lalita larking

An obsession with cryptic crosswords. Everything else falls in place.

Location: Kolkata, India

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Alice in the real world

They told me you had been to her,
And mentioned me to him;
She gave me a good character,

But said I could not swim.
Okay folks, let's do a bit of compare and contrast, like we were back in school. Read this:
'Tis the voice of the sluggard; I heard him complain,
"You have wak'd me too soon, I must slumber again"

As the door on its hinges, so he on his bed,
Turns his sides and his shoulders and his heavy head.

I passed by his garden, and saw the wild brier,
The thorn and the thistle grow
broader and higher;
The clothes that hang on him are
turning to rags;
and his money still wastes till he
starves or begs.
Those were two stanzas from the poem The Sluggard, by Isaac Watts. Now read this:
'Tis the voice of the Lobster: I heard him declare
'You have baked me too brown, I must sugar my hair.'

As a duck with its eyelids so he with his nose

Trims his belt and his buttons, and turns out his toes.

When the sands are all dry, he is gay as a lark,
And will talk in contemptuous tones of the Shark.

But, when the tide rises and sharks are around,

His voice has a timid and tremulous sound.

I passed by his garden, and marked, with one eye,
How the Owl and the Panther were sharing a pie:
The Panther took pie-crust, and gravy and meat,
While the Owl had the dish as its share of the treat.

When the pie was all finished, the Owl, as a boon,
Was kindly permitted to pocket the spoon:
While the Panther received knife and fork with a growl
And concluded the banquet by...

That was Lewis Carroll spoofing.

I've been reading Alice in Wonderland, and Through the Looking Glass again. For the umpteenth time. Blame it on my friend; he ought not to have mentioned it.

I met Alice in a strange place, in the Presidency College Library. [This was the Presidency College Madras, back when I was a student, I don't know if they have renamed it.] It felt like a hallowed and special place; which it was, of course, and it had books I just needed to flash my card to check out and read at leisure. I read a lot of books from that library, the prize going to Homer, an annotated (and but of course translated) Odyssey and the Iliad; and Joyce, who wrote a different kind of Odyssey.

I met Alice in a severely critical milieu, though; everybody and his aunt theorizing about everything Carroll wrote, and not much of it even half-way friendly. Reading Carroll though, I couldn't see what the problem was.

A man who is obsessed about prepubescent girls writes something to amuse them, it becomes famous. Ho hum, what's the big deal? The chap was funny, amusing, and made you stop and think. What more do you want? He was a painfully shy and introverted man who was terrified of women, and it was not as though he was doing anything nastier than playing with words.

If you stop to consider anything Carroll says seriously, though, there is always a mathematical joke behind it, usually. Take Alice trying to remember multiplication tables, for instance:
"Let me see: four times five is twelve, and four times six is thirteen, and four times seven is- oh dear! I shall never get to twenty at that rate!"
Of course she won't get to twenty, if we remember that multiplication tables used to stop with twelves, and so if you continue the progression ---4 times 5 is 12, 4 times 6 is 13, 4 times 7 is 14, and so on- you end with 4 times 12 (which is the highest she can go), is 19. Just one short of 20.

Carroll punned, and spoofed and parodied all the literary lions of his time, and it's a telling point that his jokes live on and the originals are forgotten. I suppose that is no comfort for the ones who were treated to his wit and parodies, but they are gone, and Alice remains.
"Begin at the beginning, and go on till you come to the end: then stop."
"Why is a raven like a writing -desk?"
"The more there is of mine, the less there is of yours."
Carroll is only fun if you are ready to indulge in silliness and look at the world with a squinty eye. 'The Sluggard' as recited by Alice, especially the second verse, is a far better poem than the prim original it parodied. Beautiful Soup is remembered better than the Star of the Evening it made fun of.

Personally, I prefer The Hunting of the Snark, and The Gardener's Song in Sylvie and Bruno.
He thought he saw a rattlesnake
That questioned him in Greek:

He looked again, and found it was

The middle of Next Week.

"The one thing I regret, " he said,

"Is that it cannot speak!"
There was a time I could recite the entire Walrus and the Carpenter, or the White Knight's ballad. It is trivia, I know, but it comes in handy when I solve themed crosswords. I can still recite chunks of Carroll, and I have equally trivia-minded pals with whom I share the joy of laughing at his cleverness. I really have to thank my friend for getting me to read Carroll again.

All the same, the most important thing Carroll ever wrote, or what I took inspiration from is in the second book, Through the Looking Glass.
"Consider what a great girl you are. Consider what a long way you've come to-day. Consider what o'clock it is. Consider anything, only don't cry."
That, I made my motto, and it works.


Update: I was surprised to note that Google directs people searching for Carroll and Alice to my blog, so I thought I should edit this post.


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