“Alice–Mutton. Mutton–Alice.”

on February 17, 2010

As so often seems to happen with this blog, in the course of writing the previous entry I found myself talking confidently about something I’d previously had no inkling of — in this case, the central role played by the concept of “personhood” in the chaos vision. But now that I hear myself saying it, it makes perfect sense.

At the present moment, personhood is a primary moral touchstone of our culture. It defines our most basic values, and questions about precisely who and what can be considered a person lie at the heart of our most heated debates — from abortion to the hunting of whales to the question of whether corporations have a right to free speech.

This position of moral authority goes back to the 1960’s, when personhood was first used to trump the belief of the failing science vision that it was legitimate to treat human beings as objects. The concept of personhood is much older, however. It is as old as the chaos vision itself and is based directly on that vision’s understanding of inner experience.

Simply stated, if you have an inner life — dreams, imagination, self-awareness — you are a person. Without an inner life, you are at best a zombie. And it is the gray areas which generate the arguments.

All of our current uncertainties about what defines a person were already being thrashed out in science fiction stories of the 1930’s and 40’s, which often wrestled with issues of equal rights for intelligent animals and sentient robots — along with the more unsettling problem of how to prove your own personhood to a superior alien that seems determined to treat you as an animal and either put you in a zoo or eat you for dinner.

A related ambiguity is the source of much of the humor in early Bugs Bunny cartoons. Is Bugs a person who has to be treated as an equal? Or is he an animal that Elmer Fudd can legitimately hunt for food? In the context of the cartoons, he is both — which is why we laugh but also feel more than a bit uneasy.

This kind of cognitive dissonance did not begin with Bugs, however. At the very start of the 20th century, L. Frank Baum’s Oz books featured any number of non-human persons, beginning with the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, and the Cowardly Lion, but soon extending to a variety of beings made out of wood or cloth or glass or porcelain.

Eventually, the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman would start referring to folks like Dorothy as “meat people” and pitying their need for food and for sleep, “a condition that causes the meat people to lose all consciousness and become as thoughtless and helpless as logs of wood.” Baum even went so far as to write a chapter for one of his Oz books in which vegetable people raise human children for food — dropping it from the manuscript only when his publisher tactfully suggested that his audience might find it disturbing.

But Baum was not the first to wrestle with questions of personhood and speculate on whether non-human persons might come to consider themselves our superiors. Like so much else in the chaos vision, that heresy appears to go back to Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass (1871).

Carroll’s previous book, Alice in Wonderland, had been full of talking animals, but no more so than any conventional fairy tale. The really bizarre encounters, which repeatedly leave Alice gasping in astonishment, appear only in the Looking-Glass world, beginning with the Garden of Live Flowers.

“O Tiger-lily,” said Alice, addressing herself to one that was waving gracefully about in the wind, “I wish you could talk!”

“We can talk,” said the Tiger-lily: “when there’s anybody worth talking to.”

Alice was so astonished that she could not speak for a minute: it quite seemed to take her breath away. At length, as the Tiger-lily only went on waving about, she spoke again, in a timid voice — almost in a whisper. “And can all the flowers talk?”

“As well as you can,” said the Tiger-lily. “And a great deal louder.”

“It isn’t manners for us to begin, you know,” said the Rose, “and I really was wondering when you’d speak! Said I to myself, ‘Her face has got some sense in it, though it’s not a clever one!'”

It is apparent that the flowers consider themselves not merely Alice’s equals but her superiors, with the Rose in particular repeatedly insulting both her intelligence and her appearance. The full development of this theme, however, occurs only at the conclusion of the book, when Alice reaches the end of the chessboard and become a queen.

Alice glanced nervously along the table, as she walked up the large hall, and noticed that there were about fifty guests, of all kinds: some were animals, some birds, and there were even a few flowers among them. “I’m glad they’ve come without waiting to be asked,” she thought: “I should never have known who were the right people to invite!”

There were three chairs at the head of the table: the Red and White Queens had already taken two of them, but the middle one was empty. Alice sat down in it, rather uncomfortable at the silence, and longing for some one to speak.

At last the Red Queen began. “You’ve missed the soup and fish,” she said. “Put on the joint!” And the waiters set a leg of mutton before Alice, who looked at it rather anxiously, as she had never had to carve a joint before.

“You look a little shy: let me introduce you to that leg of mutton,” said the Red Queen. “Alice–Mutton: Mutton–Alice.” The leg of mutton got up in the dish and made a little bow to Alice; and Alice returned the bow, not knowing whether to be frightened or amused.

“May I give you a slice?” she said, taking up the knife and fork, and looking from one Queen to the other.

“Certainly not,” the Red Queen said, very decidedly: “it isn’t etiquette to cut anyone you’ve been introduced to. Remove the joint!”

There is a clever Victorian pun here, grounded in the elaborate social system of the 19th century, in which people became acquainted only through formal introductions and to “cut” someone to whom you had been introduced by pretending not to know them was considered the supreme insult.

It seems that for the Victorians, personhood was not innate but was conferred only by social consensus — but even from that point of view, the mutton is asserting its right to join in the social game and be treated as a person rather than as food.

The Plum Pudding that is served next expects no less, and when Alice has the effrontery to cut a slice from it after the Red Queen’s introduction, it acts deeply offended, retorting, “I wonder how you’d like it, if I were to cut a slice out of you, you creature!”

Alice’s sudden reduction by the pudding to “creature” status is so shocking that it leaves her unable to do anything but “only sit and look at it and gasp.” But from that point on, things only get weirder. When even the soup-ladle starts “walking up the table towards Alice’s chair, and beckoning to her impatiently to get out of its way,” all she can think of to do is tug at the tablecloth so that “plates, dishes, guests and candles came crashing down together in a heap on the floor.”

And then she awakens.

Ending the dream may relieve Alice’s frustration, but it does nothing to resolve the threat posed to Queen Alice’s royal ego by the pretensions of plum puddings and soup-ladles. The real answer to that puzzle, however, had already been provided by Carroll several chapters earlier.

In the Wood Where Things Have No Names, Alice and the Fawn were able to treat each other as equals and interact lovingly. They did not have to be introduced first — indeed, they could not have been, since they had forgotten their own names. But the moment they left the Wood, the Fawn recognized Alice as “a human child” — which is to say, a traditional hunter of its kind — and ran off, leaving Alice “almost ready to cry.”

Here, far more than in talking flowers or impatient soup-ladles, is Carroll’s true understanding of personhood. Genuine personhood lies beyond either the conventions of society or individual ego. It is to be found not at the surface of identity but in its very depths — in the Wood Where Things Have No Names, so that the words “I am” become indistinguishable from a statement of universal existence.

If the epitomal assertion of identity for the reason vision was Descartes’ “cogito, ergo sum” — I think, therefore I am — then the equivalent statement for chaos must be something like “existence is, therefore I am.” In the chaos vision, identity is based on participating in existence, not on standing outside and observing it from a distance.

As a result, chaos-based personhood is never dependent on any intermediary, but derives from each person’s own unique connection to the depths of existence. That is why Patrick McGoohan’s Prisoner is able to assert, “I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered. My life is my own. … I am a person.”

For us children of chaos, our lives are indeed our own, for whatever we can make of them.

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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