Author of Alice Lewis Carroll
DISCOVERIES in the sciences seem to cast rays of their light across the age which precedes them: there are many examples in nineteenth century literature where we catch sight directly and authentically of ideas misunderstood in their own time, but which are now so orthodox that they stand as transparent as truths. Amongst this literature the two Alice books rise high. And the extraordinary thing about them is that they really were written for children. The whole tenor of the story of the unfolding of Alices Adventures Underground during an Oxford river-trip, the subsequent long-hand transposition to paper under the editorship of the author and his three young readers with drawings by the author publication and distribution overseen by the author again the whole tenor suggests that Lewis Carroll  regarded his Alice stories as being intended exclusively for children, in whose company he felt at ease. (He came from a family that grew to eleven children, and he clearly enjoyed entertaining his younger siblings.)
And in the pages of these two books is a meticulous analysis of the age in which the writer lived an analysis, a formal taking apart, a clean attempt to discover how the human world is assembled, as though it were a created entity which might be touched and handled. This is the most remarkable insight amongst insights which stretch forward beyond those systems of thought which have themselves become dusty with redundant symbolism phenomenology, behaviourism, psychoanalytic theory. His act of self-examination (itself refreshingly free of symbolic baggage) is surely the most modern of a diverse array of insights into a contemporary world-view. Indeed, it is difficult to read
without thinking that one might be reading a popular present-day text explaining modern theories of electron behaviour: the act of observation alters the state of the system it observes. Yet when Carroll continues, and has Alice experimenting with her findings:
Is Alice speculating upon a possible quantum genesis of thought? At which root thought itself (as we seem to experience it) becomes impossible because unlinkable to any cause or effect? Possibly
Notice the quietly added as if. A qualifier as bold and as significant as the words it is said. The thing has acquired some of Alices sentience by being looked at. Evasive though it is, it is in some way a part of Alice herself.
And when the sheep asks Alice: Are you a child or a teetotum? we realize the speed at which her observations have been taking place.
Through the Looking-Glass is evidently based on a chess game: but one seen in a dream, where the rules of chess do not apply in fact, no rules apply consistently. The knights move more obscurely than do the knights of the surface world. (It seems odd that the parlance of modern psychiatry calls erratic and unpredictable thought knights move thinking.) To a knight there are no such rules which tie him: they are implicit in his character: his move is as straight as a beam of light: to him the one square/one diagonal move has no meaning; it is a learning-tool for the apprentice. As he is not constrained by what he is able to see the one inobstructable piece on the board, with the possible exception of the king he disappears from the square he is on and reappears on the square on which he is to go, as determined by thought.
And always, beneath the line of the story, there is, for the reader, the intimation of mortality. Alice does not appear to feel this at first; she still wears a confident sense of immortality as though she were aware of the distinction between dream-danger and real-danger. As Alice enters the rabbit-hole (which has become a terrible, deep mine shaft, down which she falls with a dream-like slowness) she says:
Alices apprehension of the temporality of life begins only when she comes upon the sleeping form of the Red King, who, it is said, dreams the world with Alice in it.
References to poison abound:
It is poison. Tenniel had drawn a bottle of the kind in which laudanum (tincture of opium) was sold.
Had the bottle been larger (and had she emptied it)
The changes of both shape and the understanding of shape grow bizarre and extreme:
Another poison bottle put to the mouth: unlabelled, this time:
and after eating a piece of a toadstool
for it had struck her foot.
In this world, all is mutable identity, selfhood, personality, size, proportionality, memory, place, language, knowledge, grammar, meaning, distance, sensation, progress, speed, time. All these things were to be examined carefully in the decades following Lewis Carrolls death, perhaps in no systematic fashion ideas emerge and sink into the background again: history may present them otherwise in its ordering of the half-ordered, and even that was not unpredicated by Carroll. It is not always truth which prevails in this world; and no more does it prevail in Alices. There is truth: there is reality: so it seems to be in Alices world and our own: and these worlds are closer than we think. But it seems that any kind of active speculation along systematic lines makes rather than finds: and what is made is, like all earthly treasure, subject to misinterpretation and corruption.
Astonishingly, there are specific instances of a prophecy of thought:.
This brief portion of dialogue looks forward to Edmund Husserls theory of number which was published in 1887, and which examines the understanding of multiplicity within a group and the unity of a group (making the point that the definition of number as multiplicities of units is incomplete unless it defines both terms.) His work skirts the problems of unity and concentrates on multiplicity, and might be said to fall into the very error against which he warns.
[Perhaps unity is indefinable
because any definition would be exterior to it and analytic of
it. Once unity is looked at, it becomes a moiety. Perhaps, perceptually,
unity has to wrapped in perceptual syntheses before
it can be carried, added to other unities, or dealt with mathematically.
The wrapping may be specific and concrete; it may
reside in vague universal concepts like something;
it may be itself undefined and taken for granted and thus passed
from mind to mind as a paradoxical unacknowledged understood.
At all events it belongs to the perceiver and user rather than
to whatever might be (or might not be) within the wrapping. The
patterns of the unities are perceptual possibilities
because they reflect interior patterns in the mind: unity
in itself is perceptually possible only in terms of the vanishing-point
at the centre of perspectival patterns.]
Speculation> speculum> mirror> through (rather than reflecting from) the Looking-Glass> entrance >world >self without name.
In the end, though, the author of Alices Adventures and Through the Looking-Glass was drained by his work. His further writing Sylvie and Bruno is, to my mind, laboured and very nearly unreadable. The lucid brilliance of the Alice books (all the more clear because they bear no moral or symbolic burden) is here exchanged for a style heavy with submerged moral references which from time to time break the surface. The early grammatical idiosyncrasies have lost their fluidity and have become merely pedantic. The preface to Sylvie and Bruno is telling:
Sylvie and Bruno contains numerous references to ideas which would have been hypothetical in its authors day, such as weightlessness; and there are clear references to relativity of time and space. But these are pulled in heavily and consciously, in the manner of an author mining the ideas of his youth. Sparks of poetic brilliance fly, to be sure, as in the astonishing poem Little Birds and in the intelligence of this verse from The Song of the Mad Gardener:
Intelligence, because there is real comedy in the abstraction being mistaken for the concrete, and, more, in a line of logic (by which the abstraction stands apparently real) being mistaken for the concrete: and, anyway, how concrete is the concrete? The poem is metrically good, and there is something comic about the insertion of soap between Pope and hope - the long o (which vowel had a special significance in the poetry of the time, and to some extent still does) abruptly ended by the p. (The humour might be seen as slightly Beckettian. The sense of I is unquestioned no matter how irreconcilable its observations (Watt? Knott). And terminal consonants (or their lack) have a strange effect on assertions: Yes, yeah; no, nope. The unspoken question and answer Hope? Nope.
Yet these two poems are built into the text in the manner of windows in a high wall. However hard you wished it otherwise, you find it difficult to avoid the feeling that these poems were written years before, saved, and added: the feel of the poetry is different from the feel of the surrounding text.
And, tragically, because it cannot be tragic, his final poetry is disappointing. Convention begins to win out at last, in the expression of a love which the poet sought to feel but apparently could not.
It is astonishing to see the variability of work by the many artists who collaborated with him.
John Tenniels powerful and extraordinary drawings, inseparable from the text and filled with the vigour of the finest attributes of the age: these mark the two Alice books. Tenniel, after finishing his drawings for Carroll, vowed that he would illustrate books no more. No more he did. Although he was clearly emotionally in tune with the work he claimed that he did not understand it. There may be some truth in this. His drawing of the Red King is surprisingly mild and even perfunctory. The Red King is one of the strangest of all the characters in Through the Looking-Glass: according to the Tweedle brothers (who are caricatures of the worst kind of nit-picking academic and not to be trusted with the truth) he is the unconscious creator of the world. Were he to wake from his dreaming sleep, they say, the world (with Alice in it) would silently collapse in upon itself. Alice would have no existence. These are uncanny thoughts, and suggest that Carroll was aware that his own unconscious thinking was not conventionally Christian.
Tenniel understands the metamorphosis of the characters. The Red Queen, fast, powerful, coercive, alarming, uttering out-of-context adult maxims
is at the end of the story transmuted into the familiar form of a kitten. The change of bodily ratios (neoteny) is very skilfully drawn by Tenniel. Though the Queen, her mystery gone, has become tiny, her limbs shrinking in powerlessness, her head and eyes have developed babyish proportions. (A similar transition of power in the context of a different metamorphosis occurs at the end of Alice in Wonderland where the characters lose a dimension and become flat.) Tenniel's drawings are especially remarkable considering he had lost the sight of one eye in childhood.
His drawings are strangely modern: you quite often see copies of them, taken out of the context where their point lies, illustrating other matter: this seems a pity. Arthur Rackham, notable for his forests and avenues of strange, lopped trees. A few more: Arthur Frost, at his best in Hiawathas Photographing a merciless lampoon of Longfellows poem, and in A Sea Dirge. This drawing conveys absolutely the spirit of the poem.
Emily Gertrude Thomson, a polymathic artist born into an academic family, illustrated Three Sunsets, a poetry collection. The title poem, though hardly great literature, was written in 1861 when Carroll was 29. It tells of a romance which begins impulsively but which does not last. The man, having lost his love, becomes so self-absorbed that he does not recognise the woman when she returns to him:
Too rapt in selfish grief to hear,
Three Sunsets is such an unusual and idiosyncratic work that it may well contain an element of coded autobiography. The theme of unrequited love is strong in this poem, and, indeed, in other poems in this collection. Carroll never married but had a number of close friendships with adult women, including Thomson. Indeed, Carroll and Thomson remained very close friends until his death.
Gertrude Thomson wrote a brief biography for a women's periodical and drew Carroll's portrait. The biography is wittily written and surprisingly frank. Thomson describes a meeting with a rather unoriginal Oxford matron who begins thus:
"I hear that you spent the other day
in Oxford, with Mr. Dodgson."
[There has been widespread speculation that Lewis Carroll's association with young girls may have had a prurient element. I find this difficult to believe: Carroll was a close friend of Gertrude Thomson, an intelligent, well-educated and perceptive woman. Such a person would have immediately detected any unhealthy aspects in Carroll's affection for girls.]
And the drawings of Harry Furniss, who, like Tenniel, was cartoonist to Punch or The London Charivari; Furnisss work does not have the profundity of Tenniels.
The man himself could not resist divulging the unimportant details of Lewis Carrolls personal foibles in The Strand Magazine after the writers death.
Lewis Carroll was himself a cartoonist of variable quality. As with his writing, he was as an artist at his best when working below the level of conscious thought. For instance, the demons which assault the domesticity of the family home in his youthful household magazine The Rectory Umbrella are indubitably alive and bubbling with energy. Perhaps they represent the vitality of the unconscious mind.
It is, to my mind, the brilliant originality of the Alice books logical in their waywardness, moral in their denial of a moral weight, instructive in their dismissal of instruction which makes the author unique in all literature.
Jenny Woolf has written a biography of Lewis Carroll. It is well researched and well written. Titled The Mystery of Lewis Carroll, it contains a thorough investigation of the social mores of the period in which Carroll lived and within which he wrote. It is difficult to imagine the changes which have taken place between his time and ours.
 Lewis Carroll was the pen name of Charles Dodgson.