Lewis Carroll and psychoanalysis: Why nothing adds up in Wonderland
“Lewis Carroll’s insight into meaning and interpretation remains of key interest to psychoanalysts intent on hearing all that he had to say about psychic life. (…)
What sparked their admiration,the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan explained (1966), was Carroll’s interest in “all kinds of truths – ones that are certain even if not self-evident”. The truth apparently snared in Carroll’s fiction is that our culture adopts rules that can seem absurd, even ridiculous, when seen too close and interpreted too literally. And while a lot of fiction strives quite diligently to imitate those rules, Carroll joined iconoclasts such as Jonathan Swift in upending them, to cast a wry light on their sometimes ludicrous foundations. (…) The ensuing paradox about meaning and nonsense, to assess what it might teach Alice and her reader as they meditate on Wonderland. (…)
What is Carroll’s nonsense about and what is its overall effect? (…)
Carroll advanced an approach to subjectivity that has much in common with psychoanalysis, given their shared interest in ontology and the limits of meaning. The Alice stories “manage to have such a hold” on readers, he declared, because they touch on “the most pure network of our condition of being: the symbolic, the imaginary, and the real.” In its commitment to analyzing all three registers, moreover, “psychoanalysis is in the best position to explain the effect” of such fiction on readers, including how and why Alice’s madcap adventures in Wonderland “won over the entire world.”
Interest in the most nonsensical aspects of our culture led Lacan to rethink an argument previously put forward by the Surrealist André Breton – that Carroll had used nonsense as a “vital solution to the deep contradiction between an acceptance of madness and the exercise of reason.” - To Breton, Carroll was the Surrealists’ first “master in the school of truancy,” because he offset the “poetic order” with the madness – even the supposed tyranny – of rationalism. - Rather than simply repeating that line, however, which downplays much of the interest and originality of Carroll’s creativity and thinking, Lacan’s tribute aimed at something more: He wanted to rescue Carroll’s insight into the way human beings are compelled to adapt to broader cultural demands. As Lacan put it, almost pitting his reading against generations of devoted readers seeking only innocent pleasure from the Alice stories, Wonderland generates ‘unease,’ even a type of ‘malaise,’ by revealing how individuals struggle to conform to cultural systems to which they are not especially well suited. (…)
Lacan here predates Gilles Deleuze’s insight, in The Logic of Sense, that Carroll’s nonsense has an internal logic to it, and thus a meaning of its own, which competes with that of standard, everyday sense. Carroll “remains the master and the surveyor of surfaces,” Deleuze later contended. “Surfaces which were taken to be so well-known that nobody was exploring them anymore. On these surfaces, nonetheless, the entire logic of sense is located” (1969, p. 93). (…)
With Carroll the praise that critics frequently bestow on his fiction seems commensurate with its artistry, adventurousness, and semantic intelligence. It is to Carroll that we attribute such outsized flights of fancy as a mad tea party peopled by raucous, acrimonious creatures – almost a mini-society in dissensus. He also gives us philosophically-minded insects imitating classical Athens as they debate the meaning of life; babies that turn into pigs at the drop of a hat; the surreal grin of a cat that floats eerily across the sky; and the queen of a chess game transfigured miraculously into a sheep dressed as a grandmother, before she morphs into a kitten whom Alice asks, in turn, whether it dreamed the whole scenario. (…)
Most of the antics that Carroll relays in Wonderland seem pointedly to flatter Alice into believing that she sees through the many escapades, to what is beyond them – as if she were partly outside the worlds of each novella and thus able to gauge them from a position of relative mastery. From the works themselves, we also learn that the comparison Carroll sets up between Wonderland and the Victorians’ symbolic order is not in the least flattering to the latter. Nor does that comparison – and its associated critique – end with the Alice stories. Both are extended with still greater anxiety in Sylvie and Bruno (1991), Carroll’s proto-Joycean novel, which styles Fairyland and Outerland as largely interchangeable. As Carroll writes in the novel’s preface, signaling his fascination with psychology and consciousness,
"I have supposed a Human being to be capable of various psychical states, with varying degrees of consciousness, as follows:—
– the ‘eerie’ state, in which, while conscious of actual surroundings, he is also conscious of the presence of Fairies;
– a form of trance, in which, while unconscious of actual surroundings, and apparently asleep, he (i.e. his immaterial essence) migrates to other scenes, in the actual world, or in Fairyland, and is conscious of the presence of Fairies.”
— Lewis Carroll (1977), Symbolic logic, Warren BartleyWIII, editor. Brighton, UK: Harvester Press.
Three additional criteria convey the novel’s imagined states of being, indicating how seriously Carroll tried to maintain such ontological distinctions. (…)
Art and biography appear to part company over these interpretive dilemmas. For how we interpret the enigmas attached to both of these registers is, as the Alice stories show, central to determining what questions she and the reader can ask about them. As Lacan put it in the passage cited earlier, Carroll seems to want to “prepare” her for the lesson that “one only ever passes through a door one’s own size” – a statement hinting that an answer can emerge only after one has discovered the question attached to it. Approach such a portal from the wrong direction, with the wrong premise or at the wrong time, and awareness of it – much less passage through it – is unlikely. The idea is rather like that of Wonderland itself, in which much happens the wrong way round, playing havoc with cause and effect, meaning and intention, inference and interpretation. Alice has to shrink or expand to enter a different ontological realm. She has to adapt to circumstances, and does so sometimes with relative ease, at other times with intense difficulty.
One of the questions Carroll implicitly poses at such moments is whether interpretation can decipher “the most pure network of our condition of being: the symbolic, the imaginary, and the real.” The matter bears heavily on psychoanalysis, Lacan averred, given its interest in the psychical patterns and distortions that magnify suffering, stoke unease, and prevent mourning. In Wonderland, as in Outerland, those distortions persist not just because both realms are thoroughly imbued with nonsense, but also because investigation into both novellas enables but does not end interpretation. In Through the Looking-Glass, for instance, in a significant metafictional moment, Humpty Dumpty adopts an interpretive code that is comically incapable of addressing what other characters say and mean. As he declares: “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less … The question is … which is to be master”.
A successful outcome to such attempted mastery is of course as elusive to Humpty Dumpty as it is to other figures in Wonderland. Oblivious, however, he veers down another idiosyncratic track: how words assume – then seem almost to contain – a life of their own. Carroll himself dubs a few of them ‘portmanteau’ words, capturing the idea that meaning is almost literally encased in them. (…)
Carroll’s fiction most often focuses on the play and limits of meaning across semantic and ontological registers. As the narrator observes in Sylvie and Bruno, almost doffing his hat at the myriad philosophical and metafictional questions that ensue: “‘Either I’ve been dreaming about Sylvie,’ I said to myself, ‘and this is the reality. Or else I’ve really been with Sylvie, and this is a dream! Is Life itself a dream, I wonder?’” (…)
Carroll’s artistic and intellectual games render that language by such idiosyncratic signifiers as ‘Boojum,’‘Snark,’ and ‘slithy toves.’ Not all such neologisms are nonsensical. ‘Chortled,’ another Carrollian coinage, has since entered our language as a delightful verb. But the underside to this inventiveness is worth underlining because critics have found it easy to minimize: The ‘vertigo’ that ensues from Carroll’s model dramatizes a difficulty for Alice – and her reader – in adapting to the peculiar world of language and symbols. That is because the rules and rituals governing her world seem both whimsical and arbitrarily enforced. They serve as a check on contingency and freedom in Wonderland, while casting the adult world beyond it as authoritarian and almost willfully perverse. Consider the angry Queen of Hearts, whose face explodes with rage the moment others question her capricious, unjust orders. In each instance, her verdicts are a foregone conclusion. (…)
John Tenniel’s illustrations nicely capture this ontological challenge. They emphasize not just the difficulty but also the price of Alice’s attempts at adapting to circumstances. Alice is first too small (see Figure 1), then too big (see Figure 2) for the world she tries to inhabit. She is both unprepared for it, yet joining it long after it has established rules and laws with which she struggles to comply.
Carroll here deftly anticipates the radical argument that Lacan would popularize from Sigmund Freud’sBeyond the Pleasure Principle: because of our capacity for reflection and consciousness, we miss the ‘right moment’ of biology and arrive too quickly into a symbolic order that we can grasp and comprehend only quizzically and belatedly. (…)
In all senses, then, nothing quite adds up in Wonderland. None of the creatures in Wonderland easily coexists – each is peevish, irrepressible, and for the most part insistently singular. At the same time, nothingness amounts to an ontological dimension that Carroll and Lacan take very seriously, and with good reason. The patchwork quilt of our symbolic order is, they show, held pincers-like by the real. To confront the limits of the latter – as Alice does repeatedly, with her pointed questions, quirky imagination, preternatural respect for rules, and sometimes whimsical joy in breaking them – is to expose, in the 19th century no less, a rickety structure held together by desire, illusion and force, a volatile combination at the best of times. (…)
The Alice stories reveal both the generative possibilities and the unwelcome distortions of the symbolic order. In refusing to imitate or rationalize the comic pretensions of a system only loosely bound by rules and signifiers, Carroll gives us that world aslant and askew. His oblique perspective underscores the fantasies and psychical effects that exceed symbolization – fantasies that in his fiction come to assume ardent, impossible meaning.”
— Christopher J. Lane (British-American literary critic and intellectual historian who is currently the Pearce Miller Research Professor of Literature at Northwestern University), Lewis Carroll and psychoanalysis: Why nothing adds up in wonderland, The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, March 1, 2011. (Illustrations: John Tenniel)