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BEHIND THE LOOKING GLASS


John Robert Colombo Page

John Robert Colombo comments on a new academic study of “the Alice
books” written in light of the tradition of Western Esotericism

It must be fifty years ago that I first read the two “Alice” books –
“Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” (1865) and “Through the Looking
Glass and What Alice Found There” (1871). Since then at least once a
week I encounter a reference to Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland”
in one context or another – Martin Gardner’s “Annotated Alice,” the
Disney movie, passages quoted like “curioser and curioser,” parodies
like “Malice in Blunderland,” mathematical or metaphysical puzzles,
etc. It seems Alice will never die because, as someone once said it
about another fictional character, she never lived.

Freud, Jung, and Adler have offered their interpretations of “Alice”
and her pre-pubertal (or post-Modern) world that the imaginative books
effortlessly create in the minds of their readers “of all ages.”

Although it is certainly no secret that “Lewis Carroll” was the pen-name
of the Oxford don and mathematician named Charles Lutwidge
Dodgson, it is not well known that about the time Carroll / Dodgson
was composing the first of the “Alice” books, he published not only a
four-volume mathematical study called “An Elementary Treatise on
Determinants” but also a series of collegiate monographs devoted to
subjects of passing interest (with such titles as “The New Belfry at
Christ Church Oxford”).

Just as Carroll was the creation of Dodgson, so the “Alice” books are
much more than the adventures of a rambunctious girl, for the books
recount not merely her musings and amusements but her puzzlements when
faced with the greatest questions of all times – the ones that
philosophers enjoy questioning rather than answering. The author is
believed to have modelled his Alice on a “real live” little girl named
Alice Liddell, daughter of the Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, whose
family name rhymes with “fiddle.”

Every reader of the books has his or her own image of Alice, usually
the one created by the immensely agile Sir John Tenniel who
illustrated the original editions with his deft lines. My own image is
other than Tenniel’s. I see Alice in two ways: as a lively young girl
and as a full-bodied young woman. This is so because in Toronto, where
I live, we are lucky enough to have two oil paintings of Alice in
public institutions. It is not widely known that the British artist
Arthur Hughes was commissioned in 1863 by the Dodgson family to paint
images of Alice Liddell. The Osborne Collection of Early Children’s
Literature in the Toronto Public Library has the original oil “Girl
with Lilacs”; the Art Gallery of Ontario (currently undergoing a
facelift by the Toronto-born architectural superstar Frank Gehry) has
the same artist’s “The Lady with the Lilacs.” Thus Toronto boasts both
the younger and the older Alice, befitting a city at once younger than
many of the world’s great cities but these days somewhat feistier.
(After all, Toronto will host the next “All and Everything Conference”
in April 2009.)

“Girl with Lilacs,” commissioned by Carroll, depicts a pale, young
girl with large, curious eyes and across her fair features a quizzical
expression. Hughes was undoubtedly familiar with the sketches of Alice
that Carroll himself had executed a year earlier for “Alice’s
Adventures Under Ground,” an early manuscript version of the classic
novel. That accounts for the strong resemblance between the sketches
and the portrait. The other painting, “The Lady with the Lilacs,” is
no evocation of childhood, for it depicts a maiden approaching the
point of full womanhood, and hence as portraiture it is both appealing
and conventional. Between them, the two pre-Raphaelite paintings catch
the sexual ambivalence that we experience with the “real life” Alice:
best caught, perhaps, in the name “Lolita.”

All of this has little to do with the book under review. “Behind the
Looking Glass” was published earlier this year by Cambridge Scholars
Publishing, an academic imprint established in Newcastle, England, by
scholars with an association with Cambridge University. (CSP is not an
imprint of the University, yet its 250 or so titles are worthy of the
Cambridge University Press imprint.)

Here are some bibliographical details: “Behind the Looking Glass.” By
Sherry L. Ackerman. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008.
ISBN (10): 1-84718-486-3. Cloth-bound, jacketed. Pages: xii + 170. The
list price is close to 30 pounds. There are two Appendices.

Appendix A lists mathematical and other works written by Dodgson.
Appendix B is something I have not seen in some time: “a syllabus” for
a course that introduces philosophy (especially epistemology and
metaphysics) using the Alice books as the launching pad. The course is
titled “Questions Behind the Looking-

Glass: A Carrollian Introduction to Philosophy.” There is as well a
far-ranging Bibliography (with entries for books by Bishop Berkeley,
Annie Besant, Madame Blavatsky, Harold Bloom, etc.) and an Index.
There are no references at all to Gurdjieff or Ouspensky.

The author of “Behind the Looking Glass” is Sherry L. Ackerman, a
scholar otherwise unknown to me. She has her own Wikipedia entry,
which begins as follows: “Sherry L. Ackerman, Ph.D., is Professor of
Philosophy at the College of the Siskiyous, in Northern California,
U.S.A., as well as an international dressage clinician. As an active
scholar with the International Society for Neoplatonic Studies, she
has authored numerous papers and journal articles. She is also one of
the American equine industry’s foremost proponents of eco-spirituality
and nature mysticism.” Wow!

Not only was I unfamiliar with Dr. Ackerman but I knew nothing at all
about the College of the Siskiyous, where she teaches. The college’s
website describes itself as “one of the most beautiful community
colleges [sic] campuses in California” with a student population of
2,500. The campus is located “at the base of majestic Mount Shasta,” a
mountain noted for its connections with gurus from India and flying
saucers from outer space.

The author knows exactly what she is doing. She is “deconstructing the
Carroll Myth” and “recontextualizing Carroll.” Never fear that
something valuable will be lost; something of equal or equivalent
value will be gained: “The myth he crafted, however, was neither
social nor sexual … it was spiritual.” Carroll fits hand in glove
into “Victorian esoteric trends.” It seems “The Victorian Cult of the
Child was, more accurately, a reappearance of the Orphic theogony for
the belief in a divine child.” We have here a description of “the
initiatory process” en route to “achieving gnosis.” A tall order.

British society in the middle-to-late-1800s offered Carroll the
Platonic revival and the Theosophical movement not to mention the new
religion of Spiritualism as well as theories about “the Arctic Home of
the Vedas.” It also offered him Christianity. But instead of taking
Holy Orders, as he was required to do to retain his academic
appointment, Carroll waffled: “Carroll chose to sing a new song.
Instead of dogmatic liturgy, he sang the theosophist’s intellectual
hymn to Love and preached from carefully crafted allegory instead of
from a pulpit.”

Dr. Ackerman goes on a bit: “I … feel that I have constructed a
strong preliminary case for a Carroll whose mysticism colored every
aspect of his life. The mystical consciousness considers unity as both
an internal and external focus as it seeks the truth about reality.”
Then, using an idiom from dressage, she takes the bit between the
teeth: “Carroll turns Alice into Odysseus journeying home to Ithaca.
The hero’s journey always involves the departure, an initiation and
the return.” Carroll naturally kept all this to himself. “Carroll
concealed his secret carefully, leaving it so that it could be
understood only by the efforts of the studious and wise.”

Maybe. The words “studious and wise” have a meaning deeper that the
one advanced here but even here they offer a whiff of the esoteric.
While it would be nice to consider readers who embrace Dr. Ackerman’s
thesis to be “studious and wise,” I wonder just how erudite and
sagacious her thesis is. She fails to take into account competing
theories, and she overlooks the work of predecessors like Northrop
Frye, who noted, “I’ve often said that if I understood the two Alice
books I’d have very little left to understand about literature.
Actually I think the Alice books, while they carry over, begin rather
than sum up – a new twist to fiction that has to do with intellectual
paradox & the disintegrating of the ego.”

That insight comes from one of Frye’s Notebooks; in another Notebook
he writes, “I suppose the fascination with Alice is not that she’s a
child in the state of innocence, but that she’s a preternatural child:
what seven-year-old girls would have been like without the Fall.” And
in one of his studies of the Bible, he observed dryly, “In a slightly
different but related area, one feels that Alice could hardly have
held her Wonderland together if she had even reached the Menarche,
much less become an adult.” (The sources are available to any reader
who requests them.)

Dr. Ackerman’s thesis is not novel. For at least two generations now,
scholars like Frye and Harold Bloom have treated imaginative
literature as a species of “secular scripture,” and have regarded it
as “mythopoeic” or “archetypal,” perhaps in an attempt to do away with
such exclusivist critical perspectives as historical criticism,
Marxist, social, biographical, feminist, theological, psychoanalytic,
New Critical, explication de texte, literary critical, etc.

What I do find interesting is what Dr. Ackerman is doing, quite
single-mindedly, and that is exposing her students to is a body of
knowledge and a tradition of outsider thought that was hardly
recognized as such in the anglosphere before the 1960s. She is
introducing them to the tradition of Western Esotericism. Before the
1960s, for instance, it was permissible to cringe in embarrassment
when mentioning W.B. Yeats’s membership in the Hermetic Society of the
Golden Dawn, as one of my own professors did at the time at St.
Michael’s College, University of Toronto; since then no study of the
laureate’s poetry or his politics is complete without at least one
chapter devoted to the Irish poet’s mystical bent and the source of
his cache of esoteric thoughts and occult imagery. No doubt Carroll
was familiar with Neoplatonism and Gnosticism, but is there any
evidence that he actually read and favoured such texts?

While I would enjoy working my way through “Behind the Looking Glass,”
to answer a question like this one, and to describe chapter by chapter
how Dr. Ackerman approaches the texts in question, I feel it would
take up too much space and not really account for the charm and power
of the Alice books. As well, it is more practical here to make a few
general remarks about the author’s preconceptions and the usefulness
of approaching Carroll’s books through the polarized eye-glasses of
Gnosticism.

* Dr. Ackerman believes that Carroll “did a masterful job of
concealing his secrets from the crowd.” Did he have any secrets?
Martin Gardner is able to solve the philosophical puzzles without
resorting to quadratic equations or mystagogic utterances. Alice
encounters puzzles, not mysteries, and as everyone knows, the
difference between a puzzle and a mystery is that the former may be
“solved” (because all the parts are present if haphazardly so) whereas
a mystery may never be “explained” (because an essential part is ever
elsewhere). It seems to me that Carroll deals with intellectual
puzzles, more than metaphysical mysteries.

* Dr. Ackerman finds Carroll and his works to be “a radical
religio-philosophical counter-response to patriarchal materialism.”
The response is “radical” in the sense of “root” rather than
“revolutionary,” as were the Prophetic Books of William Blake, which
go unmentioned, despite Blake’s “radical innocence.” Is materialism
“patriarchal,” mysticism “matriarchal”? Assumptions.

* Dr. Ackerman uses literature to illustrate philosophy. “‘Matter’ is
not a name in the way that ‘Humpty Dumpty’ is a name. Carroll’s story
about Humpty Dumpty is suggestive of a satirization of Berkeley’s
nominalism. Humpty Dumpty, from this perspective, subscribed to an
extreme form of nominalism, according to which all that is common to a
group of particulars is their being called by the same name.” (In that
passage, a lot hangs on the uncomfortable adjective “suggestive” as
well as on the ugly noun “satirization.”) The analysis continues with
a roll-call of names: Berkeley, Locke, Plato, Euclid, etc. Her
conclusion? “Carroll’s ultimate work-in-progress – the evolution of
his own consciousness – is available, with some literary archeology,
to be showcased.” Perhaps.

* Dr. Ackerman keeps her eyes focused on Carroll himself as much as
she does on his writings: “We find Carroll himself irreconcilably, and
probably unconsciously, suspended between the phenomenal and noumenal
realms.” “It appears that Carroll, like most academics of this period,
confused the map with the territory.” “As previously noted, Carroll
always vehemently denied that ‘Charles Lutwidge Dodgson’ and ‘Lewis
Carroll’ shared the same identity. They were very much two different
personae.” It is difficult to sidestep biographical criticism.

* Dr. Ackerman notes that “Carroll had originally intended to call
‘Through the Looking Glass,’ ‘Behind the Looking Glass’ but, after
more deliberation, settled upon ‘Through.’” She herself has written
the book that Carroll did not write, employing the preposition
“Through,” though it is a book that Charles Lutwidge Dodgson might
well have written, had he lived through the 1960s. So it is a very
serious work but, I feel, somewhat beside the point.

* Dr. Ackerman has an genuine and infectious enthusiasm for the
philosophy that she says lies “behind” the Alice books. So
apparently – nominally anyway – her book belongs to a class of books
that are revisionist in nature, as her work seeks to reinterpret this
imaginative fantasy as a work of philosophical (or better
metaphysical) inquiry. The author is one of nine academics concerned
with cultural studies who have formed a group they call “ContrariWise:
The Association for New Lewis Carroll Studies.” Members of the group
are intent on offering new insights into Carroll, the Alice books, and
other 19th-century works of literature. Good luck to them.

I doubt that “Behind the Looking Glass” will be of interest to the
general reader who recalls from childhood the pleasure of reading the
Alice books. The study offers few insights into those texts, as
literature, certainly not enough to detain the literary critic. But
the study will reward scholars of children’s literature and perhaps
those cultural historians who may wish to trace the possible influence
on Carroll and other imaginative writers of the period of what James
Webb and Joscelyn Godwin after him have characterized as “rejected
knowledge,” that is, the whole tradition of Western Esotericism. If
this trend continues, in another fifty years “Western Esotericism”
will be so well known that it will have to be renamed “Western
Exotericism.”

John Robert Colombo, the author of many books, studied Literature and
Philosophy at the University of Toronto. He is currently a Fellow,
Northrop Frye Centre, Victoria College, University of Toronto. He twin
interests are Canadiana and “rejected wisdom.” His website is
http://www.colombo-plus.ca

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See http://www.ccwe.wordpress.com
for more re Sherry Ackerman and Alice at
HIDDEN SOURCES: Western Esoteric Influence on the Arts,
Conference to be held in Cambridge on Saturday 11th October 2008
Hosts: The Cambridge Centre for the Study of Western Esotericism

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