In the mid-1880s, a young W. B. Yeats was expelled from the newly minted Theosophy Society after attempting to evoke a ghost from the ashes of a rose burned in ritualistic fashion, much to the displeasure of the Society’s founder, Madam Blavatsky. This curious moment reflected a powerful philosophical struggle about epistemology and the nature of reality that informed mid-nineteenth century Victorian England. On the one hand, the scientism of Huxley and Darwin was seen as the only way to a Truth-affirming materialist view of reality; on the other hand, and in reaction to this, a philosophical underground emerged, arguing that Truth was accessed by the imagination and intuition, and reality was essentially spiritual. All over Europe (and the United States), this position was expressed by the proliferation of spiritual, esoteric, secret societies—the Theosophy Society, the Society for Psychical Society, the Ashmolean Society, and more. And, not only W. B. Yeats, but countless other artists and thinkers, including Tennyson, Ruskin, Gladstone, and children’s writers such as Burnett, E. Nesbit and Lewis Carroll, were a part of this “secret” world.
It is Carroll’s secret commitment to these philosophical ideas that Sherry Ackerman in Behind the Looking Glass claims to be the true foundation for both Alices and Sylvie and Bruno. A professor of philosophy, Ackerman includes herself among those Carrollian scholars locating Carroll within the theological and philosophical context of his time. Ackerman asserts that Carroll was a hermeticist, and that, sensitive to the dictates of “initiated philosophers,” he concealed the truth through allegory and symbol and, even, she suggests, secretly coded his texts.
Carroll’s understanding of Truth affirmed the primacy of an immaterial reality, privileged gnosis over doctrinal teachings, and followed ancient initiatory mystery rites about which he was intimately aware. Ackerman’s study, thus, places Carroll’s works in a category Perry Nodelman describes as a “complex shadow text” (15), lying beneath an apparent simpler children’s one. Nodelman, in fact, singles the Alice books as particularly [End Page 415] reflecting this type of reading, noting that in a 2006 online search of the MLA international bibliography, of 778 citations, only a handful addressed the Alice books as children’s literature, with most analyzing Carroll from a variety of psychological, philosophical, or historical perspectives (15). A blending of biography and ideas (philosophical/mathematical) characterizes some of the most notable of critical texts on Carroll, including Gardner’s The Annotated Alice, Heath’s The Philosopher’s Alice, Taylor’s The White Knight, to name but a few. Ackerman, indeed, concludes her study by affirming that “far from being merely children’s literature . . . [the Alices and Sylvie and Bruno] are an allegorical statement of Carroll’s quest for the purpose of life” (130).
An introduction and concluding chapter bookend nine, short, but dense, chapters divided between the Alices and Sylvie and Bruno. The latter work Ackerman sees as the apotheosis of Carroll’s hermetic expression where didacticism is subordinated to vision. The introduction provides an excellent historical overview of the philosophical context of Carroll’s works. Ackerman’s discussion reviews the interest in Neoplatonism that took hold in England beginning in the mid-1800s, affirming the importance of both Neoplatonism and Gnosticism to the spiritual interests in the nineteenth century. Carroll, we are told, was part of the reaction to empiricism that was initiated as far back as the Cambridge School, which opposed the mechanistic views of Galileo and Kepler. Further, he was likely a reader of the The Platonist 1, a journal that included works such as the 1881 article by Thomas Johnson on “The Way and the Wisdom Teachers.”
Chapters 1, 2, and 3 blend biography and ideas; Ackerman reviews Carroll’s involvement with the Oxford debate, grounding Carroll’s position in his probable Platonic, Neoplatonic, and mystical readings, his involvement in the theosophical movement as well as friendships with members and thinkers in this area. Scattered through these philosophical discussions are references to the Alices, but always in the service of philosophy. For example, much of chapter 3 is devoted to a...