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From Tan Lin's Introduction to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There pursue what lies beyond and down rabbit holes and on reverse sides of mirrors. But mainly their subject is what comes after, and in this sense the books are allegories about what a child can know and come to know. This quest, as in many great works of literature, unwinds against a larger backdrop: what can and what cannot be known at a particular historical moment, a moment that in Lewis Carroll's case preceded both Freud's speculations on the unconscious and Heisenberg's formulation of the uncertainty principle. Yet because the books were written by a teacher of mathematics who was also a reverend, they are also concerned with what can and cannot be taught to a child who has an infinite faith in the goodness and good sense of the world. But Alice's quest for knowledge, her desire to become something (a grown-up) she is not, is inverted. The books are not conventional quest romances in which Alice matures, overcomes obstacles, and eventually gains wisdom. For when Alice arrives in Wonderland, she is already the most reasonable creature there. She is wiser than any lesson books are able to teach her to be. More important, she is eminently more reasonable than her own feelings will allow her to express. What comes after for Alice? Near the end of Through the Looking Glass, the White Queen tells Alice, "Something's going to happen!"
Quests for mastery are continually frustrated in the Alice books. In comparison with the ever—sane Alice, it is the various Wonderland creatures who appear to be ridiculous, coiners of abstract word games. Yet Carroll also frustrates, with equal precision, Alice's more reasonable human desires. Why, after all, cannot Alice know why the Mad Hatter is mad? Or why will Alice never get to 20 in her multiplication tables? In Carroll, the logic of mathematical proofs runs counter to the logic of reasonable human desire—and neither logic is easily mastered. To his radical epistemological doubt, Carroll added a healthy dose of skepticism for the conventional children's story—a story that in his day came packaged with a moral aim and treated the child as an innocent or tabula rasa upon which the morals and knowledge of the adult could be tidily imprinted.
Alice embodies an idea Freud would later develop at length: What Alice the child already knows, the adult has yet to learn. Or to be more precise, what Alice has not yet forgotten, the adult has yet to remember as something that is by nature unforgettable. In other words, in Alice childhood fantasy meets the reality of adulthood, which to the child looks as unreal and unreasonable as a Cheshire Cat's grin or a Queen who yells "Off with her head!" But even as she calls adult reality unreal, Alice, as the most reasonable creature in her unreasonable dreams, doesn't quite yet realize that the adult's sense of reality has already taken up residence in her. The principal dream of most children—the dream within the dream, as it were—is the dream of not dreaming any longer, the dream of growing up. For the adult, the outlook is reversed. The adult's quest is an inverted one: to find those desires again, in more reasonable forms—and this involves forgetting the original childhood desires (to become an adult) in order to remember them as an adult. The psychoanalyst Adam Phillips notes: "Freud is not really saying that we are really children, but that the sensual intensities of childhood cannot be abolished, that our ideals are transformed versions of childhood pleasures. Looking forward . . . is a paradoxical form of looking back. The future is where one retrieves the pleasures, the bodily pleasures of the past."1 The Alice books manage to show both these quests—that of the child to look forward, and of the adult to look back—simultaneously, as mirror logics of each other.
Like both Freud and the surrealists, Carroll implicitly understood that a child's emotions and desires appear omnipotent and boundless to the child—and thus make the adult's forgetting of them difficult if not illogical. Growing up poses psychological and logical absurdities. The quandary of a logically grounded knowledge constituted out of an illogical universe pervades both books. The questions that Alice asks are not answered by the animals in Wonderland nor by anyone after she wakens. It is likely that her questions don't have answers or that there are no right questions to ask. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass remain the most prophetic of the nineteenth century's anti-narratives, inverted quest romances, circular mathematical treatises on the illogical logic of forgetting one's desires. They display a logic that the child must master in order to grow up. As the White Queen remarks of the Red Queen: "She's in that state of mind . . . that she wants to deny something—only she doesn't know what to deny!"