Alice still relevant


This year marks the 150th Anniversary of the book commonly known as Alice in Wonderland, the greatest “children’s book” ever written. Many tea parties are planned to celebrate.

The book’s real title is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and it’s no surprise even its name has been streamlined, because practically everything else about the work has suffered debilitating modifications.

Blighted by, among others, Disney, the savage and uncompromising little volume has been rendered “cute” too often. If the author, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, were alive today, heads would roll, (more on that topic later) because he was a perfectionist, and never allowed his work to be tampered with.

Dodgson, or Lewis Carroll, as he’s better known, would not have cared a great deal for the 21st century. He was Victorian, deeply sexually repressed, incapable of forming normal relationships with women, and fixated by small, pre-pubescent, girls. Only girls. “I like all children, except boys,” he once remarked.

His passion went as far as photographing them in the nude (the subjects, that is, not Carroll) and even nowadays, that would be going too far — especially nowadays. Back then, when piano legs were often modestly covered, the idea was so bizarre it almost got a pass as “artistic.” Almost, but not quite. Several mothers objected. Carroll gave it up.

“Artistic,” was the way Carroll saw his photographs. He was making images of utter purity, by his lights.

I’ve long been fascinated by the Alice books. Wonderland, and its sequel, Alice Through the Looking Glass And What She Found There, are often regarded as pure nonsense, and were even described as such by the author himself. This could scarcely be further from the truth. Both contain deep thickets of logic, philosophy, and mathematics — Carroll being, not only a writer, early pioneer of photography, and prolific inventor, but also a mathematical wizard.

As classics the books don’t date, and much of the “humor” remains disconcertingly relevant in the age of ISIS-style terror:

“Alice arranged a bolster round the neck of Tweedledee, ‘to keep his head from being cut off,’ as he said. ‘You know,’ he added very gravely, ‘it’s one of the most serious things that can possibly happen to one in a battle — to get one’s head cut off. ’”

When politicians use words like patriotism, health care, taxation, and climate change, they might take note of an opinionated, Looking-Glass egg: “‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’ ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’”

We can confidently expect to hear the same words meaning many different things very soon, from several of our masters (and mistresses).

Patrick O'Gara, a former Blade editor, was a journalist all his working life. He now lives in Northern Spain with six dogs, a cat, a canary, seven hens, and a tolerant American wife.

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