Science, Mysticism, and Dreams in Alice᾽s Adventures in Wonderland

by guest contributor Stephanie L. Schatz

There can be something naïvely reductive and crassly materialistic about empirical analysis—especially if it relates to phenomena also commonly described as mystical, supernatural, transcendental, or sublime. Like the experimenters in Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle who identify the secret of life as “protein,” materialist investigations sometimes seem to miss the point. This is why it may seem surprising that Lewis Carroll, the famous author of the mind-bending children’s book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), was an avid reader of the cutting-edge scientific literature of his day—including scientific investigations of dreams—and that these studies influenced his formulation of Wonderland. Dreams in general and Wonderland in particular seem to invoke the mystical or marvelous more than the materialistic. But in fact, many Victorians (including Carroll) were keenly interested in exploring the boundaries between these categories, including ways in which they might overlap. As Shane McCorristine notes in his recent, excellent study on ghost-seeing, there were “thousands of ordinary, sane and unimaginative people who saw ghosts and hallucinations in nineteenth-century Britain”—reflecting a prominent Victorian interest in the mystical and supernatural “in an age dominated by skepticism and a loss of faith” (2-3). Indeed, Lewis Carroll himself was a member of the Society for Psychical Research, an organization devoted to investigating psychic or paranormal phenomena. So while nineteenth-century Britain is often marked by an increased medical interest in sleep and dreams, as scholars like Andrew McCann have demonstrated, it witnessed a surge in popular interest in mystical or paranormal accounts of dreams as well.

I want to highlight one particular book that Carroll owned in order to demonstrate the ease with which “mystical” and scientific accounts of dreams criss-crossed in popular literature. Carroll had a fondness for the American writer Oliver Wendell Holmes’s The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table (1859), an eclectic medley of essays and stories woven into a dialogue of sorts that one might have at a breakfast table (Lovett 154).  Although Holmes is popular today for his poem “Old Ironsides” (1830), he was also a well-known physician and anatomy teacher and a distant relative of Anne Bradstreet, the famous poet. In one particularly thought-provoking excerpt from The Breakfast Table, the reader is asked to consider the following “curiously recurring” remark: “All at once a conviction flashed through us that we have been in the same precise circumstances as at the present instant, once or many times before” (81). As the breakfast companions proceed to discuss this strange episode of déjà vu, we are presented with a range of perspectives. The schoolmistress finds such feelings disconcerting, explaining that they “made her think she was a ghost,” possibly the result of memories from a past life (81). The main protagonist notes that such feelings recur “in my dreams,” and he is inclined to think that they are indicative of the “partial resemblance” of sensible objects, or the mistaken perception that what we see now is identical to something we have seen in the past (83). Still others refer to Dr. Wigan’s “doctrine of the brain being a double organ” (wherein each hemisphere might function as a distinct organ) and argue that if one hemisphere is more “nimble” than the other, then the second half might perceive sensory input more slowly than the first, causing it to conceive a second, later, identical cognition, resulting in déjà vu. These diverse perspectives are all representative of Victorian theories of déjà vu, which Anne Harrington notes was often literally referred to as “the dreamy state” (232). Double brains, ghosts, reincarnation, dreams, and unreliable perceptions: how many impossible things is that before breakfast? (Six, if it’s a double brain!) Victorian ideas about dream-states were complex and diverse, and scientific explanations were often accompanied by or interwoven with “mystical” ones in popular literature. A brief survey of Carroll’s library offers good evidence that Carroll held equally expansive, multifaceted views about dreams and the dreaming mind.

It is a testament to the enduring fascination of Wonderland that there is still so much to be said about the man and his works. In particular, Carroll’s interest in mystical phenomena, especially relating to representations of different kinds of dream-states, has not been thoroughly examined. In my recent article on Victorian child psychology and Alice, I outline some of the ways that Alice is both influenced by and responds to prominent Victorian scientific theories of dreams. But a single essay can hardly exhaust the complex and diverse formulations of dream-related phenomena that permeated Victorian Britain and influenced Carroll (and other prominent writers). As Charlie Lovett points out in Lewis Carroll Among His Books—an invaluable catalog of Charles Dodgson’s library—books related to “homœopathic medicine, spiritualism, magic, and astrology all find a place on [Carroll’s] shelves” (10). Indeed, Lovett emphasizes that Carroll’s “collection of works on spiritualism and supernatural phenomena was significant, and his interest in this area is certainly ripe for future investigation” (11). Despite the substantial scholarship on Carroll and his Alice stories over the past century and a half, there remains a great deal left to be explored in Wonderland—and that is a very encouraging thought.

Stephanie L. Schatz is a Ph.D. candidate and fellow at Purdue University, studying sleep and dream-states in nineteenth-century British literature, science, and medicine. Her article “Lewis Carroll’s Dream-child and Victorian Child Psychopathology” appears in the January 2015 issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas.

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