Alice, you’re doing it wrong!–

The Red Queen

In Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, Alice is always told that her ways are incorrect. She is doing something wrong. She tries to reason through what she is, authoritatively, being told; and sometimes she comes to her own conclusions and other times she is lost. I presume, that is how we make our way through life. We are told what is right or wrong, and we hold that information up to what we have learned or what we feel we know. Sometimes, our convictions are so strong that we refuse to hear any other truth–like the Red Queen, who wants everyone’s head off. Like the White Queen, who believes that the Mad Hatter should be locked up for what crimes he might commit; this, she claims, will teach him not to do the thing he might have done. Alice tests her own logic, but she, ultimately, gives into the bent the rules of un-reality.

Alice regards it as nonsense to lock the Hatter away for a crime he has not committed; ethnically it is not right. In the eyes of the law, one is innocent until proven guilty. Thus, one may not be locked away before a crime or evidence of the crime has been, undeniably, proven. [In an ideal world, but, I will briefly say, human error &c.,] Our society is based upon civil liberties (as much of a pipe dream that it is). But if more circumstances are added that show the person, who is locked away, is very likely to commit a crime, are we right in locking them away?  It is not lawfully right to lock someone up for something they might do. We believe that people have free will, and can chose to make the *right* choice. At least, we hope that they will. It seems unsatisfactory when there are lives at stake, or when our personal safety is in jeopardy. It is an ethical question over which the law and lawmakers will always puzzle. The simple answer is no, but, in life, there are no simple answers–are there? To lock someone away for something they might do is akin to dictatorship. Perhaps, Lewis Carroll offers us a bleak interpretation of monarchy and absolute rule of the monarch (and, by extension, in our own times, dictatorial rule). Although Alice opines that it is wrong, she does not alter the rule of authority in the stories. In fact, in order to regain her own autonomy–for she has little to none in Wonderland–she must wake up. She describes her experiences in Wonderland like a dreamworld, where we all have experienced the submission to plot and action. (I exclude lucid dreams).

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Alice’s lack of autonomy raises yet another implication to the reader–are we submissive to our dreams and/or our superiors (in class/caste)? or, do we have autonomy in a dream state and/or towards our superiors? Is it possible to reclaim authority by waking, and then telling our story as we remember it? Changing events? Writing out history? In Derrida’s Archive Fever, he says memory always forgets–this is why we have archives. But the very archives themselves point out the fallibility of memory.  “Consequence: right on that which permits and conditions archivization,” he says “we will never find anything other than that which exposes to destruction, and in truth menaces with destruction, introducing, a priori, forgetfulness and the achiviolothic into the heart of the monument…The archive always works, and a priori, against itself.” (12) Derrida is explaining to his audience that the urge to record, to inscribe, to mark out a story or truth of our past always points to the destruction of that past. We record, because we forget. Indeed, Derrida cleverly plays with the classical notion of knowledge as being a priori, or that what comes before; the claim that we know by innate knowledge and not learned experience. In Plato’s Dialogues, he records the lessons of Socrates; in particular, the lesson of a priori knowledge of the soul. Socrates claims that knowledge is not something that one apprehends mortally but something that one remembers from a past life of the immortal soul. In the example of Meno’s slave, where Socrates nudges the slave to recollect past knowledge, or a priori, knowledge is something to remember. Derrida turns this on its head; the archive always seeks to destroy a priori knowledge. Derrida explains, the archive or information resource highlights to our forgetfulness, our need to collect to recollect. Our monuments, historical and cultural, inscribe historical events upon our landscape, lest we forget.

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Derrida explains, the archive or information resource highlights our forgetfulness, our need to collect to recollect.

Let us now return to the question of authority and story-telling. Derrida links the archive to psychoanalysis and Freud, largely, because his lecture was given at the Freud museum in London, which had been in a political battle with the Freud Museum in Vienna over which museum is the authoritative Freud resource. And, most importantly. WHO HAD FREUD’S CHAIR? It was like the Where’s Wally of Freud’s toosh. Where did that bum rest itself?

All silliness aside, this is a very real question. Who gets to claim to be the authoritative resource for a subject matter? In the dreamworld of Wonderland, where is the seat of authority? In understanding dreams, Freud would claim that our dreams reveal our desires and repressions, long hidden from our conscious minds. In this way, our waking mind seeks to control our desires, which manifest when we sleep or through slips in daily life. (This, of course, would be a suitable analogy for the idea of Victorians as repressed. Of course, there were repressions–Queen V was scandalized by her sons and their sexual liaisons. But this was also the age where serious studies into sex and sexual behaviour were beginning. As I mentioned in my Introductory post on Oliver Twist, historical periods are wrought with contrariety. It is our job, as readers, to make sure we don’t lean too far either way in our hermeneutics.) Indeed, Alice becomes a Queen in Looking-Glass, but her authority is always undermined, the reality of Wonderland changes itself so that Alice is always listening to characters who authoritatively inscribe their realness or legitimacy. The characters she meets are real and have their own rules and laws to which they ascribe. What makes these characters unbelievablly credible is their commitment to reason against our logic. The White Queen, when she offers Alice employment, says she will have jam every other day. Alice may have jam yesterday and tomorrow, but she cannot have jam today, never today but every other day. There is a strange logic in the nonsensical. To indulge in Wonderland, we willfully abandon the logic we have learned for the illogic we experience.

Alright, so we’ve reached the point in our discussion that leaves us alone with our existential crises. I think this is what is so brilliant about Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland. Adulthood is fraught with ethics, laws, and coded behaviour. Wonderland represents this foggy space where Alice can ask big questions and be confronted by them, too. She rarely has the answer, and I think, if we were able to remember our childhood, a lot of the time, we did not have adult answers when we first encountered new ideas. (This is where and when shame tends to work its darkness.) We learnt coded behaviours from our own encounters with figures of authority. Indeed, Alice and Wonderland seems to be a successful archive of the befuddled state of childhood and childishness. Is Wonderland, then, an archive of childhood that is premised on the idea that we will, largely, forget what it is to be a child?

Perhaps, the reluctance to enter Wonderland carefree, by the older reader, is the reluctance to admit the fallibility of memory. Children enter, laughing at the play. Adults enter trying to solve the puzzle. One should enter Wonderland without the drive to untangle all of its riddles and puzzles and accept play as our motive—for do we really need to know why a raven is like a writing desk? But, you’ll say, Alice offers us so much to think about! We must not deny ourselves this. Of course not, I’ll respond, because the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe——for, if anything. Carroll teaches us how to revisit childhood, at any age.

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I am going to be reading G.K Chesterton’s The Napoleon of Notting Hill now. I’ll continue working on my Oliver serialization. It is my aim to have a new Oliver post up every Friday. This week, it might be a bit late because of my dog. She had quite a rough night, Sunday night, and Monday was a bit draining (for me). Tuesday, she will be groomed, for her hair is becoming a tad long.

Here is an excerpt from The Napoleon of Notting Hill. It seems like an absolute treasure; with the slight (& unfortunate) casual gender essentialism, as you do. I hope you’ll join me! What are you reading?! Let me know in the comments.


Heaps of love,
Word Play Xx

Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever, A Freudian Impression, trans., Eric Prenowitz (London: University of Chicago Press, 1996).

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Chapter the First: In Which Things Are Introduced

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Charles Dickens was an English novelist, who lived in the nineteenth century. He was born in 1812 and died in 1870, at age of 58. This prolific novelist has been praised, condemned, idolised, and ‘read’. He gained success with the serialized publication of The Pickwick Papers in 1836. His next publication, Oliver Twist; or, The Parish Boy’s Progress, serialized throughout 1837-9, is our focus, right now.

The aim of these posts is to reclaim Dickens as entertaining and fun. In an age without television, Dickens’s texts are drama-filled performances. He crafted his novels to reflect acted entertainment. Indeed, where Dickens wrote Oliver, now the Charles Dickens House Museum, 48 Doughty Street in London, upon the lectern that he designed for his American reading tour stands his novel, scrawled with his own writing. His words hang in the air, a crescendo of emotion that falls, into the abyss, on empathetic ears.

Dickens lived in an age that has been characterised by the surge of modernity and progress. And, although considered a golden age of trade and wealth, poverty and debt were very real crises of the age—as they remain today. Throughout many of Dickens’s novels, but especially in Oliver Twist and Little Dorrit, he created a realistic and non-idealized portrait of poverty and crime. As we will see, crime and cruelty are not restricted to the underclasses, but even the (very) rich and landed classes may commit crimes. Such a theme becomes more apparent in Little Dorrit, but we’ll talk about that in another serial edition.

When Oliver was serialized, Victoria became Queen of England, so England was not yet encapsulated under the moniker, Victorian. Brought up under the care of a strict mother, Victoria and her reign have been characterised by propriety and chastity. The perception of Victorians as pure and chaste, is, perhaps, drawn from Victoria’s later obsession with the purity of her children, especially her sons. But we must also remember that Victoria and her husband were madly in love with each other, had many children, and were a very intimate couple. If anything, we learn from this example that the Victorian era is wrought with contradictions and anxieties about those contradictions–much like any age.

Dickens’s depiction of poverty and crime in Oliver Twist toys with those anxieties and contradictions. His cast of characters include crime lords, robbers, prostitutes, bumbling parochial authorities, cruel relatives, and kindhearted guardians. Yet, although these characters are identified by these labels, if Michel Foucault has taught us anything, we know that these characters also defy their labels. Except, perhaps, the kindhearted guardians.

Before I give too much away (and spoilers will be included in these posts), let’s meet our characters:

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(from the left) Charley Bates, Oliver Twist, Artful Dodger, (behind) Bill Sikes, Fagin, and Nancy. [Illustration by Phiz. or Hablot knight Browne]

In this print, we meet the motley crew of London’s crime world: the young boys recruited into Fagin’s service, the resisting Oliver, Bill Sikes–the housebreaker, Fagin–the head of the crew, and Nancy–trained by Fagin to steal, but her gender and association to crime signifies her fall from grace. Nancy, is one of the more complex and beautiful characters.

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(from left) Mr. Brownlow, Mrs. Bedwin, Oliver’s Mother (in image), and Oliver. [Illustrated by Phiz.]

Meet Mr Brownlow. His portly figure shows he is well-fed, and has a comfortable income. The room features peacock feathers, reminding the viewer that Empire is not far from the reaches of a man like Mr Brownlow. Indeed, the painting that holds up the feathers, has palm trees, a reclining female figure, and turbaned figures. The print presents us with a claustrophobic scene, in the corner or a kitchen, but the world opens up through the painting on the wall. Additionally, Mr Brownlow appears to be looking at the painting on the wall, extending our gaze beyond the plot, rather than at comparing Oliver and the other painting on the wall, the portrait of Oliver’s mother. Finally, Mrs, Bedwin is Mr. Brownlow’s housekeeper, and she is the type of woman that you could imagine would always have a cup of sweet tea and a hug ready.

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(from left) Oliver (seated), Fagin, and Monks (illustrated by Phiz.)

Such a brilliant illustration. Dickens’s writing at this part is also brilliantly frightening. Monks is a name we’ll want to recall.

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The workhouse women, Mrs. Bumble (neé Corney), and Mr. Bumble (formerly the parochial beadle)

The workhouse women, Mrs Bumble (neé Corney), and Mr Bumble (formerly the parochial beadle)

Mrs Bumble chastising Mr Bumble. Ugh. Just desserts? Yes. Mr Bumble is too innocently named. He is not a bumbling man; he is greedy, lazy, and hypocritical. He treats the orphans under his care with cruelty and contempt. He will feature in an upcoming post, so, let’s look forward to that.

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(from left) Rose Maylie, Mr Brownlow, Nancy, and Noah Claypole (illustrated by Phiz.)

Pictured above, Rose Maylie and Mr Brownlow learn of the whereabouts of Monks. Noah eavesdrops on Fagin’s orders. Rose is the adopted child of Mrs Maylie, and her gentle heart and status of orphan makes her the perfect character to care for Oliver. More on that later!

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Next week, I will upload a post about Poverty, Poor laws, and the Virtue of Wealth. I look forward to opening a dialogue about Dickens and his texts.

Heaps of Love,
WordPlay Xx

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