Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret
among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture Marly Youmans is a novelist and poet out of sync with the times
but in tune with the ages. --First Things

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Tilting against trendy views of Carroll

An Alice from the fabulous pen of Mervyn Peake
wonderful illustrator and author of the Gormenghast trilogy;
see more of his work at mervynpeake.org

Two in one, three in one

As someone who fell in love with the Alice books at five, I've enjoyed the many articles of late about that precocious young miss, and about those two interesting, contradictory yet identical people, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson and Lewis Carroll. I say identical because so many writers suggest that they were two, as they are frequently contradictory in manner and writings. But are we not all one with our reversed image in the mirror? A logician and mathematician who loved to present children with number and "river-crossing" puzzles, Dodgson well knew that 1 x 1 = 1.  Most important of all, how big a trick is it to be both Charles Lutwidge Dodgson and Lewis Carroll, when the man is a deacon in the Anglican Church and acknowledges with frequency in public and before God that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are one?

An ideal from which we are barred

Let's consider the wholly bizarre-to-us idea that Dodgson could enjoy tea and boating parties with little girls and photographing little Victorian girls, sometimes in the "attire of Eve," without being an incipient pedophile. Is this possible? Is it possible for a Victorian artist to enjoy the beauty of naked form without feeling even a tiny urge to ravage, ravish it?

Our own times are quite odd about the matter of childhood and sex. Our young teen models and actresses with their revealing designer clothing bind together childhood and sexuality. Revelations about the abuse of little children are commonplace. And yet we still live in a world where tiny children love to toss off their clothes and dash about in the freedom of nakedness. I remember an Irish poet telling me that men must bathe their tiny daughters to help their wives, but also because the children's bodies are so radiant--delicious and beautiful. I leave off his name because such sentiments in our post-Freud times have the power to shock many of us. The lyrical family photographs of Sally Munger Mann in her private, rural Eden of river and woods have caused dust-ups and argument in the world of museums and the fine arts.

So can we go back to and enter into an era in which the upper class of the culture held up images of children as unstained innocence and loveliness? Can we ever see through their eyes? Or is there a peculiar angel of time barring our way to that Edenic concept? Of course, things in Victorian times were not sweetness and light for children scrambling up chimneys or living in workhouses; nevertheless, a child world of sweetness and light formed an upper class, educated ideal, one that Carroll photographed.

Our culture, shocked by the celibate

Could it be that what offends the current sensibility of Western minds--our sex-and-youth-exalting media, our worship of movie celebrities and their changing lovers, our insistence on freedom in our pleasures--is the idea that someone could choose to set aside his sexuality, whatever its nature? The mistrust of Dodgson among many critics may, at least in part, be rooted in his distance from our own sensuous culture through his position as a celibate deacon in the Anglican church. Imagine that degree of renunciation and discipline; it's not only quite uncommon in our time, but frowned upon by many educated people, both in and out of the church. Can many critics in our current culture consider Dodgson-Carroll without feeling almost a disgust for his celibacy, a thing that challenges our own culture's values in multiple ways? I think not.

Alice's adventures last

9 comments:

  1. I agree. I love Dodgson. And I always see him in his works. I don't know why others don't. But then we often judge 19th century people from our modern perspectives. For me, he's one of my favorite Victorians. Smiling.

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    1. Oh, thank you, Melinda! I suppose one of my pet peeves is people not trying to "enter in" to prior times and judging them by our own cultural foibles and features. I dearly love him and, yes, see him in his work.

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  2. When people attribute psychological issues to writers, perhaps those people are engaging in what psychologists call (I think) projection; in other words, reading (A) is seeing in an author (B) what remains hidden/suppressed/unacknowledged within the reader (A). Perhaps Dodgson/Carroll was a complete innocent; certainly his stories deserve to be read by innocents without projections by readers and critics with unacknowledged issues. Or am I being too simple-minded (innocent) in my assessment?

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    1. Oh, I think we definitely look at that era and at Carroll through today-tinted lenses. And also, yes, through our-own-personal-past-influenced lenses. The second varies, of course!

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  3. Marly, I appreciate and understand your call to read Carroll/Dodgson as he wished to be read. I love his work, and do not feel any twist or taint in it.
    However, as to whether Dodgson the man desired Alice, we can never know. He wanted to marry her, when she came of age. We do know that. But that doesn't mean that he desired her child body, a la Humbert. Perhaps he simply fell in love with the person.

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    1. There's also the story that he wanted to marry their governess...

      Yes, the Alice books are wild and free and untainted...

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  4. Our culture has sunk to the lowest common denominator. Sex is it. Everything and everybody is sexualized. Sex has been detached from love. Everything must always be about sex. Dodgson's culture didn't see it that way. When we impose modern American "it has to be all about sex" values on other cultures, we make a huge mistake, because other cultures don't see it that way. The Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy series of children's books has the underlying theme of showing that Japanese people are not Americans in funny clothes, but something separate and distinct and equally valid. (Book two is coming out in weeks. If anyone wants an ARC, let me know). I think it is important that we recognize this, and it applies to Dodgson, his loves and his culture equally. We must look at his life through the eyes of his culture, not ours.

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    1. I agree with that--and I need to read something of yours, too, distant cousin of some sort! Maybe after I get through the thicket of graduations and events ahead of me.

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    2. I would also say that there are sub-worlds in this country where we don't accept the dominant cultural narrative, where we resist and make our own worlds. But that has a price to be paid, or many prices, as moving against the flow of the cultural torrent is not easy.

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Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.