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Purely Platonic


ISSUE:  Spring 1932


The Lewis Carroll Book.
Edited by Richard Herrick. New York: Lincoln McVeagh: The Dial Press. $3.00.


Man has ten fingers: hence the importance of centenaries. In the dim past when Nature put on the market her first tentative models of the order mammalia, she subdivided their extremities into fives. No reason for this choice has ever been revealed to the prying eye of the scientist, but if she had chosen four or six we should not now be turning our gaze upon the enigmatic figure of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, alias Lewis Carroll, one time lecturer in mathematics at Christ Church College, Oxford, and author of “Alice in Wonderland,” “Through the Looking-Glass,” and “The Hunting of the Snark,” to mention his three best-known works. If the mathematicians, including Dodgson, had been consulted on the matter, they would have voted unanimously for six fingers, but if they had attempted to present their case to Nature, she would doubtless have replied like the Duchess: “Oh don’t bother me, I never could abide figures.”

It is generally agreed that Lewis Carroll (to use the familiar name) is something of a literary anomaly. But the current statement of the problem is superficial. We are offered merely the contrast between Dodgson, the mathematician, with his head either in or above the clouds, and the creator of “Alice”; between the towering intellect and the writer of “nonsense” for children. This is the point of view presented by the story that Queen Victoria, having been delighted by Alice, wrote to the author for his other books, and got by return mail his “Syllabus of Plane Algebraical Geometry.” If that were all to the problem it need not detain anyone long. It is simply the problem of how one can be both a great man and an entertaining uncle or grandfather. It is this superficial estimate which accounts for the coupling of his name with that of Edward Lear, as some have done recently. Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear, two great writers of juvenile nonsense: that is the version of our literary classifiers and pigeon-holers. But this “juvenile” is the delight of wise men, while on the second count one can only quote the Red Queen, “You may call it ‘nonsense’ if you like, but I’ve heard nonsense compared with which that would be as sensible as a dictionary!” To Edward Lear the classification is fair, I think. Such liking for him as survives adolescence is reminiscent and nostalgic. We remember how we used to like him, and feel for him the kind of affection we would bestow upon a once beloved rag doll or china puppy. But with Lewis Carroll we do not have to recapture our childhood. We enjoy him as adults, finding meaning, insight, and universality where before was just a “funny book.” The centenary which we celebrate is not a second childhood; it is a commemoration of the authorship of great literature.

Those who disagree with this estimate of Lewis Carroll may stand aside. There will still be a goodly number of the faithful to do him homage, and we have no need to swell the congregation with Learists and other half-hearted admirers. But to those who wish to understand as well as worship, our problem remains, and we see it now as twofold: to relate the greatness of the work to the personality of the author, and to single out the qualities in it that lift it to eminence. The first is a problem in biography, the second one of literary criticism.

The biographical approach does not get us very far. The most discerning and sympathetic critic would be hard put to it to find in his character a single element of what we ordinarily define as greatness. Even his one outstanding talent, his mathematical ability, is easily overrated; it stopped a long way this side of genius. A rather typical Oxford don, his feet were set in quiet ways, and in these he trod steadily. But he was not one of those who find in the cloistered life an arena for intellectual daring, a daring all the greater because they are relieved of the necessity of testing their conclusions in a world of action. A deacon in the established church, his orthodoxy was extreme even for his time, and he could be shocked by any show of heresy in a little girl. On that side his imagination and intellect were bounded by the thirty-nine articles. Of all that our own age condemns as Victorian, he seems to have been the complete embodiment. Nor were his littlenesses, like those of James Boswell, relevant to the literary problem. To a biographer’s eye he seems to be without blood in his veins or flesh on his bones. He lectured on mathematics. He liked little girls, but disliked boys. He seems to have had few if any adult friends, and certainly none of these were men. I suppose all of this can be summed up in some Freudian formula, but the enigma would still remain. How did this logical and lady-like nonentity win a place among the authors of great literature?

If we turn to the second half of our problem we are met at the outset with the riddle of classification. Every great author has his individuality, but he has also his kinships with others. Books, like their writers, have their friendships and enmities. But if we are to include “Alice” in our collection of masterpieces, she invites no juxtapositions. Like her author she has no friends. No other work seems to invite her to his company, to stand sponsor for her inclusion. In the Battle of the Books she has somehow come through unscathed, but no champion has fought for her. There is no need for extravagant language. Immortality is a word easier to use than to justify, and sixty-seven years of life gives no warrant for glib assertions. None the less, a work which survives even a single generation shows itself possessed of some quality which transcends the purely temporal, and the function of criticism is to establish criteria by which this quality may be recognized. Professor Gilbert Murray has stated the case:

I think it is clear that in any great work of literature there is a soul which lives and a body which perishes; and, further, since the soul cannot ever be found naked without any body at all, it is making for itself all the time new bodies, changing with the times.

It is this power of reincarnation which is of the very essence of “immortality.” No great work really lives, like the Wandering Jew, an unbroken life through the ages, but is continually being reborn with the generations of men. Plato has forgotten Athens, and Shakespeare Queen Elizabeth, and the efforts of the historically minded scholars to put them back into the past are like those of psychiatrists trying to make an amnesia victim remember his wife and children. And the power of reincarnation in “Alice” is evidenced by the way she grows up with us. Many people overlook this; they think that “Alice” must be “too old” for children, not realizing that the Alice of adult enjoyment is really a different book.

Other authors occur to one who have this power of appeal to all ages; for example, Hans Andersen, some of whose tales take on new meanings with our years, and reveal new depths to our widened experience. But Andersen was a poet, and the soul which dwells in the Little Tin Soldier or the Little Fir Tree is a poetic soul, appealing to our emotions and our sense of beauty. There is no difficulty in understanding their survival, for the fire of poetry is undying. Beauty and emotion, however, are words which cannot be applied to a single page that Lewis Carroll ever wrote. The “adventures” of Alice are not even exciting; such plot as they have moves with the gentlest of undulations, unpunctu-ated by thrill or suspense.

The one word which applies is humor. Here at last we seem to be on safe ground. Lewis Carroll belongs with the humorists; that is the proper shelf in our library. But who else is there? Aristophanes? Rabelais? Cervantes? Mo-liere? One can imagine Charles Dodgson’s shudder at finding himself in this full-blooded company. (He thought W.

S. Gilbert indecent!) But what great humorists have we who are not in their tradition, mixing malice and pathos with their full-throated laughter at mankind?

Well, I should like to suggest one: Euclid. I admit he is rather sparing of his jokes, but they are of the right kind. You remember, perhaps, that one where he imagines a triangle with two equal angles, and unequal adjacent sides, and then proceeds to show, in his inimitable dry way, how comical such a triangle would be. If I may be permitted to say a word or two on that solemn subject, the Classification of Humor: we find a basis in the nature of the contrasts which humor presents to us — the gulf between the moral purpose and the achievements of a Quixote, between the pretensions and the personality of a Monsieur Jourdain, and so on. And Euclid typifies, in its purest and most rarefied form, the Joke Intellectual, the contrast between premises and conclusion. We find it also in Plato, less rarefied and based more broadly on our common heritage. And here at last we find the spiritual ancestors of Lewis Carroll, the source and well-spring of his inspiration. Take for instance the following Platonic Dialogue:

“And how many hours a day did you do lessons?” said Alice, . . .

“Ten hours the first day,” said the Mock Turtle: “nine the next, and so on.”

“What a curious plan!” exclaimed Alice.

“That’s the reason they’re called lessons,” the Gryphon remarked: “because they lessen from day to day.”

This was quite a new idea to Alice, and she thought it over a little before she made her next remark. “Then the eleventh day must have been a holiday?”

“Of course it was,” said the Mock Turtle.

“And how did you manage on the twelfth?” Alice went on eagerly.

“That’s enough about lessons,” the Gryphon interrupted in a very decided tone: “tell her something about the games now.” j

Or, again, this trenchant commentary on the idea of the Good.

The Hatter was the first to break the silence. “What day of the month is it?” he said, turning to Alice: he had taken his watch out of his pocket, and was looking at it uneasily, shaking it every now and then, and holding it to his ear.

Alice considered a little, and then said, “The fourth.”

“Two days wrong!” sighed the Hatter. “I told you but-ter wouldn’t suit the works!” he added, looking angrily at the March Hare.

“It was the best butter,” the March Hare meekly replied.

There is no need to multiply illustrations. We could pick them at random. And the conclusion of our critical quest throws its light back on the biographical puzzle: we see the author as a true product of his special training and of his environment; of his mathematical studies and of the atmos-phere of scholasticism and paradox breathed by nineteenth century Oxford. I have described him as a typical Oxford don; that is not quite true. He was not typical, he was quintessential, and his forbears roamed the groves around Athens.

Leave him then, mathematics and all, with Plato and Eu-clid. One of his books is called “Euclid and His Modern Rivals.” He was one of them.

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Anita 's picture
Anita · 5 years ago

Alice and Lorena and the third sister are called Elsie, Tillie and Lacey in the dormouse's account in the Mad Hatter's Tea Party.

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