‘Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις, not ποίησις. The rules of the IMAGINATION are themselves the very powers of growth and production. The words to which they are reducible, present only the outlines and external appearance of the fruit. A deceptive counterfeit of the superficial form and colours may be elaborated; but the marble peach feels cold and heavy, and children only put it to their mouths.’ [Coleridge, Biographia ch. 18]

‘ποίησις’ (poiēsis) means ‘a making, a creation, a production’ and is used of poetry in Aristotle and Plato. ‘μóρφωσις’ (morphōsis) in essence means the same thing: ‘a shaping, a bringing into shape.’ But Coleridge has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the KJV translates as ‘form’: ‘An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form [μóρφωσις] of knowledge and of the truth in the law’ [Romans 2:20]; ‘Having a form [μóρφωσις] of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away’ [2 Timothy 3:5]. I trust that's clear.

There is much more on Coleridge at my other, Coleridgean blog.

Thursday, 29 October 2015

Alice 3: Animals in Wonderland

I'm rather intrigued by the notion (which, I'm ashamed to confess, only recently occurred to me) that Tenniel's Alice's Caterpillar is amongst other things a satirical dig at the British judiciary. Martin Gardner notes how Tenniel made the first two rows of caterpillarian legs the creature's nose and chin, which is very neat; and I remember thinking as a child how like a treble clef the curling of the hookah's line is. But to look at the image is surely to note the resemblance of the caterpillar's back to a judicial wig (Thomas Woodcock and Dominique Enright's Legal Habits: a Brief Sartorial History of Wig, Robe and Gown (2003) makes plain that in the nineteenth-century, and unlike today, Judges wore 'a larger full-bottomed style of wig' where attorneys and lawyers wore 'bobwigs' and 'pigtails' respectively); and the sleeve looks very like the sleeve of a judicial gown. The question is whether Tenniel had any larger point, beyond linking Judges with the indolence and orientalism associated with the hookah? He (the caterpillar, I mean) is certainly fairly adversarial in the way he questions Alice; and he instructs her, rather imperiously, to recit Southey’s ‘You Are Old Father William’ (the actual title of Southey’s poem is 'The Old Man’s Comforts, And How He Gained Them’)—a text about deeds and consequences of the sort that might be thought to appeal to a legal mind.

Then I found myself thinking about the way pre-chrysalis and post-pupaic insects figure in Victorian literature. Think of the dragonfly in Tennyson’s ‘Two Voices’, or the even more magnificent (because so much larger relative to its human observer) invertebrates Tom encounters in The Water Babies. They are types of transformation, of spiritual metamorphosis and deployed as such. But Carroll’s caterpillar is a topsy-turvey version of this, a sort of trope of anti-metamorphosis. We might expect a caterpillar to look forward to metamorphosis, to be anticipating a dazzling, yet-to-come maturity. But this caterpillar seems already old—a High Court Judge sitting on his sofa, smoking, grumpily quizzing and snapping at the impertinent youngling who has come along disturbing his rest. We don’t, I think, imagine this caterpillar ever changing into any kind of butterfly. Like the law (like the law, say, in Dickens’s 1852-3 Bleak House, a novel Carroll admired) he represents deep-rooted inertia. There’s a particular sort of genius in embodying the principle of stasis in a caterpillar, of all animals.

Which leads me on to say something about animals in Carroll’s book. It would do a kind of violence to the Carroll’s nonsensorium to want to construct a bestiary or rigid taxonomy of Carrollian animals, of course. Part of the way the animals function here is by unexpectedness, by twitting our expectations and as a means of adding vitality and variety to Alice’s progression. So, in place of a taxonomy, a list, with chapter references in square-brackets: in Wonderland Alice meets a rabbit [1]; a mouse [2]; ‘a Duck and a Dodo, a Lory and an Eaglet, and several other curious creatures’ (including, if we trust Tenniel, a monkey, a crab and a parrot) [3]; the white rabbit again, Bill the Lizard—apparently an obscure dig at Disraeli, though exactly in what way is not clear—and a puppy-dog [4]; a caterpillar [5]; a frog footman, a fish footman and a pig-baby—plus, of course, the Cheshire Cat [6]; March Hare and dormouse [7]; uncooperative flamingos and the Cheshire Cat again [8]; Gryphon, Mock-Turtle and sugar-haired lobster [9]; and, finally, several of these animals return to the story for the trial scene at the end [10-12], including a whole jury box full of beasts. Looking-Glass is a little less bestial, although we do have the black kitten [1]; the chesspiece horse on the poker—and the Jabberwock [2], various Looking-Glass insects and the fawn [3]; the walrus and the oysters he eats [4]; the White Queen turning into a sheep [5]; Humpty Dumpty, whom I suppose must be considered an animal of some type or other [6] and the lion and the unicorn [7]. That’s quite a spread.

We could start to talk about this menagerie by observing that there are two kinds of creature Alice encounters. By which I mean—there are many kinds of creature in the book (of course), but two sorts of provenance for animals and people: domestic and display. By this I mean that (a) some of the animals and artefacts Alice meets derive, in magnified and magical forms, from the sorts of pets a middle class girl might have at home (rabbits; cats; dogs; fishes) or the sorts of pastimes which she would have enjoyed playing: playing cards, chess-sets and so on. By the same token (b) some of the animals are the sort of thing a nice middle-class child might encounter at museums, art galleries or zoos. The dodo in Wonderland is one example of the latter category, the sort of thing you can see in the Natural History Museum, though not of course in real life (they’d been extinct since 1690, although one has been on display at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History since the late 1850s): the Duchess, in Tenniel’s illustration, is a version of Quentin Massys ‘A Grotesque Old Woman’, hanging in the National Gallery, and so on.

We can take this a little further, I think: the mundane and the fantastical function, to use a wearily over-deployed word, dialectically in these novels. In a sense, that’s kind of the point of the Alice books.

Another aspect of the way the book ‘uses’ animals occurs to me. In Wonderland the figures in authority, or as near to authority as the carnivalesque logic of the imagined world permit, are human: Alice herself; the Duchess; the King and Queen of Hearts (in a lesser sense this is true of the Mad Hatter too, who lords it over his hare and dormouse friends in his insane little way). Figures lower down the social order tend to be animals: either actual servants—the frog footman—or else characters like the white rabbit, fearfully subordinate to the queen, or the parrot-form court officials in the frontispiece to Wonderland. This iterates a clear enough logic: that humans are ‘superior’ to animals. Except it also put particular symbolic emphasis on those animals that resist this great chain of being—the slippery Cheshire Cat, say; the Dodo who takes charge during the Caucus Race; the bossy caterpillar.

The case is a little more complicated in Looking-Glass. The animals in chapter 3, from the deer to the punning insect-minibeasts, exist in a special zone where names do not apply. Otherwise animals are either fabulous monsters, such as jabberwocks and unicorns, or rare. The final transformation from queen to kitten retroactively informs the semiology of the looking-glass animals, which either specifically represent the transformation from human to beast (as the white queen turns into a sheep) or exist, like the Lion, somewhere halfway between an actual lion and a caricature William Gladstone. See also: half-man, half-egg, Humpty Dumpty. Goo goo g’joob.

But stop a bit (the Roberts said) before we have our chat: can we be a little more fundamental? Why animals? OK, it’s a pertinent question for Children’s Literature, because animals are such a massively ubiquitous feature of childhood. We swamp our kids with cuddly animal toys, and tell them thousands of stories about friendly talking animals (and the occasional wolfish or black-maned-lion unfriendly ones). Why? Once upon a time, when kids grew up in the countryside, on farms or hunting tribes and in close proximity to beasts, this might have made more sense: which is to say, might have spoken more directly to their childish being-in-the-world. But the more we have removed our kids from Nature, the greater role teddy bears and Disneyfied ducks and very hungry caterpillars play in their upbringing. My kids live in a suburban house without pets, have never visited a farm and see most of their ‘real’ animals via the magic glowing box we call television. Yet they could not be more fascinated by the question What Does The Fox Say?, by the activities of the intelligent superspy Perry the Platypus on Phineas and Ferb or the antics of Sendak’s Wild Things who live Where. Why?

It’s worth asking ‘why’, because Carroll comes in the middle of a long tradition of talking animals (from oral culture and Grimm through to Watership Down, War Horse and the talking slugs of Turbo). And the answer isn’t going to be simple. Part of it has to do with what Mary Midgley (in Beast and Man: the Roots of Human Nature, 1978; rev; ed., Routledge 2002) critiques, the tendency of humans to transfer human qualities onto animals, tagging foxes as wily, snakes as devious, lions as courageous and so on. Midgley points out that actual animals are none of these things, they are only themselves. ‘Beasts,’ she says, ‘are neither incarnations of wickedness nor sets of basic needs, nor crude mechanical toys, nor idiot children. They are beasts, each with its own very complex nature. Most of them fail in most respects to conform to their mythical stereotype.’ She adds ‘if then there is no lawless beast outside man, it seems very strange to conclude that there is one inside him. It would be more natural to say that the beast within us gives us partial order; the task of conceptual thought will only be to complete it. [Midgley, 38-39]

Actually, Midgley’s is a very obvious point. Nobody who actually works day-to-day with actual animals would ever mistake them for people in fancy dress. Nonetheless, animal fables are a very ancient mode of human art. ‘Clay tables from ancient Mesopotamia have revealed the existence of collections of proverbs and fables featuring animals as actors some 4,000 years ago, and it is assumed that these tablets are based on even older material’ [D. L. Ashliman, Aesop’s Fables (Barnes and Noble, 2003) p.xxi) But their very antiquity has created a state of affairs in which the personification of beasts has become almost second nature.
The deep affinity in our culture between children and animals—some children, at least, and some animals—is attested not only by a profusion of pets and teddy bears but also by the perennial popularity of stories, films and comic strips about more or less humanoid animals. … Many of these beasts, to be sure, whether of household, barnyard or forest, may have served, from the time of father Aesop to that of Peter Rabbit, as little more than allegorical stand-ins to point a moral concerning another species: our own. … Even so it tells us a great deal if children learn lessons and form relationships most easily by identifying with animals they often know, outside these fictions, only in zoos, dreams or the untamed forests of the imagination. For what is really at issue is relationships, not primarily of animal to animal but—even when no humans appear on the scene—of human to animals and ultimately, through the enlargement this primal relation can bring, of every human and animal being to every other in a world of which all are citizens alike. [Robert M Torrence, Encompassing Nature: a Sourcebook (Counterpoint Press 2002), 2]
‘Yet it is often children in these stories—and often children slighted by the adult world—who are most in touch … with animals and other natural beings.’ Is Alice ‘slighted’? Middle-class, clever, grounded Alice? Surely not! Yet the implication of Torrence’s argument here is that all children feel marginalised, by virtue of the fact that they are children. Though he doesn’t put it in exactly these terms, Torrence does argue that ‘such stories give voice to a tenacious myth of lost innocence’ that is:
both Romantic and Platonic: what is lost in growing up is an inborn remembrance of oneness with the surrounding world which we gradually, almost inexorably relinquish—all but the childlike few who are madmen, lovers or poets.’ [3]
We can forgive Torrence his gush, here, because (although he doesn’t think he’s talking about Alice) this is exactly Carroll’s mis-en-scene. The oneness belongs to Alice; and all the ‘adult’ characters amongst whom she moves (the Duchess’s boy—who turns into a pig—is the only other child in the books) are all of them madmen and madwomen, lovers and poets. What are all these animals doing, in these novel? They are enacting, or enabling, a fundamentally totemic vision of God. As Levi Strauss famously put it, in his still resonant study of the totemic aspects of early human culture, animals are a dominant mode of the totemic imagination because ‘the diversity of species furnishes man with the most intuitive picture at his disposal and constitutes the most direct manifestation he can perceive of the ultimate discontinuity of reality. It is the sensible expression of an objective coding.’ [Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind (University of Chicago Press, 1966) 137].
The phenomenon of totemism was one of the primary concerns of cultural anthropologists of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries. As the anthropologists of that period collected ethnographic data, they noticed that non-literate societies commonly associated their own clans with natural phenomena, such as species of animals or plants, or natural bodies, or even geographical locations. Local inhabitants often explained this by saying a particular clan has “descended ” from the animal, plant, etc., and sometimes the association would involve complex ritual proscriptions, such as a prohibition against eating or killing the beings connected with one’s clan [David Pace, Claude Lévi-Strauss, the Bearer of Ashes (Routledge 1983) 173]
Another angle, which takes its impulse from psychoanalysis, might see these novels as an almost psychopathological act of displacement. Here is Carrie Rohman on the function of ‘the animal’ in Freud:
The displacement of animality onto marginalized others operates as an attempted repression of the animality that stalks Western subjectivity … indeed, the development of Freudian psychoanalysis in the early twentieth century should be recognised as a logical response to the threats of evolutionary theory. The concept of the unconscious in Freudian psychoanalysis operates as a modernist codification of the problems of animality in the human person. Freud himself hazards an explanation of humanity’s rise from its animal heritage and theorizes that our repression of organicism simultaneously deanimalises us and makes us human. Animality is consequently equated with neurosis in psychoanalytic terms, since one must repress it in order to become, and remain, human. … Freud offers a “cure” for animality’s presence in the human psyche. [Carrie Rohman, ‘Facing the Animal’, Stalking the Subject: Modernism and the Animal (Columbia University Press, 2008), 63]
In Yann Martel’s novel The Life of Pi (2001), the protagonist deplores humanity’s soft-spot for ‘animalus anthropomorphicus’: ‘we’ve all met one, perhaps even owned one. It is an animal that is “cute”, “friendly”, “loving”, “devoted”, “merry”, “understanding”. These animals lie in ambush in every toy store and children’s zoo … They are the pendants of those “vicious”, “bloodthirsty”, “depraved” animals that inflame the ire of the maniacs I have just mentioned who vent their ire on them with walking sticks and umbrellas. In both cases we look at animals and see a mirror. The obsession with putting ourselves in the centre of everything is the bane not only of theologians but also of zoologians’ [Life of Pi, 31]. Pi, or Martel, is here channelling Mary Midgley. Carroll anticipates this, but not by representing it as a mode of Existential Tragedy; on the contrary, for himit figures as joyous Nonsense. For Kingsley, the pupae is a symbol of human spiritual rebirth. For Carroll, the caterpillar is its own, cranky, idiosyncratic self. Kids, I think, connect instinctively with that. Animals don’t adhere to any (human) law; they are each of them iterations of the fundamental idiosyncrasy of existence, which is every child’s heady, disorienting experience. It is instinctive in children to resist the appropriation of the animal world to the narrow human moral imperatives of Aesop. The Alice books challenge precisely that hegemonic manoeuvre. They say, in effect: I fought the Law, and the Law Wonderland. What child wouldn’t warm to that?


  1. This is the third and I think last re-post on this blog: to repeat myself from the previous two, it originally appeared on another blog that has been rolled up and put away, and I repost it here because I'm teaching Carroll this week. If I had time I night rewrite it a little, to make clearer what is I think—as it stands—only implicit in the post. That's the connection between the semiology of animals and the law. One of the ways animals operate, symbolically, is a creatures not bound by law in the way that human beings are, because they cannot internalise the law (they cannot autosuperegoize, we might say) as we can. The point about those stories of putting pigs on trial for murder in the 15th-century strike us as comical because we don't see animals as capable of legal guilt. The territory occupied by talking animals, then, is extralegal; and what I'm trying to suggest is that not an either/or, either that extralegal space where we are freed from onerous laws and rules and can therefore play and frolic in an uninhibited manner, or that extra-legal space we call anarchy, chaos and horror where the strong rape and devour the weak—but in some strange non-sense way both at the same time. The latter explains the undercurrents of menace and coldness in the Alice books, I'd say, even as the former speaks to their joyful splendour.

  2. Very nice....
    Good... I like it very much..
    Alice Classes