“Ladies and Gentle Frogs,” an expression taken from Dr. Michael Heyman’s opening address to Wednesday’s presentation, is being recycled here to re-invoke the proper tone that is needed to cover the topic of nonsense. It is indeed curious and peculiar to identify and question, how and why Alice has become a name and a figure recognized through several generations. To answer this question, Dr. Heyman evoked the spirit of Charles Ludwig Dodgson (a.k.a. Lewis Carroll) and took the audience down the rabbit hole with his “Magic Lantern Show.”
In an overview of Alice’s life as a classic, we can see the text go through many different adaptations and representations that most well known books do not experience. I mean, have you ever seen a War and Peace themed tea box? A sexy Pride and Prejudice costume? Probably not. So why is it that Alice has survived to this day and become such a pop culture icon, while other classics have not? Dr. Heyman referred us to The Sense School of Nonsense Literature for the answer.
In attempting to define nonsense literature, which may seem an indefinable term at first, let us start with the notion that nonsense lives in the realm of the strange and jumbled, functioning as a mechanism of play that forces the the reader to uncover meaning from a sort of pattern that implies sense exists but may really not. In this place between logic and gibberish, the process of finding meaning in an ambiguous text is what makes this a terribly clever tale for adults and children alike. This “fairy tale,” which incidentally has no fairies or moral didactic messages often found in classic fairy tales, created its own genre that would in the future be called fantasy. This bold new genre emphasized the interpretive process that links the unknown and unfamiliar to something that is somehow familiar and seems full of sense logic. Here the child finds amusement in common tune that yearns for the understanding of the adult world, and the adult finds comfort and curiosity in working to understand why it is so amusing as what makes no sense somehow makes perfect sense.
Dr. Heyman described Carroll as somewhat of the literary nonsense genius, known for his orderly kind of nonsense, a master of subverting language and logic to problematize the existent forces of structures in literature. The child who may not understand the rules of prose and narrative excels, but the adult simultaneously finds nostalgia for a once childish worldview. It is the meeting ground between adulthood and childhood, a place that means everything but nothing at the same time. “Naïve child… What does the human mind want most?” Dr. Heyman asked a child in the audience (played by NCSCL’s very own Dr. Joseph T. Thomas). The child answered, “To understand what it doesn’t understand.” Tautologically, the stimulating dialogue continued, seguing to nonsense and bringing up questions such as: When the mind understands, then does it have what it wants? Or must the mind always be in wanting of the things it does not understand?
Sense is a proposition to the mind, and while some sense must be given, the child lives within the catechism where narrative is allowed to be wrong for the sense of throwing authority into doubt. It calls upon the conscious idea that the narrative is merely a prerequisite, a place where dictionary is assumed to be helpful, but deep down inside, the mind knows nonsense has several meanings, and that is perfectly ok. This is not a parody; literary nonsense as Dr. Heyman puts it “privileges process over product.” It identifies the space that we find comfort in being around but meanwhile never have to look it in the eyes. “Beware the Jabberwock, my son!”
Perhaps, the anti-authoritative and revolutionary text, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, exists today because sometimes the world itself feels like nonsense; some days it may feel like a place where we are juggling meanings of new words like “twerking” and “bae” or hashtags like #LotR or #HP. What can really be taken from this nonlesson is that the adult lives in a space where realism is constructed and what was once curious to the child becomes defined and serves as a façade. In this sense, Alice will always be alive, because it is the unconscious process of being a child and trying to place those crazy adults.
Will the reader care to venture whether it is the something odd (?), fragmented (?), or uncannily familiar (?) in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland that will always-already make it recognizable as nonsense literature?