We’re All Mad Here

on January 8, 2010

There is a special problem with inner experience visions that does not affect either scientific or social visions, and that is that the more we learn about ourselves and the world, the less able we are to take the stuff of inner experience at face value. So although the facts of inner experience barely alter, our interpretation of those facts becomes more and more circumscribed.

The shamans of prehistory were genuinely convinced that the mysterious beings they encountered in dreams and hallucinations were visitors from the spirit world. The prophets who created the great world-religions two thousand years ago were less willing to take spirit visitors at face value, but they believed implicitly in the possibility of divine revelation. The early modern creators of the reason vision may have had their doubts about revealed truth, but they were certain that the human mind was a microcosm of the Mind of God and human reason a reliable guide to higher knowledge.

But by the 1860’s, belief in the validity of higher knowledge of any sort was dissipating rapidly, as sophisticated modern intellectuals subjected the contents of their own minds to ever-closer scrutiny. The growing inclination of religion to turn to nature for proofs of divine intervention was one consequence of this radical loss of faith in inner experience. It is no coincidence that the word “agnostic” was coined in 1869 by Thomas Henry Huxley to describe a person who has concluded that any higher reality is not only unknown but unknowable.

Huxley, who had a popular reputation as “Darwin’s Bulldog” because of his fervent advocacy of the theory of evolution, had been wrestling with the question of inner knowledge all through the decade. As early as 1860, he had written to a friend, “That my personality is the surest thing I know may be true. But the attempt to conceive what it is leads me into mere verbal subtleties. I have champed up all that chaff about the ego and the non-ego, noumena and phenomena, and all the rest of it, too often not to know that in attempting even to think of these questions, the human intellect flounders at once out of its depth.”

In Huxley’s bafflement and frustration, we can see the guttering out of the last pretensions of the reason vision to be a source of higher truth.

Charles Dodgson had clearly been reading many of the same books in the early 1860’s as Huxley. His personal library contained works by Sir William Hamilton and his disciple, Henry Longueville Mansel, whose goal it was to merge the philosophical obscurities of Kant and Fichte with the latest speculations about human consciousness and arrive at a convincing reason why it was acceptable for even self-aware moderns to believe in a reality beyond visible phenomena.

The “chaff” they turned out about noumenal reality and non-ego may have driven poor Huxley to throw up his hands and declare himself an agnostic, but it apparently made good sense to Dodgson — or at least good nonsense, ripe to be harvested by Lewis Carroll for his Alice books.

There are several indications that Carroll was starting to take an approach along these lines in the newly-written episodes he supplied for the book version of Alice in Wonderland. Most significant is the figure of the Cheshire Cat, whose immediate purpose it is to reinforce the caterpillar’s message of higher states of being, but who then goes much deeper into the philosophical depths where Huxley’s intellect had floundered.

Alice first sees the Cat in the Duchess’s house, sitting on the hearth and grinning widely. A little later, as she is wandering through the woods, she spots it again on the bough of a tree and decides to ask it for directions. This initiates a classic exchange of dialogue.

“Cheshire Puss,” she began, rather timidly … “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.

“I don’t much care where–” said Alice.

“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.

“–so long as I get SOMEWHERE,” Alice added as an explanation.

“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”

Alice felt that this could not be denied, so she tried another question. “What sort of people live about here?”

“In THAT direction,” the Cat said, waving its right paw round, “lives a Hatter: and in THAT direction,” waving the other paw, “lives a March Hare. Visit either you like: they’re both mad.”

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.

“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”

“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.

“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”

In this interchange, the Cheshire Cat offers two different variations on the concept of non-ego. First is the suggestion that although knowing “where you want to get to” may have a certain utility, the alternative of not caring which way you’re going may be even more effective at getting you where you really need to be. This is immediately followed by the implication that madness — which is to say, the state of being out of one’s mind — is the only way to deal with the radical uncertainty of Wonderland.

The Cat itself then demonstrates the power inherent in its approach by vanishing abruptly, then reappearing to ask Alice another question, and then repeating the sequence. And if that was not a sufficient demonstration of its attunement to a higher state of being, it makes its final exit — in response to Alice’s complaint about it “appearing and vanishing so suddenly” — by “vanish[ing] quite slowly, beginning with the end of the tail, and ending with the grin, which remained some time after the rest of it had gone.”

The lesson that madness is not only the most effective way of dealing with a disordered reality but may even bestow the ability to transcend all rational laws of nature would become central to the later development of the chaos vision. It is something that Betty Boop and H.P. Lovecraft have in common and was a particularly popular theme in science fiction stories of the 1940’s and 50’s.

Thomas Huxley’s grandson, Aldous Huxley, would attempt to apply this approach more literally in The Doors of Perception (1954), an early exploration of the effects of psychedelic drugs. In this thin volume, he describes how a dose of mescaline revealed to him not only “the blessed Not-I, released for a moment from my throttling embrace” but also “a new direct insight into the very Nature of Things.” And much of the 1960’s counterculture would eagerly endorse the notion that drug use could provide both a liberation from the socially conditioned self and a truer and more complete view of reality.

In his interpretations, however, Huxley looks like something of a throwback to the notions his grandfather had already rejected a century earlier, compared to which Lewis Carroll had something far more radical in mind. The Cheshire Cat never bothers expounding on the Kantian nature of Things-in-Themselves or the noumenal reality beyond all phenomenal appearances. It merely cycles at will from the chaos of Wonderland to nothingness and then back to chaos again.

It might be fair to conclude that the same philosophical considerations which had driven Thomas Huxley to believe in nothing had led Carroll in exactly the opposite direction — to believe in Nothing.

Carroll had actually begun toying with the idea of nothingness at the very start of Alice’s adventures, when she finds herself shrinking for the first time after drinking from the little bottle in the hall of doors and worries that it “might end … in my going out altogether, like a candle, and what should I be like then, I wonder?”

He did not follow up at that point on Alice’s attempt to visualize non-existence — but as he made the final additions to Alice in Wonderland, further reflections on nothingness began to creep in. This is particularly apparent in the Mad Tea Party, the episode which directly follows Alice’s encounter with the Cheshire Cat.

“Take some more tea,” the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly.

“I’ve had nothing yet,” Alice replied in an offended tone, “so I can’t take more.”

“You mean you can’t take LESS,” said the Hatter: “it’s very easy to take MORE than nothing.”

Carroll couldn’t add too much of this sort of philosophical chit-chat to Alice, however, without overloading the delicacy of the original nonsense. Instead he would wait half a dozen years and then embark on a new book, Through the Looking-glass, which would be almost entirely about Nothing.

Meanwhile, he had one further use for the Cheshire Cat, and that was to shake things up in the domain of the Queen of Hearts. In the original story, Alice had never hesitated to say right out when the Queen was talking nonsense, but in the published book, even she starts to get nervous and watch her words for fear of offending the Queen:

Alice began to feel very uneasy: to be sure, she had not as yet had any dispute with the Queen, but she knew that it might happen any minute, “and then,” thought she, “what would become of me? They’re dreadfully fond of beheading people here; the great wonder is, that there’s any one left alive!”

She was looking about for some way of escape, and wondering whether she could get away without being seen, when she noticed a curious appearance in the air: it puzzled her very much at first, but, after watching it a minute or two, she made it out to be a grin, and she said to herself “It’s the Cheshire Cat: now I shall have somebody to talk to.”

The Cat does far more for Alice than simply provide conversation, however. He throws the entire court into a state of productive chaos by his refusal to take it seriously, and from that point on, Alice regains her ability to defy the Queen — and eventually to end the dream.


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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