Nothing But a Pack of Cards

on January 3, 2010

In the moment of total flux that was the 1860’s, with reason and science both mutating rapidly as they headed towards conjunction, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was perhaps the single person best suited to assimilate the possibilities and limitations of this new era and then see beyond them to something completely different.

In his day job, Dodgson was a professor of mathematics, with a professional awareness of the developments in mathematical logic that were helping to draw reason into the narrower confines of the reason-and-science partnership. In his free time, he entertained a lively interest in popular science and invention and was an avid amateur photographer, always getting his hands stained with chemicals and emulsions. On that basis alone, he might have seemed like a surefire advocate of the new reason-and-science partnership.

But despite his fondness for gadgetry, Dodgson had no attachment to the reductionist assumptions of scientific materialism. He was to all outward appearances conventionally religious, and the science books in his personal library were mainly of the sort which argued that science and religion weren’t really in conflict, no matter what anybody might say to the contrary.

Arguments of that sort were getting difficult to maintain by the 1860’s, however, largely as a result of the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859). By offering a mechanistic explanation for the adaptations found in living things, Darwin had effectively kicked the skids out from under the 18th century belief that the hand of God could be seen visibly at work in Nature. It was starting to appear that you could believe in science or in religion but not in both, a dilemma that people like Charles Dodgson found extremely painful.

But Dodgson had a secret way out, one that was not available to just anybody. In his private life, he was a covert heretic, a lover of nonsense and fairy tales and the strange whirling assumptions of the not-quite-emergent chaos vision. And even as science rudely thrust aside the assumptions of traditional religion, Dodgson’s alter ego of Lewis Carroll would concoct a unique amalgam of chaos and mysticism that would break through the constraints of both logic and science.

In doing so, he would not only address his own doubts but would provide the necessary metaphors for chaos to move beyond its initial phase of hints and intimations and become a full-fledged vision of existence.

In writing Alice in Wonderland, Carroll provided a kind of thought experiment in the form of a universe without God and without reason. In Wonderland, there is no higher power and no eternal truths. Reality itself is unfixed and without discernible pattern. Anything and anyone may change abruptly and without warning, appearing or disappearing or undergoing bizarre transformations.

Even Alice’s own identity shifts so often that she eventually finds herself unable to answer the caterpillar’s question of “Who are YOU?” except by responding hesitantly, “I — I hardly know, sir, just at present — at least I know who I WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”

And yet Wonderland is very different from the randomly mechanistic universe of 19th century science. It is a dream-world, and it follows its own internal rules of change and development.

The caterpillar is aware of this and he offers Alice two significant pieces of advice. One is the insight that metamorphosis should not be feared, since it is the means by which a caterpillar turns into a butterfly. The other is the more practical hint that by eating different parts of the mushroom on which the caterpillar is sitting, Alice can make herself larger or smaller at will.

Alice appears to take no heed of the first part of this message, but she eagerly follows the second part and soon regains what she considers her proper height. This gives her the confidence to say out loud, “Come, there’s half my plan done now! … I’ve got back to my right size: the next thing is, to get into that beautiful garden — how IS that to be done, I wonder?”

In the version of Alice in Wonderland that was published in book form in 1865, several episodes intervene before Alice finds her way into the garden that she had glimpsed through a tiny door at the very start of her adventures. In an earlier form of the story however — which Carroll had written out by hand the previous year under the title Alice’s Adventures under Ground — Alice has no sooner uttered these words than she spies an opening in a tree which leads her back to the hall of doors.

From there, she is able to shrink herself down and enter the garden — but the moment she does so, her adventure seems to go off the rails, and what has up to this point been a dreamlike series of encounters with small talking animals turns into an extended satire of human falsity and folly.

The first thing Alice sees in the garden is a red rose tree. The second is three gardeners who are busily painting the white roses red, terrified of what will happen if the Queen finds they planted a white rose tree by mistake. Next Alice meets the King and Queen of Hearts and realizes that they and their courtiers are “only a pack of cards.” And finally she is sent off to visit the Mock Tortoise and hear its sad complaint of how it was once a real Turtle.

There are several conclusions that can be drawn from this piling-up of falsities. One is that in a dream world, flattering yourself that you are in control of the situation and making rational plans never works. Rather than bringing her to “the loveliest garden you ever saw,” Alice’s scheme has wound her up in a realm of deception, where all honest reactions are suppressed by the Queen’s incessant threats of “off with their heads!”

It is tempting to conclude that the Queen’s garden is a reflection of Alice’s own impulse to be in control, and that if she had continued to follow a more serendipitous path she might well have reached the garden of her desires.

But even more telling is that Carroll himself chose a garden for this nightmare embodiment of Rousseau’s warnings about the power of society to provoke estrangement from one’s own true nature. Ever since the Middle Ages, gardens had been used metaphorically in two complementary ways — either as an image of God’s design of the world or as a means of retreating from the follies of society, as in Voltaire’s advice to “cultivate our gardens.” But in this garden there is neither rational design nor escape from human failings.

That unredeemable falsity is why, when Alice attempts for one last time to condemn the proceedings as nonsense and the Queen brusquely orders her to “hold your tongue,” Alice’s only honest response is to declare the game over. “You’re nothing but a pack of cards!” she cries out. “Who cares for you?” And with that she awakens.

The gnostic-like nature of this conclusion is intensified in Carroll’s original version by a strange coda, in which Alice tells her older sister about her “curious dream” and the sister then experiences a kind of dream-vision of the actual boating-party during which Carroll had first conceived of Wonderland and even hears him telling “the dream of her own little sister” to the real Alice Liddell and her sisters.

So which is the dream? Is it Wonderland? Is it the world of the storybook Alice and her sister? Or is it our own world?

In the course of guiding Alice on her journey, Carroll had decisively rejected the reason vision, with its promise of a perfect static order underlying the flaws and irregularities of the world. But his conclusion seemed to imply that there is no higher reality of any sort — just an endless series of dreams within dreams. And that surely was not what he wanted.

There was one element in Alice’s adventures, however, that offered a promise of something better, and that was the caterpillar’s expectation of metamorphosis into a butterfly. That in itself suggested that chaos was not merely a lie from which to awaken but held the potential for transcendence.

As he expanded Alice for publication, Carroll would drop his final ambiguous coda, but at the same time he would add a powerful new character, the Cheshire Cat, who would both confirm the caterpillar’s message and expand it into new areas of possibility.


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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