- On Alice in Wonderland
A great book is a book that has consequences. We read thousands of pages, but we only remember about ten that sketch a landscape or memories, or evoke an atmosphere in our minds. When these books have the good fortune to be part of children's literature and also read by adults, they continue to suffuse our lives until adulthood and even resonate beyond our mature years through our progeny's acquaintance with them. We wish to revisit the ones that we loved with the spontaneity of our first reading: we have forgotten them, or rather, we remember that we loved and forgot them. Alice in Wonderland, first published in 1862, introduces the century of the pampered child that we continue to live in even now: at some point between 1850 and 1968, this "little democratic devil," as Henry James put it, became the new god of the democratic universe, particularly after the Freudian revolution. But Alice is also a very special ambassador from the earliest years: as ordinary humanity's emissary in the land of nonsense, that very British art of inconsistent syllogism, she plunges into the hurrying rabbit's burrow, just as we plunge into meaningful unreason in order to delight these "old children" that we, who scurry around pointlessly before our eternal slumber, have become.
Childhood is the interlude of all these eventualities, the matrix containing all destinies without accomplishing any one of them. But Alice is not just one more fairy tale to be added to those by Grimm or Andersen: more than anyone else, Lewis Carroll succeeded in appropriating traditional stories of magicians and fairies to his own ends. He took hold of a cliché all the better to transgress the genre, which is what Nabokov well understood in translating the book into Russian in 1923. Carroll cleverly summons up all the mythologies of the kittycat, the doggie, all sorts of pets and games like croquet, in order to reassure his readers and then plunge them headfirst into a huge confusion. We find kings, queens, giants, dragons, and unicorns in his texts, but the characters do the opposite of what we expect from them: they blatantly disregard their given role, change their shape, size, and even species, such as the baby boy that Alice holds in her arms and who changes into a little pig (Lewis Carroll, alias Charles Ludwig Dodgson, did not like boys very much). [End Page 23] Shrinking up, stretching out as in that Transformation of a crocodile in Sylvie and Bruno, compressed into just his forehead or strung out over several miles: that is the main interest for Carroll. An elementary Freudian would see an allusion to an erection, but we are obviously not elementary Freudians. With Carroll, trouble always comes after a faultless line of thinking, like the pathological result of extreme logic.
There are several enigmas in this book, just as there are a number of charades that various creatures play out for Alice. The first concerns the possible source of puritanism: due to his family background, Lewis Carroll was destined to become a priest. He wound up being a deacon, since his stammering prevented him from preaching with all the passion that he would have liked. Imbued with Anglican culture, pathologically shy, Carroll managed to invent a text that was sufficiently inoffensive to be pleasing to the society of his time, but subversive enough to interest future generations and captivate open minds. He distilled uncomfortable truths all while hiding behind the masks of mischief and riddles. The hidden meanings can be deduced from the literal sense, and these children's dreams remain innocuous to the casual reader. For the ramblings of a chaste math teacher who never married concealed inclinations that would be condemned in our day. We know that Charles Ludwig Dodgson only liked little girls up to the age of 11. He would invite them to dinner, or for an afternoon snack, or to go boating, and liked nothing better than to take pictures of them, often nude, as if in the garden of Eden. As soon as they turned 12, the Reverend turned...