When Lewis Carroll was very small, he approached his father with a book of logarithms and asked for an explanation. Although he was told he was too young, he persisted, 'But, please explain!' It is not enough nowadays that the Alice books should be enjoyed; they too must be 'explained' — and to some people the psycho-analytical methods of Freud have provided a tempting line of investigation. I believe that it is misguided to apply this method to a work of imaginative literature, and that, so far from heightening appreciation, the clinical dissection of an author's mind may tend to belittle his creation and impair enjoyment.
Of course from the medical standpoint the study is legitimate.
'When a superior intellect and a phsycopathic temperament coalesce in the same individual,' said William James, 'we have the best possible condition for the kind of effective genius that gets into the biographical dictionaries.'
'Genius', said Lombroso, going a little further, 'is a symptom of hereditary degeneration of the epileptoid variety.'
Any work of genius, then, is fruitful ground for psycho-analysis; the more spontaneous the fantasy, as in Coleridge's 'Kubla Khan' or in the early chapters of Alice in Wonderland, the greater the opportunity for discovering sexual symbolism.
There is a psycho-analytical theory that the pool of tears in Alice represents the amniotic quid, and that all this part of the book is an allegory of the birth trauma (though in plain fact the pool of tears was a reference to an earlier outing with the three Liddells, on a wet day a fortnight before the famous expedition to Godstow). Viewed in this light, the gayest of books can become a nightmare of neurosis — much in the same way that a student of Eric Partridge's Dictionary of Slang finds, after reading a few pages, that his ordinary talk is inevitably full of obscenity. We might remember what Lewis Carroll wrote to Mary MacDonald:
'Don't be in such a hurry to believe next time — I'll tell you why — If you set to work to believe everything, you will tire out the muscles of your mind, and then you'll be so weak you won't be able to believe the simplest true things'.
Attempts have also been made to identify characters in the Alice books with actual individuals. Many contemporary references that might have amused the Liddells are undoubtedly preserved in the books, but it is dangerous to read too many allusions and hidden meanings into them, for Carroll did not construct his characters from observation, except in the most general sense; as he himself said, his ideas were wont to 'come of themselves'. Similarly, with alleged references to religious controversy or to contemporary politics, Carroll's care to change the passion-flower to a tiger-lily in Through the Looking-Glass, because of 'the sacred origin of the name', is proof enough of his view that adult susceptibilities were not the concern of a fairy-story.
Mr A. L. Taylor has been more successful in suggesting the mathematical and logical influences behind Carroll's work; but in general I believe that Carroll has been the victim of misplaced ingenuity from critics who have taken not only themselves but the Alice books far too seriously.
Tweedledee's 'Contrariwise' may be the best answer:
'If it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn't, it ain't'.
Charles Dodgson never really outgrew his childhood and remained, in the modem jargon, 'fixated' to his early years — that I believe to be true. It was at once his weakness and his strength, for it explains the unique quality of his writing for children. He was remarkably mature and sensitive at twelve and thirteen; his father encouraged nonsense; Useful and Instructive Poetry contains many curious anticipations of his later work. The painful years at Rugby and the death of his beloved mother drove all this underground into his subconscious, to be recaptured in Alice when he was past thirty and set in donnish ways.
He was always happiest, as a stammerer, in the company of children. He wrote to please them, and they drew out of him, first his nonsense letters (the psycho-analysts have yet to tackle these), then his immortal books. His precise care of words as a logician, and his leaning towards a mathematician's philosophy, gave his writing the inimitable quality that has tantalized and delighted grown-ups. Nevertheless, but for his love of children, the Alice books would never have been written. He did not send Alice down the rabbit-hole on a summer's afternoon for the benefit of a future generation of Freudians but for the present pleasure of three small Victorians.
When he was asked what 'he meant' by The Hunting of the Snark, Lewis Carroll replied:
'I'm very much afraid I didn't mean anything but nonsense! Still, you know, words mean more than we mean to express when we use them; so a whole book ought to mean a great deal more than the writer means. So, whatever good meanings are in the book, I'm glad to accept as the meaning of the book.
(These words, and especially the phrase 'good meanings', deserve to be pondered.)
Never perhaps has a writer turned his repressions to such healthy uses as Lewis Carroll. He triumphed over his dilemma, and though his own life was not entirely happy, he has given pleasure to millions. He belongs neither to the 'highbrow' nor to the psycho-analyst; he belongs to the children and all who have the gift of laughter, anywhere in the world.