Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Alice Books

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass
by Lewis Carroll
Originally published in 1865 (Alice's Adventures in Wonderland) and 1871 (Through the Looking-Glass)

The second reading in Professor Eric Rabkin's Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World class on Coursera is Lewis Carroll's two Alice stories, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. I read both of them about a decade ago. I re-read them for Professor Rabkin's class. (They'll likely be the only books I re-read; I unfortunately don't see myself having the time to read Shelley's Frankenstein, Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles or Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness for a second time while the course is underway.)

Everybody knows these books in abridged form. And they survive abridgment better than most, because there's hardly anything like a story in the original books. There is nothing remotely resembling a plot or character development to get in the way of gleeful Victorian surrealism. I fondly remember playing a computer game as a kid, Cosmic Osmo and the Worlds Beyond the Mackerel, in which you explore a universe which is an unceasing parade of nonsense and things which are absurd for no reason. Lewis Carroll delivered a very similar feeling well over a hundred years earlier.

What I didn't remember from reading these books a decade ago was the sheer level of punning, by which I mean punning that seeks to pick language apart at its most fundamental level. I vaguely remember amusing myself as a child by making up dialogue like this:

A: Are you Brendan?
B: No, but my name is.

But such linguistic meta-meta-tomfoolery has found a home in Lewis Carroll's writing. In Through the Looking-Glass, the White Knight introduces us to the song A-sitting On a Gate, which is called Ways and Means. The song's name, which is called Haddock's Eyes, is The Aged Aged Man. (On Wikipedia, the song is under 'Haddock's Eyes'. I am sure there is a very logical and well-thought-out explanation for why that title was chosen instead of the other three choices.)

As any 19th-century literature enthusiast will tell you, the Alice books strike us as absurd for no reason because much of the cultural context has been forgotten. The books are full of parodies of cultural flotsam and jetsam which nobody recognizes anymore. (This is especially true of the poetry, most of which is mockery of specific stodgy old poems that children had to learn by heart back then. Nowadays they're only remembered for being mocked by Lewis Carroll.)

Additionally, the author was a mathematician first and foremost, and most of the insane logic in the books is actually his snide commentary on the debates raging among mathematicians of the day. What I'd like to hunt down and read is mathematician Martin Gardner's The Annotated Alice, a guide to all that's to be found in the books. I like Professor Eric Rabkin's lectures, but he can't cover everything, and he chooses to focus primarily on issues of imagery and structure (although he does talk a good deal about Lewis Carroll / Charles Dodgson's math career, which I appreciate).

I'm not sure I would put the Alice books into the genre of speculative fiction, the way it makes sense to define the genre today. To me, a work in the speculative fiction genre, whether it's fantasy, science fiction, or alternate history, creates a fictional world that makes sense on its own terms (or is intended to, in the case of authors who happen to be inept world-builders). This means you can take the point of view of a native of the world, and from that standpoint the world's day-to-day happenings make sense.

I don't think that's possible for the chaos-lands of Wonderland and the Looking-Glass World.  Lewis Carroll did not make it a high priority to make it seem that the March Hare and the Red Queen led any kind of day-to-day existence when Alice wasn't there to witness them. And that's fine. You can't fault the Alice books for not being good high fantasy. That would be like faulting a tasty Middle Eastern hummus dish for not being a good example of traditional Japanese cuisine. Genres are different, and that's OK.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Darn! Now I have to reread the Alice books. Very interesting review.