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Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Through the Looking Glass VIII -- chapter 6: THE NIHILIST PHILOLOGIST

Discussion of the Alice books here have tended periodically to indicate nihilism.  Humpty Dumpty is a perfect example of one who, regardless of what he professes, is a nihilist in practice (so far as I understand the given -ism), though his disregard for any established order seems most consistently targeted at the rules of semantics:  Humpty Dumpty, the Nihilist Philologist.

For the most part, I haven't looked too closely at the nihilism of Carroll (if you haven't followed the discussions from previous posts, you may want to take a look at the nihilism of The Cosby Show, here, at McSweeney's, for a ridiculous point of comparison), because it hasn't fit, or so it seemed to me at the time, with my whole selfish reason for this read-through.  Well, I'm not so sure I've been right to neglect it (though I'm not yet wholly convinced otherwise yet, either).

So here's the question (and I'm leaving it simple in order to invite the broadest possible range of responses):

Based on the Alice books, what, if articulated,
would be Carroll's stance on nihilism?

Aside from that, the substance of this chapter has rather little to do with my goal.  There are, however, some interesting points yet to be made (to which I'm happy to invite more):
  1. Is Humpty, as an egg, a continuation of the egg from the end of the previous chapter, or a new entity entirely (notice that except for his condescension, Alice still isn't able to reach him)?
  2. Humpty's frequent use of the word "pride" only emphasizes what is already evident in his nature.  Take a look at Proverbs 16:18 (thanks, Mr. Gardner).
  3. "One ca'n't [help growing older], but two can.  With proper assistance, you might have left off at seven."  Truly the darkest allusion to death of the books.
  4. Humpty's claim that words mean whatever the speaker/writer wants isn't that far from the truth.  Or is it?  Words are only representations or signs for things, not the things themselves.  There's a huge discussion here, but I'm going to keep it simple and quote Roger Holmes' article "The Philosopher's Alice in Wonderland" (thanks again, M. Gardner): "May we pay our words extra, or is this the stuff that propaganda is made of?  Do we have an obligation to past usage?  In one sense words are our masters, or communication would be impossible.  In another we are the masters; otherwise there could be no poetry."
  5. Joyce's Finnegans Wake takes a lot from, or refers often to, the Alice books, not least of which is the potential import of nonsense.  Finnegans Wake as a whole is perhaps most apt for comparison, however, to this chapter, as Joyce takes complete liberty with language of this book in his writing.  One word in particular, as it recalls our big egghead here: Bothallchoractorschumminaroundgansumuminarumdrumstrumtruminahumptadumpwaultopoofoolooderamaunsturnup
  6. A possible place of inspiration for Humpty Dumpty's recitation of, perhaps, Carroll's worst poem:
Summer Days
Wathen Marks Wilks Call
In summer, when the days were long, 
We walk’d, two friends, in field and wood; 
Our heart was light, our step was strong, 
And life lay round us, fair as good, 
In summer, when the days were long. 

We stray’d from morn till evening came, 
We gather’d flowers, and wove us crowns; 
We walk’d mid poppies red as flame, 
Or sat upon the yellow downs, 
And always wish’d our life the same. 

In summer, when the days were long, 
We leap’d the hedgerow, cross’d the brook; 
And still her voice flow’d forth in song, 
Or else she read some graceful book, 
In summer, when the days were long. 

And then we sat beneath the trees, 
With shadows lessening in the noon; 
And in the sunlight and the breeze 
We revell’d, many a glorious June, 
While larks were singing o’er the leas. 

In summer, when the days were long, 
We pluck’d wild strawberries, ripe and red, 
Or feasted, with no grace but song, 
On golden nectar, snow-white bread, 
In summer, when the days were long. 

We lov’d, and yet we knew it not, 
For loving seem’d like breathing then; 
We found a heaven in every spot; 
Saw angels, too, in all good men, 
And dream’d of gods in grove and grot. 

In summer, when the days are long, 
Alone I wander, muse alone; 
I see her not, but that old song 
Under the fragrant wind is blown, 
In summer, when the days are long. 

Alone I wander in the wood, 
But one fair spirit hears my sighs; 
And half I see the crimson hood, 
The radiant hair, the calm glad eyes, 
That charm’d me in life’s summer mood. 

In summer, when the days are long, 
I love her as I lov’d of old; 
My heart is light, my step is strong, 
For love brings back those hours of gold, 
In summer, when the days are long.


  1. I think his stance is that ultimately the world of adults is sort of pointless. The way to escape it is by discovering the magic of children: namely, their imagination and ability to see through stupid conventions.

    1. I kind of think that he is the adult form of the egg. I think the key line here is Humpty Dumpty's shocking (and enjoyably ironic) lack of self-awareness in this line, " 'Some people,' said Humpty Dumpty, looking away from her as usual, 'have no more sense than a baby!' " Carroll seems to be indicating the egg himself with this line. Also, with all the riddles and rhymes and condescending comments about children, I think that he's trying to draw a comparison between Humpty and some governess/teacher that puts the children through mundane, idiotic lessons and doesn't really know anything worth knowing him/herself.
    2. Yep.
    3. Also the one two chapters ago about going, "Poof! Out like a candle!" or something like that.
    4. A couple of things: 1. He doesn't follow this rule himself. As B&N points out, when they have the discussion of names, he says that a name, "must" mean something. By the time that the reader gets to the point that you describe, he's flipped 180 degrees. 2. I think that he is alluding a bit to propaganda here. Also, I think that it gets to the Watson problem a little bit. Think about how many times we use one or two words to express an entire paragraph worth of ideas/emotions, as he does with Impenetrability. Language is contextual; it means a lot more than the words on the page. Finally, I love this line, and I can't help but feel that there's more to it than just the question of language: " 'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master--that's all.' " Wow. When I read this, the words just leaped off the page. It's Machiavelli, it's even dare I say... ni--oh well, I am getting to sound like a broken record.
    5. LOL At first when I read this, I thought that you were referring to Joyce as the, "big egghead." I couldn't agree more!

    By the way, this was another truly awesome chapter.

  2. 1. Good catch on the "baby" bit. I missed that. And I agree with you on the adult/child comparison, which fits really well with what you say, and the sort of abiding theme of the books (anti-adult). I can't help thinking about this in terms also of my post the other day from Summerland.
    3. The "out like a candle" simile is used also in Wonderland, and seems like just a disappearance--entering a state of non-being--becoming a null class (to use the terminology of the logicians' discussions I've been looking at this chapter); while Humpty's statement suggests murder.
    4.1. The meaning of names versus the meaning of words is a bit of a reversal like everything else. Names outside the Looking-Glass are just names--labels; while words indicate something and, perhaps, have intrinsic meaning/value.
    4.2. I couldn't help notice the breadth of intention to "Impenetrability" as well. Perfect subtextual example by Carroll. Aside from that, I'm right with you on the nihilism bit. Seriously. The world of adults is nihilistic, at least from the perspective of kids.

    Ha! I didn't intend Joyce to be the egg-head, but how perfect!

    And yes, another great chapter.

  3. 3. Interesting concept. I wonder if it's true, though. I'm thinking of Descartes's, "I think; therefore, I am." She may be null and never have existed to the rest of us, but that does not change that at the moment immediately preceding the blowing out of the candle, she is not only alive to herself, but she's fully cognizant of the fact that she can be nullified. So in a way, she already "was" for herself, even if she "wasn't" for anyone else. I don't know if I'm making any sense.

  4. I understand what you're saying, but I'm not up on my philosophy and logic, unfortunately. It sounds good, though. Can there be a distinction in class between what something is for self and what it is for others? I have no idea.

  5. Interesting. I think so. But it's getting so difficult that I'm not sure. I think that this could actually be a really good (although depressing) book idea by the way. Tell a story from the person of someone who will cease to have existed by the end. The closest thing that I can think of is Winston Smith in "1984". Officially every shred of his existence is erased, and he can't even remember his former self by the end. But at that moment before he plunged into torture, he knew that he existed. And Alice knows that she exists, even if there will be no Alice upon the king awaking.

  6. This is pretty much what happens in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (story and movie). I've been messing around a lot with a story idea (that's actually gonna end up fitting into an area of my fantasy if I ever get back to (first chapter needs to be totally re-done -- wrong POV)) where the only thing that is real or permanent is whatever you are presently looking out or in otherwise immediate contact with. Anything beyond your vision or anything you've released--let go of--is essentially gone.

  7. By the way, "Benjamin Button". Better story or movie? It's a close call. I'm almost inclined to go with the movie, just because it's more of an experience than reading a short story--one of the main reasons that I usually like novels better than movies. It's just an incredibly well done movie, I think.

  8. Hands down, the movie, for me. The story is such a simple framework. The movie is brilliant. And since I couldn't help throwing it in before (and you didn't say anything; I was expecting exclamation points), I must say that Button's director and Social Network's director: same man.

    But all that crap aside -- yes, the Button movie is better.

  9. Kind of reminds you of how David brought Israel to greatness but also put to death Uriah the Hittite out of lust.

  10. Game, set, match: James!

    Wow. In all sincerity (seriously), that was brilliant, man.

  11. LOL Thanks. I'm not sure that I would go THAT far, but analogies always have been my strong suit--which is kind of a worthless thing to be strong in when you think about all the more useful things that could pay bills and contribute to society.

  12. So start a list of analogies -- just track all of them. Every ten or so, post them on your blog.

  13. Oh goodness. I think that people would tire of that pretty quickly. I am in a blog slump, though, right now, so maybe. Too many seminary visits, exams, and assignments. I need to focus on the one thing that is needful: blogging.

  14. Blogging keeps me going through the drudgery of subbing. Of course, were I not blogging, I would be working on a novel. There's no slump of ideas or material there, just no drive to actually assemble it.


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