Thursday, December 9, 2010

Analyzing Great Depressed Lives: Part 3, Lewis Carroll

I guess nobody really cares about Lewis Carroll, but after watching the new Alice in Wonderland, enjoying it, and then reading the book (annotated by Martin Gardner) for the first time, I became very interested to learn about what kind of man wrote this craziness - in 1865 England.

Lewis Carroll (not his real name, but who really gives a damn?) was a very eccentric (that's respectful for weird) man. He grew up strictly Anglican Christian and actually studied to enter the priesthood, before rejecting it in favor of becoming a mathematics teacher. He had a slight stammer, which he was profoundly aware of, and thought himself unworthy for the priesthood because of what he saw as his "vile and worthless" sinful nature. As a child, he writes that he was happy, until he went to the Rugby school from ages 14-17, when he was terribly depressed. Afterward, he seems to have regained his love of life.

Carroll had a knack for abstract math, and loved mathematical puzzles. He also liked telling stories, doing magic tricks, and playing charades and was reputed to be pretty decent at mimicking voices. This probably endeared him to children, which was good because those were the sort of people he liked to hang around the most. Specifically the female sort. He was a life-long bachelor and feared little boys, but could not get enough of prepubescent girls. He played with them, wrote to them, and drew and photographed them in the nude, though he did not seem to have had any sexual contact with them. However, there is evidence of him falling in love with at least one of them (Alice Liddell, on whom the character of Alice is said to be loosely based). An odd and disturbing trait, to say the least. What to make of him?

I believe the best explanation of his life comes from 3 paragraphs near the beginning of the 2nd chapter of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Alice is following the Rabbit, and out of nowhere, characteristically starts philosophizing to herself:

Alice took up the fan and gloves, and, as the hall was very hot, she kept fanning herself all the time she went on talking: 'Dear, dear! How queer everything is to-day! And yesterday things went on just as usual. I wonder if I've been changed in the night? Let me think: was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different. But if I'm not the same, the next question is, Who in the world am I? Ah, THAT'S the great puzzle!' And she began thinking over all the children she knew that were of the same age as herself, to see if she could have been changed for any of them. 'I'm sure I'm not Ada,' she said, 'for her hair goes in such long ringlets, and mine doesn't go in ringlets at all; and I'm sure I can't be Mabel, for I know all sorts of things, and she, oh! she knows such a very little! Besides, SHE'S she, and I'm I, and--oh dear, how puzzling it all is! I'll try if I know all the things I used to know....I'll try
and say "How doth the little--"' and she crossed her hands on her lap as if she were saying lessons, and began to repeat it, but her voice sounded hoarse and strange, and the words did not come the same as they used to do:--

'How doth the little crocodile
      Improve his shining tail,
     And pour the waters of the Nile
      On every golden scale!

     'How cheerfully he seems to grin,
      How neatly spread his claws,
     And welcome little fishes in
      With gently smiling jaws!' 
'I'm sure those are not the right words,' said poor Alice, and her eyes filled with tears again as she went on, 'I must be Mabel after all, and I shall have to go and live in that poky little house, and have next to no toys to play with, and oh! ever so many lessons to learn! No, I've made up my mind about it; 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"--but, oh dear!' cried Alice, with a sudden burst of tears, 'I do wish they WOULD put their heads down! I am so VERY tired of being all alone here!' (Bold added for emphasis)

I think it's obvious Carroll is struggling with his own identity. He doesn't want people to tell him what he should do, but he wants their attention because he is "so VERY tired of being all alone". (He could be the emo posterboy.) I think it makes sense to say that he felt threatened and isolated from adults, but comfortable with children. Not with male children though. Apparently they also threatened him. He had a life-long devotion to the religion of his fathers, but also seemingly felt stifled by it. His Alice books are filled with fantasy along with "child-empowerment" morals, but, extremely odd for a super-religious 19th century Englishman, no (intentionally) Christian ones. He is against forcing children to learn too much, and mocks children's religious poems designed to instill Christian virtues into them.*

Another strange fact: Carroll may seem to have been a lonely, depressed man, but he wasn't. Although he does admit to being lonely in his diary, he also writes about his exquisite, unique happiness. It seems to me then, that his trauma, which I submit there was, didn't occur in early childhood, and therefore wasn't so devastating. One passage he writes about his 3 bad years in the Rugby school may shed some light on this:

"I cannot say ... that any earthly considerations would induce me to go through my three years again ... I can honestly say that if I could have been ... secure from annoyance at night, the hardships of the daily life would have been comparative trifles to bear."(Wikipedia)

Based on many sources uncovered (see "DeMause, L. (2001). The evolution of childrearing" for a list), 19th century, British, all-male schools were rife with sexual abuse. Carroll's statement seems to hint to this abuse happening to him. At the very least, he suffered from some type of abuse at night during those years). It seems to fit the facts, as these (14-17) are transitioning years between childhood and adulthood and are crucial in developing the adult identity. Sexual abuse seems the most likely, given the trouble he had forming adult sexual relationships.

Although he seemed quite conservative to most people on the ouside, Lewis Carroll was actually bubbling with oddities and fantasies internally. It seems likely that he dreamed up his fantastic worlds of danger and fun to be a safe place to escape to. A place where a child (he himself) could face his unconscious fears and overcome them, and where life was full of mystery, excitement, new friends, and, odd as it may be, purpose.

PS: If you want to enjoy Alice in Wonderland with much of it's secret meanings revealed, pick up a copy of "The Annotated Alice", by Martin Gardner.

*The original "How doth" poem goes:

How doth the little busy Bee
     Improve each shining Hour,
And gather Honey all the day
     From every opening Flower!
How skilfully she builds her Cell!
     How neat she spreads the Wax!
And labours hard to store it well
     With the sweet Food she makes.
In Works of Labour or of Skill
     I would be busy too:
For Satan finds some Mischief still
     For idle Hands to do.
In Books, or Work, or healthful Play
     Let my first Years be past,
That I may give for every Day
     Some good Account at last. ["How doth the little busy bee", Isaac Watts, 1715]

1 comment:

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