Lewis Carroll

There’s something very frightening about Lewis Carroll. It is as if he had noticed the horrible misuse of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels as a children’s book and wanted to write a story which would somehow smuggle in the relentless misanthropy of the last chapter of that fantastic work — the one where it’s not a matter of being delightfully big or small or among delightfully strange people but noticing the barbarity of one’s own culture and self. The censors who enjoyed chopping off that little bit had to be fooled somehow, so Carroll used wit (or some semblance of wit) and his pitch black sense of humor to do just that in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Take, for instance, his famous parody of Isaac Watts’s moralistic poem which in the original goes:

How doth the little busy bee
Improve each shining hour,
And gather honey all the day
From every opening flower!

How skilfully she builds her cell!
How neat she spreads the wax!
And labours hard to store it well
With the sweet food she makes.

In works of labour or of skill,
I would be busy too;
For Satan finds some mischief still
For idle hands to do.

In books, or work, or healthful play,
Let my first years be passed,
That I may give for every day
Some good account at last.

By a little tweak of the subject and Watts’s moral perspective Carroll turns this poem on its head and creates something quite subtle, but it’s devastating nonetheless.

How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail,
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale!

How cheerfully he seems to grin,
How neatly he spreads his claws,
And welcomes little fishes in,
With gently smiling jaws!

The little tale of the busy bee has been turned into a description of a predator doing what predators do best. It is not the case that the moral tale of being good and industrious has been soiled by parody and made into a story of evil. The question of morality is there, but in a very different form. Crocodiles do what they do because they are crocodiles, and bees sure as hell do not get moral satisfaction from their work. Someone stuck on a factory assembly line works hard, too, but it would be strange if they sustained their faith in the meaningfulness of their work every day until the day they die. We find satisfaction in the mundane repetitiveness of work not because it is rewarding in itself but because if we didn’t we would see it devoid of its moral qualities. We make up things such as “I’m happy that the toys my company makes bring happiness to children” or that “My input on the production line contributes to the economic growth of my country and hence the welfare of its citizens, my countrymen.”  Carroll scorns our lot in unspeakable ways. It is this terrifying wit (not the Disneyfied versions of his books) we should celebrate nonetheless, because it at least tells us that we make up excuses for our happiness, our own little morality tales, because we have to. Or maybe I’m reading too much into it. Spending too much time with books will make you do that, which is something Watts also forgot to mention.

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