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Reviewed by:
Morton Cohen. Lewis Carroll: Recollections and Interviews. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1989. 279 pp. $24.95.
Nora Crook. Kipling's Myths of Love and Death. New York: St. Martin's, 1989. 230 pp. $35.00.

Lewis Carroll was one of the most delightful oddities of his time. One may wonder, however, whether we modern commentators, when availing ourselves of psychoanalytic methods, have been entirely just in our explanation of a man so very different from us. As the case of Peter Shaffer's notorious Amadeus demonstrates, the "psychological argument" does not work; in Lewis Carroll's case it has veiled the man more than it has illuminated him. Morton Cohen, a gentle and protective editor, in the Introduction wisely restricts himself to summarizing the essential outlines of his subject's personality and emphasizes that Dodgson was a genuinely refined and evangelically orthodox man, untroubled by the religious disputes of his day, devoted to the purity of childhood. The interesting and at times fascinating testimonials and anecdotes by relatives and contemporaries bear this out.

What Cohen's helpfully annotated collection establishes as well is how central to Carroll's whimsy are the implications of the new geometries introduced earlier in the century by Bolyai and Lobachevsky: they had shown that the most irrefragable axioms of Euclid were open to revision and substitution. Mathematics, instead of being concerned (as it had been since Euclid's time), with truth and the nature of reality, could in Carroll's day only assure the logical consistency within its systems, which as a result were isolated now from the concrete world perceived by our common sense. Hence logical consistency often made for conclusions absurd enough from a practical point of view. Carroll, in effect, derived many of his paradoxes by colliding the practical world with the rarefied logic of modern mathematics. ("Why," he once asked, "should a sum worked out accurately with figures fail when it comes in contact with mere details of fact?") Indeed, where does modern mathematics, that insubstantial, benign smile of the Cheshire Cat, beckon us? That of course depends now more than ever before "on where you want to get to." And the fun of Carroll's logical fencing with our inherently metaphoric language is equally informed by this collision. Humpty Dumpty wishes to be the master of his words, to have them mean only what he, arbitrarily, chooses them to mean; but they have a temper of their own, and, although they disobey the requirements of logic, they manage to make themselves understood nonetheless. Carroll once chided, perhaps with tongue in cheek, one or two of his little friends for saying, "I nearly died of laughing," an expression, as Humpty Dumpty would have pointed out, that does not mean what it says. In short, there are materials here to warn those interpreting the Alice books as subversive social criticism or too knowingly psychoanalyzing Carroll's oddities that they do so at their own peril.

Virtually all critics, Nora Crook maintains, have obfuscated Kipling's writings by treating him as a conventional realist. He was, however, as she intends to demonstrate, a writer who deliberately set out to mystify his reader by concealing his plain meaning under a "layer of false trails." He was an allegorist, a mythmaker; his work is supremely self-referential, full of gnomic allusiveness. To decode him, consequently, "the knowing reader" (such as herself) must rely on [End Page 598] the hermeneutics of literary and historical contextualism, tracing not only every allusion to its source in Kipling's and other writers' work, but recovering particular meanings of words and literary counters as well. Crook is not unaware of the difficulty of her task: for if Kipling did indeed aim at "irresolvability" in addition to concealment (and admitted that the intention of a writer may be hidden even from him), then the quest for a conclusive meaning may be a vain enterprise. But, she assures us, the possibility of a definitive meaning "is always there." So she confidently proceeds to justify both thesis and technique by identifying the major writers and other contextual material Kipling may have alluded to in several short...


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