The OF Blog: Borges Month: Borges on Lewis Carroll

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Borges Month: Borges on Lewis Carroll

I originally posted this as a discussion starter at Westeros, but perhaps this blog would be a better place for this:

I didn't provide context when I pasted a little comment of Borges about Tolkien in order not to color the discussion; that perhaps might not have been the wisest course in hindsight. Now as an offshoot of that wide-ranging discussion, I am going to post two excerpts from longer writings that Borges did on Lewis Carroll. In the last thread, there began to be some discussion in regards to Borges' assertion that Lewis Carroll's writings were "authentic fantasy" and that presumably Tolkien's were not; I suggested that it might be best to do this in a separate thread, one devoted to Carroll and how Borges saw his writings, rather than usurping a thread about Borges' views of Tolkien. Each of the excerpts are rough translations that I did on the fly from two separate books that Borges wrote that reference Carroll at length (Carroll's name appears frequently in Borges' non-fiction and even in "The Circular Ruins," found in FIcciones), so any unclear points or errors are the result of my hasty translation and not those of Borges:

The first passage comes from the 1965 book, Introduccin a la literatura inglesa:

The Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832-1898) was what [Matthew] Arnold was not and what he never wanted to be: an English eccentric. Singularly timid, he fled from the company of adults and sought the friendship of children. In order to amuse a child, Alice Liddell, he wrote under the pseudonym of Lewis Carroll, the two books which made him famous: Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. In the first, Alice dreams that a white rabbit is chasing her; the chase brings her, through a forest, to a country of fantastical beings, among which there are kings and queens of a deck of cards, who judge and condemn her, until she discovers that they are nothing more than cards and she awakens. In the second, Alice goes through a mirror and arrives in a region of strange creatures; many are chess pieces which have come to life. Finally, it is revealed that this region is a chessboard and that each adventure corresponds to a chess match. We will never know if Lewis Carroll felt that in that unstable world of figures that dissolve into one another there is nightmare's beginning. 

This is little more than a summation of the work, but there is an emphasis on dreams and nightmares to which Borges returned in 1976 when he wrote a preface to the Spanish translation of Carroll's works. Below is the first half of that preface:

In the second chapter of his book Symbolic Logic (1892), C.L Dodgson, whose everlasting name is Lewis Carroll, wrote that the universe consists of things which can be ordered by classes and that one of these is the class of the impossible. He gave as an example the class of things which weigh more than a ton and that a boy is able to levitate. If they don't exist, if they were not part of our happiness, we would say that the books of Alice correspond to this category. In effect, how to conceive a work that is not less delightful and inviting than The Arabian Nights and that is likewise a plot of paradoxes of logical and metaphysical order? Alice dreams of the Red King, who is dreaming of her, and someone warns her that if the King awakens, she will go out like a candle, because she is no more than a dream of the King that she is dreaming. In regard to this reciprocal dream that well could have no end, Martin Gardner recalls a certain fat woman, who painted a thin female painter, who painted a fat female painter that painted a thin female painter, and so on to infinity.

English literature and dreams protect an ancient friendship; the Venerable Bede mentions that the first English poet whose name we know, Caedmon, composed his first poem in a dream; a triple dream of words, architecture and music, dictated to Coleridge the admirable fragment of "Kubla Khan"; Stevenson declares that he dreamed the transformation of Jekyl into Hyde and the central scene of Olalla. In the examples that I have cited, dream is the inventor of poetry; innumerable are the cases of dream as the theme and among the most illustrious are the books that Lewis Carroll has left us. Continuously the two dreams of Alice border on nightmare. Tenniel's illustrations (which now are inherent to the work and which did not please Carroll) accentuate the always rising threat. At first sight or in memory the adventures seem arbitrary and almost irresponsible; then we confirm that they enclose the rigid secret of chess and a deck of cards, which likewise are adventures of the imagination. Dodgson, it is known, was a mathematics professor at Oxford University; the logical-mathematical paradoxes which the work places before us does not impede that this be magic for children. In the background of dreams lies in wait a resigned and smiling melancholy; Alice's loneliness among her monsters reflects that of the unmarried man that wove the unforgettable fable. The loneliness of the man that never knew love and who had no other friends but some young girls that time was robbing him of, no other pleasure than photography, then scorned. To it we ought to attach, of course, the abstract speculations and invention and execution of a personal mythology, that now luckily is of everything. Another zone remains, which my incapacity does not surmise and the experts disdain: that of the "pillow problems" which schemed to crowd the nights with insomnia and in order to distance himself, he confesses to us, bad thoughts. The poor White Rabbit, artifice of unusable things, is a deliberate self-portrait and a projection, perhaps involuntary, of that other provincial lord, who tried to be sir Don Quixote.

The somewhat perverse genius of William Faulkner has taught current writers to play with time. It's enough for me to make mention of the ingenious dramatic pieces of Priestley. Already Carroll had written that the unicorn revealed to Alice the correct modus operandis in order to serve the raisin pudding to the guests: first it is shared and then it is cut. The White Queen gives a brusque cry because she knows that she is going to prick a finger, which will bleed before the puncture. Likewise he recalls with precision the deeds of the week to come. The Messenger is in jail before being judged for the offense which he will commit after the judge's sentence. To reversible time is added delayed time. In the house of the Crazy Hat it is always five in the afternoon; it is tea time and the cups are drained and filled to the brim.

Here I believe Borges reveals just why he found Carroll's writings to be so fascinating. In the writings of such a lonely man, there is a vitality to the narrative where Dream emerges and dominates the story. It is a place that is no places and all places, where time dilates and wraps back around itself, like the worm Ouroboros. It is not a faux history, but rather a place where irrationality is expressed. Having also read the Borges-edited The Book of Fantasy, where so many of the stories revolved around dreams and the fracturing of time, I would suspect that when he said in that one snippet quoted last week that Lewis Carroll wrote "authentic fantasy," that he was referring to an older definition of fantasy that concerned itself with flights of fancy, of mysteries and paradoxes that don't have to have logical conclusions; they just are. Contrast that with a story that is an invented history, largely devoid of delight, and is it any wonder that Borges, more familiar with the older forms of fantasy, would look askance at a setting where the author has detailed so much of its imaginary origins, histories, and thematic expressions?

Perhaps the issue is what types of fantasy are "authentic" at all. Have the Tolkien-inspired, extremely detailed secondary-world fantasies, epic and non-epic alike, with their sometimes-slavish devotion to "worldbuilding", much in common with the older, less structurally rigid flights of fancy that a Carroll or Wilde delighted in?

I suspect answers may vary to a large extent.

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