty. Goo goo g’joob.

But stop a bit (the Roberts said) before we have our chat: can we be a little more fundamental? Why animals? OK, it’s a pertinent question for Children’s Literature, because animals are such a massively ubiquitous feature of childhood. We swamp our kids with cuddly animal toys, and tell them thousands of stories about friendly talking animals (and the occasional wolfish or black-maned-lion unfriendly ones). Why? Once upon a time, when kids grew up in the countryside, on farms or hunting tribes and in close proximity to beasts, this might have made more sense: which is to say, might have spoken more directly to their childish being-in-the-world. But the more we have removed our kids from Nature, the greater role teddy bears and Disneyfied ducks and very hungry caterpillars play in their upbringing. My kids live in a suburban house without pets, have never visited a farm and see most of their ‘real’ animals via the magic glowing box we call television. Yet they could not be more fascinated by the question What Does The Fox Say?, by the activities of the intelligent superspy Perry the Platypus on Phineas and Ferb or the antics of Sendak’s Wild Things who live Where. Why?

It’s worth asking ‘why’, because Carroll comes in the middle of a long tradition of talking animals (from oral culture and Grimm through to Watership Down, War Horse and the talking slugs of Turbo). And the answer isn’t going to be simple. Part of it has to do with what Mary Midgley (in Beast and Man: the Roots of Human Nature, 1978; rev; ed., Routledge 2002) critiques, the tendency of humans to transfer human qualities onto animals, tagging foxes as wily, snakes as devious, lions as courageous and so on. Midgley points out that actual animals are none of these things, they are only themselves. ‘Beasts,’ she says, ‘are neither incarnations of wickedness nor sets of basic needs, nor crude mechanical toys, nor idiot children. They are beasts, each with its own very complex nature. Most of them fail in most respects to conform to their mythical stereotype.’ She adds ‘if then there is no lawless beast outside man, it seems very strange to conclude that there is one inside him. It would be more natural to say that the beast within us gives us partial order; the task of conceptual thought will only be to complete it. [Midgley, 38-39]

Actually, Midgley’s is a very obvious point. Nobody who actually works day-to-day with actual animals would ever mistake them for people in fancy dress. Nonetheless, animal fables are a very ancient mode of human art. ‘Clay tables from ancient Mesopotamia have revealed the existence of collections of proverbs and fables featuring animals as actors some 4,000 years ago, and it is assumed that these tablets are based on even older material’ [D. L. Ashliman, Aesop’s Fables (Barnes and Noble, 2003) p.xxi) But their very antiquity has created a state of affairs in which the personification of beasts has become almost second nature.
The deep affinity in our culture between children and animals—some children, at least, and some animals—is attested not only by a profusion of pets and teddy bears but also by the perennial popularity of stories, films and comic strips about more or less humanoid animals. … Many of these beasts, to be sure, whether of household, barnyard or forest, may have served, from the time of father Aesop to that of Peter Rabbit, as little more than allegorical stand-ins to point a moral concerning another species: our own. … Even so it tells us a great deal if children learn lessons and form relationships most easily by identifying with animals they often know, outside these fictions, only in zoos, dreams or the untamed forests of the imagination. For what is really at issue is relationships, not primarily of animal to animal but—even when no humans appear on the scene—of human to animals and ultimately, through the enlargement this primal relation can bring, of every human and animal being to every other in a world of which all are citizens alike. [Robert M Torrence, Encompassing Nature: a Sourcebook (Counterpoint Press 2002), 2]
‘Yet it is often children in these stories—and often children slighted by the adult world—who are most in touch … with animals and other natural beings.’ Is Alice ‘slighted’? Middle-class, clever, grounded Alice? Surely not! Yet the implication of Torrence’s argument here is that all children feel marginalised, by virtue of the fact that they are children. Though he doesn’t put it in exactly these terms, Torrence does argue that ‘such stories give voice to a tenacious myth of lost innocence’ that is:
both Romantic and Platonic: what is lost in growing up is an inborn remembrance of oneness with the surrounding world which we gradually, almost inexorably relinquish—all but the childlike few who are madmen, lovers or poets.’ [3]
We can forgive Torrence his gush, here, because (although he doesn’t think he’s talking about Alice) this is exactly Carroll’s mis-en-scene. The oneness belongs to Alice; and all the ‘adult’ characters amongst whom she moves (the Duchess’s boy—who turns into a pig—is the only other child in the books) are all of them madmen and madwomen, lovers and poets. What are all these animals doing, in these novel? They are enacting, or enabling, a fundamentally totemic vision of God. As Levi Strauss famously put it, in his still resonant study of the totemic aspects of early human culture, animals are a dominant mode of the totemic imagination because ‘the diversity of species furnishes man with the most intuitive picture at his disposal and constitutes the most direct manifestation he can perceive of the ultimate discontinuity of reality. It is the sensible expression of an objective coding.’ [Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind (University of Chicago Press, 1966) 137].
The phenomenon of totemism was one of the primary concerns of cultural anthropologists of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries. As the anthropologists of that period collected ethnographic data, they noticed that non-literate societies commonly associated their own clans with natural phenomena, such as species of animals or plants, or natural bodies, or even geographical locations. Local inhabitants often explained this by saying a particular clan has “descended ” from the animal, plant, etc., and sometimes the association would involve complex ritual proscriptions, such as a prohibition against eating or killing the beings connected with one’s clan [David Pace, Claude Lévi-Strauss, the Bearer of Ashes (Routledge 1983) 173]
Another angle, which takes its impulse from psychoanalysis, might see these novels as an almost psychopathological act of displacement. Here is Carrie Rohman on the function of ‘the animal’ in Freud:
The displacement of animality onto marginalized others operates as an attempted repression of the animality that stalks Western subjectivity … indeed, the development of Freudian psychoanalysis in the early twentieth century should be recognised as a logical response to the threats of evolutionary theory. The concept of the unconscious in Freudian psychoanalysis operates as a modernist codification of the problems of animality in the human person. Freud himself hazards an explanation of humanity’s rise from its animal heritage and theorizes that our repression of organicism simultaneously deanimalises us and makes us human. Animality is consequently equated with neurosis in psychoanalytic terms, since one must repress it in order to become, and remain, human. … Freud offers a “cure” for animality’s presence in the human psyche. [Carrie Rohman, ‘Facing the Animal’, Stalking the Subject: Modernism and the Animal (Columbia University Press, 2008), 63]
In Yann Martel’s novel The Life of Pi (2001), the protagonist deplores humanity’s soft-spot for ‘animalus anthropomorphicus’: ‘we’ve all met one, perhaps even owned one. It is an animal that is “cute”, “friendly”, “loving”, “devoted”, “merry”, “understanding”. These animals lie in ambush in every toy store and children’s zoo … They are the pendants of those “vicious”, “bloodthirsty”, “depraved” animals that inflame the ire of the maniacs I have just mentioned who vent their ire on them with walking sticks and umbrellas. In both cases we look at animals and see a mirror. The obsession with putting ourselves in the centre of everything is the bane not only of theologians but also of zoologians’ [Life of Pi, 31]. Pi, or Martel, is here channelling Mary Midgley. Carroll anticipates this, but not by representing it as a mode of Existential Tragedy; on the contrary, for himit figures as joyous Nonsense. For Kingsley, the pupae is a symbol of human spiritual rebirth. For Carroll, the caterpillar is its own, cranky, idiosyncratic self. Kids, I think, connect instinctively with that. Animals don’t adhere to any (human) law; they are each of them iterations of the fundamental idiosyncrasy of existence, which is every child’s heady, disorienting experience. It is instinctive in children to resist the appropriation of the animal world to the narrow human moral imperatives of Aesop. The Alice books challenge precisely that hegemonic manoeuvre. They say, in effect: I fought the Law, and the Law Wonderland. What child wouldn’t warm to that?


Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Alice 2: Up With The Smoke And How Alice Flew; or, How I'd Like To Write A New Alice Book



If the rule of three should obtain anywhere, it ought to apply to the fairy tale logicworld of the Alice books. Nor am I the first person to think so. I remember buying Gilbert Adair’s sequel to Wonderland and Looking-Glass when it came out in 1984: Alice Through the Needle's Eye: A Third Adventure for Lewis Carroll's Alice. And it’s not bad, considering; though it reads as dilute compared to the incomparable originals. Alice trying and failing to thread a needle finds the eye growing bigger, falls through and into haystack, which turns out to be a stack of the letter ‘A’. The narrative then strings a series of pun-based animal encounters along an alphabetical conceit (she meets a spelling bee, then two cats joined at the tail who recite the poem ‘The Sands of Dee’; then she meets an elephant and—you get the idea). Needle-land literalises metaphor, so that when it rains cats and dogs actual cats and dogs fall from the sky. Yet somehow, and despite Adair’s fertile imagination the worldbuilding never quite reaches the sprightly solidity of Carroll’s. Of course, that’s a high bar to set for any writer.

Now: I’ve been thinking how might I do the same thing. It’s an idle rumination, since no publisher is looking for a new third Alice book right now. On the up-side, I happen to know the only contemporary illustrator who can hold a candle to Tenniel; and I’d be prepared if necessary to give him the third degree and compel his collaboration by Main Force. Auspiciously I am, like Carroll, also called Charles—my middle name, a family heirloom passed from grandfather to father to son and onto my own boy; though by the same token ‘Robert Carroll’ would be a pseudonym too vainglorious and overreaching to countenance. But since I’m engaged only in thought-experimentation and not actual writing, there’s no reason to hold back.



It seems to me that the problem with Alice Through the Needle's Eye is that Adair gets the balance wrong between rigid logic and surreal fantasy. By ‘wrong’ I mean: he doesn’t weight it the way I’d say Carroll would have done, had Carroll actually written a third volume. A rule of three should progress according to its own logic. So Wonderland is set in the summer, in the countryside, and construes its fantasy via the kind of pastime—card games—a young girl is likely to enjoy in such a setting. Looking-Glass is set in the autumn, in a more regimented and neatened version of nature (we might say: the suburban garden) and the story parses a different, more indoor pastime: chess. The third instalment should, accordingly, be set in the winter (let’s say: Christmas, or New Year), in the city, and be structured according to a third game or pastime—I’m going to go with: snakes and ladders. Adair, though, reverts to summer countryside, and jettisons the game trope altogether, relying instead (shudder) on chores—needlework! Learning one’s letters!—as his organising principle. His book also lacks any of the sense we get from Carroll’s two books of childhood slipping away ... I mean, the way Looking Glass is more autumnal in tone as well as setting. The third book would surely extrapolate this further. Conceivably, this fact alone explains why Carroll never got around to writing it.

One further consideration: Wonderland traces a downward journey, into the underworld (Alice’s Adventures Underground was Carroll’s original title, of course). Through the Looking-Glass is a horizontal transformation, sideslipping into an alt-England. Through the Needle’s Eye is mere repetition of trajectory. Clearly what we need is a journey upwards.

On the other hand, Adair gets several things right. One is his decision to keep the frame of reference as a kind of generic Victorian: nothing too period specific, but certainly no attempt to shoehorn in contemporary childhood references—how ghastly a sequel would be if it included cellphones and pop music references. Adair pastiches the Carrollian style pretty well, though erring a little on the side of tweeness. Will Brooker, in his excellent study of the reception and interpretations of the Alice books [Alice’s Adventures: Lewis Carroll in Popular Culture (Continuum 2004)], calls Adair's book ‘an intelligent fake’, which is right, I think. But he also thinks it lacks structure, or lacks the right kind of Carrollian structure, and I think that's right too. The alphabetical conceit doesn't have enough narrative or imaginative force, and ‘the characters Alice meets do not seem to follow a clear system, like those in Wonderland and Looking-Glass … Jack and Jill are from a nursery rhyme and the Country Mouse from a fable; the Grampus and the Hairdresser have the same rhythm to their names as the Walrus and the Carpenter … but the main theme throughout is simply encounters with talking animals, some of whom take their names and characteristics from a play on words.’ [Brooker, 168]

So, in my thought-game, the third book should be Up. Alice playing snakes-and-ladders with her two sisters before a roaring fire, on New Year’s Eve. She ponders what magic it is in the fireplace that is able to transform so heavy a thing as a massy log into airy smoke and bright upward-snaking flames; and (of course, falling asleep) she swooshes up the chimney. Inside a sooty chimney is a nicely Victorian location, and Alice might encounter a whole society of sweeps. The pillars and banners of smoke can be as serpentine, or as ladderishly elevating, as the game-conceit needs. And however long the phantasmagoric chimney flue might be, lit by the sparkles of fire and containing any number of crisped, sooty or urban characters, Alice would surely eventually emerge into the night sky above. An aerial Alice could move continually upwards, through citied clouds and hairy comets, to an Orlando-Furioso moon, upon which the little dog is still laughing to see such fun. 21st-century readers have enough of a solid sense of Victorian city life to enable a wide range of reference and playful iteration of 19th-century tropes. What title to choose is a poser, mind. Alice Up The Chimney is a touch too double-entendre for our purposes, I think; and Alice Goes Up In Smoke rather suggests that she explodes. After consideration I think I’d go with Up With The Smoke, And How Alice Flew. Flue, see. Flew.

Maybe not.

But there’s one serious, or semi-serious, point in all this fanciful speculation. It relies on the sense, which I argue elsewhere on this blog, that Carroll’s playful levity, his lightness of comic touch, is not incompatible with seriousness. On the contrary, comedy (especially English surreality) is a surer ground of seriousness than po-faced gurning. And what this third Alice book would pinpoint is the buried Dantean structure in Carroll’s narrative. In the first part, Alice goes into the underworld, meets creatures transformed into various monstrous shapes by their rigid natures—except that where Dante is all moral and finger-wagging and doleful-countenanced by what he sees, Carroll plays the resulting peoplescape for laughs—not only more enjoyable, but more ethically and aesthetically eloquent. In part two Alice moves horizontally into a more structured environment. Where Dante figures a mountain with seven terraces (one for each deadly sin) followed by a summit that leads the traveller to heaven, Carroll imagines a chessboard where Alice moves through seven squares before passing, in the eighth, into her queenly apotheosis. A third Alice book should surely move, like Dante, up into the sky. And there should be a rose at the end of it.

One bubble more? Why not?

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Alice 1: Through the Looking-Glass and What Apuleius Found There



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,
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.
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 finds 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.

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,
The red-and-white-flower-spangled hedge, the grass
Where Apuleius pastured his Gold Ass,
Where young Gargantua made whole holiday . . .
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 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’ [4], 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. [6]
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.


Monday, 26 October 2015

Granville on Egyptian Mummies (1825)



The text is dry enough, but the illustrations are rather fine. I especially like the engraving of the skull-with-ears.












Macbeth Act 4 Scene 1



The famous scene, where the  Witches boil two gigantic letters T into soup. From the title page of this edition:

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Midnight on Saturn, 1879

A lovely image, this, from Sun, Moon and Stars (1879) by Victorian children's author and popular educator Agnes Giberne.


That's from the German edition of Giberne's book, because it was the largest version of the image I could find. The Wikipedia link at Giberne's name (above) has a different version, smaller but much more gorgeously coloured:


I can't say why the details are different. Might it be that the publishers of the later-issued German Sonne, Mond und Sterne availed themselves of more recent science that repudiated the idea that there might be seashores and rocks on the surface of Saturn, and so reworked the print to cover those obnoxious features under swirls of cloud? The sea is still clearly visible, though. Or could it be a brand new, and actually different image?

Actually, the more I look at the two images, the more I realise: it must be that latter.

War and Peace (not the Tolstoy one)

1862, this. Predates Война и миръ by seven years.


'A.L.O.E.' stands for 'A Lady of England', the pseudonym under which the incredibly productive Charlotte Maria Tucker wrote. Sure, War and Peace is a great title. But we can be honest: Willie and Zobeide is a better one.

Friday, 16 October 2015

Victory Ode Celebrating Britain's Defeat of America in the War of 1776

So, yes. Maybe this was published a touch prematurely ...


I especially love the way this piece of ill-advised triumphalism is bundled-in with ‘An Ode to Mr Pinchbeck, Upon his Newly-Invented Patent Candle Snuffers’

Friday, 9 October 2015

The BCP Lord's Prayer



This morning was Harvest Festival at Dan's School. Parents were invited, so at 9:30am I and several score other parents squeezed into a rather overcrowded school assembly hall. All the kids filed in, and we all sang songs and watched various presentations and so on from Years 3 (Dan's year) up to Year 6. The assembly ended with everybody saying the Lord's Prayer, and it occurred to me, not for the first time, what a horrible piece of translation it is.

That's fighting talk, I know. The Book of Common Prayer, like the KJV, is supposed to be one of the few undisputed masterpieces of translation in English. And it is, inarguably, full of the most amazing passages and extraordinary prose. Not this bit, though; which is a more than a little irksome seeing as how this is one of the bits most often read aloud, and usually by many people in unison. And when that happens? Well
And forgive us our trespasses
As we forgive them that trespass against us
turns into
And forgive uss sour tresspassssesss ass
we forgive them that trespassssagainssssusss
and the whole room sounds like it's full of snakes. Tennyson used to revise his poetry specifically by eliminating the sibilants, a process he called 'kicking the geese out of the boat'. Somebody might have done some geese kicking here, I think.

I suppose, at a pinch, we might argue that this ghastly hissing in the middle of a core Christian prayer perhaps enacts the jarring, dinning nature of trespass (the snake in the garden, and so on). But it's not a very persuasive argument, really, is it. Quite apart from anything else, the original Greek contains a very low quotient of sibilants: καὶ ἄφες ἡμῖν τὰ ὀφειλήματα ἡμῶν,/ὡς καὶ ἡμεῖς ἀφήκαμεν τοῖς ὀφειλέταις ἡμῶν: all 'h's and 'm's and 'f's and much smoother on the ear.

Whilst we're on this: 'for ever and ever' is a daft repetition: clumsy and a bit infantile. But that's a separate issue.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Joseph Lancaster: Educationalist

In the early nineteenth-century, Lancaster's theories of education were popular, and widely imitated. He believed pupils that performed well should be given rewards, to incentivise them to continue to excel and others to imitate them. And he believed that pupils who did badly or transgressed the rules should be punished, for instance by being beaten. But a simple flogging was not the only approach he recommended to teachers. Humiliation and ridicule, he noted, were often far more effective disincentives.

An example: for some reason Lancaster had a peculiar dislike of boys using a sing-song voice when they read aloud in class. Below is his suggestion as how to counter this monstrous delinquency: it's a little perfect storm of emotional sadism and pettiness, with a little random anti-Semitism thrown in.


[This is from Lancaster Improvements in Education as it Respects the Industrious Classes (1803), 89]

Monday, 5 October 2015

Governesses. Not everybody liked them.

There are a lot of governesses in nineteenth-century fiction, and they are often point-of-view or sympathetic characters. So it's worth reminding ourselves that not everybody liked them. Here's Mrs Cantwell, a respectable middle-class female character, from Charlotte Sanders's Holidays at Home (1803), and she has positively Daily-Mailian views of governesses:



[Charlotte Sanders, Holidays at Home: Written for the Amusement of Young Persons (York, 1803), 103]. I like the phrase 'Artful Insinuating Hypocritical Emegrees' so much, I may take is as the name for my next band.

Dickens, 1806: Not A Man Of Words

Our man, of course, was not born until 1812. Who's this, then in 1806?



It's from this diverting novel: fourth edition 1806, so first edition probably a year or so earlier, but I can't seem to trace that.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Wine and Wisdom: or, the Tipling Philosophers (1710)


If I say this is a 1710 version of the Monty Python "Bruces Philosophers Song", I am in no way exaggerating. Click the image and check out the Google Book version if you don't believe me. Some samples:



'Oh, Socrates himself is particularly missed ...'



Plato, they say, could put it away ...

Saturday, 3 October 2015

Milton, Fat and Thought


A rather handsome 1800 edition of Paradise Regained, copiously edited by Charles Dunster  Milton fat, though? Seems a little harsh.





There's quite a nice facing illustration too. Though I'm genuinely unsure what it has to do with the poem:

Dryden's Musical Version of Paradise Lost (1674)



Royalist Dryden, though a political antagonist of Republican Milton, admired Paradise Lost immensely, and wrote the libretto for a planned musical version of the epic in 1674: The State of Innocence, and Fall of Man (it wasn't published until 1677). Apparently the music was never composed to accompany this, nor were the King's Company players or the staff of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane especially eager to put the thing on. Here is the opening stage direction. A touch over-ambitious and expensive, perhaps, in terms of stagecraft and special effects?





All that's missing here is a giant hologram of Sir Laurence Olivier's head.

If Hell was a set-dresser's nightmare (sample stage direction: 'A Palace rises, where sit, as in Council, Lucifer, Asmoday, Molock, Belial , Beelzebub and Sathan'), Eden seems to have been a lot more modestly conceived. A bit of moss. A small rock.