Go Ask Alice: What really went on in Wonderland

Anthony Lane in The New Yorker:

AliceWho reads “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”? The answer used to be: Anyone who can read. From the tangled tale of mass literacy one can pluck a few specific objects—books that were to be found in every household where there was somebody who could read and people who wanted to listen. Aside from the Bible, a typical list would run like this: “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” “Robinson Crusoe,” and “Gulliver’s Travels,” to which were later added “The Pickwick Papers” and “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” Notice that Alice is not the sole adventurer. Every one of those titles contains the leading character, whose fate is to go on a journey, and whose mettle is tested in the process. Each explores a different landscape, or body of water, but all five traverse what you might call the valley of the shadow of life, profuse with incident. Three of the writers were men of God, and the two others began as journalists. Had you asked any of them to take a creative-writing course, the door would have closed in your face.

But who reads the Alice books nowadays? Everybody knows Alice, but that is not the same thing. There are countless ways to know something, or someone, without firsthand evidence, and Alice, as familiar as a household god and as remote as a child star, is a prime case of cultural osmosis. Having seeped through the membrane of the original books, she has spent the past century and a half infusing herself into the language, and the broader social discourse; as a result, we can all too easily picture her, quote her, or follow her example in the nonsense of our own lives without having read—or even feeling that we need to read—a word of Lewis Carroll. Yet the need is more urgent than ever. Carroll wrote with a peppery briskness, impatient of folly, and always alive to the squalls of emotion that we struggle to curb:

“You know very well you’re not real.”

“I am real!” said Alice, and began to cry.

“You won’t make yourself a bit realler by crying,” Tweedledee remarked: “there’s nothing to cry about.”

“If I wasn’t real,” Alice said—half laughing through her tears, it all seemed so ridiculous—“I shouldn’t be able to cry.”

“I hope you don’t suppose those are real tears?” Tweedledum interrupted in a tone of great contempt.

The second half of this exchange was used by Evelyn Waugh as the epigraph to “Vile Bodies,” in 1930, and the tone is a perfect match for the chill, directionless frenzy of Waugh’s personae. But Tweedledum’s question is, if anything, more pertinent still to our epoch, when the capacity to weep, whether in triumph or disaster, is a heartfelt imposture that has proved de rigueur, not least in the realm of the reality show—a term, by the way, that would have caused Carroll to sharpen his pen like a carving knife.

More here.