Tag Archives: Lewis Carroll

Childhood’s End

I believe it was C. S. Lewis who wrote that in reading autobiographies he always found the earliest years the most interesting.. In my experience the same applies to biographies; what made the person famous enough to merit a biography—auto or not—started in the innocent years. I try not to extrapolate from my own case because I never read Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass until I was in college. (It was only in college that I first saw Mary Poppins as well.) Beloved childhood classics weren’t really part of my childhood. Like many adults, then, I wonder who was Alice, really? Everyone knows there was an Alice but what do we know of her inner life? What’s the story with Lewis Carroll?

In my mind Simon Winchester is an historian associated with large pictures. Maps of the entire world, huge volcanoes, big oceans—the meaning of everything. I only discovered his The Alice behind Wonderland by accident. As soon as I spied it I knew I’d have to read it. As I expected, the younger years are most intriguing. Those of us who cut our classical teeth under the tutelage Liddell and Scott may not realize said Liddell was the father of Alice. But it’s not the father that impresses so much as the daughter. And Charles Dodgson himself—the cast of characters is compelling even with little action beyond photography and story telling. Yet we’re riveted. What was the dynamic that led a bachelor cleric to write a world classic for children?

Who doesn’t, even in less-than-ideal circumstances, long for the carefree days of childhood? Looking at photos of our younger selves evokes a world accessible only in our heads. The world that made us who we’ve become. Winchester bases this brief study on perhaps the most controversial photograph of Alice Liddell that Charles Dodgson ever took. Even the story of wet-plate collodion photography allures the reader with its promise of stories untold. We know little of why the Liddell family grew apart from Dodgson, so much so that the adult Alice didn’t even attend the funeral of the man who’d made her an immortal. What happened here? When we find out we’ll perhaps be a step closer to finding out why becoming an adult means sacrificing a child. We may be a step closer to finding a girl known to most of the world simply as “Alice.”

Holistic Universe

HolographicUniverseThings have been so busy that a satellite landed on a comet and I didn’t even know. I have always wondered about the universe. In fact, as a young man, vying with my tendencies toward ministry I had a vibrant interest in astronomy. The universe, however, has a predilection towards mathematics that frustrates my attempts to understand. I did well enough in my college astronomy class, but I knew it could never be my major. My recent reading reminded me of Michael Talbot’s The Holographic Universe—a book that has been on my shelf since about the time it was published. In my mind, holograph had translated into arithmetic, and every time I picked it up, fear gripped me anew and I vowed I’d read it later. Later caught up with me the last few days, and I found myself plunged down a rabbit hole that I did not even know was there. When I took physics there was no talk of quantum mechanics. It was all the three laws of thermodynamics and the angle of incidence equals the angle of reflection and things like that. Nevertheless, I continued to read science written for the laity, and Talbot’s book rather caught me off guard.

First off, I still have no idea how a holograph works. It is something that seems, to my pragmatic way of thinking, impossible. As Talbot explores this strange concept, however, he introduces a universe I began to recognize. This is one of those realities where the edges don’t quite meet and things that shouldn’t exist show up anyway. In other words, phenomena that are often called “religious” can be made to fit into a holographic universe. Talbot spends a great deal of time discussing miracles and healings. We know that they happen, but we’ve been conditioned to question them. They don’t fit into that universe Mr. Wynecoop told you about in eighth grade. And yet, there they are.

Even after reading the book, I can’t claim to understand how a holographic universe works, but I did come away with a model of reality that allows for the evidence generally swept off the table. Everything from ghosts to time warps are possible in a universe that is a holograph. I’d step off the bus never sure which reality I’d encounter. Still, glancing up at the dark sky, I knew that millions of miles away, someone had recently scored a direct hit on a comet and if we can’t even interpret all that we see on Mars, we’d better be prepared to open our minds for something new. After all, we only see what we allow ourselves to see. Society programs us, just as surely as any computer. And if, like a virus, you play by your own rules, you’ll be the enemy. If you’re willing to ask the uncomfortable questions you’ll be labeled as having tea down a rabbit hole. Maybe, however, I can find a home here. As long as Deacon Dodgson can take care of the math.

Esalen

Esalen Every great once in a while, you read an academic book that really makes you think. Not that many books aren’t erudite or thought-provoking, but the ones that cause a reader to question reality are relatively few. I suppose that’s why I’ve been reading Jeffrey Kripal’s books like candy. I’ve posted on his Authors of the Impossible and Mutants and Mystics. Now that I’ve read Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion, I somehow feel like I missed out on something important that had never entered my awareness. Growing up in the eastern part of the country and not reaching my teenage years until the program at Esalen was already under way and famous on the west coast, I’d never even heard of the institute until I’d started reading Kripal’s books. Esalen, for those who are like I was, is hard to define. Indeed, Kripal studiously avoids doing just that as he narrates its history and impact on the nation, and indeed, the world.

The human potential movement has seldom found institutional support. Since our worldviews determine what we are capable of seeing, and since our reality has largely been defined by a rationalistic monism, an entire universe remains for us to discover, if we were only to open our eyes. Reading about Esalen was like finding a long lost twin—much of what the institution has stood for has found its way into my own psyche in some form or other. I suppose I’ve never really read too much on eastern religions, but I do appreciate what meditation can do. Reading the names of those associated with Esalen over the decades, it would be difficult to disagree.

Our society has come to trust materialism assiduously. How easy it is to forget that even the material world consists of so much more than our limited senses reveal. We know that animals sense the world differently, so we call them non-conscious beings and get on with pretending that if we can’t see it, it doesn’t exist. As the Esalen devotees know, even scientists have come to consider the implications of quantum mechanics. If we are to take the results of physics seriously, the impossible does happen. Right here in our own corner (or arc) of the universe. We lose so much by refusing to believe the impossible. Lewis Carroll knew that and we’ve been talking about going down the rabbit hole ever since. There are rare places in the world where the spiritual, the scientific, the sensuous, and the artistic come together to explore what the human experience truly is. One such place is Esalen, where, I’m told, the religion is no religion.

Athtar in Wonderland

Last night I finally got around to seeing Alice in Wonderland, the Tim Burton version. As a child I don’t recall having seen the overly optimistic Disney original, and I only read Lewis Carroll’s two-part, disturbing original after I had finished my undergraduate degree. When I first discovered Wonderland I was in one of my periodic phases of questioning reality and Carroll’s provocative prose and ingenious lyric ability only made the inquiry more complex. Strangely, it felt as if I had rediscovered a missing piece of my own childhood.

Burton’s versions of childhood stories would likely have been my preferred fare had they been available when I was young. Eerie without the overt horror of an R rating, the vision is one of a world where uncertainty reigns supreme. Then came the hookah-smoking caterpillar. It has been a few years since I’ve read the book, but I don’t recall the larval character as having a name. Linda Woolverton, the screenwriter, presumably gave him the name Absalom. Supposing this to be nothing more than the reassignment of a fated biblical name associated with failed attempts at kingship, I simply let the reference pass. Until the chrysalis scene. There he was, Absalom hanging from a plant, just like David’s son swayed from a tree according to 2 Samuel. This mysterious scene in the battle of Ephraim Forest had captured my attention before when I wrote an article on Absalom, eventually published in the Journal of Northwest Semitic Languages.

Noticing the strange phrase that Absalom was suspended between heaven and earth, I suspected that this might be a reflex of the ancient morning star (Venus) myth. The story of Athtar, the god who would be king but who must decline the throne, is a brief tale preserved in the Ugaritic Baal Cycle. As I watched the sage caterpillar giving wise advice to a confused Alice, the name Absalom took on new significance for me. I have no way of knowing if the reference was intentional or not, but in a culture deeply suffused by the Bible it would appear to be a logical guess. And if I was correct in my article, I was seeing a cinematographic reference to Athtar as a blue caterpillar last night. Wonderland indeed.

Curiouser and curiouser