I often feel that a night without a dream is quite a boring fit of unconsciousness, if not a wasted night altogether. Three options attend our unconscious worlds (if we discount Inception): (1) We can have dreams which correlate to our real world and make it far better than it is; (2) We can have nightmares which may or may not have anything to do with the real world we live in; or (3) we may be entertained by a night of complete nonsense. The worst of these is, of course, the first. For a dream that is so close to our world is not so exciting, and when we wake from these types of dreams, we naturally feel a sense of longing for that world we left — what was just ours made better. The nightmare is better only in that we do wake from it, and the sense of relief far outweighs the good feeling of the former dream: “This row of corn does not actually proceed for eternity”; “The wasp nests in my garage aren’t growing exponentially and they’ve all vanished!”; “The classroom full of little devils doesn’t even exist!” (for now..) This leaves us with nonsense: the best possibility for us to dream. We are at times frightful, at times joyful, but mainly curious (and curiouser!) in these dreams — and the waking is one full of wonder and awe. These are the stories that make breakfasts come to life. These are the stories that one Lewis Carroll decided to put his young friend Alice in: And he aptly titled them Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.
In one sense, these two stories compliment each other, in yet another they are very different. For instance, because they are dreams, they are bad stories. Nonsense has no plot lines, and even when our most elaborate dreams appear to be going somewhere, something happens which makes little sense with the rest of what occurred. In this sense, Alice in Wonderland is the better dream while Through the Looking Glass is the better story (though still an awful story).
Alice in Wonderland
“I had sent my heroine straight down a rabbit-hole… without the least idea what was to happen afterwards,” wrote Lewis Carroll as I found it on the back cover of my version. It seems very likely that this is the case as Alice’s adventure gets stranger as it goes. It does feel exactly like a dream — as if Carroll took everything he knew about Alice and used that to string together a series of haphazard events.
This is the joy in reading “Alice.” We feel as if we can empathize with her frustrations and laugh with her at the nonsense she endures because we’ve all “been through it.” We’ve all had that one dream that seems to pull a bunch of subconscious experiences together — we don’t know know why or how, but in the dream of nonsense, it seems to have some meaning. Or least makes sense in the context.
But for Alice one of the initial questions she has in her dream world is “Who am I?” This happens when she finds she can grow or shrink with some ease.
“Dear, dear! How queer everything is to-day! And yesterday things went on as usual. I wonder if I’ve been changed in the night? Let me think: was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different. But if I’m not the same, the next question is ‘Who in the world am I?’ Ah, that’s the great puzzle!”
She talks this problem over with the Caterpillar smoking a hookah only to grow offended, and to some degree leaves off the question as she starts trying to figure out the world she has entered. She recognizes that all the creatures argue and that hardly any agree with her, the only one who is making any sense. The Cheshire cat is nice enough to explain to her that everyone there is mad, and when she meets the Hatter, she discovers the difficulty in interpreting language: “The Hatter’s remark seemed to her to have no sort of meaning in it, and yet it was certainly English.”
Through the Looking Glass
“You may call it ‘nonsense’ if you like,” [the Red Queen] said, “but I’ve heard nonsense, compared with which that would be as sensible as a dictionary.”
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
“You see it’s like a portmanteau — there are two meanings packed up into one word.”
The “dreamlike” world which Alice enters in her first adventure story is replaced with the looking glass world of the second adventure in which Alice enters a mirror and everything is backwards. Good knights fall of horses; cakes are distributed before cut; messengers and imprisoned before they are tried, tried before they commit a crime; you must run fast to keep the world from passing by. All the eccentricities of the world are found also in the speech of the creatures. The logic, the like Red Queen’s quotation from above, is often taken by comparison. Nonsense is not nonsense compared with something that is even more outrageous. Words have meanings which can be explained only by their authors, and they often have double meanings.
The humor of Carroll’s second story is one in which Alice finds herself arguing with creatures who twist her words to mean things they don’t. Puns are rampant and nearly everything is taken literal (such as when Alice says she sees nobody, in which the White King believes she sees Nobody embodied in a person: “I only wish I had such eyes!… To be able to see Nobody! And at that distance too! Why, it’s as much as I can do to see real people by this light!). The result is nonsense.
As I read over what I just wrote, I realize that I am nearly back where I started. These two delightful stories were some of the most outlandish things I have ever read. I feel, in some sense as if all the commentaries in the world could be written about them, and nothing would actually be said. But then again, I haven’t read any commentaries on them… yet. But I suppose this is about right, for who wants some random third party trying to interpret our dreams. They’re ours in any case. So I guess this post just may fall in line with the theme, and you can go ahead and chalk it up as nonsense. Like the Red Queen said concerning the White Queen: “[I mean] well, but I ca’n’t help saying foolish things, as a general rule.”