- Djvu Editions, Copyright 2002 by Global Language Resources, Inc. Illustrations by John Tenniel and Arthur Rackham. Tenniel illustrations scanned by Michael Richter.
Read from June 5th to 20th 2018
‘I make you a present of everything I’ve said as yet.’
When my daughter asked me about the role of the Cheshire cat in the narrative and all I could remember was (you bet) her smile lingering long after she was gone, I suddenly realized how long a time ago (pleonastically speaking) I had read Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
Therefore, I decided it was time for a re-acquaintance with the famous book, and here I am, even more mesmerized than the first time – because I had read Alice then as in Romanian, so it is only now that I can truly and delightedly savour every single pun and other linguistic joke the best of translators could not transpose from one language to another, for it is only in English you can say a lesson is called a lesson because it will lessen in time, or tell a sad tale in the form of a tail (here goes, Apollinaire, the originality of your Calligrammes J), or draw treacle from a treacle-well even though you are in the well – that is, well-in.
In fact, it seems to me that Alice falls all way down the Rabbit-Hole into the Word realm rather than into the “Antipathies” – namely that place where everything is upside down (although Alice is not so sure she got its name right). Perhaps this is why, just after her landing there, and after discovering that not only her universe has changed but also her knowledge, be it mathematical (“four times five is twelve, and four times six is thirteen”) or geographical (“London is the capital of Paris, and Paris is the capital of Rome”), she has some identity crisis, coming to the conclusion that she must have become someone else she doesn’t care too much to be mistaken for so…
... if I’m Mabel, I’ll stay down here! It’ll be no use their putting their heads down and saying ”Come up again, dear!” I shall only look up and say ”Who am I then? Tell me that first, and then, if I like being that person, I’ll come up: if not, I’ll stay down here till I’m somebody else.”
Pretty soon however the little girl becomes too fascinated with the world around her to care very much about her name and fate anymore, for she has stepped into the Wordland and tries to act accordingly.
First, she encounters a Mouse whom she greets in a Latin way – “O Mouse”, because she remembers from her brother’s Latin Grammar that this is the appropriate form to address someone (‘A mouse—of a mouse—to a mouse—a mouse—O mouse!’) and when he does not answer, she suspectes he is a foreigner and tries to speak to him in French, quite clumsily, unfortunately, for the only words she remembers are “où est ma chatte”, thus spooking the bilingual creature.
Very quickly, Alice learns that in Wordland the expressions have literal meanings either when she is about to drown in a pool of her own tears, or when the trial she was summoned at as a witness collapses like a house of cards, or when she meets the grinning Cheshire cat (by the way, the expression “to grin like a Cheshire cat” is way older than Lewis Carroll’s story, whatever you might have thought). Other times expressions are slightly modified to fit the purpose – the mock turtle learned at school not the Painting in oils but the Fainting in Coils, together with Drawling and Stretching instead of Drawing and Sketching, of course. Anyway, for your information, at the bottom of the sea they also teach Reeling and Writhing, ‘and then the different branches of Arithmetic— Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision.’
Also, only in Wordland mock turtle soup exists because there is a mock turtle to begin with, and any fish wearing a livery becomes a footman, and the “little bill” the rabbit sends in is a lizard (named Bill, how else?). Furthermore, you can grow in any direction you like simply by following the instructions on a bottle (“drink me”) or the advice of a caterpillar (on how to eat a mushroom), so one time Alice grows shorter so quickly that her chin strikes her foot and another time she grows so taller that her neck is mistaken for a serpent by a frightened Pigeon.
In Wordland, mathematics, logics and semantics blend together in a perfect interdisciplinary wordplay, brilliant and fascinating in whatever form it takes: the clever sophism (‘Well! I’ve often seen a cat without a grin,’ thought Alice; ‘but a grin without a cat! It’s the most curious thing I ever say in my life!’); the unanswerable riddle (‘Why is a raven like a writing-desk?’) many have tried to solve nevertheless (and the most fitting answer I have found to date is “Because Poe wrote on both”); the unsettling personification stressing the noun instead of the verb (‘If you knew Time as well as I do,’ said the Hatter, ‘you wouldn’t talk about wasting it. It’s him.’); the candid truism (‘Begin at the beginning,’ the King said gravely, ‘and go on till you come to the end: then stop.’); and last but not least, the elaborate, mind-boggling nonsense:
‘I quite agree with you,’ said the Duchess; ‘and the moral of that is—”Be what you would seem to be”—or if you’d like it put more simply—”Never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise.”’
Actually, the tale is rich especially in mathematical allusions (anyone knowing why that is J?) which, although I must confess remain somewhat obscure to me, are nevertheless exceptional in their apparent lack of meaning that hide mathematically true statements, as David Day observed in his very interesting article The Cheshire Cat’s Grin:
“In the final chapter, during the trial of the Knave of Hearts, Alice objects to the Queen’s system of “sentence first, verdict afterwards.” Unknowingly, Alice has entered into an argument that employs the formal mathematical language of sentential calculus (today known as propositional calculus), in which, as the Queen says, the sentence (or formula) must be complete before any valid verdict (or conclusion) can be reached.”
Do you wonder therefore why Alice fancies she is the heroine of a book she will write herself when she grows up, even tough at that precise moment she was so grown-up she was afraid she would not fit her own tale anymore? Me neither. Together with her to-be-Author (and with the Duchess, of course), she made us indeed an everlasting present of every word she said and heard. Everlasting and ever-elusive at the same time, since every reading is chameleonically afresh in meanings, for, as Dr Leon Coward justly and somehow frustratedly observes (see Wikipedia) the gift the Victorian reader unwrapped was as different from the contemporary reader’s as it will be from the future one’s. But what a gift!