Thursday, May 14, 2015
Why are the Alice books by Lewis Carroll, aka Chas. Lutwidge Dodgson, like a Rorschach test? Most Carrollians who are familiar with the plethora of studies on the subject will have an inkling why the Alice books are reminiscent of that revealing inkblot personality test, even while they puzzle over the riddle put to Alice by the Mad Hatter ("Why is a raven like a writing desk?") which Dodgson always maintained had no answer at all.
Our interpretations of both the inkblot test and the Alice books are inevitably colored by who we are and what is important to us. Of course, they can also be read simply as stories, without any of the "allegorical urge" which as Michael Holmquist noted in his essay "What Is A Boojum? Nonsense And Modernism", critics of Lewis Carroll have "possibly developed...to its ultimate limits." Carroll himself assurd us that the books contained no teaching, but he also admitted to a friend, when asked about the meaing of The Hunting of The Snark: "I'm very much afraid I didn't mean anything but nonsense. Still , you know, words mean more than we mean to express when we use them; so a whole book ought to mean a good deal more than the writer means. So whatever good meanings are in the book, I'm glad to accept as the meaning of the book."
(Collingwood, The LIfe and Letters of Lewis Carroll)
My own take on the meaning of the Alice books, as a self-styled metaphysician and mystic, is that they are, aside from being brilliant and amusing stories, an encoded master teaching about the larger questions of consciousness and existence: who we are, where we came from, where we are going, and the nature of reality in our world.
It is well known that Charles Dodgson ventured off the beaten track in his own explorations of occultism and metaphysical
thought. As a deacon, he departed from certain aspects of orthodox religious beliefs, such as the doctrine of eternal damnation.
Beyond that, he was active in the Theosophical Society of hs day, and was one of the founders of the Society for Psychical
Research. He believed that life was a dream--a concept that has historically been embraced by philosophers and metaphysicians as varied as Plato and Gurdjieff, and is now being confirmed by modern-day physics. Most people understand that our night dreams are projections of our mind; in this waking dream of ours, the same principle is at work in what quantum physics
has dubbed the observer effect (the act of observing evokes the things that are observed). His dream-stories of Alice reflect
this belief. He also saw life as a school for soul growth: "Life is really a sort of school, or training-time, meant chiefly for the building
up of character, and of disciplining the spirit." This too is reflected in many instances in the Alice books, i.e.: "How the creatures
order one about, and make one repeat lessons! I might as well be at school at once." Games are another theme of the books.
In Alice in Wonderland, we have playing cards and croquet; in Through the Looking-Glass, chess. So: life is a dream, a school,
and a game. All Us in Onederland, dreaming, learning, and playing.
One of the meanings of the name Alice, which is of Greek derivation, is "truth." On the one hand, truth is relative, and we each
must discover our own truth within. On the other hand, there is a fundamental Truth or Reality that goes beyond our personal
perceptions. The ancient scriptures of Hinduism, the Vedas, call the innermnost personal reality "Atman," and the ultimate reality
of the universe "Brahman." Ultimately, there is no separation between these two aspects, thus they are one in Alice,
whose name has also been interpreted by Mark Burstein in his essay To Catch A Bandersnatch as, among other things, All Us or All Is.
So, we have the young Alice/All Us, blissfully unaware of her cosmic significance, restless on the riverbank, close to her Spirit/Source
(the timeless river of Being), yet tired of it all, including her sister's book which she had peeked into a few times: "What was the use of a book without pictures or conversations?" Such a book is abstract, too much so for our Alice--reflecting her desire for more direct experience.
Similarly, many metaphysical sources, including the "sleeping prophet" Edgar Cayce, say that the Oneness got bored or lonely,
and conceived the idea of breaking itself up into individual souls, setting them free to evolve as embodied Creators according to
their own free will. As all is (Alice) a part of and an expression of Source or God, this Source gets to experience our various
Wonderland adventures and evolvement along with us. (Of course, none of this is meant to be taken literally, but more as fable or myth, geared to the linear nature of our understanding. However. fable and myth have their own truth and reality.)
Alice, as the Virgin Soul is aptly described by Carroll: "...trustful, ready to accept the wildest possibilities with all that utter trust that only dreamers know...curious--wildly curious..." This description has much in common with the Fool card in the Tarot, and if we freeze-frame her at the edge of the rabbit-hole just as she is about to jump in after the White Rabbit, we can see the similarities. She is stepping off
a cliff of sorts, heedlesss of danger, intent only on plunging into the unkown as she follows her instinct into new and exciting (if
no always pleasant) adventures. The Fool card represents all of us (Alice) as we set out on our cosmic/comic journey through life.
Keywords for the Fool are innocence, inner child/inner sage, trust, faith, and new beginnings. The Joker or the "Wild Card"
in regular playing decks is very similar to the Fool card. The Joker, numbered zero as is the Fool, can be any value
we decide, while the Fool is open to transform into any and all of the 21 cards in the Major Arcana. From the formless (zero) we create our lives and meaning. As Alfred North Whitehead postulates in his "process theology", God is adventurous (doesn't know what the result of his creation will be). And, writes Nisargadatta in I Am That: "It is the instinct of exploration, the love of the unknown, that brings me into existence. It is in the nature of being to seek adventure in becoming, as it is in the nature of becoming to seek peace in being...The spirit is a sport and enjoys to overcome obstacles."
But there is a catch for All Us souls who have incarnated from the realms of spirit into the material realm: we forgot Who We Really Are--i.e., that we are Brahman as well as Atman, the whole as well as the part. This is what is meant by "original sin" in Christianity--separation from this Oneness, or the aboriginal Onederland. The White Rabbit is a harbinger of this forgetting. As Carroll wrote in Alice For The Stage: "And the White Rabbit, what of him? Was he framed on the 'Alice' lines, or meant as a contrast? As a contrast, distinctly. For her 'youth', 'audiacity', 'vigour', and 'swift directness of purpose,' read 'elderly', 'timid', 'feeble', and 'nervously shillly-shallying', and you will get something of what I meant him to be. ..I am sure his voice should quaver, and his knees quiver, and his whole air suggest an inability to say 'Bo' to a goose!" And what was the White Rabbit so nervous about, when he first appeared to Alice? Time! "Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!" Time is part and parcel of physicality, as it is linked to the concept of the finite and death as opposed to the infinite and eternal; most of us do have anxiety connected to time in general, and aging and death in particular.
It is noteworthy that Alice is not hurt when she reaches the bottom of the rabbit hole. This too is in sync with the Fool's nature; it is said that drunks and fools are especially protected. Being relaxed, they are fearless and far less likely to be hurt in a fall. There in a long passage is the White Rabbit, still all in a tizzy: "Oh my ears and whiskers, how late it's getting!" Alice pursues him but he eludes
her. Finding herself in a long, dark hall, her identity crisis, and her Wanderland journey, begins in earnest.
Paradoxically, although she has just come from a bucolic Nature setting by a river, and was bored with it, she is entranced when she opens a door leading to a passageway that in turn opens to "the loveliest garden you ever saw," and despite (or perhaps because of) the impossibility of going through the tiny door, she yearns to get out there. Wanting what we can't have, and boredom with what we do have, is another characteristic of material existence--"the grass is always greener on the other side." This is echoed in the Wool and Water chapter in Through The Looking-Glass, when Alice, gathering rushes, exclaims: "The prettiest ones are always further!"
There's a kaleidoscopic flurry of events after Alice first discovers the door leading to the garden. A bottle appears on the little three-legged glass table, labeled DRINK ME. After making sure that it's not
marked "poison," she drinks it and finds herself shutting down like a telescope, until she is only ten inches high. She contemplates the possibility that she might "go out like a candle," trying to imagine what the flame of a candle looks like after it's blown out, "for she could not remember even having seen such a thing" (one of the many Zen-like conundrums in the Alice books). She's pleased that she is now the right size to go through the little door to the garden, but alas! Alice has forgotten the key, and is too small to get it off the
tabletop again. Frustrated to the point of tears, she then finds a small cake under the table with the words "EAT ME" spelled out in
currants. She eats it, in the hope that it will effect another change in size, allowing her to get the key and gain entrance into the garden.
And then--"curiouser and curiouser!"--she opens up "like the largest telescope that ever was." So tall is she that she bids goodbye to her feet, and muses on the problem of how she will put on her shoes and socks in future. Realizing anew the impossibility of getting into the
garden, she begins crying in earnest, chastising herself for her emotionalism while shedding "gallons" of tears, "until there was a large pool around her, about four inches deep and reaching halfway down the hall."
One interpretation of Alice's condition of being either too large or too small to go through the door: if we are overly focused on the spiritual and idealism (as symbolized by growing enormously tall) or too much on the material side of things (becoming tiny), we become caught in duality, and in losing the connection to our whole selves, we also lose the "key" to the fullness of life, as symbolized by the lovely garden. In this dualistic condition, our sense of self is fragmented, cut off as we are from the totality of our being. Thus, the identity crisis Alice undergoes throughout her Wanderland journey, first voiced while fanning herself, perhaps creating a personal "wind of change": "Dear, dear! How queer everything is today! And yesterday things went on just as usual. I wonder if I've been changed in the night? Let me think, was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different. But if I'm not the same, the next question is: Who in the world am I? Ah, that's the great puzzle!"
The "great puzzle," indeed, and one which each of us can only answer for ourselves--a lonely undertaking. In Alice's initial process of self-inquiry, she hazards that she might be one of her little girl friends--Ada? Mabel? and decides that if people would put there heads down to coax her back up, informing her that she was indeed Mabel (a horrid fate, in Alice's eyes), she would refuse to rejoin them. At the same time, she confesses to herself that she wishes those people would show up: "I am so very tired of being all alone down here!"
This is echoed in the Wool and Water chapter in Through The Looking-Glass, when the White Queen remarks on how happy Alice must be, "living in this wood, and being glad whenever you like!" Alice responds: "Only it is so very lonely here!" Musing on her loneliness, "two large tears came rolling down her cheeks." Indeed, the very state of embodiment as a separate, individual person is essentially lonely. As Nisargadatta writes in I Am That: "You are lonely as a person. In your real being you are the whole."
But, while no one does put their head down to coax Alice back up again, in a moment Alice finds she has company, as, having shrunk again, she falls into her own pool of tears she cried when she was "a great girl", and is joined first by a mouse, and then a number of other animals who have fallen into it, apparently out of the blue, since there were no animals to be seen in the dark hall previously, aside from the hurrying, scurrying White Rabbit. Perhaps they too fell down the rabbit hole, and are involved in their own metaphysical Fall and redemption?
Although Alice and the Mouse run into some communication difficulties--it is not thrilled at her innocent chatter about her cat Dinah's mouse-catching abilities, nor about the rat-killing talents of her neighbor's dog--the image of Alice and the animals in the Pool of Tears is a powerful one. Tears are the physical manifestation of strong feeling, and thus of consciousness. When Alice first falls into the Pool, her "first idea was that she had fallen into the sea..." It has been postulated that all life had its beginning in the sea, and on another level, emerges from the "sea of universal energy," i. e. the etheric world comprised of our thoughts, feelings, beliefs, dreams and myths. Many Alice Analysts have also compared the Pool to amniotic fluid. Alice and the animals are swimming together, mixed together in that symbiotic, oceanic, feeling consciousness. In the deepest sense, we are animals as well as infinite and eternal beings. We are All Is (Alice). In Schopenhauer's essay, The Christian System, he writes of "the unnatural distinction Christianity makes between man and the animal world to which he really belongs. It sets up man as all-important, and looks upon animals as merely things. Brahmanism and Buddhism, on the other hand, true to the facts, recognize in a positive way that man is related generally to the whole of nature, and specially and principally to animal nature; and in their system man is always represented by the theory of metempsychosis and otherwise, as clearly connected with the natural world." The appearance of the ape in Tenniel's drawing of the drenched Alice and the animals seems significant here, when we consider the theory of human evolution from the apes, as well as the similarity of ape and human characteristics and DNA.
Presumably the ape, or human-in-the-making, joined the other animals in the Caucus Race, to get dry. This is the first of several games that feature prominently in the Alice books, all of which can be seen as symbolizing the game of life. The Dodo (a bird that is now extinct--one of the myriad ways the books play with the concept of time), "marked out a race-course, into a sort of circle ('the exact shape doesn't matter,' it said,) and then all the party were placed along the course, here and there. There was no 'one, two, three, and away!' but they began running when they liked, and left off when they liked, so that it was not easy to know when the race was over."
As the circle is a common symbol for eternity, so the circular race-course, in relation to the game of life, symbolizes the "eternal round" of existence--conception, birth and death--and on another level, of evolution toward our Godhood. As a circle (eternity) has no beginning and no end, thus it makes sense that there are no fixed beginnings or endings in the Caucus-Race, and despite the seeming reality of birth and death, there are no beginnings or endings for All Us in our true nature as Spirit. As has often been said, we are not human beings having a spiritual experience, but spiritual beings having a human experience. And since experience is its own purpose, we all "win." As the Dodo says after the Caucus-Race: "Everybody has won, and all must have prizes."
In contrast to this freewheeling approach, we often measure and judge ourselves and others without mercy. The furious Queen of Hearts, ordering heads chopped off left and right, portrays this in an extreme manner. (It is worth noting that the touching of both shoulders with the blade of the sword in the 'knighting' ritual, thus symbolically cutting off the head, also symbolizes breaking open the limitations of the body.) In the "long and sad tale" recounted by the Mouse, the Queen is foreshadowed by a mysterious and ruthless being named Fury, who informs the mouse in the tale that he, Fury, playing the part of both judge and jury, will "try the whole cause, and condemn you to death." In fact, in "Alice On The Stage," Carroll writes that he saw the Queen as "a blind and aimless Fury."
It is significant that the White Rabbit is the first Wanderland creature that Alice encounters. As noted, he represents fear, and fear's handmaiden is control in all its aspects, including anger. When the White Rabbit shows up again in the next chapter, he mistakes Alice for his maidservant Mary Ann, angrily castigating her for shirking her job, and ordering her to fetch his gloves and fan. As Martin Gardner notes in "The Annotated Alice": "The White Rabbit's angry ordering about of his servants here and elsewhere in the chapter, is in keeping with his timid character." From this it follows that fear lurks behind the anger of the less obviously timid characters as well, such as the Queen of Hearts.