The Appeal of Unreality

Recently, and for the first time, I read a copy of Lewis Carroll’s famous book for children Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Its pleasure was undimmed by my (relatively) advanced age, and the whole experience was genuinely delightful. I immediately read Through the Looking-Glass, its successor.

It is a very inconvenient habit of kittens (Alice had once made the remark) that, whatever you say to them, they always purr. ‘If they would only purr for “yes” and mew for “no,” or any rule of that sort,’ she had said, ‘so that one could keep up a conversation! But how can you talk with a person if they always say the same thing?’

I did not know why I enjoyed them both so much until just under two weeks ago, when the EU referendum campaign, which had been so very unpleasant and so sadly extended in length, culminated in a result I did not want but certainly expected. (At the very least, however, I’ve got a few free drinks out of the situation, thanks to a couple of strategic sweepstakes.) Now I understand why, in R. C. Sherriff’s play Journey’s End, soldiers read aloud from Carroll’s book in the trenches to escape the horrors of war. (I appreciate that I am exaggerating our present national crisis, but there is no reason why the same logic cannot work when writ small.)

There are great pleasures to be had in this way: witnessing the distortion of the world as we know it, and departing from reality. Reality can be mundane; it can be inane; and, perhaps most pressingly, it can be unpleasant. The sheer tedium of things is enough to drive anyone to distraction; and better distraction, better this, I think, than something more destructive.

The glories of imagination (which are not themselves imagined) and deliberate silliness are manifold – and they are manifested in Carroll’s cultivation of informed nonsense. This is replicated both in the absurdity of events in the books (‘Better say nothing at all. Language is worth a thousand pounds a word!’) and in Alice’s own voice, which, with its childish logic and youthful short-sightedness, is the perfect complement to the fantastical world created by Carroll. The following description of Alice’s rather literal attempts at self-control (after she has shrunk by drinking from a bottle which ‘was not marked “poison”’) is worth repeating in its entirety.

‘Come, there’s no use in crying like that!’ said Alice to herself, rather sharply; ‘I advise you to leave off this minute!’ She generally gave herself very good advice, (though she very seldom followed it), and sometimes she scolded herself so severely as to bring tears into her eyes; and once she remembered trying to box her own ears for having cheated herself in a game of croquet she was playing against herself, for this curious child was very fond of pretending to be two people. ‘But it’s no use now,’ thought poor Alice, ‘to pretend to be two people! Why, there’s hardly enough of me left to make one respectable person!’

Childish attempts at logic make up a surprisingly large portion of both books, and they are channelled through strange situations. This trying to make sense of an unfamiliar landscape is difficult – so much so that eventually there is nothing left to do except give up entirely, embrace the silliness, and enjoy the ride. (‘I didn’t know that Cheshire cats always grinned; in fact, I didn’t know that cats could grin.’) A particularly pleasing example of this is a discussion about the properties of things (and, obliquely, about the properties of numbers) that occurs at the Hatter’s perpetual tea party:

‘Take some more tea,’ the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly.

‘I’ve had nothing yet,’ Alice replied in an offended tone, ‘so I can’t take more.’

‘You mean you can’t take less,’ said the Hatter: ‘it’s very easy to take more than nothing.’

‘Nobody asked your opinion,’ said Alice.

‘Who’s making personal remarks now?’ the Hatter asked triumphantly.

A particular pleasure of the books is their regular forays into verse. The resultant whimsical poetry is rather good, not least because it is better than mere doggerel. It’s poised, focused, and remarkably well-executed.  The most famous of these is “Jabberwocky”, which is practically word perfect. There is something wondrous about the interplay of made-up words, the increasingly strange portmanteaux heralding a new frontier of nonsense. Here is an especially excellent extract:

One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

This is supplemented with retellings of contemporary songs and nursery rhymes, all of which add to the strangeness – the deliberate distortion – of the remarkable places described. The laws of space and time are subject to the whims of the author, too. People and objects shrink almost out of existence and balloon to tremendous sizes; inanimate objects are given personalities, as is seen in the croquet game in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, where the Queen of Hearts has hoops made out of her soldiers (which are all playing cards) and orders frequent executions. ‘Off with their heads!’ she shouts, but she never succeeds in having anyone executed. (‘As they walked off together, Alice heard the King say in a low voice, to the company generally, “You are all pardoned”.’) Above all, distances are lengthened and shortened at will, and often in the strangest ways, as seen in this extract from Through the Looking-Glass:

‘Now! Now!’ cried the Queen. ‘Faster! Faster!’ And they went so fast that at last they seemed to skim through the air, hardly touching the ground with their feet, till suddenly, just as Alice was getting quite exhausted, they stopped, and she found herself sitting on the ground, breathless and giddy.

The Queen propped her up against a tree, and said kindly, ‘You may rest a little now.’

Alice looked round her in great surprise. ‘Why, I do believe we’ve been under this tree the whole time! Everything’s just as it was!’

‘Of course it is,’ said the Queen, ‘what would you have it?’

‘Well, in our country,’ said Alice, still panting a little, ‘you’d generally get to somewhere else—if you ran very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.’

‘A slow sort of country!’ said the Queen. ‘Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!’

All of this is very well: a little light relief, entertainment for uncertain times. (And things really are more than a little uncertain at the moment, both in Britain and around the world.) But there is a little more to things than that. As was stated earlier, sometimes unreality is not just a matter of free choice and pleasure; sometimes it is a necessity, or it is otherwise forced on the unwilling.

Every system of control in the modern world traffics in unreality: dictatorships create conspiracy theories to explain food shortages or corruption and to allay the understandable desire of the people to have a say in governing their affairs; demagogues tell outright lies to attract people to their cause, which, they say, is the only one to notice, let alone care about, the ‘real issues’; and it must be noted that, on top of the former two, a great deal of contemporary unreality is not created through an act of malice, but rather is perpetuated by wishful thinking, because in some ways untruth can be considerably nicer than reality.

The media situation in Russia at the moment appears to contain elements of all three. There is an authoritarian government, one which helps to organise a chaotic and perpetually unreal state of affairs in domestic politics, as documented brilliantly by Peter Pomerantsev in his book Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible. Also present is an aspect of demagoguery, which seeks to blame the nation’s enemies for financial trouble at home and military defeat abroad. And finally, it cannot be escaped that something of this panjandrum is perpetuated for its own sake; and there is a kind of perverse pleasure, I think, to be found in its continuation.

Not only do some Russians actively prefer to live in a world which is that bit unreal; I would argue that some of Russia’s propagandists rather enjoy their work. Vladislav Surkov, Vladimir Putin’s propaganda chief, certainly seems to – he who is claimed to have written a book, Less than Zero, under a nom de plume exposing his own work and also to have authored a preface under his own name in which he praised whoever the author might be. (Pomerantsev: ‘Surkov … denies being the author of the novel, then makes a point of contradicting himself: “The author of this novel is an unoriginal Hamlet-obsessed hack”; “this is the best book I have ever read”.’)

One of the reasons this system is so successful – and why it is so dangerous – is its ability to amuse and entertain. There is a little of the nod and wink in that whole routine, isn’t there? And who would be unable to find something funny in there: in the presumed arrogance of Surkov, the rigmarole of disguised authorship, or the Bond villain desire to explain himself at length?

And who, if tasked to do so, couldn’t find something amusing about someone who, in Pomeranstev’s words, ‘is an aesthete who pens essays on modern art, an aficionado of gangsta rap who keeps a photo of Tupac on his desk next to that of the president’. This kind of post-modern authoritarianism is simply too amusing to be dangerous – or so it would seem. That’s where Alice comes in.

As regards Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and its sequel Through the Looking-Glass, it seems that an absurd version of reality can be a pleasure – mainly in terms of its own illusory advantages but also, as in Russia, it can be somehow inviting. In that country the whole political situation is orchestrated with a knowing look to camera, both rigging the nation’s political system and appearing to let clever citizens in on the joke.

This is why Surkov funds dissident groups of the international, cosmopolitan left at the same time as he promotes far-right youth groups which burn books deemed insufficiently patriotic. This is what the merry-go-round of Russian politics can mean. It’s choreographed unreality, scripted absurdity. And all of it is, like the Jabberwok, more dangerous than it appears (‘Beware the Jabberwock, my son! / The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!’).

Though at the moment we in Britain do not inhabit a country whose political and media world is steeped in organised chaos of that scale – we know, after all, that this chaos is, whatever other adjectives it could attain, most certainly not organised – I think this whole episode may well make us appreciate our own luck. And it may even prompt us in the direction of empathy for the average Russian, trapped as he is in a world of utter fantasy as imaginative as anything in Carroll’s invented world of absurdity.

The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

In a British context, this kind of tragicomedy was perfectly demonstrated last week, when Boris Johnson – for years the prodigal son, the once and future king, the most popular politician in Britain – announced that he was not going to seek the leadership of the Conservative party and thus the office of Prime Minister.

All of this – the nation’s voting to leave the European Union, the narrative of ‘tak[ing] back control’, the fatuous rhetoric of sunlit uplands, the genuine deception and the moral squalor of the whole exercise – has been rendered pointless by the man’s own cowardice. He is a bold opponent when a political order steeped stasis and continuity makes every option appear a good one, but as a rational, consistent actor in a time of actual crisis he is considerably more muted.

Not that Michael Gove, the wielder of that particular knife, has behaved all that well, too; in fact, he has effectively stabbed his friend and ally for no discernible reason, as he is hardly likely to win this leadership election in his own right. (And today there are reports that Gove could well suspend his own campaign, thus cutting short his own ambitions – such as they are. There is something decidedly post-modern about all of this.)

And thus the absurdity of the last few weeks, which began with a battle of flotillas in the Thames, of all things, continues. In that case, there seems only one thing to do: embrace the thing, and seek some solace in the unreal. Come friendly fairy tales.