Sunday, May 6, 2018

Elaborate whimsy and precise nonsense

From David Bentley Hart in 2016, "The Dream-Child's Progress," a wonderful appreciation of Alice:

“He’s dreaming now,” said Tweedledee: “and what do you think he’s dreaming about?”
Alice said, “Nobody can guess that.”
“Why, about you!” Tweedledee exclaimed, clapping his hands triumphantly. “And if he left off dreaming about you, where do you suppose you’d be?”
“Where I am now, of course,” said Alice.
“Not you!” Tweedledee retorted contemptuously. “You’d be nowhere. Why, you’re only a sort of thing in his dream!”
“If that there King was to wake,” added Tweedledum, “you’d go out—bang!—just like a candle!”
Taken together, Alice and its even better sequel of 1871, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, constitute for me something like the single recurrent motif subtending the entire arc of my life and drawing my whole existence into a meaningful unity. I doubt a complete year ever elapses without my having read them yet again (along with The Hunting of the Snark, Phantasmagoria, and various of Carroll’s essays, letters, poems, and riddles), and they never fail to delight me as much as ever—or, rather, to delight me more than ever, since much of their humor becomes more comprehensible as one ages. They are the first books of any length I recall having been read to me when I was small, and the first I read to my son when he was out of his infancy, and I hope they will be the ones resting at my bedside when I die. The only time I ever willingly curtailed a budding friendship was in my early twenties, during a monastic retreat, when an otherwise engaging new acquaintance mentioned that he had just read Alice for the first time and had been unimpressed; thereafter I remained cordial toward him, but aloof, certain that the depravity of his tastes must emanate from something dark and dismal within. ….

"The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!"
Anyone would have to grant that, if nothing else, Carroll’s books have come to exercise an influence on the English language rivaled only by Shakespeare’s. Not only does Alice echo on in a host of common expressions—Cheshire cat smile, down the rabbit-hole, through the looking-glass, “Curiouser and curiouser,” “Off with her head!” and so on—but even many of Carroll’s nonsense words have become redoubtable fixtures of the lexicon. “Jabberwocky” alone gave us such indispensable locutions as “galumph,” “frabjous,” “chortle,” “mimsy,” “slithy,” “vorpal blade,” “tulgey,” “uffish,” “Bandersnatch,” “Jubjub bird,” “Tumtum tree,” “Calooh! Callay!”—why, the OED even includes “outgrabe” and “brillig”—while Humpty Dumpty’s magisterial exegesis of that mighty poem gave us the concept of the “portmanteau” word. That scarcely touches the surface of the matter, however. In a very real sense, the Alice books, along with all of Carroll’s nonsense verse, constitute a kind of revolutionary manifesto of a uniquely English style of genius: that special capacity for elaborate whimsy, precise nonsense, absurdity burnished to an exquisitely delicate sheen—which the French admire but cannot imitate, the Germans dread but cannot resist, the Italians love but cannot understand. .... If, for instance, The Faerie Queene or Paradise Lost is the great English epic in the simple sense of being the most distinguished long narrative poem in the language, The Hunting of the Snark is the great English epic in the sense of being a work no other people could have produced. Other examples of the art abound, obviously: Lear’s nonsense verse, Gilbert’s Bab Ballads, Belloc’s Cautionary Tales for Children, and so on. But none achieves quite the purity, tireless wit, and ingenious invention of Carroll’s works. ....

.... What is certain, however, is that the ­Alice books constituted a revolution in ­children’s literature. It would be hard to exaggerate how tediously hortatory, aridly moralizing, stickily saccharine, and sanctimoniously condescending most Victorian writing for the young was before Alice arrived, or how much of it presumed that children are rather stupid and humorless, and that their imaginations must constantly be corrected by equal measures insipid cossetting and dire admonition. “Everything’s got a moral, if only you can find it,” the Duchess tells Alice; and most of what children were made to read in the middle of the nineteenth century was constructed on precisely that horrid premise. The Alice books were arguably the first children’s stories of their time actually written for children. ....

Behind the books stood a deeply attractive, if in many ways paradoxical, personality. Charles Dodgson had always delighted in absurdity, despite—or, probably, as a result of—possessing a mind of luminous clarity. He was a rigorous logician and skilled mathematician, some of whose originality in both fields has only recently come to be appreciated. He was also the consummate Victorian, incapable of levity or the slightest hint of impropriety on matters moral or spiritual: restrained, deeply pious, on his knees in prayer at regular and extended intervals, genuinely horrified by anything indecent, cruel, or irreverent, and largely socially conservative. ....

...[H]is understanding of children as individuals was most definitely not a pink and sugary one. The Alice of the books, for instance, is goodhearted, but certainly not cloyingly sweet or even impeccably well behaved. She acts ­impulsively, occasionally becomes quite annoyed or peevish when provoked, sometimes loses her patience, can be a bit conceited, and once or twice delivers herself of fairly harsh opinions regarding others. And she is ­absolutely never, thank God, cute or precious or darling (or anything horrible like that). She is an extremely likable child, but a real one also. .... Again, the books are not moral fables; but that is mainly because of their deep moral intelligence. They are even infused, I would argue, with a kind of profound spiritual sanity—one they nowhere expound, but everywhere (and curiously) reflect. .... (much more, including quite a bit about Carroll’s beliefs.)