On the Subject of Alice

I still get questions about it, case and I still love to talk about it. I wrote my MA thesis, “Jacques Lacan Read Through the Looking Glass: Reflections of Subject, Self and Desire in Lewis Carroll’s Alice” in 2010 under the direction of Dr. Michael Sharp (English Department, Humanities, UPR RP). This would be the first time sharing any of it, and it’s only a tiny bit of it, because it’s over 100 pages long, so here’s just a teensy little piece of the shortened version I presented last September (you can read about that here).

If you’re curiouser, then, well, find me. Or find it at the Richardson Seminar Room in the College of Humanities. Or La Lázaro.

Lacan and Carroll share stylistic traits. The most outstanding is their fascination with the possibilities of language.

Artist credit pending

Artist credit pending.

In that respect, they have similar projects, though their didactic purposes differ. In the introduction to How to Read Lacan, Slajov Žižek, Lacanian expert, says that “the most outstanding feature of [Lacan’s] teaching is permanent self-questioning” (5). Alice repeatedly experiences self-questioning when, once in her dream worlds, everything around her becomes increasingly more difficult.

In that respect Carroll, like Lacan, obligates the reader to decipher meanings or come to their own conclusions using Alice’s point of view. In both Wonderland and Looking-Glass, Alice confronts dilemmas that Lacan contemplates, which makes them suitable for drawing connections, the purpose behind my analysis.

Alice’s character is an imaginary_symbolic_realexample of a human subject coping with society, its rules of behavior and communication (these belong in the symbolic order), her perceptions of self (in the imaginary), and her expectations, motivations and emotions (pertaining to the Real).

Alice’s character in the Wonderland book is that of a subject facing society, or social symbolic, confused and thirsting for meaning. Wonderland is Alice’s waking world distorted, where confusion is accentuated more than her enjoyment. Wonderland is very much structured like Alice’s waking world because, as a dream, it is based on it. What is true in one world can also be true in the next, realities sometimes overlapping, so Alice expects events to take place as they do in her waking world. When her expectations are contradicted, she is confused to the point of annoyance or distress. This is because the real Alice has already entered the signifying chain as a little girl in Victorian English society.

Credit pending

artist credit pending

Alice is reborn as a grown child into Wonderland, crawling into and then falling down the rabbit-hole, a reversal of the natural process of being born. What makes her entrance into the dream reality traumatic is the fact that she, unlike a newborn child, has already learned the behavioral codes, the language and the logic of her society, making it hard for her to interpret signs that have different meanings in Wonderland. Let’s examine Alice’s first attempt at communicating in Wonderland.

Her experience is comparable to that of an infant’s entrance into the signifying chain (learning language).

 

by Jasmine Becket Griffith

Jasmine Becket Griffith

Once down the rabbit-hole, her first conversation with someone else is with the Mouse that swims by her in the pool of tears. What motivates Alice to speak to the Mouse in the first place is not uninterested polite conversation, but her desire to get out of the pool so she can carry on her journey towards the garden. She approaches the Mouse saying “O Mouse, do you know the way out of this pool?” (24) But the Mouse does not speak to her, and taking note of this, Alice supposes it is because “perhaps it doesn’t understand English” (25). She babbles on, thinking he might be a French mouse, repeating a sentence she has learned in her lesson book, “where is my cat?” – soon realizing this may have been a mistake. When she says aloud “I quite forgot you didn’t like cats,” (Carroll 25) the mouse finally reacts. Alice’s attempts at communicating with the Mouse at this point seem much like that of an infant who is learning its parents’ language. The infant babbles until it gets the parents’ attention and hence, whatever it is it desires. Luckily for Alice, the Mouse does, after all, speak and understand English, but Alice needs a confirmation to be sure they are communicating.

Alice learns that though they speak essentially the same language, there is a difference in codes. To Mouse, cats

Henry Rountree

Henry Rountree

signify something vile. This incident is somewhat like that of a child who innocently repeats an offensive word without the purpose of offending and is told not to say it again. Thus, Alice submits to the language of the other (in this case, the Mouse), by agreeing and understanding that the topic of “cats” is not proper. The Mouse submits to the language of the Other, which is the language of Mice and Mousekind. The signified of “cat” is predetermined by Mice in the same manner that problematic, offensive words and topics are predetermined by culture rather than a personal experience. Alice wants to communicate effectively, so she keeps on correcting herself and trying hard not to offend. She changes the subject of conversation from cats to dogs, only succeeding in upsetting it once more. She enters the Mouse’s language system when she promises not to speak of cats or dogs again. But, being new to it, forgets and mentions her cat Dinah, and, proudly, her ability to catch mice and birds. Her company – the mouse and birds when the pool becomes an ocean- all leave her, and this makes her feel “very lonely and low-spirited” (40). The result of a misunderstanding causes Alice great distress. She is trying to learn their code, but has not fully grasped the conventions. This very same scenario can take place when, for example, a child may innocently speak of subjects that are unsuitable for the dining table, not to offend, but because he or she has yet to conform to codes of etiquette.

rose-garcia-A-Caucus-Race

Camille Rose Garcia

Performative actions also bear significance in culture, and are generated and perpetuated by the Other, preceding us and generated by some authority. One example is the ritual of the Caucus-race. This consists of running around in a something approximate to the shape of a circle indeterminately. The Dodo is the authority, since he dictates the rules. His posture reminds Alice of Shakespeare, who in Alice’s world, commands literary authority. When the Dodo yells “Stop!” one bird asks who has won, and he replies that everyone has. Another bird asks who will give out the prizes, and the Dodo points to Alice. Alice is obligated to produce a prize, so she looks in her pockets and finds a box of comfits, luckily containing one for everyone, except herself. The Dodo then asks her to produce a prize for herself, so she again reaches into her pocket and finds a thimble. She hands the thimble to the Dodo, who presents it as a prize back to Alice. The whole thing seems absurd to Alice, not organized or logical. She takes a cue from the animals and, trying to be proper, acts seriously. The comfits and thimble are worthless objects, but their value is assigned by the manner in which they are presented. Understanding the meanings of the exchanges of actions and objects is a requisite of becoming a link in the signifying chain of culture.

Alice’s repeated misinterpretations and being misinterpreted are what define her in Wonderland as a stranger, or an other. When she does not understand something, it is only because she cannot. Her slightly different language accentuates Alice’s otherness. Our world only makes sense to us because we learn to, by subjecting to it and thus becoming a part of it.

 

Works Cited (here)

Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; Through the Looking Glass and what Alice Found There. Connecticut: Konecky & Konecky, 1999.

Žižek, Slavoj. How to Read Lacan. New York: Norton & Company, 2006.

I’ve also embedded my PowerPoint presentation below, which will make little sense without me talking on and on in the background (unless you’ve thought these things over yourself)… Enjoy.

 


Poetics of Dream Translation 3

This was the last part of my conference, see during which a handful of people from the audience shared recurrent dreams.

Rene Magritte – The Explanation

When I translated the dreams in that chapter of SLF, nurse which were collected years later for the book, my only intention was to write for the sake of writing. I have a habit of reflecting upon my dream content to better understand my current state of mind in my waking life, so this exercise of writing down dreams was a way of doing so. Since I had been publishing them online, friends and readers reacted to them, which was a source of positive reinforcement. I never expected, however, to be explaining any of them.

About dream analysis, Freud says:

The first thing that becomes clear to the investigator when he compares the dream-content with the dream-thoughts is that a tremendous work of condensation has been accomplished. The dream is meagre, paltry and laconic in comparison with the range and copiousness of the dream-thoughts.

The dream, when written down fills half a page; the analysis, which contains the dream-thoughts, requires six, eight, twelve times as much space.

As you have probably observed, the time it took me to explain only 3 aspects of the dream sequence “Daisy” and “Recollection” took nearly as long to have narrated the events in their entirety.

Literary analysis of poetry will probably result in “six, eight, twelve times as much space” as well.

Dreams, if you are able to remember them, are an excellent source for creative material. As a writer, you are able to exploit, through writing them down (or write based on them), what Freud calls the dream-content (what you perceive with your senses) and your condensed dream-thoughts (what you felt and thought in reaction to the dream-content). Both dream-content and dream-thoughts, as played out by your unconscious as you dream, are fragmented, disjointed.

The act of re-arranging this puzzle, to join the loose ends, is the act of translation. As with all translations, original meanings might be lost, but new meaning will be gained, and perhaps even deeper levels of meaning will be revealed through word choice.

magritte

The words we choose to name what we see might be clues to what we were really dreaming about – though wordplay and puns, homophones or homographs, or even rhyme. Language structures our very way of thinking, so the relationship between images and language does not go in only one direction.

As an example, I will quote Freud re-telling a dream to illustrate this point, that “one scarcely finds a dream without a double meaning or a play upon words.”

Photo credit unavailable

C in a dream sees a girl on the road to X bathed in a white light and wearing a white blouse.

The dreamer began an affair with a Miss White on this road.

After translating your sequence of dream images to words that are comprehensible to yourself (as well as your potential readers), you will probably have achieved effective poetic prose. By effective poetic prose I mean a combination of words that conveys sensorial experiences as well as emotions with minimal explanations about their particular symbolism (which is what “good” poetry should do – though it’s a matter of opinion).

And if you aren’t a writer, you have poetry within you. Some people might think dreams are a waste of time discussing or even bothering to remember, but the exercise if recalling, wording and sharing what we’ve dreamt can help us cope with the frustrations or questions that bother us in our waking lives. Dream interpretation, which is almost identical to literary interpretation, has much to teach us about ourselves and those around us, but only if we are aware. Like an oracle, or like Shelley’s figure of the poet as a prophet, dreams allow us to look inward and relate to the world outside our minds, therefore providing glimpses of the unknown.

We may never fully understand it, but, as we look out into the ocean and up the sky, there is a promise in all that is uncertain.

Poetics of Dream Translation Part 1

From The Poetics of Dream Translation. In this first part, I’m explaining why the dreams in SLF are not short stories, but should be interpreted as poetry, given the similarities between dreams and poems in structure, content and language. I mean… in a nutshell.

As many of you might be aware of (or perhaps not), many of the pieces in the second part of Stars Like Fish are what I call “dream transcriptions.”

The subject of the creative process has come up often after the publication of Stars Like Fish.  In The Poetics of Dream Translation I will explain the process I engaged in while transcribing dreams, as well as the similarities between dream language and poetic language.

First off, to help clarify the difference between writing and interpreting both genres , I will compare narrative fiction to poetry.

Writing narrative fiction is one process… in order to write a narrative, we must first imagine a situation, a conflict, a main character with a unique personality. Then, we involve our character in the conflict, and have him or her struggle, resulting in an outcome. Although sometimes characters (and maybe even the plot itself!) take on a life of their own (when we, as writers, become them as we write), there is still a formula to writing narratives that we must take care to follow.

Poetry, on the other hand, if we choose to write in free verse, is free of formulas.

Its structure is a series of images intended to move the reader; it reveals meaning through symbols more often than narrative does because it consists mainly of symbols. A poem may be one extended metaphor or a series of metaphors.

In order to compare the effects and intentions of narrative versus those of poetry, I will quote Percy B. Shelley’s Defence of Poetry:

A poem is the very image of life expressed in its eternal truth. There is this difference between a story and a poem, that a story is a catalogue of detached facts, which have no other connection than time, place, circumstance, cause and effect; the other is the creation of actions according to the unchangeable forms of human nature, as existing in the mind of the Creator, which is itself the image of all other minds. The one is partial, and applies only to a definite period of time, and a certain combination of events which can never again recur; the other is universal, and contains within itself the germ of a relation to whatever motives or actions have place in the possible varieties of human nature.

In other words, poetry speaks to us in a universal language (that of symbols), and its content is not limited to time and space. We relate to poetry regardless of the century, geography or society we exist in.

My creative process of writing poetry usually consists of being overwhelmed by a feeling (any feeling at all) then sitting down, whether with paper and pen or in front of a keyboard, and writing what I see through my mind’s eye or what I feel. Sometimes feelings come to us as images only, and we must try our best to transcribe, or rather, to translate them.  Some poets have a good idea of what they want to write poems about before they do. As a habit, I usually don’t, and most of the time I don’t even realize the meaning(s) of what I’ve written until I feel that the poem is finished and have re-read it.

As an example, I’ll read you a poem I wrote last summer:

non-text 

there is a notion that words couldn’t catch

only an image that haunts, that plays back

like a silent film,

in pieces

like colors on a palette of memories

(and melodies)

painting over in shades that cannot be reproduced

not exactly

there is a notion that couldn’t be translated

couldn’t be worded

couldn’t be recognized,

(not if you heard it)

it looks like a spatter,

like the silence of night

reflected on rolling

waves of dark light

it flickers

it is

(and it isn’t)

never the same

like the shore

like paint…

What I was feeling at the moment was manifest in images. The source of these images, of course, is memory, but my individual experience is beside the point, because it is as much about my actual life experience as it is about the experience of writing the poem itself.  Writing poetry can sometimes become a half-dreaming trance, where we do pay attention to the mechanics (such as cadence, rhyme, or alliteration), but the focus is usually sensorial.

This poem was an example of writing based on memories of images used to convey emotion. In a similar way, dreams are not necessarily derived from events of the day, or any given moment. They are sensory images that may date back to our early childhood or recent events, which may be recalled from an actual lived experience or a vicarious one.  For instance, images from a movie, photographs or the emotions of a character in a novel.  Perhaps we might even dream of songs we’ve heard before but don’t even like. What we dream is beyond our voluntary control, but comes, undeniably, from our own consciousness. I will quote Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams to illustrate the difference between waking and dreaming consciousness:

[…]  the distinguishing characteristic of the waking state is the fact that its psychic activity occurs in the form of ideas rather than in that of images. But the dream thinks mainly in visual images, and it may be noted that with the approach of sleep the voluntary activities become impeded in proportion as involuntary representations make their appearance, the latter belonging entirely to the category of images.

So, as dreams metaphorically speak to us through sensory images to interpret later, so does poetry. Poetic language is one to be decoded by the reader. The experience of reading and interpreting poetry should not always take into account the poet’s ideological intention. Language and symbols (sensory images) are subject to individual interpretation, which is why I prefer readers not to attach my personal experience or intentions to the dreams in Stars Like Fish, but their own.