Fairy Tale Me
Tre L. Loadholt

Dearest Tre — You will NEVER lose your “muchness.” Keep it on, sister.

PS — Have you seen the version starring Whoppie Goldberg as the Cheshire Cat? Martin Short plays the Mad Hatter. I have this on DVD, and it is the best thing ever…except for the new ones. I never get tired of Alice (I own a hard copy of the complete stories and novels), and here’s an article that may interest you — from the New Yorker in 2015. I’m sorry about the linebreaks, but this is how my copy and paste of my pdf worked. Please forgive me.

OCTOBER 11, 2015

Who Can Be Finished With Alice?


The supremacy of Lewis Carroll’s two Alice

books — the 1865 “Alice in Wonderland” and

its still better successor, “Through the Looking

Glass, and What Alice Found There” — among

children’s books, and comic-philosophical literature

generally, is by now, I suppose, pretty generally

accepted. Carroll isn’t just big in the little way that

Beatrix Potter is big; his bigness is as universally agreed upon as the bigness of Mozart or

Molière or Wayne Gretzky. There is hardly a puzzle or a predicament that has fascinated

intellectually minded people that is not captured and held, with wild gaiety and

complicated understanding, in the books. Whether showing the true nature of the way

we use words — Humpty Dumpty is a deeper philosopher of language than Wittgenstein

— or achieving, in the Red Queen, the perfect description of the Carly Fiorina-type of

boss, “Alice,” once read, is always there. (Indeed, the entire present Republican Party is on

display in Carroll’s pages. When Ted Cruz recently explained to the head of the Sierra

Club that there can’t actually be a scientific consensus on global warming, since scientists

are supposed to be critical — so that if there is a consensus, it can’t be science — he was

producing a piece of logical-seeming absurdity, of mindless mindfulness, that the

Duchess, or Humpty himself, would have been proud of.)

The supremacy of the book persists despite being vandalized by Disney in the dreadfully

sweetened and stupid fifties cartoon version (a kind of trial run for his even more

thorough bowdlerization of the second-greatest English children’s book, P. L. Travers’s

“Mary Poppins (http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/behind-two-goodmovies-

two-great-books)”). Of all the monuments to the Alice books, the finest has long

been one of the best literary pas de deux in English, Martin Gardner’s “The Annotated

Alice.” First appearing in 1960, it was revised in 1990 and then again in 1998, and is just

now being republished by Norton in a vastly expanded edition, with the notes heavily

revised, amended, and amplified by the Carroll scholar Mark Burstein.

The new edition has many lovely things in it. Reading it with the two previous editions

near at hand, one realizes how relatively scant Gardner’s first set of annotations was,

especially after fifty subsequent years of other annotated classics, all of which Gardner

inspired. One or two small notes fill the pages of the first edition, where the current

edition so crowds the text with peripheral illuminations that many pages are taken up

with nothing but the annotations. The riches of the new volume are too many to itemize.

with nothing but the annotations. The riches of the new volume are too many to itemize.

The trick in an annotated classic is to know the difference between a deepening and a

distraction. Some volumes of annotated books spend most of their time exasperatingly

missing the point, as with the “Annotated Sherlock Holmes,” where the editor gets so

caught up in the tiresome Baker Street Irregulars’ game of pretending that the makebelieve

world is a real one that he obsesses over details of chronology which obviously

were not of a second’s interest to Conan Doyle. When it comes to annotations, a drudge

can’t do the job, and a fanatic shouldn’t. Like other passionate tasks, it requires absorption

but not obsession. (Absorption can satisfy two people; obsession only one.)

Burstein knows the difference. When we learn that all five basic ballet positions occur in

John Tenniel’s illustrations of “Wonderland” — the lobster in the “Lobster Quadrille” is in

the first position — or are shown a connection between a passage from Pascal’s “Pensées,”

which Carroll admired, and the “flow” of things in the shop in the “Wool and Water”

chapter, our understanding of the books is truly expanded. And, where Gardner’s original

edition included only the Tenniel illustrations, Burstein offers a cornucopia of alternate

imagery, with everyone from Ralph Steadman to Salvador Dali shown trying to realize a

scene from the world underground or on the other side of the mirror. This is not an

unmitigated artistic acquisition: Tenniel was not just first but best, instinctively

understanding that, just as debates intended to be amusing never are, so illustrations

intended to be surreal or fantastic must above all be true, literal. The magic of magic lies

in its being treated as fact, and Tenniel’s painstakingly cross-hatched and hard-edged

style, no different in manner from his equally famous political cartooning, captures the

Looking Glass world because it so acidly renders our own. Rendered by later artists in

ways more self-consciously surreal — or, sometimes, deliberately “poetic,” not to say

pathetic — the scenes from Alice become less uncanny. Poetry depends on precision, and

fantasy in art on a faith that the narrow rendering of fact will be odder than anything we

can imagine. The literal-minded political satirist has a larger arsenal of the truly strange

than the Surrealist can hope to find. (Sadly, unless I have missed them, Carroll’s own

excellent, sober illustrations for the first draft of “Wonderland,” “Alice’s Adventures

Underground,” which he prepared for Alice and her sisters alone, are not used in the new

volume.) [Burstein writes to confirm my suspicion that I might be missing something,

pointing out that there are a few images from the original manuscript illustration

reproduced in the book — though they are, to be sure, so small in scale and so discreetly

marginalized that I suspect they will be as easily missed by others as they were by me.]*

Burstein’s new annotations have the virtue, as well, of broadening as they deepen. Where

Gardner was almost exclusively preoccupied with the logical and mathematical

intricacies of the book — fair enough as a gift from one logician and mathematician to

another — Burstein lets his annotations travel a little more horizontally, including

references from the huge scholarly literature on Carroll that expands each year.

(Horizontally enough, indeed, to include a family discovery, the original yew that

(Horizontally enough, indeed, to include a family discovery, the original yew that

inspired the tree with a door Alice passes through after leaving the mad tea party,

credited to my sister Alison Gopnik and her husband, Alvy Ray Smith.)

But the new edition inevitably waters down, just a bit, the charm of the original. The

special power of the original “Annotated Alice” was that it was a dialogue between

Gardner and Carroll — and Gardner was, in his way, as thoroughly an eccentric and

original, if less poetically inspired, figure as his subject. His opinionated presence was felt

on every page, and, as the new notes expand in reference, some of the crabby charm of

Gardner’s tone gets diluted. A grumpy reference to Kerouac’s “On The Road” as

“forgettable,” has, I see, been excised — though a second search shows that it was out

already in the 1990 edition. (One suspects that Gardner landed on that put-down

casually, as one knock among many — and, rather deliciously, realized that the one

derogatory epithet that simply won’t work for Kerouac’s novel, after all this time, is that

one.) What was originally a dialogue between two ornery originals now feels slightly

more institutional and official.

Gardner was obviously prone to favor the philosophical-mathematical readings of Alice.

We learn about the actual physics of looking-glass milk, and of how the White Knight’s

wonderful list of nested titles for his poem “adopts the convention of a hierarchy of metalanguages”

(After the Knight tells Alice that the name of his song is “Haddock’s Eyes,”

their exchange continues: “ ‘No, you don’t understand,’ the Knight said, looking a little

vexed. ‘That’s what the name is called. The name really is “The Aged Aged Man” ’ ”). But

there is, in the eighteenth-century sense, a “sentimental” reading of the book that

recommends itself as well, and somewhat escaped Gardner’s mathematical-modelling

mind. It rests on the basic drama of the books: the interaction of a child who represents

not innocence but common sense with a world that has none. The Alice books are about

the ambivalence of our experience of intellect. The same habits of mind that produce

arbitrary and absurd chains of reasoning also produce the theories that splendidly

annihilate our ordinary notions of time and space and logic. The indulgence we give to

imagination to follow a line of reasoning to its end is what gives us the triumphs of

philosophy and physics; it is also what gives us the Walrus and the Carpenter. The

indulgence we give to intellect is also demanded by those who can no longer distinguish

between an absurdity and an argument. The two kinds of reasoning are so finely related,

and only distinguished case by case, that we can’t protect one without indulging the other,

which is why we give tenure to the very people who exasperate us most. And then Alice

is the representation of every woman: a whole set of annotations could be added tracing

Alice imagery and Alice imitation in women’s fiction, from Cathleen Schine to Virginia

Woolf. (Every man identifies with Hamlet, it has been said, since every man imagines

himself a disinherited monarch; every woman identifies with Alice, since every woman

sees herself as the sole sane person in a world filled with lunatics who imagine themselves

disinherited monarchs.)

With all of its horizontal expansions, the new “Annotated Alice” fails to include what is

With all of its horizontal expansions, the new “Annotated Alice” fails to include what is

perhaps the most widely disseminated, if hidden-in-plain-sight, of all Alice resonances. I

mean the reproduction of the White Queen’s rising cry of “Better, better, better!” as the

climax of the most successful of all Beatles singles, “Hey, Jude.” Lennon and McCartney’s

obsession with the Alice books is familiar to all Beatlemaniacs. “I was passionate about

‘Alice in Wonderland’ and drew all the characters. I did poems in the style of the

Jabberwocky. I used to live Alice,” John said once; Paul’s enthusiasm was equally intense:

“Both of us loved Lewis Carroll and the Alice books.” (The Alice characters on the

picture sleeve of the single “The Ballad of John and Yoko” apparently belonged to him.)

The Beatles singing Alice provides us, if not with a note, then at least with one more grin

without a cat, a resonance without a reference. It may be odd not to find it in this

compendious store of resonances . . . But then, who can be finished with Alice? We see

her, sense her, hear her, everywhere.

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