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Charles Dodgson and the British Imperial Imagination 
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Post Charles Dodgson and the British Imperial Imagination
Lewis Carroll (real name Charles Dodgson) was a clergyman and mathematician. His delightful Alice In Wonderland is a feat of mythic imagination and fantasy that conjures an absurd vision of an alternate possible world, while also providing a biting satire of British culture, in the tradition of Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift.

Alice’s tumble down the rabbit hole is the trigger for an imaginative flight of fancy about the structure of the world. Alice fears that she may fall through the middle of the planet to Australia, where people walk on their heads. This spatial referencing for Wonderland is important as a link to the colonial and imperial imagination of Victorian England. The pace of change and development of empire is such that traditional verities are thrown into radical doubt, and the possibility can be entertained of a journey through the looking glass to a land of wonder down under (like the journey from Kansas to Oz).

Each of the characters in Alice in Wonderland can be assessed as social satire. Old Father William references the imaginary Australian spatial framework by standing on his head to guarantee his health. The impotent bullying by the Queen, the languid dream of the caterpillar, the madness of the hatter and hare, the card soldiers, and Alice as a quizzical rational person who takes all at face value, each is amusing because it touches a cultural nerve.

The British Empire in its age of confidence almost thought that all things might be possible through science and industry and military might. Dodgson takes this cultural pride to an absurd logical conclusion, where chemical potions can rapidly change the size of objects and where the treasures of nature, such as flamingos and hedgehogs, are instruments for pleasure in an absurd game of croquet, like indulgent ancient Romans collecting rarities from the far corners of the earth.

Humpty Dumpty is perhaps the most imperial satirical fool of all. His assertion that words mean what he wants them to mean is rather like the colonial settler, seeking to construct a new world in ignorance and defiance of established reality. Dodgson uses this parable as the occasion for wry logical observations about the absurdity of popular psychology.

The popularity of Alice in Wonderland reflects the power of the vivid imaginative fantasy world of whimsy that Dodgson created, as an alternate myth to the orthodox imperial pride in British accomplishment. There is a self-deprecation, deflating the imperial orthodoxy with its surface blindness to the stupidity and confusion of Britain’s growth. Looking back to Swift, and forward to the Goons and Monty Python, Dodgson voices a British self-doubt which was actually rather prophetic, in that the house of cards of empire eventually proved highly vulnerable.



Tue Nov 03, 2009 11:28 pm
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Post Insightful! One question...
Your post was absolutely fascinating. Likening Alice in Wonderland to British colonial attitudes does seem to make perfect sense. Also, your character analysis was spot on. I've read this book many times and it never ceases to amaze me how many layers and interpretations there truly are.

My question is this: do you think that Lewis Carroll (aka Dodgson) wrote the ridiculous nonsensical tale with all of those undertones in mind, or that simply readers interpret what they wish? Sometimes it is crazy to think that his purpose in creating a character Humpty Dumpty was to reflect an actual colonial settler. While it is quite possible, I just wanted to hear your point of view.



Wed Nov 04, 2009 12:22 am
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Post Re: Insightful! One question...
hmorba wrote:
Your post was absolutely fascinating. Likening Alice in Wonderland to British colonial attitudes does seem to make perfect sense. Also, your character analysis was spot on. I've read this book many times and it never ceases to amaze me how many layers and interpretations there truly are.

My question is this: do you think that Lewis Carroll (aka Dodgson) wrote the ridiculous nonsensical tale with all of those undertones in mind, or that simply readers interpret what they wish? Sometimes it is crazy to think that his purpose in creating a character Humpty Dumpty was to reflect an actual colonial settler. While it is quite possible, I just wanted to hear your point of view.
Thanks hmorba, & welcome.

What got me thinking about Alice in Wonderland was the exchange with Booktalk's strange creationist interloper Stahrwe, in which he seemed to say that words could mean whatever he liked.

This post is worth repeating here for the context on Humpty Dumpty:
Quote:
stahrwe wrote:
For the record, I did not say that Dan does not mean Dan. Pitiful.
stahrwe wrote:
he pursued the invaders as far as [the place of vindication or judgment of God]*. <> *Dan...I have rewritten Genesis 14 verses 14 and 15 substituting the meaning of the names Dan and Hobah.

Here is where you state that Dan does not mean Dan as part of your agenda to dismantle and attack all scholarship in what appears to be an objective of promoting obscure patriarchal racist fantasy. If you think it is "pitiful" to read your comment above as stating that Dan does not mean Dan, then you are obviously taking your prime inspiration from Humpty Dumpty. Humpty appears in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass, where he discusses semantics and pragmatics with Alice.
Quote:
"I don't know what you mean by 'glory,'" Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. "Of course you don't – till I tell you. I meant 'there's a nice knock-down argument for you!'"
"But 'glory' doesn't mean 'a nice knock-down argument,'" Alice objected.
"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in a rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less."
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean different things."
"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master – that's all."


Humpty's point is that by sowing pure confusion he can retain his mastery. This is a noted creationist debating tactic and is entirely without ethics.

A further example of creationist method from Alice in Wonderland is the Queen of Hearts:
Quote:
Now I'll give you something to believe. I'm just one hundred and one, five months and a day.'
`I can't believe that!' said Alice.
`Can't you?' the Queen said in a pitying tone. `Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.'
Alice laughed. `There's no use trying,' she said `one can't believe impossible things.'
`I daresay you haven't had much practice,' said the Queen. `When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.


My impression here is that Dodgson was a highly intelligent and rational thinker, perplexed by the idiocy of the culture around him. It takes a logician to indicate the satirical irony inherent in the effort to believe impossible things like the Queen, or to bluffly assert like Humpty that incoherence is justified by power relations. Humpty's attitude on this score would have been very familiar to Dodgson as typical of the Raj and the Antipodean and South African colonies. The racist colonial attitude was that whites are superior so there is no point engaging with blacks as people, or doing anything that might undermine the 'glory' of empire. The term 'glory' which is the subject of Humpty's semantic confusion is a central term for jingoism, as in the Glorious British Empire on which the sun never sets, Elgar's song Land of Hope and Glory, The British National Anthem 'Send Her Victorious Happy and Glorious', etc. To Dodgson. glory must have seemed unclear in meaning. The actual jingoist use of glory is as a term that ends discussion, with patriotism the last refuge of the scoundrel. Anyone who questions the meaning of 'glory' fails to see what Dodgson calls the 'nice knock-down argument' of imperialism.



Wed Nov 04, 2009 5:00 am
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Interesting discussion, guys. I'm inclined to start Alice as soon as I'm finished Lolita.


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Wed Nov 04, 2009 12:57 pm
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Post Re: Charles Dodgson and the British Imperial Imagination
Quote:
geo:

Interesting discussion, guys. I'm inclined to start Alice as soon as I'm finished Lolita.


:lol: :lol: :lol:

I don't know who would be most horrified, Nabokov or Dodgson!!!
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Wed Nov 18, 2009 12:26 pm
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Post Re: Charles Dodgson and the British Imperial Imagination
Nabokov or Dodgson? Exercises in pedophile literature! :wink: :wink: Actually, Lolita would be on my "10 books to take to the Island" list. I adore Nabokov. But back to Alice: I must admit I have never read it and will now do so. Is any one particular edition better than the other? And here I'll be outing myself as a total ignoramus: but are Alice in Wonderland and Alice through the Lookingglass two different books entirely? (blush).


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Fri Nov 20, 2009 2:30 am
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Post Re: Charles Dodgson and the British Imperial Imagination
oblivion wrote:
Nabokov or Dodgson? Exercises in pedophile literature! :wink: :wink: Actually, Lolita would be on my "10 books to take to the Island" list. I adore Nabokov. But back to Alice: I must admit I have never read it and will now do so. Is any one particular edition better than the other? And here I'll be outing myself as a total ignoramus: but are Alice in Wonderland and Alice through the Lookingglass two different books entirely? (blush).
Through The Looking Glass is the sequel to Alice in Wonderland, and contains some of the best known characters, such as Tweedledum, Humpty Dumpty and Tweedledee. At the top of the chapter threads I have linked to an online version which is quite good, with a great selection of the best illustrations from over the years. I hadn't heard that anyone was foolhardy enough to change the text, as it is entirely meaningless anyway, so one edition is probably as good as another. There are also annotated versions.



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Post Re: Charles Dodgson and the British Imperial Imagination
As is so often the case, the author is almost as interesting as his books. He was, of course, a Professor at Oxford University and, it is alledged, was responsible for introducing what we English know as 'Oxford Marmalade' to the college refectory. What a secondary claim to fame!

I don't know whether I envy you or not, coming to 'Alice' so late in your life. I will be interested to know whether one should be a child on first reading, to truely appreciate the genre.

I have been reading 'The Real Alice' which is the biography of the little girl who inspired the story.

I have also just found the DVD of 'Alice in Wonderland' with Whoopie Goldberg as the Cheshire Cat. There are quite a lot of wonderful film versions with very famous and respected actors enjoying their comic roles. I remember one with Sir Malcolm Muggeridge as the Mock Turtle and Sir John Guilguid (I think) as the Griffon. It was great to see these revered elderly men doing the Lobster Quadrille.

Sorry, waffling again......... :roll:


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Fri Nov 20, 2009 6:20 am
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