Alice in the Land
(Translation by Elizabeth Gamble Miller)
This is the photograph of Alicia Pleasance Liddell, the second child of the Rector of Christ Church College at Oxford, where Lewis Carroll held the professorship of Mathematics and Logic, shortly after he finished studies of Theology and Sciences in one of the most prestigious institutions of England.
The photograph, which depicts Alicia disguised as a beggar child, was taken about 1860, a period during which our illustrious writer, whose real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodson (1832-1898), shows signs of possessing an intellect capable of breaking with formal logic and penetrating the fantastic world of children's imagination, in which he, himself, felt like a big, playful boy with a photographic camera that let him work under conditions analogous to that of painters, not only because he used tripods to adjust his images, but also because he played with light and shadow in trying to capture the image at the precise moment desired.
Of the series of children's photographs that Lewis Carroll made, this one is probably the most suggestive, the one that brings us closest to the principal protagonist of his stories, as it shows an Alice modeling, posing before the camera that registers her full length, her left foot propped on the garden edge and showing a sphere in the palm of her hand. The child is leaning against the slightly peeling, vine-covered wall in the patio of home of the Liddell family. Alice is wearing a dress just like the beggars in Charles Dicken's 19th century novels. It is falling into shreds with the ragged pieces reaching the knees. Nevertheless, despite her appearance of a poor child, her eyes are serene and clear, her sweet gaze radiates an aura of innocence over her angelical face.
What could Lewis Carroll have been thinking –that Alicia was a character pulled from the world of fiction or was the oneirocritic abstraction of a platonic love? We can only know that this mathematician with a child-like spirit, who demonstrated rigorous and serious intellectual tenacity, is the author of two of the most famous books of world literature.
Biographers recount that this Anglican pastor, a modest bachelor had profound human sensitivity and a great interest in the boys and girls, who accepted him as just another friend in the labyrinth of their games, provided that he charm them with his stories of Never-Never Land. While he sketched strange figures on paper, as a way of illustrating the happenings in his fantasy, he shaped his talent as a storyteller and artist on that glorious, sunny afternoon –according to the meteorologists cold and rainy– one fourth of July in 1862, when he went to take a boat ride on the Tamesis River, from Oxford to Goldstow, accompanied by Alicia Liddell and her two sisters. That was the moment, in a humid day in London with a gray sky that the story of Alice in Wonderland was born, the way master works are born, after a long meditation.
The reader may remember that everything begins when Alice, according to the dream sequence of Lewis Carroll, is about to fall asleep under the canopy of a tree. Suddenly, she hears a voice: Oh, Sir, you are going to be late! Alice opens her eyes and makes out a white rabbit, holding a watch with a chain to his jacket, wearing a kid glove on one hand and carrying a fan in the other. Alice, who has never before seen a rabbit that talks and dresses like a person, follows it to a burrow, where she sinks suddenly into a mass of sticks and dry leaves; of course, the burrow is made of magic and fantasy, because while Alice drinks the contents of a bottle with a label that says "Drink me", she shrinks so much she feels like a candle that has been put out. When she eats a cake, whose label says "Eat me", she grows incredibly and feels like her neck is stretching like the longest telescope in the world.
That's the way the adventures in Wonderland happen, without Alice being impressed by the strange relationships the animals, plants, and things have, until finally she comes out of the dream to step through the mirror into another dream. It is here in the Looking Glass that Alice becomes the enchanted queen wanting to cross the squares of a giant chess board, where the White Knight appears mounted on a steed harnessed in the trappings of war and ready to defend her from the threats of the Red Knight, who wants to take her prisoner. But as the White Knight, who represents Lewis Carroll isn't resigned to lose his queen, he confronts the Red Knight in a fierce fight until Alice in the midst of the neighing of horses and the noisy clashes of lances and armor celebrates the victory of the White Knight who saves her life and makes her his queen for the rest of his days.
Lewis Carroll gives a free rein to his tensions in the world of dreams and plays with the dimensions of his characters, inspired by his knowledge of mathematics and formal logic. Another playful element masterfully executed is linguistic, a language that makes even the most solid aspects of reality relative, making them disappear by way of synonyms, homonyms, pseudonyms, curiosities and scientific paradoxes, a linguistic play that places him among the precursors of Dadaism and Surrealism. In spite of everything, the great value of Lewis Carroll lies not in his writing manuals of history or zoology, but books that recreate the imagination of children on the basis of a fictitious world that confuses reality and fantasy.
Lewis Carroll was the artist of the word, of the sketch and of the photograph, while Alice, the beautiful, tender Alicia, was the Muse that inspired him. Without her, probably without this girl in black and white, we would not have had the opportunity to know these magnificent works titled Alice in Wonderland and Looking Through the Looking Glass, two literary jewels that were distilled in the mind of someone who, besides mastering the abstract laws of mathematics, algebra and geometry, knew how to ignite the fantasy of children with tales that he was able "wonderfully" to invent.
And so everything seems to be revealed, except the mystery within this image captured in the land of the photograph.
© Víctor Montoya, Elizabeth Gamble Miller (2007)