Anthologist, translator, essayist, novelist and editor Alberto Manguel's latest collection, A Reader on Reading, is published by Yale University Press.

Mad tea party of crude values

"In that direction," the Cat said, waving its right paw round, "lives a Hatter; and in that direction," waving the other paw, "lives a March Hare. Visit either you like: they're both mad."

"But I don't want to go among mad people," Alice remarked.

"Oh, you can't help that," said the Cat: "we're all mad here."
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Chapter 6

As most perceptive readers will agree, the distinctive characteristic of the human world is its insanity. Ants scuttle in ordered lines, back and forth, with impeccable propriety. Seeds grow into trees that shed their leaves and bud again with conventional circularity. Birds migrate, lions kill, turtles mate, viruses mutate, rocks crumble into dust, clouds shape and reshape mercifully unconscious of what they build and destroy. We alone live consciously knowing that we live and, by means of a half-shared code of words, are able to reflect on our actions, however contradictory or inexplicable. We heal and help, we sacrifice ourselves and show concern and compassion, we create wonderful artifices and miraculous devices to better understand the world and ourselves. And at the same time, we build our lives on superstitions, hoard for no purpose except greed, cause deliberate pain to other creatures, poison the water and the air we need to live, and finally bring our planet to the verge of destruction. We do all this with full awareness of our actions, as if walking through a dream in which we do what we know we should not be doing and refrain from doing what we know we should do. "May we not then sometimes define insanity as an inability to distinguish which is the waking and which the sleeping life?" wrote Lewis Carroll in his diary on 9 February 1856.

In the seventh chapter of her travels through the insane world of Wonderland, Alice comes upon a table placed under a tree and laid out with many settings. Though the table is a large one, the March Hare, the Mad Hatter and the Dormouse are crowded together at one corner, having tea, the sleeping Dormouse serving as a cushion for the comfort of the others. "No room! No room!" they cry out when they see Alice coming. "There's plenty of room!" Alice says indignantly and sits down in a large armchair at one end. The table manners of Alice's reluctant hosts are obviously mad. First she is offered wine by the March Hare. But "I don't see any wine," she remarks, looking around. "There isn't any," the March Hare says, and offers her more tea. "I've had nothing yet," Alice replies in an offended tone, "so I can't take more." "You mean you can't take less," intervenes the Hatter, "it's very easy to take more than nothing." Then the seating arrangements are constantly shifted to suit the Mad Hatter's whimsy. Whenever he wants a clean cup, everyone must move one place along to one with a soiled setting; obviously, the only one to get any advantage out of the changes is the Hatter himself. Alice, for instance, is "a good deal worse off than before", as the March Hare has upset the milk jug into his plate.

As in the real world, everything in Wonderland, however mad, has a logical underpinning, a system of rules that are often themselves absurd. The conventions of Alice's society have led her to believe that the behaviour of her elders and betters, wherever she might find herself, is rational. Therefore, attempting to understand the logic of her strange dream world, Alice expects rational behaviour from the creatures she meets, but, again and again, she is merely confronted by their "logical" madness. "Throughout my life," said Bertrand Russell on his ninetieth birthday, "I have been told that man is a rational animal. In all these many years, I have not once found proof that this is so." Alice's world mirrors Russell's assertion.

An amateur anthropologist, Alice assumes that an understanding of the social conventions of Wonderland will allow her to understand the logic of the inhabitants' behaviour, and therefore attempts to follow the proceedings at the table with some measure of reason and good manners. To the absurdities presented, she counters with rational questions; to the questions asked, however absurd, she tries to find rational answers. But to no avail. "Really, now you ask me," she says, "I don't think..." "Then you shouldn't talk," snaps back the Hatter.

As in our world, the manners of the inhabitants of Wonderland carry implicit notions of responsibility and value. The Hatter, emblematic of the perfect egotist, opposes free speech (except his own) and disposes of property to which he has no claim (the table belongs, after all, to the March Hare). Nothing matters to him except his own comfort and profit, and he therefore shows himself unwilling to admit even to his own possessions for fear of being held accountable. (During the trial at the end of the book, he refuses to take off his hat because, he says, it isn't his: "I keep them to sell," he explains, "I've none of my own. I'm a hatter.") By valuing what he has only for what he can sell it for, the Hatter need not care about the consequences of his actions, whether they concern a trail of dirty dishes or the established conventions of a court of law.

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