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The curator of an Alice exhibit in New York City told Times reporter Jane Levere that Alice's encounter with the Cheshire Cat teaches an "enormous lesson in life." We generally think of enormous lessons as lessons learned in childhood, but is childhood the best age to read the Alice books? I'm happy to have read them as I was leaving adolescence, while laying in stores of irony and skepticism to sustain the long journey ahead. I wasn't exactly on Carroll's wavelength yet, but I was open to it.
"Cheshire Puss,” she began, rather timidly, as she did not at all know whether it would like the name: however, it only grinned a little wider. "Come, it's pleased so far," thought Alice, and she went on. "Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?"
"That depends a good deal on where you want to get to," said the Cat.
"I don't much care where—" said Alice.
"Then it doesn't matter which way you go,"” said the Cat.
The lesson, explained the curator, Jon Lindseth, is that "you had better know what your objectives are if you expect to achieve them."
That's what a father reading aloud will tell his child. But a bright adolescent will recognize the corollary: until you do know, wander.
There's a passage in Looking Glass that made me laugh until I sneezed. And unlike the best lines of Waugh and Wilde, I didn't forget it as soon as I turned the page. It took root. Alice is dining with the Red and White queens.
"You look a little shy: let me introduce you to that leg of mutton," said the Red Queen. "Alice—Mutton: Mutton—Alice." The leg of mutton got up in the dish and made a little bow to Alice; and Alice returned the bow, not knowing whether to be frightened or amused.
"May I give you a slice?" she said, taking up the knife and fork, and looking from one Queen to the other.
"Certainly not," the Red Queen said, very decidedly: "it isn't etiquette to cut anyone you've been introduced to. Remove the joint!" And the waiters carried it off, and brought a large plum-pudding in its place.
"I won't be introduced to the pudding, please," Alice said, rather hastily, "or we shall get no dinner at all. May I give you some?"
But the Red Queen looked sulky, and growled "Pudding—Alice: Alice—Pudding. Remove the pudding!"
What lesson did I learn here? Was it something about the bond between familiarity and compassion? Certainly not. I learned that the way to write about puddings is to not let on that there's anything remotely funny about them. A smile is the mortal enemy of absurdity.
This brings me to the time I laughed even harder.
I was in college. One evening I walked into town to read magazines in the drugstore. I opened the New Yorker to a cartoon by James Stevenson.
A couple of middle-aged men were standing on the sidewalk looking at a small procession pass by in the street. There was a dog, a little boy, an overweight majorette, a couple old-timers in expeditionary uniforms. And one of the men said to the other, "Usually I love a parade but I don't care much for this one."
I looked at the cartoon and laughed. I put the magazine back in the rack and then took it out again and turned to the cartoon and laughed uncontrollably some more. At one point I dropped my hand and turned my head so I could laugh at the memory of the cartoon; then I studied it anew and laughed afresh.
What was it about this cartoon? For starters, no one was smiling. Everyone in it looked either puzzled or forlorn. Tragedy is one thing, but the forlorn can be hysterical.
Eventually I put the magazine back and left the drugstore. I walked half a block, to the corner and around it, and then returned to the drugstore, opened the magazine again, and laughed all over again. I was smart enough not to buy the issue and risk the kind of overexposure that ruins joy. As a result, although I'm about to look for the Stevenson cartoon online, as I write these lines I have never seen it since.
(It turns out the cartoon ran March 30, 1963, on page 46, and 52 years later I had the caption almost word perfect.)
What was my hysteria about? I'm not sure. I was in my last few weeks of college. I was at loose ends. I had no objectives and no expectations. I hardly knew who I was. And like Lewis Carroll, James Stevenson didn't crack a smile. I guess what I needed just then was a good laugh.