Through the Looking Glass has lessons for today

·2-min read
 (Daniel Hambury)
(Daniel Hambury)

Interesting, isn’t it, that the most contemporary exhibition in London concerns a book published 150 years ago? The book is Alice Through the Looking Glass, sequel to Alice in Wonderland, and the V&A exhibition is Alice, Curiouser and Curiouser, about the author, the subject, the books, illustrations and the explosion of ideas, fashion, art and science that Alice engendered.

“Curiouser and Curiouser (she was so much surprised she forgot how to speak good English)” is funny, because it disobeys the laws governing comparative adjectives, but you have to know them to see the joke.

And that’s the thing about Alice and her author — they were able to bend reality and play with words and concepts because they knew perfectly well what the rules are. There’s no moral in Alice but the moral it doesn’t mention is that anarchy and discombobulation are only fun in an essentially ordered universe. Author Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), a maths don, was very keen on demonstrating logical fallacies, showing how you can seem to be following the rules, and come up with nonsense conclusions.

Only a sound logician can make the Cheshire Cat answer Alice’s question about where she should go from here: “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to”. Alice anticipates, among other things, a new self-help book, The Scout Mindset (Why Some People See Clearly and Others Don’t) by Julia Galef, which Dominic Cummings has suggested ministers should read. The gist is that when it comes to what we believe, humans see what they want to see. We don’t approach problems with an open mind; rather, we twist the evidence to suit our conclusions. It’s unsettling because it’s so obviously true.

But Alice is an example, not of a Scout mindset (she was far too independent for that) but of an open mind. She encounters extraordinary goings-on and characters with a willingness to take them on their merits. She has objectives — she wants to see the lovely garden behind the little door or to become a Queen on the chess set — but she is quite open about how she gets there; that’s how she has adventures. She asks sensible questions incessantly and is kind to the hapless. Be More Alice could be a motto for our generation too.

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