ScrimismsPresently suffering a dearth of witticisms
Books and Musings16 Feb 2008

I’ve just read Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, Through the Looking Glass, and The Hunting of the Snark. The Alice stories are much beloved by Martin Gardner and others of the same mathematical ilk, in no small part for their word-play and logical puzzles. Apparently I’m not of the same ilk? I nearly gave up after Wonderland, but I was on the bus when I finished it and so had little else to do but plough into Through the Looking Glass.

Looking Glass, with it’s overall metaphor of a chess game, seemed more coherent, unified. Wonderland seemed a little too, well, nonsensical. I don’t have much stomach for nonsense unless I grasp there is a reason for it, and I didn’t really find one in Wonderland. It just meanders from one clever/silly episode to the next without any real sense of why it is going anywhere. I’ve always found such things increasingly frustrating as they go along: if I can’t see some logic, I can’t get into it. (Yes, Carroll was a logician. Ponder that one). It’s too arbitrary.

Besides the relief of having some internal structure, Through the Looking Glass also has better episodes. For example, Humpty Dumpty’s take on the use of language and his explanation of “The Jabberwocky” poem (which originates in that story) is amusing and revealing. (“Well, ‘slithy’ means ‘lithe and slimy.’ ‘Lithe’ is the same as ‘active.’ You see it’s like a pormanteau – there are two meanings packed up into one word.”) Some of the characters, especially Humpty, the White King and the White Knight, seem like somewhat pleasant people, rather than just frustrating hindrances put in Alice’s way (see: pretty much everyone in Wonderland, from the hatter to the various card people).

I liked Snark (“An agony in eight fits”) the best. It’s goofy, but the verse-form gives it the rhythmic coherence that nonsense needs to be organized within. It was, to me, the best of the three.

I won’t say really disliked these stories, but I didn’t really see what all the fuss is about. It’s odd, because I thought I would like them; wanted to like them. I almost feel like I’ve failed some kind of test.

2 Responses to “Insufficiently Organized Nonsense”

  1. 17 Feb 2008 at 11:34 am judith scrmger

    The test you failed was not reading it when you were five years old…obviously your parents were delinquent in your pre-school literary adventures.

  2. 17 Feb 2008 at 7:06 pm Ian

    I remember seeing a cartoon version of Alice in Wonderland as a kid. The funny thing is, it bothered me for much the same reason the book did now: I didn’t understand why Alice was meeting vanishing cats and homicidal playing cards. Watching it was actually worry-inducing.

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