- The Endlessness of Alice
‘The transformation of a shattering experience into habit – that is the essence of play.’1
Charles Dodgson found endings painful: There is a sadness in coming to the end of anything in Life’, he wrote in his diary on the day he retired from his lectureship at Christ Church College, Oxford. Similarly at the end of a letter to a child-friend, he confessed: ‘I do dislike saying “good-bye” to any person or thing one has any liking for.’ As this new biography shows, the man whom we call Lewis Carroll preferred unending (or impossible) riddles (‘Why is a raven like a writing desk?’), and concluded his Alice series with two back-to-back questions, the latter of which is unanswerable (‘Life, what is it but a dream?’). Carroll ends Alice with a poem that tries [End Page 91] to relive its beginning — ‘Ever drifting down the stream — | Lingering in the golden gleam —' those reaching, prolonging dashes seemingly unable to confront the sadness of its finality, like a child who immediately winds up her mechanical toy the moment it grinds to a halt. ‘The shadow of a sigh May tremble through the story’, opens Through the Looking-Glass. It is no secret that Carroll found ‘growing up’ a sad business — and so he imagined Alice as a precious receptacle, filled with the wonders of childhood. ‘My interminable fairy-tale’ he called it in 1862, as though already aware of its power: for, in reimagining Alice, in reopening its gilt-edged cover, the imaginer, too, found himself capable of reliving, and escaping back into, happier former days.
Our fear of things ending, argues Walter Benjamin, is what drives repetitive behaviour. And this is true. We are pained at having to leave behind beautiful times and moments; we feel impelled to re-remember those who are gone, as though bringing back their ghosts. An adult turns happiness into a story and ‘relieves his heart from its terrors’ by retelling it, in a similar way to how a child creates the entire happy event anew and ‘starts again right from the beginning’. Indeed:
The obscure urge to repeat things is scarcely less powerful in play scarcely less cunning in its workings, than the sexual impulse in love. It is no accident that Freud has imagined he could detect an impulse ‘beyond the pleasure principle’ in it. And in fact, every profound experience longs to be insatiable, longs for return and repetition until the end of time, and for the reinstatement of an original condition from which it sprang.2
Carroll’s contemporary, Edward Lear, located the onset of his lifelong depression at the age of 7, in what Benjamin later called the ‘shattering experience’ of things ending:
The earliest of all the morbidnesses I can recollect must have been somewhere about 1819 — when my father took me to a field near Highgate, where was a rural performance of gymnastic clowns etc -and a band. The music was good — at least it attracted me — and the sunset and twilight I remember as if yesterday. And I can recollect crying half the night after all the small gaiety broke up — and also suffering for days at the memory of the past scene.(Diary, 24 March 1877) [End Page 92]
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In the days following the happy ‘scene’, the child replays it in his memory over and over again; each time the gaiety ‘breaks up’, the ‘shattering’ recurs and he breaks into tears. The young Lear’s painful disappointment that such happiness must come to an end transforms into his ‘habit’ of repeating it, like a broken record temporarily warding off morbidness (see Figure 1). Perhaps Lear’s high susceptibility to this kind of sadness throws light on his compulsion to churn out limerick upon limerick — his Books of Nonsense resembling expanding filing cabinets packed tight with endlessly accumulating scenes of delight. Like...