Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Lewis Carroll, the deviant photographer

Actually, the title of Edmund Wilson’s article was “C. L. Dodgson: The Poet-Logician,” but Wilson has very little to say about Dodgson’s poetry, a bit more about his achievements as a logician and quite a lot about his fondness for little girls.  Had I heard that before?  I can’t be sure but it didn’t sound utterly unfamiliar.  What was new to me was the idea that Dodgson was an accomplished photographer.  Helmet Gernsheim wrote Lewis Carroll Photographer in 1950.  I stopped reading, looked the book up on Amazon, found a paperback copy in “like new” condition for $3.95 and ordered it.  Turning back to Wilson I read that “Mr. Gernsheim considers Dodgson ‘the most outstanding photographer of children of the nineteenth century’ and after Julia Margaret Cameron, ‘probably the most distinguished amateur portraitist of the mid-Victorian era.’” 

Reading some reviews of Gernsheim’s book it seems that many in the 20th century were convinced that Lewis Carroll was a pedophile.  Wilson considered that and thought not, at least not one that acted upon his thoughts.  But wasn’t he acting upon his thoughts by taking photos of these little girls, some of them nude.  Wilson observed that no one would be able to get away with such behavior in the 20th century – nor in the 21st century I would add. 

Wilson admired Through the Looking-Glass: The Life of Lewis Carroll by Florence Becker Lennon.  He notes its faults then writes, “But this study is, nevertheless, the best thing that has yet been written about Lewis Carroll.  The literary criticism is excellent; the psychological insight sometimes brilliant; and Mrs. Lennon has brought together, from the most scattered and various sources, a good deal of information.  The impression that she actually conveys was what Dodgson’s existence was like is more convincing than some of her theories.  Mrs. Lennon believes that Charles Dodgson was intimidated by his clergyman father, so that he felt himself obliged to take orders and never dared question the creed of the Church.  She seems to believe that he might otherwise have developed as an important original thinker.  She also worries about what she regards as his frustrated sexual life: if he had only, she sighs, been capable of a mature attachment for a woman which would have freed him from his passion for little girls!”

In regard to Dodgson’s novel Sylvie and Bruno, Wilson writes, “Mrs. Lennon has, I believe, been the first to point out the exact and complicate parallels between the dreams and actualities that make this book psychologically interesting . . . but the novel for grown-ups is otherwise childish; and in mathematics and logic, according to the expert opinions cited by Mrs. Lennon, he either ignored or had never discovered the more advanced work in these fields, and did not perhaps get even so far as in his exploration of dreams.”

Wilson wrote his initial article in 1932; later, collecting it in the volume The Shores of Light, published in 1952 he added to it, primarily perhaps because of the publication of Gernsheim’s Lewis Carroll Photographer in 1950 and of Lennon’s Victoria through the Looking Glass: The Life of Lewis Carroll in 1945.

The originality of Dodgson might qualify him as “great” in the mind of F. R. Leavis as well although I don’t recall mention of Dodgson in anything I’ve read by Leavis.  Both Leavis and Wilson would I’m sure consider William Blake “great” and their opinions would be shared by Harold Bloom, Northrop Frye and many others, but what if Blake’s originality were fueled by madness?  And what if Dodgson’s were fueled by arrested development?

We know that any writer’s work is influenced by his presuppositions.  Perhaps these presuppositions are based on childhood lessons, teachings and things a person hears or reads, but perhaps sometimes they are developed out of madness or other influences deviating from the “norm.”  On a scale of greatness where the greatest gets 100, shouldn’t we penalize such writers as Blake and Dodgson if their “originality” was to some extent due to their arrested or perverted development?   I’m inclined to penalize them, but I’m not sure I’m right in doing so . . . or, madness in any case would have to be so qualified that any penalizing would have to be severely questioned.  I’m thinking now of bipolar disorder which used to be called manic-depressive.  We all have ups and downs and writers can be expected to write when they are up and feeling good or perhaps down and feeling so depressed that only writing out of their depression can bring them relief.  If we concede that it is okay to write when we are feeling like it and that it is equally okay to not write when we don’t feel like it then that puts into question any penalty applied to a manic-depressive.  And if we don’t penalize a manic-depressive, how do we justify penalizing a paranoiac or a schizophrenic?

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