Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder
is curious about how many miles she has fallen now and speculates about
whether she has reached the center of the earth yet. She wonders, too,
just what Longitude and Latitude that would be.
This was a joke, of course. It doesn't occur to her that at least two circumstances exist in which the concepts of latitude and longitude can have no meaning. One is in a dream. The other is at the center of the earth.
Charles Dodgson wasn't the only storyteller of the moment to play with the thought of leaving everything conventional and familiar behind and finding a way down to the heart of the world where things are no longer the same. Two years after this tale was told for the first time, but a year before it finally appeared in book form under the title Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, the French writer Jules Verne would publish the third of his pioneering scientific romances, A Journey to the Center of the Earth:
In Verne's story, a party of contemporary explorers is led down an extinct volcano in Iceland by a rational-minded geology professor. After they've descended eighty-eight miles, well into a region that the science of a later day would regard as hot enough to melt rock, they come upon a mysterious underground realm perpetually lit by some unknown means which they conclude must be electrical in nature.
Here, in a place where neither wind nor water should exist, they set sail on a storm-tossed subterranean ocean. From the safety of their raft, they witness a battle to the death between two monstrous sea reptiles out of the Age of Dinosaurs. And later they look on as a herd of living mastodons grazes violently upon a ghostly forest where the plants have no color and there are trees from every time and climate, the oak growing next to the palm and the eucalyptus beside the fir.
However, the significance of what they are seeing is something the men don't allow themselves to think much about. Again and again, they find themselves confronted with things that by normal daylight standards of truth cannot possibly be. And the only way they can manage to live with this weirdness is by taking refuge in familiar habits and attitudes.
The professor plays the privileged scientific observer confirming what he already knows must be so because he's seen it in a book. He constantly delivers self-confident impromptu lectures which are long on numbers and technical names but in the event always prove to be a less-than-adequate assessment of what the party is encountering.
His Romantic nephew, the narrator of the story, would like to be just as knowledgeable and sure of himself, but on any occasion that what he's experiencing is more than his state of understanding can accommodate, he's apt to faint. He never manages to be completely certain that this adventure is as real as his uncle takes it to be. At one moment he can feel as though he were standing on a distant planet, at another that what is happening is a dream come to life.
The third member of the expedition is an Icelander who has been brought along to do any job too practical or dirty for a gentleman. His response to the bizarre other realm they are passing through is to bury himself in his work, concentrating all his attention on whatever task he's been assigned as though nothing out of the ordinary were taking place.
The postures they adopt of rational self-congratulation, emotional hyperventilation and nearsighted devotion to duty are all intended to minimize the impact of what they are experiencing and keep the strangeness at arm's length. But, just as with Alice and the watch and waistcoat of the white rabbit, eventually a moment does arrive when the cumulative queerness of the world beneath the world becomes more than Verne's characters can continue to ignore.
As the professor and his nephew are observing the mastodons foraging in the colorless forest, stripping away great masses of leaves with their trunks and stuffing them down their cavernous maws, it suddenly becomes apparent to them that these intimidating creatures aren't wild. They have a keeper -- a human figure standing over twelve feet tall with an unkempt head the size of a buffalo's.
A forest of a kind that has never existed growing far under the ground! A herd of extinct American elephants living upon it! And now an antediluvian giant brandishing a tree limb for a shepherd's crook watching over these brutes and protecting them from harm!
A leading tenet of the new materialistic faith of the day was that if only the facts of any matter could be gathered and codified, they would prove to be intelligible and coherent and add to the ever-increasing power of Western scientific man. And here we are given one close observation and exact fact after another -- from the names of all the plants in the forest to the height of the shaggy herdsman.
Only the result is not greater knowledge and control. Rather, it is mystery heaped upon mystery.
This irrationality is more than either of the two onlookers, both of them good children of the Nineteenth Century, can manage to accept. Uncle and nephew turn tail together and flee from the nightmarish sight.
But after they run away, it is only to find themselves confronted by yet another hard fact. A great rock appears in their path which prevents them from proceeding any further toward the center of the earth.
The response of the men is to assault the object with technology. They attempt to blow the rock to pieces with gun cotton, an explosive four times as powerful as gunpowder.
But this is no way to
behave in the strangely responsive
region they have penetrated. These modern explorers of the underworld
shown how oblivious they can be to all the unlikely things that have
taking place before their eyes. They've displayed an inability to
anything which fundamentally contradicts their present state of
And now they intend to show how willful and violent they are capable of
not enough for them to have worn
out their welcome here. They seem actively bent upon making their
When they set off the gun cotton they've brought with them all this distance, the result is not the removal of the obstacle that they are anticipating. Instead, the three men find themselves launched upon an involuntary return journey back to the surface of the earth.
Up and up they are lifted on their raft by a succession of fortuitous events that are fully as fantastic a means of getting from here to there as the rabbit-hole-turned-well down which Alice is falling -- only going in the opposite direction. They are taken a certain distance by a rising column of water, and the rest of the way by lava, until they reach the familiar daylight world again, ultimately being spit forth unharmed by an erupting volcano near Sicily.
Is it possible for something similar to happen to Alice? If she were to persist in thinking and doing all the wrong things, could a strange wind suddenly rise in the well, change her direction from down to up, and blow her back to the field of daisies and her sister's side? Perhaps it might. In this other realm of existence it seems that almost anything could happen if it had a mind to.
But then Alice isn't about to set off any powerful explosions down here in the realm of mystery in order to have things her own way. She is even careful about how she disposes of an empty marmalade jar. Nor is she attached to schoolroom knowledge about latitude and longitude that she doesn't really comprehend and which has no relevance here. She just likes the grand sound these words make when she says them aloud.
However, her thoughts of reaching the center of the earth do serve to indicate her uncertainty about how deep this well may actually be. In the next moment, it even occurs to her that she might fall all the way through the world and emerge on the other side -- just as Baron Munchausen had claimed to have done. She wonders how funny everybody there will look walking around upside down, and whether she would be making a fool of herself if she were to ask someone if she'd arrived in New Zealand, or perhaps Australia.
In order for that to happen, of course, she would have to fall against the force of gravity from the center of the earth to the far side of the world. But this doesn't appear to be a problem to her. Just now, falling is the only thing of which Alice is sure, and it seems that she could keep right on falling until there was no farther to fall.
Down and down she falls, keeping occupied by chatting to herself as she goes. She thinks how nice it would be if she had her cat Dinah with her for company. But then, what would a cat find to eat in the middle of the air where there aren't any mice? Bats, perhaps?
Alice is feeling drowsy and dreamy, and her thoughts have begun to drift. From wondering " 'do cats eat bats?' ", she finds herself asking the opposite question -- " 'do bats eat cats?' " It doesn't seem to make much difference which way 'round she puts it since she doesn't know the answer in either case.
What a strange state to be in! Alice has fallen asleep, but is dreaming that she is still awake and falling down a large rabbit hole that somehow or other has turned into a well. And the well is so deep that even while she's falling down it, she could slip off to sleep and begin to dream a dream inside her dream.
A dream within a dream! The party in the gig with Dodgson had all listened to him tell stories before, but never anything like this. The mystery and uncertainty of the tale held the girls enthralled. How could any well be as deep as that?
Even Robinson Duckworth was fascinated. The story he was privileged to overhear was like nothing he was familiar with. Long afterward, he'd remember that he'd checked his impression of its originality by turning his head as they were rowing and asking over his shoulder, " 'Dodgson, is this an extempore romance of yours?' "
And that the answer which came back to him was: " 'Yes, I'm inventing as we go along.' "
It was somehow the nature of this particular moment that Dodgson could be able to continue to help row the boat and also hold conversations on the side with his friend at the same time that he was dropping down an eternal well with Alice, improvising this fantastic tale as they went. But if Alice in his story was able to be in more than one place at once -- so that while she was fast asleep on the river bank, she was also falling down a rabbit hole, and as she fell she could grow sleepy and drift off into a dream within the dream which she was dreaming -- such a thing was possible only because the consciousness of the teller of her tale was already in more than one location that day, and this story was a way of expressing and maintaining his own special state of mind.
In the course of an afternoon boat ride on the waters of the Isis, with the oars of the gig swaying back and forth in a rhythm he found hypnogogic, and in precious golden light which reminded him of former times when the things he imagined were more real to him than the things he'd been assured were so, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson had slipped into a waking dreamstate in which he continued to be completely aware of his immediate surroundings, but his mind was able to wander freely from one vantage to another.
The accepted truths of the present day were all reduced to just another perspective among the many that were possible. In the condition of lucid dissociation he was in, one point of view appeared as valid to him -- and also as partial -- as the next.
Men and women of a certain bent in societies all over the world have been subject to episodes of this kind of dislocalized vision ever since the most remote human times. But indoctrination in the values and beliefs of modern Western civilization was ordinarily enough to ensure that no well-bred, well-educated Victorian gentleman would ever fall under the spell of anything that might be taken for a shamanistic trance.
Even so, however, by the evidence of his own testimony, it seems that on the first Friday in July 1862, during the course of a boating picnic up the Thames River from Oxford, the Rev. C.L. Dodgson did pass into a psychic state in which, while he was still conscious, every single aspect of life took on a dreamlike appearance for him.
It was as though his thoughts had come drifting free of all the assumptions that customarily bounded and defined the life he was given to lead as a lecturer in mathematics at Christ Church and a member of the class of privilege in a Nineteenth Century Britain of technological might and worldwide colonial empire.
The place that he found himself then was the grand all-encompassing dream where everything the human mind can imagine has existence. And it appeared to him that there was nowhere he couldn't travel within this immense realm of possibility, and there was no perspective from which he couldn't look at things -- and all without ever leaving the boat on the river.
He was brought up short, however, when Lorina Liddell came bursting in on his thoughts seeking a fairy tale. Dodgson was jarred by the intrusion. In looking back on this moment at a later time, he'd even describe the manner in which Ina asked as "imperious."
He only felt more
unsettled when Alice and Edith
added the strength of their voices to their sister's. The last thing he
wanted to do at the moment was to tell a fairy tale. But Dodgson also
it difficult to deny the girls anything that the three of them were all
was Alice, seated at the tiller
of the gig doing the steering, who rescued him from his dilemma with
innocent wish for his story to contain both nonsense and magic. The
impossibility of this spoke directly to his ambivalent feelings.
Then, quick as a flash, he saw not only how he could satisfy both requests, but also how to hold onto his condition of disconnectedness from any one thing and connection to everything. A way occurred to him to tell a story which would share his unfixed state of mind with the girls.
All life had the appearance of a single great dream to him just then, and Dodgson wanted his sense of that to continue. So while he was in a waking dreamstate, and was aware that he was, he determined to tell the girls a dream story about someone who was asleep and having a dream but didn't know it.
One dream nested inside another. . . .
In a story that was made from level upon level of dream, whatever he said might be nonsense, or might be magic, or might even be both at once. That was a way to hold onto his present certainty that different states could be mutually exclusive and nevertheless still have existence at the same time.
Anything at all might take place in a dream inside a dream. And even he would never be able to tell what the tenor of an event really was.
Nor could he ever know what was going to happen next:
It was nonsense that Alice was asking for, and nonsense is spontaneous and unpredictable. The three girls all wanted to hear a fairy tale, so the story had to have magical transformations in it. And then, because the narrative was a dream, it must change and change again.
There was nothing that Dodgson could be sure of in telling this tale. He could only hurl himself headlong into the story with no thought for how he was going to get out of it. He had to start speaking and count upon words and images that could be taken in more than one way to come to him as he had need for them. He had to surprise himself as well as his listeners.
And yet, if he placed his trust in the tale and was ready to go wherever it led him, it seemed possible for him to satisfy everyone. Ina could have her fairy tale. Alice could have her nonsense. And he could have his dream.
But a story has requirements of its own that he also needed to observe.
Until that moment, it had been enough for Dodgson to see things from a particular point of view, and then from some other which contradicted it completely, and understand that there could be truth in both of them. But looking at things from various conflicting standpoints and smiling upon each of them wasn't enough to make a tale.
A story has meaning and consequence. And though he might intend this one to be fantastic, and also absurd, and to shift and alter as well, it still needed to follow a narrative thread and to come to a conclusion.
What sort of person would it take to find a path through a tale as uncertain as this one? Who was the dreamer in his dream story to be?
That was when Dodgson began to speak, and as he did he entered a further, more focused phase in the shamanistic state he was in. He changed in form and nature, and became someone very different from his usual self:
He was thirty years old. In his story, he turned into a child again.
He might have an element of maiden aunt in his makeup which only grew more visible as he got older, but Dodgson was a man. In the tale, he'd speak with the voice of somebody of the opposite sex.
He was a college teacher who had his own extensive personal library. He set all his learning aside. In his narrative, the person that he was-and-was-not wouldn't know very much at all, and half of that was wrong.
Then, having assumed the viewpoint of this ignorant child, he allowed her to fall asleep on a river bank and begin to dream.
It wasn't just happenstance that Dodgson should select an innocent little girl like that to serve as the eyes and ears of his story. Her very lack of attachments, fixed habits, and formal knowledge would be a distinct advantage to her in the state of complete uncertainty into which she is thrown. She'd be burdened with none of the adult baggage of social role, fashion and ambition which so hampers and distracts Verne's people in their quest to reach the world at the heart of the world.
Instead of that, she'd have characteristics in common with each of the three Liddell children:
The girl's name would be Alice, just like Alice Liddell. And these two would be alike in their readiness to accept what was ordinarily completely impossible as only natural. When a white rabbit with pink eyes suddenly comes running close by her, only to pause and begin speaking aloud to itself about its lateness, as though it regarded the errand it was bound upon as so urgent and absorbing that it had no attention to spare for her and her sister, this Alice wouldn't be taken aback. She'd accept the fact of its presence without giving the matter a second thought.
Her age in the story would be seven -- the same as Edith -- and both of them would have a distaste for being ignored and want to find out immediately whatever it was they wished to know. So when she witnesses the rabbit reaching into its pocket and looking at its watch before hurrying on, Alice rises at once to follow this animal herald across the field, and chase after it down a large hole under the hedge.
Not least, she would share Lorina Liddell's sense of regal self-possession -- her unspoken certitude that since she knew very well who she was, she could never be out of place, because, after all, she was she and this just happened to be where she was right now. So when the rabbit hole unexpectedly turns into a well beneath Alice's feet and she begins to fall and fall, she never loses her aplomb, but is able to descend into the unknown with poise.
With her goes no worldly power, position or privilege. Her only resource is the nature of her character.
In time, Dodgson would state explicitly what he took Alice to be like in an essay by Lewis Carroll which saw publication at the time the story was brought to the stage.
He would say that she is as loving as a dog, as gentle as a fawn, and as courteous to everyone she meets as the daughter of a king. She is wildly curious and completely trustful -- "ready to accept the wildest impossibilities with all that utter trust that only dreamers know." And she takes pleasure in expanding her knowledge of Life.
Though children may be open to experience, it's not every seven-year-old who is able to be as receptive and accepting as this. However, for Dodgson to find his way from one end of the story to the other, it was necessary for him to be just this unpresuming and full of good will. In consequence, as his own contribution to Alice's nature, he made her the gift of a gentle and loving spirit.
Down the well, then, this Alice goes falling and Dodgson along with her. At times as they fall, their point of view is just the same. He knows what she knows, and he sees what she sees. At other times, he would separate himself from her enough to find humor in her limitations of awareness, knowledge and understanding.
The people who were
listening to his story would
be there, too, swept up by the ongoing flow of his account and carried
away with him on this trip into the unknown. Without the assistance of
Dodgson, they wouldn't have been able to perceive a thing, but by
his narrative as it unfolded, each of them would be able to envision
that was taking place.
mysterious reversal was at work here:
For those in the boat that day, Alice was not in sight except as her image was evoked in their minds by Dodgson's words. Yet within the scope of the story that he was telling them, it was they who would be neither audible nor visible -- like eavesdropping spirits -- while Alice could not only be seen and touched, but acted on behalf of them all in addition to herself.
So what is this seemingly endless well down which she and they go falling? What is this place?
It's known by many different names. It may be called the World Tree, or the Gate of Clashing Clouds, the Isthmus of Similitudes, or the axis mundi. When perceived as a well, it's known as the Well of the Worlds.
This is the route that travelers take when they journey to reach the Other World. And in this in-between space, the sincerity and good intentions of all who would proceed are tested:
There is darkness at first. Those who come this way are deprived of their usual sense of direction. Then they are shown fantastic forms that resemble things they know, but which are plainly impossible. Their reaction to this exact reflection of their limits of understanding determines whether or not they will be permitted to go any farther.
In this intermediate place, both Alice and the men in A Journey to the Center of the Earth would be given recognizable things to see under conditions that make no sense at all. The wonders revealed to Alice are of a simpler kind than those the adults witness because she knows so much less than they do. But because she is more at ease in her state of disequilibrium, as well as more accepting of things that ordinarily could never be but are anyway, what is shown to her can be less threatening, yet far stranger.
This means that Verne's underworld explorers watch great sea monsters attacking each other -- ancient fossils reclothed in flesh and brought to life again -- and recognize them as an ichthyosaur and a plesiosaur, while Alice just sees a rabbit. Except this one is wearing a vest and carrying a pocket watch to remind it of the hour. And they look on as a herd of fierce mastodons feasts upon a subterranean forest. Alice merely traverses the familiar living quarters of an Oxford don -- only somehow these rooms have made a place for themselves in mid-air down the shaft of a well that's deeper than deep.
Eventually Verne's men of fact and reason find the scientific anomalies they're witnessing more unsettling than they can stand and flee from them in terror. But Alice never attempts to avoid the much queerer order of thing that she encounters. She always wants to have a better look.
As she passes a shelf in the vertical living quarters, she even picks up an object just to see what it might be. It's that jar labeled "Orange Marmalade" which has no marmalade inside.
The meaning of this puzzle eludes Alice -- though it might be a way of hinting that the container is not the content. Despite her inability to comprehend, however, she still treats the enigmatic object with care, and when she is done with it, puts it back down in the next convenient cupboard.
Because the initial response of Verne's characters to that which exceeds their understanding is to attempt to ignore it, then to retreat in panic before its strangeness, and finally to try to obliterate it when it seems to block their path, they are found unacceptable and sent home again. Alice, on the other hand, is open and innocent enough to engage what is beyond her comprehension without fear or force, and she is permitted to pass.
On down the well, then, she goes falling and falling. So long and so far does the fall continue that eventually she can even grow drowsy, nod off to sleep, and begin to dream. . . .
This dream within a dream would be an intimation of just how impossibly deep this well is. It would also be a way for Dodgson to share the true nature of his story with his audience. Most of all, however, it would serve as an indication that Alice has now entered a new state of consciousness and is ready at last to reach her destination.
Down she comes then with a couple of bumps -- somewhere else other than usual.
The landing isn't nearly as great a shock as falling off the roof of a house. Instead, it seems about as hard as if she'd taken a leap from the top of a wall that wasn't too high for a little girl to climb up on. She isn't hurt a bit.
In fact, now that her fall has finally come to an end, it's no longer possible to say whether it really did go on for a very long time, or whether it just seemed that way while it was happening.
And it's no great heap of trash dropped from the rooms above that she has landed upon. Instead, her fall has been broken by a pile of sticks and shavings--as though someone upstairs had been doing some whittling. But when she looks back overhead where she's just been, it's now dark up there once more and she can't make out a thing.
There is only one detail in the story to this point that Dodgson would alter when he expanded this tale for book publication. For the shavings at the bottom of the well, he would substitute dry leaves.
This change may have been intended to remind us that what we've grown used to thinking of as an endless well which also doubles as somebody's home was a rabbit hole to begin with.
Alice hasn't laid eyes on the white rabbit since it first popped down the hole and she ran after it and began falling. But there it is again -- as though now that she's finally gotten here it is time for it to pop back into being.
She spies the creature hurrying down a passageway in front of her, as apparently unaware of her presence as it was before. This spirit guide speaks to the air one more time about how late it is getting to be. Then it turns a corner and is gone.
Alice rushes after it. But when she turns the corner, too, the white rabbit is nowhere to be seen. Instead, she finds herself alone in a long low hall with doors all around it.
What waits behind each of those doors?
We can only imagine.
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4
For further observations on Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, see the Stranger Realities section of Cory Panshin's blog.
Photograph and drawing by Lewis Carroll
Border courtesy of Eos Development
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.