The Wood Where Things Have No Names

on January 13, 2010

If Alice in Wonderland represents the peak of Lewis Carroll’s powers as a spinner of pure nonsense, then Through the Looking-Glass is something very different — and far stranger.

Carroll himself was well aware of this. When he was called upon in 1886 to write a preface for a facsimile edition of his original handwritten Alice’s Adventures under Ground, he concluded his otherwise conventionally sentimental remarks by quoting the reaction of a little girl whom he had recently asked whether she had read his books:

“‘Oh, yes,’ she replied readily, ‘I’ve read both of them! And I think’ (this more slowly and thoughtfully) ‘I think “Through the Looking-Glass” is more stupid than “Alice’s Adventures.” Don’t you think so?'”

Carroll offered this anecdote as a self-deprecating joke, but if we take the word “stupid” to mean “bizarre,” “baffling,” and “rationally incomprehensible,” the description becomes oddly apt. Through the Looking-Glass really is more stupid than Alice in Wonderland — and also more profound, more philosophical, and more deeply mystical.

Ever since I first read Through the Looking-Glass — at a time when I was even younger than Alice herself — two episodes have struck me as being the strangest things in this consistently strange book. The first occurs when Alice enters the Wood Where Things Have No Names and loses her identify far more thoroughly than she ever had when she was merely changing size in Wonderland.

“Well, at any rate it’s a great comfort,” she said as she stepped under the trees, “after being so hot, to get into the — into what?” she went on, rather surprised at not being able to think of the word. “I mean to get under the — under the — under this, you know!” putting her hand on the trunk of the tree. “What does it call itself, I wonder? I do believe it’s got no name — why, to be sure it hasn’t!” …

Just then a Fawn came wandering by: it looked at Alice with its large gentle eyes, but didn’t seem at all frightened. “Here then! Here then!” Alice said, as she held out her hand and tried to stroke it; but it only started back a little, and then stood looking at her again.

“What do you call yourself?” the Fawn said at last. Such a soft sweet voice it had!

“I wish I knew!” thought poor Alice. She answered, rather sadly, “Nothing, just now.” …

So they walked on together though the wood, Alice with her arms clasped lovingly round the soft neck of the Fawn, till they came out into another open field, and here the Fawn gave a sudden bound into the air, and shook itself free from Alice’s arms. “I’m a Fawn!” it cried out in a voice of delight, “and, dear me! you’re a human child!” A sudden look of alarm came into its beautiful brown eyes, and in another moment it had darted away at full speed.

This is Alice’s only direct experience of non-ego — and it is also the only really peaceful and loving scene in either of the two books. In its cool and restful nature it resembles nothing so much as the garden that Alice glimpsed through the little passage in the Hall of Doors and was hoping to reach when she arrived in the domain of the Queen of Hearts instead.

But it is not merely Alice who loses her identity here. The Fawn also forgets itself and accepts Alice as completely and fearlessly as she accepts it. There are no distinctions in this place between human and animal, self and other.

This eradication of boundaries was completely at odds with the assumptions of the reason vision, in which differences between species were taken as fixed and Nature was seen as a perfect, divinely-ordained hierarchy. Darwin’s Origin of Species had only recently challenged this concept and had substituted the notion that as you went back in time, instead of species retaining their God-given perfection they became cruder and more primitive, and instead of remaining distinct they progressively merged into one another.

Carroll did not own a copy of The Origin of Species and no doubt found Darwin’s mechanistic approach distasteful — but Through the Looking-Glass implies an even more radical breakdown of natural order into chaos, flux, and an ultimate dissolution into Nothingness.

Nothingness was, in fact, the most important point of the exercise for Carroll. To him, it was the still center at the heart of things where the whirling uncertainty of chaos was resolved into oneness. In Through the Looking-Glass, he used a dozen different methods to convey the concept of Nothingness — but his most successful attempt came in a single chapter about halfway through the book.

That chapter begins with Alice helping the White Queen to arrange her shawl and straighten out her hair, a task she does so well that the Queen promptly offers her a permanent position at a salary of “Twopence a week and jam every other day.”

When Alice objects that she doesn’t care for jam, the Queen retorts, “You couldn’t have it if you did want it. … The rule is, jam to-morrow and jam yesterday — but never jam to-day. … To-day isn’t any other day, you know.”

Although seemingly talking about jam, the Queen is actually attempting to teach Alice a subtle lesson — that only the present moment is real and the past and future are an illusion. But even the present is void of jam — which is to say, of physical substance. In this Looking-Glass world, it seems, the only true reality is Nothing.

Not surprisingly, Alice fails to get the point. “I don’t understand you,” she tells the Queen. “It’s dreadfully confusing!” And when the Queen responds by suggesting that Alice should practice believing six impossible things before breakfast, Alice merely laughs and objects that “one ca’n’t believe impossible things.”

Finally accommodating herself to Alice’s resolute literal-mindedness, the Queen makes one last attempt to get her point across. She turns herself into an old sheep, the keeper of a shop in which Alice suddenly finds herself standing:

The shop seemed to be full of all manner of curious things — but the oddest part of it all was, that whenever she looked hard at any shelf, to make out exactly what it had on it, that particular shelf was always quite empty: though the others round it were crowded as full as they could hold.

“Things flow about so here!” she said at last in a plaintive tone, after she had spent a minute or so in vainly pursuing a large bright thing, that looked sometimes like a doll and sometimes like a work-box, and was always in the shelf next above the one she was looking at. “And this one is the most provoking of all — but I’ll tell you what — ” she added, as a sudden thought struck her, “I’ll follow it up to the very top shelf of all. It’ll puzzle it to go through the ceiling, I expect!”

But even this plan failed: the “thing” went through the ceiling as quietly as possible, as if it were quite used to it.

Alice’s complaint that “Things flow around so here” echoes a well-known phrase attributed to the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus — Panta rhei, “Everything flows.” Heraclitus was one of the last great mystical thinkers before Socrates and Plato remade Greek philosophy in more rational terms, so it would be quite appropriate for Carroll to nod to him here — but Carroll may also have had a more contemporary reference point for the sheep’s shop.

As a child, I always associated the sheep’s shelves and their many small cubicles with a particular type of optical illusion — the one that consists of a grid of intersecting white lines in which we perceive illusory grey dots at every intersection except the one we are staring at directly.

When I searched online for a sample of this illusion, I learned for the first time that is is known as a Hermann Grid because it was first described by the German physiologist Ludimar Hermann in 1870. Through the Looking-Glass, was published in 1871, so it seems quite possible that my childhood intuition may have been correct and Carroll might have been inspired by this figure.

The Hermann Grid would certainly have provided Carroll with the closest thing possible to a visual representation of the still center of Nothingness at the heart of illusion. Not only that, but it also conveys the message that you must fix your eyes unswervingly on that Nothingness to maintain the illusion of Something swirling and flickering all around the edges.

Carroll, typically, doesn’t say so or offer us a Hermann Grid by way of example. Instead, he hands us puzzles and paradoxes and Alice’s naive confusion and leaves us to find the still center on our own.

It’s no wonder that little girl declared Through the Looking-Glass to be “more stupid” than Alice’s Adventures. As Alice herself says after reading “Jabberwocky,” “Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas — only I don’t exactly know what they are!”

Related:

A listing of all my posts on the cycle of visions can be found here.

A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.

A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.

A simple list of all the visions can be found here.

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