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zingmagazine10 autumn 1999

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8 poets making it new
samples
smylonnylon
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caveat
generation z
blt
lutwidge finch
rel(ev)ations
the back of beyond
reviews
reflections on a lewis carroll exhibition: the equitable gallery ; new york, new york


Oscar Gustave Reijlander, portrait of lewis carroll, 1863

1—Some artworks have the rare capacity to overflow the edges of the context in which they were created, and in the process break free from their authors’ determination, overwhelming and engulfing the author in a web all of their own doing. On that account it might have been premonition when Charles Lutwidge Dodgson coined the pseudonym Lewis Carroll thus attaching himself to his fiction through yet another fiction device. The fiction set forth by the two Alice tales is interwoven with the fiction of Lewis Carroll to such a degree that author and creation seem to occupy the same plane.

2—One of the first books ever given to me as a child was Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass in an adaptation to the Portuguese by Monteiro Lobato, a Brazilian author of children books. Hence I should now blame Carroll for my fondness for crossword puzzles and silly word-play, for kittens and commonplace absurdities. Tenniel’s illustrations, I must confess, kept my interest going when confronted with unreconcilable differences, cultural and otherwise. This all is to say that Alice, as well as Lewis Carroll, are by now part of everyone’s unconscious; translated, adapted, staged, filmed, animated, disneyfied. A fiction shared and promoted by all those who time and again try to revive the mythic boat ride with the Liddell sisters.

3—Behind the persona of Lewis Carroll there lived and labored Charles Dodgson, this exhibition made clear in an admirable way. The first room, devoted to photographs of the Dodgson family, worked as an instrument of delay—one was immersed in the atmosphere of nineteenth century English family life before being shown the material proper for which Dodgson is now celebrated.

4—There is an innocence in Dodgson’s pictures of young girls that has been often misunderstood in our time. The alarming occurrence of child molestation cases in recent times has intensified our sensors to any possibility of abuse, and shielded us from an unemotional response at any display of child flesh. Under the effects of this scary paranoia some see in Dodgson’s fantastic collection of Victorian girls the veiled fancies of a pedophile. But what comes across in this exhibition is the figure of Dodgson as a family man, although he did not have one of his own. His pictures of children, often in the company of their parents, brings to mind the work of Sally Mann, a contemporary artist who has also had the shadow of child exploitation hovering over her path. Like Mann, Dodgson’s pictures are familiar in the sense that they often reveal a world so intimate only a trusted relative would be allowed in.

5—The girls in Dodgson’s pictures are depicted as strong, intelligent human beings, they represent the pinnacle of our human trajectory, the exact point where physical and mental development are still unfettered by any socio-cultural constraint. They are remarkably self-assured and in control whereas adults, paradoxically, are often shown vulnerable and melancholy.

6—Dodgson was modern beyond his volition. He was keen on getting acquainted with new technologies, his experiments in photography assure us; still his most enduring contribution, one that keeps its freshness to these days, remains the subversive streak of his humor. This trait was a welcome antidote against the stiffness of nineteenth century rhetoric and assured a future to his fiction in our time. The Alice tales, like some of Poe’s stories, have kept the power both to amuse and to challenge the reader—they are little masterpieces in intentional misreading.

7—Dodgson’s keen sense for the absurd and the ridiculous, combined with a sophisticated understanding of logic and mathematics, brought about the best in his art. Some of his antics, particularly the ones regarding linguistic conventions, have indeed become fundamental to several avant-garde movements. Perhaps without Dodgson, Dadaism, Surrealism, Duchamp, and Concrete Poetry wouldn’t have happened. Öyvind Fahlström ends his Manifesto for Concrete Poetry, of 1953, citing Humpty Dumpty, and the Noigandres poets often refer to Word-Links and Doublets as sources for their experimentalism in language.

8—In the room showcasing several foreign language editions of Alice is a Russian translation from 1923. The translator: Vladimir Nabokov, who would later create Lolita.

9—Some pictures betray Dodgson’s love for the theater, most remarkably the one of Xie Kitchin and her brothers composing a tableau on the theme of st. george and the dragon. The bare, evocative set is no fruit of mere improvisation. Dodgson was known for carefully setting the stage for his photographs. On the other hand, he seriously pursued the improvement of his draftsmanship aiming at a complete control of his literary creations. The highly stylized tableaux were thus entirely premeditated. They bring to mind the Symbolist theater of Maeterlinck where everything is allusion.

10—Dodgson was not a dandy, although pictures of him suggest a well-cultivated man. They lack, however, the flair and affectation one finds in portraits of a Oscar Wilde, for instance. The flaneur in Dodgson did not favor the cities but the countryside and, above all, the surfaces and planes of Euclidean geometry which seem to be constantly laid open before his eyes. In the opening lines of Hiawatha’s “Photographing,” Dodgson lets out a bit of this Euclidean view:

From his shoulder Hiawatha
Took the camera of rosewood,
Made of sliding, folding rosewood;
Neatly put it all together.
In its case it lay compactly,
Folded into nearly nothing;
But he opened out the hinges,
Pushed and pulled the joints and hinges,
Till it looked all squares and oblongs,
Like a complicated figure
In the Second Book of Euclid.

11—That Dodgson would appreciate the folding inside a photographic camera is something also worth exploring. This fold inside the camera parallels Mallarmé’s famous folds of the fan—an effect he also aspired to attain in his poetry. Dodgson’s camera, through its folds, unveils a ghostly image on a glass surface. Dodgson’s text, through folds in the logic of narrative, then becomes fiction. In Alice in Wonderland images, faces, and places appear and disappear like they do on a prepared plate in the photographer’s darkroom. But in Through the Looking Glass they appear and disappear through folds of spatial planes, as if the fiction had moved away from the ghostly surface of wet collodion and into the Euclidean space of rosewood and lenses in the photographic camera.

12—Rhyme? and Reason?

Sérgio Bessa

Brooklyn, New York

1999