Fallacies of Wonderland

I’ve just been reading Aspects of Alice, a compendium of essays and extracts about the two Alice books and their author, dating from soon after Alice in Wonderland‘s publication (including a near-contemporary reviewer suggesting Carroll was plagiarising Tom Hood’s From Nowhere to the North Pole, which Aspects‘ editor Robert Phillips points out was published some years after the first Alice book) up to the late 1960s (with a short article called “Lewis Carroll — The First Acidhead”, written in such a hippie-ish idiom, it’s quite quaint).

The essays I enjoyed were of two types: those which were about Dodgson the man, full of the sort of facts you’d like to think you could remember well enough to drop into conversations (“Did you know Charles Dodgson invented a machine for noting down ideas in the night?”) but never can; and those which praise the books, usually in a suitably playful or poetic style (Walter de La Mare or W H Auden’s contributions, for instance), without insisting on an interpretation. The essays I didn’t enjoy were by critics who had a theory, and who were seeking to prove their theory by applying it to the Alice books. Or perhaps I should say, were seeking to disprove (disenchant) the Alice books by applying their theory. These critics were what I think of as reductionists.

Fantasy is easy prey to reductionists. I think this is because good fantasy (i.e., not allegory) has a free-floating symbolical quality to it, meaning it can be applied to anything you happen to be concerned about, and still seem relevant. The Lord of the Rings can be read as being about the Second World War, or the Atom Bomb, or political power, or personal greed, or the victory of the small against the powerful. It can even be just a compelling story, free of any sort of interpretation whatsoever. Reductionists say, “Yes, but really, it’s all about X.” And there’s no arguing with them because yes, it is about X; it’s also about all these other things, as well as being about nothing at all, but to this the reductionists just smile knowingly and say “Yes, but really, it’s all about X.”

The most obvious example are the Freudians, who get a whole section of Aspects. Freud didn’t write about the Alice books, as far as I know, and the essays herein are by lesser hands, which is perhaps why they’re so risible — these are lesser thinkers, working with another man’s theory. They go through the Alice books saying, “Ah yes, here of course we have a phallic symbol. And oh look, there’s another.” — counting off the phallic symbols as though the number of them might prove something. The height of ridiculousness comes on p. 361, where there’s a large-type heading, “The Symbolic Equation: Girl=Phallus”, which made me giggle. (I’d say it made me titter, only you know those Freudians…) One thing Freudianism — or any reductionism — can’t stand is laughter, which is perhaps a good test to hold up to any critic-with-a-theory. “Can you still believe it while laughing?”

It reminds me of my last encounter with a stuck-in-the-mud Freudian, Maureen Duffy’s The Erotic World of Fairy (I wrote a review of it on Amazon), where she proclaimed Peter Pan to be a “free-flying phallus”, as though that actually meant something, in fact was a damning indictment. Instead it conjured an image… that again led to giggling.

The Freudians aren’t the only reductionists in Aspects of Alice. That hippie writer is another. His reductionism is that all imagination is evidence of drug use. (Aspects also contains a version of Grace Slick’s lyrics to “White Rabbit”, which are a far better evocation of Alice-as-psychedelia. Slick’s lyrics aren’t reductionist, because they’re using the Alice books as a springboard to create something new, and end up adding to the books’ richness, not attempting to reduce it.) Another was “Alice’s Journey to the End of Night” by Donald Rackin, whose form of reductionism is to assert the Alice books are “a comic horror-vision of the chaotic land beneath the man-made groundwork of western thought and convention”. The counter-argument, that most people’s reaction to the Alice books is to enjoy them rather than get depressed, seems to have escaped him.

As well as laughter, another thing reductionism can’t handle is wonder. Fantasy works best, for those who like it, when it conveys a sense of wonder. Wonder might be defined as a moment of freedom from mere understanding, a sense of something greater than anything that can be put into words. You can only accept wonder for what it is, not reduce it, explain it, define it.

And at the end of it all, it’s the wonder that remains. I’ve forgotten all the reductionists’ attempts to convince me Alice is a phallus, or the tormented soul of modern man, or an acidhead in nursery dress. Instead, I want to read the Alice books again, if only to wash all that (oh so serious) nonsense out of my head and put a little of the genuine stuff in its place — the pure, fantastic, wonder-making nonsense, which is much more what the Alice books are about.

My own particular form of reductionism as far as the Alice books are concerned (I can’t help having one), is they’re about how ridiculous the adult world can seem to a child. The adult world is a world of reductionists — people who’ve lost their sense of wonder, or replaced it with well-reasoned blinkers against what they fear — which could be why the Alice books attract such a train of critics so blind to their own place in them:

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

Alice waited a minute to see if he would speak again, but as he never opened his eyes or took any further notice of her, she said “Good-bye!” once more, and, getting no answer to this, she quietly walked away: but she couldn’t help saying to herself as she went, “Of all the unsatisfactory —” (she repeated this aloud, as it was a great comfort have such a long word to say) “of all the unsatisfactory people I ever met —”


Jonathan Miller’s Alice in Wonderland

This adaptation of Alice in Wonderland was filmed for TV broadcast in December 1966. Director/adapter Jonathan Miller aimed to be faithful to the book, with all the dialogue (except where improvised by the actors) lifted directly from Lewis Carroll’s text. But this, I think, is the adaptation’s main fault. Alice in Wonderland is a curious mix of episodes and skits, not really a story at all, and I think what you need to do with Alice is either find a way of making a story out of it, or to adopt some angle or interpretation to provide a constantly-running theme, something to give it a sort of narrative or spine. The original book wins through on sheer prissy impudence; adaptations need to offer something more.

Miller has two angles on Alice, neither of which really works for me. The first is to connect the book with dreams, and various of his directorial decisions (such as sometimes having Alice’s dialogue overdubbed while she doesn’t move her lips) come from his wanting to make the narrative more dreamlike. But I think Alice isn’t about the dream-world as much as it’s about the world of language, which has its own peculiar logic. Wordplay and double-meanings approached with a literal mind, and the ability of words to be strung together correctly but nonsensically, are what Alice, and other nonsense literature, is about. For me, this puts Alice at the head of a continuing tradition of wordplay fantasy, which includes the Oz books, and Piers Anthony’s Xanth series. It’s that tight-but-illogical logic that makes Alice what it is, not its dreaminess, which is more the province of surrealism. (In my mind, nonsense and surrealism are two quite different things. Nonsense applies logic to things that aren’t logical; surrealism revels in the irrational, with no need of logic.)

Miller’s other approach is to connect the book with “the longueurs of childhood”, a nostalgia for endless summers of blissful boredom, and in his initial edit, he had some long periods in which the actors just sat around doing nothing, in an attempt to conjure this feeling. These were edited out after a viewing by BBC executives, with only a few hints of them left in, leaving some curious points at which conversation lapses, everyone sits around staring into space, then conversation resumes. But I think the book is too energetic, too little-girl curious, for this to feel right. Kids are only bored until they have something to do; Alice, exploring Wonderland, very much has something to do. (It’s teenagers who get bored even when they have something to do; but then again, Miller’s Alice is a teenager.) Lewis Carroll, an Oxford don who could afford to spend entire days picnicking with the Liddells so he could come up with the Alice story in the first place, probably had no need to feel nostalgic for such long-lost periods free of responsibility, so they weren’t part of his book.

For me, Alice is in Wonderland because she’s a child — childhood, and the way a child views the illogical adult world, is Wonderland. All the various creatures Alice meets on her journey are comic versions of adults stuck in their own peculiarly nonsensical worldviews. Alice is the child regarding these adults with a cutting innocence. The book is all about her, in her self-contained bubble of childhood, coming into contact with the dreadfully meaningless self-importance of the adult world, and seeing it for the farce it really is: tea parties and courtrooms at which one must know the nonsensical rules of how to behave, a Queen with the power to cut off your head on a whim, and so on.

Peter Cook as the Mad Hatter

The result of Miller wanting to be faithful to the book is that the TV film feels just like a series of sketches. It relies entirely on the performers’ abilities to enchant with their personalities, rather than a story’s, or thematic argument’s, ability to keep you interested. Thus there are a few highlights that linger in the mind (Peter Cook is excellent as the Mad Hatter, John Bird is funny but too brief, Peter Sellers as the Red King, etc.), but elsewhere a good deal of puzzlement as the film moves from scene to scene without making it clear how or why. Thus, Alice stands outside a door trying to get in, then has a conversation with John Bird, then just opens the door and goes through. Why didn’t she do that first of all? You certainly have to know the book to be able to tell what’s going on, which has the unfortunate effect of making an adaptation nothing but a companion piece to the book, rather than an interesting work in its own right.

It’s easy to be too reverential to the book that’s the source of an adaptation. I enjoy watching film adaptations of books I’ve read, not to quibble with how they’ve departed from the text, but rather to see what they’ve made of it, what their interpretation is. An adaptation is a thing that exists alongside a book, and only subtracts from the original when, by being too literal, it reveals how shallow that original was in the first place.

For a more positive view of Miller’s Alice, see Jonathan Coulthart’s blog post on it. (I really like Miller’s Oh Whistle and I’ll Come To You adaptation.)