Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Frabjous joy

An appreciation of Lewis Carroll [Charles Dodgson]'s contribution to children's literature, "What Alice did." Richard Jenkyns wries:
Previously, most books for children had been either educational or improving; the only purpose of Alice is to give pleasure. We have grown so used to bunnies in blue jackets with brass buttons that it is hard to remember how comparatively recent such things are. There is no trace of children’s literature in antiquity; animal fables were for grown-ups. Perhaps that is not surprising in a world where books were few and expensive, but it is striking that it was so many centuries after the invention of printing that the change occurred. Here again the accidental nature of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was crucial. It was first written, after all, for a readership of one, and that gives it a lack of self-consciousness that was never quite captured again, not even in Through the Looking-Glass. It has no pretensions to be a masterpiece, and that is one of the reasons that it is a masterpiece. Like A Study in Scarlet, The Screwtape Letters and perhaps the Satyricon, it was tossed off lightly by an author who had little idea how much he had achieved. It is probably the most purely child-centred book ever written. ....

The philosophy in the books is not an awkward adult intrusion into the child’s realm. All children, after all, are intellectuals, insatiably curious; they can spot a dodgy argument (“Alice didn’t think that proved it at all,” is a characteristic sentence) and they puzzle over some of the things that continue to puzzle the wisest of us. Alice shows herself to be a good Cartesian when Tweedledum and Tweedledee suggest that she is part of the Red King’s dream: “If I wasn’t real… I shouldn’t be able to cry.” She explores with Humpty Dumpty the relativity and social context of language: “When I use a word,” he says, “it means just what I choose it to mean,” and she answers, “The question is, whether you can make words mean so many different things.” It would be going too far to say that their debate anticipates Wittgenstein and the private language argument—but not a long way too far. And yet there is no talking here over the child reader’s head. “I only wish I had such eyes,” the White King remarks. “To be able to see Nobody! And at that distance too!” Any seven-year old can see that this is (as the Encyclopedia of Philosophy points out) a hypostatisation of the null class. Of course, she would not put it quite like that. The Cheshire Cat, meanwhile, purports to argue by syllogism: dogs are not mad; dogs growl when they are angry and wag their tails when they are pleased; cats do the opposite; therefore cats are mad. .... [more]
What Alice did | Prospect Magazine