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  • The New Praise of Folly
  • Alberto Manguel (bio)

And who is not a Foole [. . . ]? Robert Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy1

When we look into a mirror we think the image that confronts us is accurate.

But move a millimetre and the image changes. We are actually looking at a never-ending range of reflections. But sometimes a writer has to smash the mirror – for it is on the other side of that mirror that the truth stares at us.

I believe that despite the enormous odds which exist, unflinching, unswerving, fierce intellectual determination, as citizens, to define the real truth of our lives and our societies is a crucial obligation which devolves upon us all. It is in fact mandatory.

If such a determination is not embodied in our political vision we have no hope of restoring what is so nearly lost to us – the dignity of man.

Harold Pinter, Nobel Prize Lecture2

Perhaps the most distinctive characteristic of the human world is its insanity. Ants scuttle in ordered lines, back and forth, with impeccable propriety. Seeds grow into trees that shed their leaves and bud again with conventional circularity. Birds migrate, lions kill, turtles mate, viruses mutate, rocks crumble into dust, clouds shape and reshape mercifully unconscious of what they build and destroy. We alone live consciously knowing that we live and, by means of a half-shared code of words, are able to reflect on our actions, however contradictory or inexplicable. We heal and help, we sacrifice ourselves and show concern and compassion, we create wonderful artifices and miraculous devices to better understand the world and ourselves. And, at the same time, we build our lives on superstitions, hoard for no purpose except greed, cause deliberate pain to other creatures, poison the water and the air we need to live on, and finally bring our planet to the verge of destruction. We do all this with full awareness of our actions, as if walking through a dream in which we do what we know we should not be doing and refrain from doing what we know we should do. ‘May we not then sometimes define insanity as an [End Page 317] inability to distinguish which is the waking and which the sleeping life?’ wrote Lewis Carroll in his diary on 9 February 1856.3

In the seventh chapter of her travels through the insane world of Wonderland, Alice comes upon a table placed under a tree and laid out with many settings. Though the table is a large one, the March Hare, the Mad Hatter and the Dormouse are crowded together at one corner, having tea, the sleeping Dormouse serving as a cushion for the comfort of the others. ‘No room! No room!’ they cry out when they see Alice coming. ‘There’s plenty of room!’ Alice says indignantly and sits down in a large armchair at one end.4

The table manners of Alice’s reluctant hosts are obviously mad. First she is offered wine by the March Hare. But ‘I don’t see any wine’, she remarks, looking around. ‘There isn’t any’, the March Hare says, and offers her more tea. ‘I’ve had nothing yet’, Alice replies in an offended tone, ‘so I can’t take more’. ‘You mean you can’t take less’, intervenes the Hatter, ‘it’s very easy to take more than nothing’. Then the seating arrangements are constantly shifted to suit the Mad Hatter’s whimsey. Whenever he wants a clean cup, everyone must move one place on into a soiled setting; obviously, the only one to get any advantage of the changes is the Hatter himself. Alice, for instance, is ‘a good deal worse off than before’, as the March Hare has upset the milk-jug into his plate.5

As in the real world, everything in Wonderland, however mad, has a logical underpinning, a system of rules that are often themselves absurd. The conventions of Alice’s society have led her to believe that the behaviour of her elders and betters, wherever she might find herself, is rational. Therefore, attempting to understand the logic of her strange dreamworld, Alice expects rational behaviour from the creatures she meets...


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pp. 317-326
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2009
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