May 4, 2009KR BlogKR

Riddles That Have No Answers

As I continue to age — dramatically, and, in a friend’s recent words, against my “express wishes” — I begin to think differently about the young. More and more, they seem to live in a separate world from me — not because of cultural touchstones, but because of time. They have so much! Say they squander a few years. Who cares? There’s plenty more where that came from. Whereas I’m increasingly exercised over a wasted week.

But why, you wonder, am I telling you this? Today is Alice Liddell’s birthday — and I just spent an hour looking at photos of the young Alice, the not-so-young Alice, the old Alice. Even Alice Liddell (later Alice Hargreaves) had to leave the young persons’ world: she got married, she had three sons (two of whom were killed in the First World War). Imagine Alice, in her eighties. Imagine Alice, dead. Part of me thinks, You have to do these things. Part of me just wants to follow her back down the rabbit-hole.

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A few years ago, in one of my dumber moments, I downloaded a DeathWatch widget onto my computer. The widget displays (with best-guess accuracy) the amount of time one has left, down to the ever-lessening second. It can also be programmed to display the amount of time one’s been alive. About six months into the experiment, I passed the exact midway point of my life. “Nothing ahead but the long slide!” I sort of joked to friends. After another couple of months I got tired of looking at the widget and dragged it to the trash.

“Off with their heads!” the Queen of Hearts repeatedly screams, in the first of the two Alice tales. But no one actually dies. The characters acknowledge death at several points, most notably in this passage from the second tale, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There:

“Crawling at your feet,” said the Gnat (Alice drew her feet back in alarm), “you may observe a Bread-and-butter-fly. Its wings are thin slices of bread-and-butter, its body is a crust, and its head is a lump of sugar.”

“And what does it live on?”

“Weak tea with cream in it.”

A new difficulty came into Alice’s head. “Supposing it couldn’t find any?” she suggested.

“Then it would die, of course.”

“But that must happen very often,” Alice remarked thoughtfully.

“It always happens,” said the Gnat.

The real Alice passed out of Lewis Carroll’s life to such an extent that she saw Through the Looking-Glass only after it appeared in bookstores. She was growing up; she had princes to meet. Her namesake, though, remained a child: in a lovely 1903 silent film; in Central Park; in Jan Svankmajer’s 1988 retelling; in Martin Gardner’s Annotated Alice. (She also grew up a little, in a not-yet-released Tim Burton movie; and a little more, in a bloody video game; and a lot more, in an X-rated musical comedy that Roger Ebert enjoyed.)

Alice Liddell was Alice Underground (sort of) and then she wasn’t. And then (grim joke) she was again. People have their own lives to lead. (As Nora Joyce told her husband on this exact date in 1940: “Well, Jim, I haven’t read any of your books, but I’ll have to someday because they must be good considering how well they sell.”) Have I mentioned that today is also the anniversary of the Kent State killings? I was three at the time; just a child.