“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!”
I was somewhat disconsolate in the waning days of 2008 as I realized that the centenary of one of the most significant events in the history of humanity—the first publication of The Wind in the Willows—was about to slip away all but entirely unremarked. What a barbarous lot we are, I thought, to be so callously indifferent not only to such exquisite artistry, but to that new epoch of the spirit inaugurated by the advent of Mr. Toad, and revealed in its truest depths when Mole and Rat sank to their knees before the piper at the gates of dawn. A people no longer awestruck by such things, I concluded, is probably only a few generations away from devouring its own young.
Well, now 2015 has passed and an even more momentous occasion—the 150th anniversary of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland—has gone by, if not entirely unnoticed, certainly without anything like the celebration and pageantry and royal progresses it merited. In terms of the evolution of human imagination, sensibility, and moral tact, few moments in the course of Western and world culture could possibly be of comparable magnitude. The most substantial commemoration of the event was Norton’s issue of the newest new edition of Martin Gardner’s wonderful Annotated Alice, including all the material from earlier editions, amended and updated by Mark Burstein. It is a lavish and delightful volume, for which we may all be grateful; but it is not enough. As far as I am concerned, if that enchanted place at Godstow near the banks of the Isis could be found where the rowing party of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832–1898), Rev. Robinson Duckworth, and the three young Liddell sisters, Lorina, Alice, and Edith, stopped for a picnic on July 4, 1862, and where Dodgson for the first time told the tale of Alice’s adventures “Under Ground” (that axial instant when he truly became Lewis Carroll), it should become a pilgrimage site as sacred as the Mahabodhi Tree at Bodh Gaya.
Now, admittedly, my perspective may be slightly distorted. 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. Simply said, if the deepest fathoms of my mental habits, character, and vision of the good rise from any other source than those books, I cannot imagine what it is. When I dare to peer into those inner depths, and venture down into the spiritual abyss upholding my buoyant little psychological self, I find a greater self sustaining me: There stands another—there stands Alice—mon âme, moi-même—or, rather, interior animo meo. Or so I like to think.
My childhood happened to coincide, happily, with a period of renewed popular fascination with Carroll, partly inspired, I suppose, by the vogue of psychedelic drugs; and, while that had nothing to do with the special eminence he enjoyed in my household, or in the emotional and mental formation of my two elder brothers and myself, it did mean that the imaginative world of the books just then was overflowing into a culturally ubiquitous iconography. The plunder of every Christmas included chess sets with figures from John Tenniel’s Looking-Glass illustrations, soaps shaped like the inhabitants of Wonderland, Alice coloring books and prints and calendars, new editions of the texts, and so on. Each of us at some point got his own copy of the first Annotated Alice and (after its discovery in the middle 1970s) of the long-lost “Wasp in a Wig” episode from Through the Looking-Glass, as well as of a rare and beautifully produced facsimile (in a turquoise slipcase) of Carroll’s original handwritten and hand-illustrated Alice’s Adventures Under Ground of 1864, three copies of which my father had procured through business contacts. God alone knows how many times we went to the 1972 Fiona Fullerton film (scored by the great John Barry).
Even so, I do not believe my sense of the importance of Alice is merely an expression of personal devotion. 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.
And it would be difficult to deny (if even more difficult to quantify) their influence on later authors. Even in Carroll’s lifetime the Alice books spread throughout the world, and did so in high literary repute. And, whether as a direct inspiration of particular writers or merely as a broad determinant of shared cultural imagination, they opened up a new dimension of respectable aesthetic experience: a tolerance of the absurd as a realm unto itself—of the dreamlike and perverse as an authentic artistic domain with no need to justify itself in light of the ordinary. We see this not only in writers who openly acknowledged their admiration for Carroll, like Joyce and Nabokov, but in the whole unfolding of twentieth-century literature. Our willingness, even eagerness, to enter and inhabit the worlds of Kafka, Beckett, Schulz, Gombrowicz, Walser, Cortázar, the Odessa School, Mikhail Bulgakov, Sadegh Hedayat, Kobo Abe, Boris Vian, Flann O’Brien, and countless others, without any nagging sense that their absurdities should consign their works to a lower artistic station than more “sensible” works of fiction, results in large part from the way in which the Alice books invaded and irreversibly subverted the sensibilities of the literate world. True, we can still be beguiled by bad art whose only recommendation is its “realism” or “seriousness” (like Ian McEwan’s dreary essays in creative-writing-class prose, or Cormac McCarthy’s blunderingly bombastic metaphysical tragedies, and so on). But most of us are blessedly free from the imaginatively crippling prejudice that only such seriousness can be profound, and I suspect it was Carroll, to a greater degree than we usually realize, who was our liberator.
Not that I can prove as much. 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. Today, of course, it is often asserted that they are really books for adults, but mostly on account of the obscurity now of many of their cultural references, and of our tendency these days to raise our children as instinctive illiterates who have to be judiciously shielded from new words and complex syntax, rather than as the omnivorously assimilative and rapidly adaptable creatures they are. Carroll, however, had been a brilliant, witty, and inventive child, and he never forgot just how clever children really are, and how great their aptitude for novelty is. Hence the Alice books are perfectly crafted both for children’s intelligence and for their capacity for delight in the ridiculous, while also taking account of their inexperience and innocence. They are models of narrative lucidity and economy (which makes their humor wonderfully light and nimble); yet, while the prose is limpid, the vocabulary is fairly sophisticated and the wordplay ingenious. Adults may understand some of the jokes better, but children are better able to grasp the beauty of their silliness.
Moreover, Carroll had an uncanny gift for capturing—albeit in bizarre caricature—how absurd and arbitrary the adult world often appears from a child’s vantage. The Alice books are gloriously free of hectoring moralism, but they certainly do full justice to the pomposity of the moralizers. With the exception of the White Knight, all the adult characters in the books are unpleasant, or rude, or pretentious, or irascible, or at least (in rare cases, like the White Queen and King or the Mock Turtle) pathetically risible. Carroll was one of the few children’s authors to have recognized just how extraordinarily ill-mannered adults frequently are to children. In much of the books’ humor, there is an element of the irrationally discourteous, peremptory, even violent; but all of it is just a hyperbolic reflection of the impatience, pretentiousness, bile, and fraudulent sagacity with which adults often address the very young. Alice is constantly rebuked for stupidity, thoughtlessness, ignorance, or poor behavior when it is everyone else who is making no sense and exhibiting no manners. And it is obvious to the reader, if not always to Alice, that all the adult characters who presume to instruct and correct her entirely lack the wisdom and knowledge they feign or imagine for themselves. It is, frankly, an uncomfortably accurate portrait of most of us most of the time (if we recognize it for what it is).
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. At the same time, he had little regard for dry and empty restrictiveness; at thirteen he composed his first truly Carrollian piece, a poem about a young fellow attended through life by a fairy whose sole occupation is to forbid him from doing anything he proposes, and even from asking why these things are forbidden, the final line of which is “Moral: You mustn’t.”
On the one hand, Dodgson was a genuine literary revolutionary: Not only do the Alice books break with all previous patterns, but his two Sylvie and Bruno books (1889, 1893), which only the French (and, ahem, I) seem to hold in any high regard, could together make a fair claim to being the first modernist novel (with only Tristram Shandy and Moby-Dick as truly plausible rivals for the distinction). On the other hand, he was anything but a rebel against what he saw as decent literary convention; in his mid-twenties he found Charles Kingsley’s Hypatia deeply disturbing because the pagan characters were allowed to utter defamations of Christianity that he thought should never have been committed to paper. On the one hand, he discharged his teaching responsibilities as mathematical lecturer at Christ Church Oxford with an altogether siccative blandness of manner, and was noted for his stiffly reserved and retiring demeanor. And yet, on the other hand, his genius for the antic and the mad, and for extending the principles of logic (without ever wholly abandoning them) into ever more extravagant absurdity, remains unsurpassed.
All the traits that defined him were established in him from early childhood. He was the third of eleven children (and the eldest male) of parents who were kind and generous, but also deeply pious, to the point of austerity (especially on Sundays, which the Dodgson household devoted entirely to worship, prayer, and spiritual reading). Many of Carroll’s forebears had been clergymen, and his father was a country parson of the High Church party, inclining toward Anglo-Catholicism, best known in his time for his public defenses of such traditional points of doctrine as the Eucharistic real presence, the necessity of sacramental baptism and absolution, and apostolic succession, as well as for his arguments against the great universities abandoning their institutional alliance with the Church of England’s episcopal structure; and, while not a high ritualist in the manner of the prissiest wing of the Oxford Movement, he instilled in his son an abiding respect for tradition and dignified worship. He and his wife also shared the admirable social conscientiousness of the best of Victorian Anglicanism, and impressed upon their children a concern for the poor and disadvantaged. But they were perfectly indulgent of their children’s harmless pleasures. They were proud of their son’s obvious intellectual gifts, but also encouraged him in composing nonsense verse and mock periodicals for the amusement of his siblings, and in his fascination with puppetry and magic.
When he went away to school, he of course excelled, at least academically. The playing fields were not his natural element; he was of a mild disposition and somewhat tenuous build, deaf in one ear and weak in one lung from an early illness. And yet, surprisingly, before he went to finish his schooling at Rugby, he was known to be physically brave and quite proficient with his fists when defending the weak against the strong or the gentle against the cruel. He was afflicted all his life by a stammer, of which he was perhaps more conscious than others were, and which was one principal reason why, though he took orders as expected of an Oxford don, he never sought to rise higher in clerical rank than the diaconate. He was known for his great personal kindness, but also for shyness; but he was also a thoroughly well-adjusted individual, contrary to some of the more foolish speculations that have arisen about him over the years, and suffered from no great psychological or emotional disabilities in dealing with himself or others. Still, the sheltered world of Oxford was his proper habitat, and on going there from Rugby he quickly settled into what would be his home—first as a student, then as a tutor—for the rest of his life.
To say he was not psychologically disabled, however, is not to deny that he had his oddities—though none as sinister as those sometimes imputed to him. He has acquired a personal reputation in some quarters for a pathetic fixation on small girls. And during the prolonged high meridian of the Freud cult, his works were subjected to innumerable Freudian readings that were predictably vile, preposterous, and imbecile. Moreover, it is probably true that his lifelong bachelorhood was in large part the result of his genuine discomfort with romantic attachment. He also did like the company of children, primarily girls. And among his many photographs of children (he was a brilliant photographer) were some of very little girls without clothes on (all taken in the presence of parents, for what it is worth); but the few specimens of these that still exist are hard to judge by our current, understandably more suspicious standards: They are stylized, gauzy fairytale images, like the illustrations in Kingsley’s Water-Babies, and seem chiefly to reflect a special, immediately recognizable kind of Victorian sentimentality regarding children. He was certainly no predator or sickly Nabokovian nympholept. If anything, he was often guilty of a somewhat overly idealized view of childhood; and he was horrified by any assault on children’s happiness or any attempt to despoil them of their innocence—horrified, in fact, by any suffering at all borne by the young. The children who enjoyed his attention all remembered him in later years as an extremely kind, protective, and sober man, who performed conjuring tricks now and then, shared picnic sandwiches with them, made them laugh, told them magnificently amusing stories, reminded them to pray each day, and assured them quite convincingly of God’s love for them.
But, while Carroll’s emotional development was never arrested, it may have been at least somewhat restive. One of the reasons for his ability to see the adult world with the ironic detachment of an adult who has not forgotten what it is to a child is that the richly imaginative world of his early youth was one from which he was somewhat reluctant to depart. He certainly viewed childhood as an enchanted realm, and felt a certain melancholy on seeing others have to leave it behind so as to enter the drearier world of adult responsibilities and disappointments. But I think this was less indicative of any sort of emotional limitation on his part than of a deeply held conviction—a spiritual philosophy, really—concerning the relation of this life to eternity. For Carroll, childhood had an almost mystical meaning. He was deeply affected by the belief of both Coleridge and Blake in the “paradisal” and “angelic” wisdom of childish innocence, and by Wordsworth’s vision of the infant soul trailing clouds of glory. Like George MacDonald, with whom he formed a close friendship in 1859 (about as perfect a union of congenial souls as one could imagine), he saw children as peculiarly blessed beings, always playing their games near the mysterious threshold of Eden or heaven. He would occasionally remind the children he befriended that each had an angel who gazed at all times upon the face of their heavenly Father, and he often fancied that something of that light was visible in their faces here below.
And yet, all that said, his 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. And Carroll does not confine her in a state of simple winsome purity. She even makes a kind of personal progress in the books. Alice in Wonderland is something of a summer idyll, and is structured a bit like the Odyssey, with Alice journeying from one unforeseen encounter to another before returning home with a marvelous story to tell (and some wisdom to impart, if only incidentally, to her older sister). Through the Looking-Glass is a somewhat more somber and autumnal tale, a kind of Pilgrim’s Progress, with the protagonist moving forward toward a fixed goal, undergoing a real transformation, acquiring all kinds of new experiences on the way to her coronation, and left at the last puzzling (in a rather sophisticated way) over the difference between dreams and reality, and between our dreams and the dreams of others. 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.
It is a strange thing that, even among devoted scholars of Carroll’s work, so little attention is paid to his religious convictions. In large part, of course, this is because his most cherished works are also his most seemingly frivolous and non-didactic. Still, it seems a critical mistake, given how central Carroll’s faith was to his entire understanding of life. His journals are full of fervent supplications and severe self-reproach, and his letters abound in spiritual counsel, edifying discourses, and reflections on Christ’s teachings. If one were to list his occupations purely in order of the time he expended on each of them, his work as a mathematics lecturer and even as a writer might come somewhat behind his “career” as a man of prayer. His theological concerns were a constant presence in his mind, and they evolved in a very personal direction from early on. It defies reason to imagine that the spiritual intuitions that saturated his vision of reality—especially his sense of the intimations of eternity that shape our experience of the world, most acutely in childhood—can cast no light on his writing for children or on the special pleasure they induce.
To appreciate this, perhaps one has to understand first precisely where Carroll fitted into the Christianity of his time and place. While it is true that he never for an instant broke with his father’s faith, he nevertheless journeyed some distance from his father’s understanding of Christianity. He actually began to move away from the Rev. Dodgson’s High Church loyalties fairly early, maybe even while still a schoolboy at Rugby, which at that time was a center of the Broad Church piety of its legendary former headmaster Thomas Arnold. As a young man, at any rate, he had already begun to embrace a less rigorist, more pluralist, less dogmatically avid view of Anglicanism and of Christianity as a whole. He never lost his father’s love of tradition, but he did quickly lose interest in disputes over proper forms of church governance or liturgical practice, and came to find non-conformism (which his father dearly detested) utterly inoffensive. So long as the love of God in Christ was proclaimed, he decided, the outward forms were merely matters of discretion. He even shed some of his parents’ more exacting moral inhibitions, though to us today the result might seem fairly inconsequential. For instance, he came to believe it permissible to attend the theater, so long as something morally unobjectionable was to be performed; but a great deal of what he considered objectionable most of us would consider wholly innocuous.
Those who came to exercise the deepest influence on Carroll’s theological development were all men of “liberalizing” religious bent. He was profoundly affected by Coleridge’s Aids to Reflection, which was a kind of Broad Church bible, and like Coleridge, he placed a good deal of his trust as a Christian in the voice of conscience, the testimony of the Spirit “to the inward man,” and the intuitive rather than speculative dimensions of spiritual life. For all his reverence for the past, he came to believe that it was the spontaneous response of the heart to Christ’s love, rather than adherence to doctrinal formulae, that “proved” the truth of the Gospel to the faithful Christian. He came to believe that most theological debate was not only tedious and fruitless, but that it had done incalculable harm down the centuries to Christians’ understanding of the love revealed in Christ. Obey your conscience always, he advised one of his young friends in a letter, and when confused on any point of belief or conduct, go before God in prayer. In a series of letters meant gently to convince an agnostic friend of the truth of Christianity, his arguments constantly revert to the Gospel’s harmony with the inner promptings of the heart rather than to attempts at historical or philosophical proofs.
He also fell under the spell of the writings, sermons, and personal magnetism of the great theologian and Christian socialist F. D. Maurice (1805–1872), whose vision of the vast inclusiveness of God’s kingdom fortified Carroll in his distaste for sectarianism and dry dogmatism, and whose studies of the meaning of the word aionios in the New Testament (which caused a considerable controversy at the time) encouraged him in his instinctive abhorrence of the doctrine of eternal damnation. His friendship with George MacDonald nourished his spiritual life immeasurably, and MacDonald’s radiant theological reflections on God as infinite love rang in perfect accord with all of Carroll’s deepest religious intuitions. He was greatly impressed also by the theological “liberalism” of Alfred Tennyson (another friend) and by the latter’s espousal of the “larger hope” for an ultimate reconciliation of all souls with God. And, like MacDonald and Tennyson—and a host of other British writers of the nineteenth century—he was by temperament and rational conviction a universalist.
This last point should probably be emphasized, if only because it is indicative of Carroll’s trust in the authority of moral sentiment and reason. He found the idea of a hell of eternal torment morally intolerable and therefore logically incredible. One of the projects that he left uncompleted at the time of his death was a volume of theological essays, of which only one now exists. Entitled “Eternal Punishment,” it is an elegant specimen of Dodgson the logician at his most pellucidly precise and willfully bland. It contains no grand pronouncements and offers no final answer; it merely lays out the moral logic of eternal retribution and then lists the differing possible conclusions one might draw from it. Yet only one of those conclusions does not require the acceptance of one or another morally and logically repugnant principle. However restrained his argument there, however, his convictions on this matter were not mere guarded hopes or tentative conjectures. The argument of his essay is that (as Maurice had urged with such scholarly vigor) the Greek word aionios in the Bible, especially when applied to damnation, need not and should not be understood as meaning “everlasting.” But in a letter of 1889, he unambiguously assures his friend Mary Brown (whom he had befriended when she was a child) that God will not punish forever, and adds, “If any one says ‘It is certain that the Bible teaches that when once a man is in Hell, no matter how much he repents, there he will stay for ever,’ I reply, ‘if I were certain the Bible taught that, I would give up the Bible.’” And he goes on to admit that he grants even that “the Devil himself might repent and be forgiven.” Then, in a letter of 1894, this time to his sister Elizabeth, he confesses, “if I were forced to believe that the God of Christians was capable of inflicting ‘eternal punishment’ . . . I should give up Christianity.” These are extraordinary statements for a man who believed the Bible to be the one book that sets the soul free for love, and for whom Christianity was the sustaining element in which he lived every moment of his life.
As for the larger religious controversies and tensions of his day, they barely registered with him; only their vehemence, rather than their contents, tended to concern and vex him. He was utterly unperturbed by Darwinism; he even offered to provide Darwin with photographic facial studies as illustrations of the latter’s work on the expression of emotions. (He was, however, sympathetic to arguments against natural selection as the sole mechanism of evolution.) He detested all religious bigotry. When, in his later years, he used to prepare special printings of the Alice books for the patients in children’s wards, he was genuinely surprised when someone expressed doubt he might want to include a Jewish hospital in his rounds. He was inwardly certain that Christ’s promises took in those outside the faith, and that God was pleased with the worship of all peoples. (His enjoyment of The Merchant of Venice was irreparably spoiled by Shylock’s forced conversion; any coercion of conscience was for him something like the sin against the Holy Spirit.) And he prayed constantly for all in rebellion against God, sure that God’s love could absorb any degree of hatred without turning to wrath.
In the end, I think, much of Carroll’s faith consisted in a habitual way of seeing this life—or, rather, of seeing through it. He was not, I suppose, what one would call a mystic, but he did believe that human consciousness could occasionally pierce the veil of quotidian experience and glimpse something far more glorious. Sometimes, this belief expressed itself in a curiosity concerning the “paranormal” (he was an occasional member of both the Society for Psychical Research and the Ghost Club, and—while not believing in spiritualism—he was convinced of the reality of certain telepathic phenomena). At other times, it expressed itself in a fascination with fairy lore, and with the lovely thought that other and marvelous realms lie just on the other side of the world we know, and occasionally break through to this side of the mirror. In his preface to Sylvie and Bruno Concluded, he spoke of both the Sylvie and Bruno novels as built upon an imaginary conjecture regarding three distinct states of human awareness: the “ordinary,” which sees only this world; the “eerie,” which allows the mind to perceive otherwise invisible fairies and their kith in this world; and the “trancelike,” in which there is a complete physical transference—of the sort contemplated, he says, by “esoteric Buddhism”—between this world and another. And, while Carroll proposes this as merely a kind of fabulous conceit or game of the imagination, there is ample evidence that in his view it was not an entirely fanciful account of consciousness.
In a letter of 1882, Carroll confessed that, as he aged, he came more and more to feel that this life is only a shadow of the life that waits beyond it, a kind of dream dreamed before the light of dawn. And there, I think, is the image that most essentially captures Carroll’s spiritual vision—and that, as it happens, brings one back to the Alice books, and to the way in which, in the midst of all their gorgeously unalloyed levity, they illuminate some of Carroll’s profoundest spiritual intuitions. I most emphatically do not mean that they should in some hitherto unexpected sense be read as religious allegories or symbolic fables; why encumber their mysterious power to enchant with expectations so deadeningly trite? They are precisely what they appear to be: exercises in absurdity raised to the pitch of genius, without a single moral to weigh them down. And yet I believe they do also reflect, as if in an impossibly warped and twisted and elliptical mirror, a deeply engaging spiritual sensibility. They are dream-books, and ever more pronouncedly so as they progress. Both adventures, for all their vividness and complexity, are dreamed by Alice—herself, in a sense, dreamed by Charles Dodgson in telling the tale. From the first, she is identified as “The dream-child moving through a land/Of wonders wild and new.” And, while the narrative of Alice in Wonderland is dreamlike in innumerable ways—in the seeming continuity yet obvious arbitrariness of its episodes, in the way in which verbal assonances and echoes displace normal sense and meaning, even in the unsettling and inexplicable severity of nearly everyone Alice meets—it is Through the Looking-Glass that at many points truly captures the feel of dreams. Transitions occur suddenly and by association rather than by consecutive logic: Walking among trees, Alice suddenly finds herself in a rail carriage, and then a little later sitting beneath a tree; the White Queen and her shawl melt instantly into an elderly lady sheep keeping a shop, and the shop melts into a boat upon a river with Alice pulling the oars, and then becomes the shop again, which in turn becomes the road beside which Humpty Dumpty sits atop his wall. . . . The most mysterious and even somewhat beautiful moment in the books comes when Alice is shown the Red King deep in sleep and told that she exists because he dreams her. At the end of the narrative, Alice wonders “who it was who dreamed it all”—she, or the Red King, or perhaps both: each dreaming the other. And the very last line of the book, in its closing poem, is “Life, what is it but a dream?”
It is not, I think, a frivolous question, or just a final dainty pastel stroke at the margin of the canvas. It sums up the most delightful “lesson” the books have to impart. If nothing else, Carroll clearly intended (and this is obvious from the constant and really penetrating satire in both books) that most of the absurdity of that other world—Wonderland, the Looking-Glass world, Alice’s dreamscape—should be merely the absurdity of this world, inverted and distilled into entrancing dream-images and elaborate jokes. And this in itself implies something explicitly attested in Carroll’s journals, and letters, and occasional acknowledgments of his personal philosophy: that, seen from the saner vantage of eternity, our world will also prove to have been in many ways a rather ridiculous and irrational and only half-substantial reality, through which the pilgrim soul wanders only till she wakes again into a land of far greater wonders. It is not a “moral” lesson in the boring sense of ponderous instruction in obvious virtues and inescapable duties. Rather, it is a lesson in the moral intelligence of true whimsy, true absurdity, which affords both a detached but charitable view of this world and also a joyful intimation of another and realer world. It reminds us, that is, that each of us is the dream-child, dreaming, and dreamed by another, and waiting one day to awaken and finally know who dreamed it all.
David Bentley Hart is a fellow of the Notre Dame Institute of Advanced Study and contributing editor of First Things. His most recent book is A Splendid Wickedness and Other Essays.