Dodgson in Numberland

January 27: Charles Dodgson was born on this day in 1832. Attempts to unravel The Mystery of Lewis Carroll (title ofJenny Woolf’s 2010 biography) have approached the writing and the man from allsides of the looking-glass. The following is from the Robin Wilson’s Preface toLewis Carroll in Numberland(2008):

If Dodgson had not writtenthe Alice books, he would beremembered mainly as a pioneering photographer, one of the first to considerphotography as an art rather than as simply a means of recording images. …IfDodgson had not written the Alicebooks or been a photographer, he might be remembered as a mathematician, thecareer he pursued as a lecturer at Christ Church, the largest college of OxfordUniversity.

Numberlandis aimed at the general reader, and though it explores a wide range ofDodgson’s mathematical interests, it also does the literarymath:

Arthur: For acomplete logical argument we need two prim Misses—

Lady Muriel: Ofcourse! I remember that word now. And they produce—?

Arthur: ADelusion.

Lady Muriel: Ye—es? Idon’t seem to remember that so well. But what is the whole argumentcalled?

Arthur: ASillygism.

                                                 (fromSylvie and Bruno)

“I know what you’rethinking about,” said Tweedledum; “but it isn’t so,nohow.”
“Contrariwise,” continued Tweedledee, “if it was so, it mightbe; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn’t, it ain’t. That’s logic.”

“I wasthinking,” Alice said politely, “which is the best way out of thiswood…?”
                                                (from Through the Looking-Glass)

Carroll’sbooks and journals are full of puzzles, paradoxes, mindbenders, and an array ofspeculative or just madcap inventions. Some of these, such as his games of”Circular Billiards” and “Arithmetical Croquet,” mayreflect no more than the mathematical musings of an Oxford don; some others,such as the Professor’s boot-umbrellas for horizontal rain in Sylvie and Bruno, are clearly aimed atprovoking Victorians into some alternative thinking.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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