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 alice pleasance liddell photographed by lewis carroll (real name: charles lutwidge dodgson

 WHY LEWIS CARROLL

 

 

“When in doubt…take an extreme case.” – A Tangled Tale, Lewis Carroll 

 

Lewis Carroll lived to see the incredible sales of his books: 150,000 copies of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and 100,000 copies of Alice Through the Looking Glass within a brief time after publication. Not bad for an off-the-cuff story told by a mathematics don at Christ Church, Oxford. Carroll remains, alongside Shakespeare and the Bible, the most widely quoted author in the world - each year, every year, since his death in 1898. More, Carroll was, and remains, one of the foremost photographers of the Victorian era.

This book covers Carroll's life - the controversy and myth-mill and gossip that has surrounded his relationships with younger girls, his photographs, and his relationship with Alice Pleasance Liddell - widely known as the name-sake for the Alice stories and for the photograph, "The Beggar" or Alice as Beggar-Maid. Here we discuss Carroll & the Cloth - Carroll's work as a deacon and his somewhat progressive views on religion at the time (albeit he was faithful to the Bible, Carroll had some very interesting views for an ordained deacon), informative and important synopses, but more, analyses of his writings (not all are covered, for the breadth and scope would amount to a book thousands of pages long: here we discuss Sylvie & Bruno, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Alice Through the Looking Glass, The Hunting of the Snark, & Phantasmagoria). We also cover Carroll's early "family magazines" that he created as a young boy - elaborate journals, illustrated and written by Carroll (under different pseudonyms) sometimes complete with letters to the "Editor" (he sometimes wrote back to himself!) Carroll's whimsical illustrations - all of these journals and magazines created by a young boy beginning when he was still in the single-digits all the way through his early years at Oxford.

The controversial "Liddell Split" is covered - is it fact or fiction, this schism? What does the "evidence" (if indeed there is any) say about the true facts of this matter; what about the cut diary pages? and more, what about Carroll's own diaries that do remain - what do they tell us? This is an important part of this work as it has been the cause of much speculation and has fed the gossip mill and the seemingly endless appetite for "dirt" on a man whose work we greedily gobble up more than any other children's book every year (even today, his Alice in Wonderland book has an astoundingly high ranking of about 3,000) and again, outsells every other children's book every year. Carroll has proven his lasting power - He has been translated into over 162 languages at last count, including minor dialects (as well as major), including Gaelic, Cornish, Swahili, Yiddish, to name a few of the more unexpected translations. The list is impressive.

What of those who have been influenced by Carroll and illustrated his work? Nabokov, James Joyce - in contemporary culture, music by Grace Slick, Bob Dylan (his Through the Looking Glass Tour as well as songs like Tweedle dee and Tweedle dum, both characters Carroll popularized). Films like The Matrix, Being John Malkovich, references in the Simpsons and countless other films - film and stage adaptations of Carroll's work from the happy Disneyfied "Alice" to the truer, and darker, film make in 1966 by Jonathan Miller with music by Ravi Shankar.  Carroll's films have featured Cary Grant, Dudley More, W.C. Fields, Gary Cooper and many, many other famous (and some not so famous) actors.

Alice is virtually everywhere - in advertisements, in the names of music tours, records, songs, in the dictionary (words created entirely by Carroll that were originally "nonsense" but that have now become common use and are in the Oxford English Dictionary)  - especially words form the famous nonsense poem (perhaps the most famous in the English language) "Jabberwocky."

Something about Lewis Carroll has penetrated the world's collective consciousness. He has tapped into something to which both adults and children can relate - at different ages and stages in our life, we all know what it feels like to fall down the rabbit hole, to venture through strange and dark lands, to live by arbitrary rules of "should" and "ought"; we know what it means to go through these necessary passages, as unnecessarily complicated they may be, we journey through them. We are faced with a world of no sense, of nonsense. Ideas, things, world events, feelings, for which there simply are no words: Carroll gave us a forum for that and a little girl to "speak" (sometimes without speaking, lost in her aphasias) to speak for us. The world relates to Lewis Carroll - we identify, and as Emerson would have said, we fall underneath some "cosmic umbrella" and together we form a collective whole.

The Surrealist movement as well as the more contemporary Oulipo school drew a great deal on Carroll and openly so, translating his works, illustrating his books (Savador Dali did a fantastic, over-sized edition of Alice in a limited edition), his work has been translated by Aragon, and of Carroll, the very Pope of Surrealism, André Breton said; “Anyone who has preserved a sense of revolt will recognize in Lewis Carroll their first teacher in the art of playing hooky.” And he continues: “Pink humor? Black humor? It’s hard to decide.”  For more on Carroll and Surrealism, look here.

For the first time, in more than articles, Ranson-Polizzotti will discuss at length Carroll's diagnosis of "epileptiform seizures" and what this meant at the time, how this may influence our understanding of Carroll today, and this is not with a backward glance that we look and misdiagnose, as did many of the Freudian interpretations of his work, but rather, with a diagnosis based on fact that traces straight back to Carroll's own diaries and doctor's notations. These and the diagnosis have been largely overlooked, until this book. Perhaps it was the Victorian stigma of epilepsy, which was huge and the "treatment" as it was, was vastly different from what we know today. Our knowledge of epilepsy has changed, but epilepsy itself has not changed; it remains the same from ancient times to now - the manifestation of the symtpoms are the same. Treatments may change, but the conditon is stable and the experience of it, well, that is almost universal. Venturing into this previously unexamined territory, the goal is to view and use this as a cipher to understanding a highly complicated individual. It would be too reductive to say Carroll was "just epileptic" but equally remiss to discard the written diagnosis.

Here is a fresh look at Carroll in a lighter book that is intended for the reader who wants to know Carroll but who isn't wanting a full biography, but some key information about his life and his works. It is to be found here.

 

sadi ranson-polizzotti, summer, 2008 

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