In studying visual culture these last couple of years, I’ve become ever more aware of the myriad ways vision and the visual work as stand-ins for evidential knowledge in modern literature. And, like any true lover of knowledge, I get a happy tingly feeling when I’m able to combine two loves. Such was the feeling when I began to wonder, what about esoteric vision? I am currently reading Martin Jay’s seminal work on the history of French vision and thinking, yet again, about the intersection of various visions. What follows are some brief ruminations on vision and, well, vision, in Lewis Carroll’s Alice books.
In 1856, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson—better known as children’s author Lewis Carroll—bought his first camera; that year, on the 8th of September, he took the first photograph of what was to be an extraordinary, plenteous body of photographic work. Ten years after taking up photography, during some of his most prolific photographic output, he wrote the quintessential Victorian fairy tale Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland followed by Through the Looking-Glass And What Alice Found There—hereafter referred to as Through the Looking-Glass—in 1871. Coupled with his unique views on scientific and psychic knowledge, Carroll’s work presents a cogent representation of Victorian visual imagination; the Alice books render an interesting, exemplary representation of visual culture in the late 19th century, both in terms of physiological sight and, just as important, yet consistently overlooked, a more intangible, marginally religious way of mystic “seeing.” This interdependence of disciplines speaks to an evolving way of looking at the universe, one in which previous epistemologies are revealed as not only inadequate and unsophisticated for the emerging Victorian mind, but also increasingly flawed. Both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass reflect a yearning for a system of knowing that would more adequately address a world poised on the brink of enormous and terrifying change.
In the 19th century milieu that Lewis Carroll inhabited, works by photographers such as Etienne-Jules Marey and Eadweard Muybridge scientifically quantified movement through time and space; knowledge as intangible as how many legs a racehorse kept on the ground while running or the visual movement of microbial life could—and did—become known. Through photography, unseen chronologies were seen, the unknowable made knowable. As such, it is befitting that time is the first motif Alice encounters in both of the Wonderland books. In Alice ‘s Adventures in Wonderland, it is upon seeing a hurried white rabbit pull a watch out of his waistcoat pocket that Alice decides, “burning with curiosity” to leave the rational, ordered safety of the river bank. And so, following a creature that is, in turn, chasing time, Alice takes the first step on her journey down the rabbit hole.
Moreover, in Alice’s fall under ground, time is slowed to the point that she is not only able to notice the walls of cupboards and bookshelves, she is able to pick up a marmalade jar from one shelf, wonder what would happen were she to drop it, then decide to gently place it into a cupboard, all with relative ease. In Through the Looking-Glass, Alice notices time personified as a clock with the grinning face of an old man immediately after stepping through to the Looking Glass world. That the Wonderland clock “grins” rather than smiles at Alice is not to be overlooked; here, we see a hint of the distinctly Victorian tendency to view the passing of time as a lamentable, malefic condition of life. Seen as a movement closer to death and further from an idealized past, each passing moment serves to unremittingly—like a face grinning sinisterly from beneath a bell jar—remind humankind of what it has left behind, and how close her obliteration looms.
Coupled with scientific advancements in physics and evolutionary biology, photography provided the Victorians with new temporal methodologies; time, seemingly, could now be caught and subdued. And yet, as evidenced by the Alice books, it still remained as elusive as ever. As a metaphoric grappling with this desire, time, in Wonderland, both does and does not exist as such. While the white rabbit worries that the Duchess will be “savage” if kept waiting and constantly fears missed engagements, not too far away the members of a tea party lack the movement of time at all; for the Dormouse, Mad Hatter, and Mad Hare, the time is always six o’clock and thus, always tea time. According to the Hatter, it is after the Queen accuses the Hare of “murdering the time” during a concert that time appropriately comes to a halt, transforming time from intangible unit of measurement to corporeal body: “If you knew time as well as I do”, the Hatter chides Alice, “you wouldn’t talk about wasting it. It’s him“. Time shifts, is angered, and grows. Moreover, as both Alice books occur over the course of a brief lapse in Alice’s wakefulness, time is broadened to unfold a day’s worth of events over the course of a half hour nap.
For the inhabitants of Wonderland, time is alive, fluid, and knowable, yet contradictorily both stationary and unmetered. One would not have to look terribly far to discover that this is very much akin to the “time” represented in a photograph and that which has so troubled modern critics: while ostensibly capturing a single movement in time, the photograph also implies a past observed in the future; the viewer of a photograph connects not just with the image of a vanished moment but also with a Wonderland-like collapsing of time and events surrounding it.
Just as photography represented a shift in the Victorian mind’s view of identity, memory, and time, so too did emerging occult thought—a subjective, internalized form of knowing, as opposed to an external, organized knowledge—help shape the Victorians’ understanding of a world that was both in flux and increasingly unrecognizable. Like photography, the esoteric worldview that proliferated turn-of-the-century thought was at once a way to interpret the world and a way to challenge that subjective interpretation.
Despite the fact that mystical vision and nonsensical creatures dominate Wonderland, Alice repeatedly uses geography, mathematics, and her skills of recitation in an attempt to understand this world on above-ground terms; even while falling down an endless, supernatural rabbit hole, Alice attempts to pinpoint her whereabouts in relation to the center of the earth, wondering aloud, “…that would be four thousand miles down, I think… yes, that’s about the right distance—but then I wonder what Longitude or Latitude I’ve got to?” That distance is perhaps irrelevant in a world where endless tunnels are inexplicably lined with shelves of marmalade apparently does not occur to Alice. Similarly, when Alice finally acknowledges the strangeness of Wonderland, she wonders if she could have been “changed in the night” into another child she knows, and attempts to quell her identity crisis —which, as I have suggested above, underlies each of Alice’s dilemmas—by reciting multiplication tables, ultimately deciding, “the Multiplication-Table doesn’t signify: let’s try Geography.” When that fails, as does recitation, Alice cries herself a quite literal pool of tears. The problem is that nothing signifies; knowledge that Alice has been told to treasure so greatly is now of little use when knowledge is most needed.
Alice’s inability to use “above ground” logic and knowledge to solve her various Wonderland problems—as well as her inability to make sense of a new, unfamiliar identity—reflects the failure of 17th and 18th century worldviews to appropriately address the needs of the Victorian thinker. Concurrent revolutions in the way people saw the world—both literally and figuratively—led, in part, to the formation of the modernist artist. Indeed, as Wendy Steiner notes, Carroll’s use of “nonsense” is a direct parody of the inherent relationship between word and meaning and succeeds in subverting notions of a clear correlation between sign and referent—a theme that would become notably important to Carroll’s modernist successors, including Gertrude Stein, T.S. Eliot, and James Joyce. Coupled with this skeptical language play, Carroll’s utilization of an atypical worldview in the Alice books—one in which the relationships between self, others, and the world are blurred—is an attempt to suggest alternative realities and modes of understanding for a culture poised on the brink of enormous, and frightening, change.
Our modern era has relegated the occult to the marginal and ludicrous new age and photographic sight—or memory—has become a trope; yet Alice’s discoveries of Wonderland vision are nonetheless as germane as ever. The relevance of Alice’s story lies in the fact that it repeats again and again: not only are we in the midst of a digital revolution sure to transform sight as much as the photographic image did, we are—somewhat less concretely—eternally waking up to find ourselves lost in the midst of strange and unfamiliar worlds where our surest logic does not hold. We are confronted with angry, heartless creatures and seemingly tyrannical power structures; forced into places we feel we do not belong and where no one wants us; told repeatedly our truths are wrong and that we’ve been foolish to believe them—the world shifts, and our vision with it. Alice’s persistent intellectual curiosity and willingness—however reluctant—to blur the boundaries of knowledge can be read as a blueprint for fathoming the unfathomable, which, especially in light of increased technologies, becomes a progressively more requisite challenge for modern humankind. As Alice finds, a blending of arts is in order, in which the sciences and humanities are in league, and which does not exclude spirit from the conversation. Otherwise, we risk losing our humanity—that most significant of identities—to the vast Looking-Glass unknown.