Reading Lewis Carroll in the time of Trump
“When I use a word,” [he] said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said [he], “which is to be master – that’s all.”
No, it’s not an exchange between the Trumpster and a confused member of the press; it’s that master of language manipulation, Humpty Dumpty, being his usual pompous, arrogant, and rather ill-informed self. But he does sound familiar.
I first read Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There when I was 7. It was a birthday gift from my parents – a real book, with chapters! It was two books in one, really – Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland took up the first half. Together, these two stories introduced me to children’s literature that was beyond Dick, Jane, and Baby Sally. Here were stories that had characters, and plot, and – heaven forbid – humour! I was hooked. I read and re-read it that first year, and memorized the poems. The Walrus and the Carpenter was my party piece – in my fourth year of university, sitting for a history exam that I hadn’t prepared for, I wrote out all 18 verses, rather than hand in a blank sheet of paper.
This week I read it again, as one of my 1001 Books bucket list. It’s still funny, the characters are still engaging, but six months into the Trump presidency parts of it don’t seem quite as far-fetched as they used to.
Humpty Dumpty, of course, most closely resembles the American president. He has that smirking, ear-to-ear smile, for one thing, which causes Alice some anxiety:
“If he smiled much more the ends of his mouth might meet behind,” she thought. “And then I don’t know what would happen to his head! I’m afraid it would come off!”
Like Trump, the egg is given to exaggeration. “I can explain all the poems that ever were invented,” he tells Alice, “and a good many that haven’t been invented just yet.” He lacks humility, thinks he knows more than anybody else, and doesn’t read. He’s also inclined to be paranoid. Take this, my favourite section from that chapter:
“If I did fall,” he went on, “the King has promised me – ah, you may turn pale, if you like! You didn’t think I was going to say that, did you? The King has promised me – with his very own mouth – to – to -”
“To send all his horses and all his men,” Alice interrupted, rather unwisely.
“Now I declare that’s too bad!” Humpty Dumpty cried, breaking into a sudden passion. “You’ve been listening at doors – and behind trees – and down chimneys – or you couldn’t have known it!”
“I haven’t indeed,” Alice said very gently. “It’s in a book.”
“Ah, well! They may write such things in a book,” Humpty Dumpty said in a calmer tone. “That’s what you call a History of England.”
Alice’s journey through the looking-glass takes place on a giant chessboard. The country is divided into squares by a number of brooks and hedges. The goal is to reach the Eighth Square where Alice, the White Queen’s pawn, will be crowned a Queen.
Getting there, though, is not for the faint-hearted. Enemies are lurking in the woods we’re told, although we never see them. A giant black crow appears out of nowhere and threatens the inhabitants, and somewhere the slithy toves gyre and gimble in the wabe. Anyone in an official capacity is generally incompetent. The White King’s soldiers trip over each other, his Knight continually falls off his horse, and state messengers are imprisoned – for what, we never know.
As for the heads of state, they’re all too fond of making promises that can’t be fulfilled. The White Queen offers to take Alice on as a lady’s maid for two pence a week, and jam every other day. When Alice says she doesn’t want any jam today, the Queen says she couldn’t have it if she did want it:
“The rule is, jam tomorrow and jam yesterday – but never jam today.”
It must sometimes come to “jam today”, Alice says. But the Queen is firm: No, it can’t, she says. “It’s jam every other day: today isn’t any other day, you know.”
“I don’t understand you,” said Alice. “It’s dreadfully confusing!”
“That’s the effect of living backwards,” the Queen said kindly: “it always makes one a little giddy at first -”
Luckily for Alice, she eventually wakes up and realizes it was all a dream. (If this is a spoiler alert, read the book anyway – it’s worth it.)
Unfortunately for the rest of us, we’re still dreaming. Wake me when it’s over.