Alice in Wonderland (via the LRB)

I absolutely adore this:

I’d forgotten what a fascinating and Humbert-like figure Carroll was. He inspires such ambivalence in his readers: his prose is so charming that we can’t help but like him, his apparent perversities notwithstanding. This is one of greatest perils of aesthetics: not infrequently, they so thoroughly seduce us that they threaten to supplant a comparatively dreary morality. Beauty becomes a sort of ethical imperative. (Or so I feel each time I read Lolita–it’s impossible not to love the character who dreamt up the susurrous  phrase, “the seaside of her schoolgirl thighs.) And perhaps darkness and perversity are all the more satisfying when we discover them in innocuous or, better yet, innocent places, as this piece beautifully and intelligently intimates. (It’s a pity that magazine pieces and reviews have much shorter life spans than quote/unquote Works of Literature, when so much of every issue of the LRB is so much better than so much of what’s been canonized.) See, for instance, this passage:

“Carroll is frequently drawn towards a blend of both options: the quest-object becomes an alibi for the questing subject’s yearning for adventure. When the Cheshire cat asks Alice where she’d like to get to, she replies: ‘I don’t much care where, so long as I get somewhere.’ In Through the Looking-Glass she says of the scented rushes she leans out of the boat to pick that ‘the prettiest are always further,’ and she might as well be speaking of any of her holy grails. Carroll told Ellen Terry that it was ‘hopelessly difficult’ to secure ‘even the smallest bit of happiness’ (and added that ‘the more trouble we take the more certain we are to fail’), but these difficulties are cause for a peculiar kind of hope in the Alice books: sabotaging your own satisfaction becomes a way of keeping things interesting. One sentence the intrepid, ever-beginning heroine never manages to finish starts like this: ‘Of all the unsatisfactory – (she repeated this aloud, as it was a great comfort to have such a long word to say).’ Prolonging the unsatisfactory needn’t be experienced as a trial, especially if it’s beginning to dawn on you that satisfaction itself might not be all it’s cracked up to be.

This continual flirtation with fulfillment creates stories in which anything could happen, and yet the strange power of the books comes from the sense they give that things could only have happened exactly the way they did. Although Alice is accosted by her dream, she’s also the architect of it: doors are locked, so a key pops up, but the key fits a door she can’t squeeze through and so on. It’s as if her unconscious were both co-conspirator and counter-agent, or as if it were trying to find ways to get her to see that the two roles needn’t be thought of as opposites. She dreams in order to get into trouble, and she gets into trouble so she can escape from it, and so she can escape into new difficulties: ‘“My head’s free at last!” said Alice in a tone of delight, which changed into alarm in another moment.’ She may well be privy to a secret Carroll confided to his diary in 1855: ‘There is, I verily believe, a sensation of pain in the realisation of our highest pleasures, knowing that now they must soon be over; we had rather prolong anticipation by postponing them.’ When the Hatter tells her she can speed up time in order to miss the day’s lessons and get straight to dinner, this isn’t only good news: ‘“That would be grand, certainly,” said Alice thoughtfully, “but then – I shouldn’t be hungry for it, you know.”’ From this perspective, the White Queen is speaking beguiling sense as well as infuriating nonsense when she says: ‘The rule is, jam tomorrow and jam yesterday – but never jam today.’ Alice becomes adept at finding ways to stay hungry. She’s never more gleeful than when she sneaks up on her nurse and shouts: ‘Nurse! Do let’s pretend that I’m a hungry hyena, and you’re a bone!’”


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