Deconstructing the Mirror: The Crisis of Logic in the Looking Glass World by Jonathan Holt
In another moment down went Alice after it,never once considering how in the world she was to get out again.Â -Aliceâ€™s Adventures in Wonderland
-Jean Baudrillard warnsÂ against the danger of theÂ simulacra
Break on Through to the Other SideÂ 
Alice stands before her mirror, the glass gone â€œall soft like gauze,â€Â and wonders if she can push her way through to the other side.Â Â Let us imagine her frozen there, a wonderful tableau of childhood curiosity, with one hand reaching for the glass that will in a moment serve as her portal to another world.Â Reflected in the mirror is a reversed image of Alice, and behind her lies the same room she is standing in, also reversed.Â Â An almost idyllic scene, this is where we find young Alice in the opening pages of Lewis Carrollsâ€™Â Through the Looking Glass.Â Â As we leave her frozen there, let us turn to the idea of the simulacra.
For modern theorists (or should I call them post-modern theorists?) the idea of the simulacra denotes another reality, connected tangentially to the real by some means, but distinctly separate.Â Â The simulacra serves as a mirror to the real, but in the process of reflection, certain aspects of the real are altered.Â Â As Jean Baudrillard wrote, â€œthe shadow, the mirror image, haunts the subject like his other, which makes it so that the subject is simultaneously itself and never resembles itself againâ€¦â€Â Â In other terms, the â€œLooking Glass Worldâ€ is a construct of the hyperreal â€“ a place where the rules and exigencies of logic are broken down and reconstructed, squashed together, inverted, perverted, and otherwise altered.Â Â But this process is not random, there is no sense of the purely chaotic in Carroll.Â Â Rather, the logical process of the Looking Glass World can only be understood in terms of itself.Â Â We can return once again to Baudrillardâ€™s definition of the creation of the hyperreal as â€œa question of substituting the signs of the real for the real, that is to say of an operation of deterring every real process via its operational double, a programmatic, metastable, perfectly descriptive machineâ€¦â€
In fact, as a machine, the Looking Glass World works perfectly well; that is to say the creatures inside it are aware of, and function within, their own particular reality.Â Â But in every instance, that reality is the fanciful, naive vantage point of a child.Â Â We cannot forget thatÂ Through the Looking Glass, likeÂ Aliceâ€™s Adventures in Wonderland, is meant for young readers and listeners.Â Â The logic it contains is intended to appeal to their sensibilities.Â Â Not insignificant in this case is the fact that many childrenâ€™s novels have focused on a young character plummeting into an unknown world, full of surprises and questions, and inevitably, when they return, a certain amount of psychological growth has been achieved.Â Â In this regard, the Looking Glass World, like Wonderland before it, becomes a testing ground for Alice in addition to providing us with a means of questioning our own sense of reality.
Now we return to our little Alice, unaware of what awaits her on the other side of the mirror, even though, as we find out in the end, she is responsible for dreaming it into existence.Â Â We stand at the liminal moment: Alice breaks the seal and enters her own constructed hyperreality.
Almost immediately, the strange like / unlike quality of the Looking Glass World makes itself apparent.Â Â Many features remain the same, such as the fire and the physical layout of the room.Â Â What changes are the minute details, the living pictures, the moving chessmen, the face in the clock grinning at her.Â The paradigm shift is already apparent; the rules are different in the Looking Glass World.Â Â Aliceâ€™s mischevious observation that she shall be warmer in the Looking Glass House because â€œthereâ€™ll be no one here to scold me away from the fire,â€Â is only the beginning of the change, though the case could be made that this difference is the single most important difference between the two worlds.Â Â Without parents to scold, to guide oneâ€™s thought, to enforce the rules of logic and reality, what else is there to keep Alice in order?Â Â But there are no parents in the Looking Glass World, and Alice is forced to fend for herself inside her own hyperreality.
In order to explore the logos of the Looking Glass World, we must examine the different ways in which the simulacra deconstructs the rules of the real and reshapes them into a cohesive, if alien, whole.Â Â Alice must learn to navigate this new logic if she is to be successful in her adventures.
I mention the idea of deconstruction here again as a guide to understanding the effect the Looking Glass has on Alice and her world perception.Â Â The very nature of the world, and the role of humanity within that world, are brought to crisis in a systematic attack worthy of Derrida himself.Â Â In the Looking Glass World, the logic of knowledge, of identity, of language, and of reason are broken down to their most basic parts and projected into a construct that is at once the same as and different than our own reality.Â Â Â Â Â By the time she wakes from her nap in front of the fire, Alice has been forced to hold every aspect of herself up before a mirror, and learned to question everything.
The [Un]Natural World: Flowers, Insects, and Little Girls with No Names
The first major divergence from reality Alice (and we as readers) confront is the denaturing of the human form, to be replaced by chess pieces and talking flowers.Â Â Alice meets few other humans during her adventures in the Looking Glass World, which is primarily populated by game pieces and anthropomorphic plants and animals.Â Â During their brief conversation in the garden, the flowers make it very clear to Alice that she is the outsider.Â Â Her human form, besides being unfamiliar to them, seems inefficient and ugly in comparison to their natural beauty, her hair â€œa little untidyâ€ next to the primness of the rose, her body awkward and ungainly.Â Â This reversal is ironically reminiscent of the egotistical view humans have taken of their own superiority over nature, yet another effect of the mirror.
Aliceâ€™s decidedly surrealistic experience (straight out of a Salvador DalÃ¬ painting) with the looking glass insects represents another alteration to reality.Â Â Names with which we are familiar are distorted, and the insects, of course configured literally according to their names, form grotesque amalgamations of real and man-made objects.Â Â Hence, instead of a common horsefly or dragon fly, we have a rocking-horse fly made out of wood and a snap-dragon fly whose body is composed of plum pudding.Â Â An important element of the hyperreal, these forced constructs forbode the kind of technological based surrealism we see later, in DalÃ¬ and others.Â Â But Alice does not recognize the implications of this literal construction of identity and selfhood until her own is called into question in the forest where things have no name.
Once inside the forest, Alice forgets who she is.Â Â One possible explanation of this phenomena, I feel, lies in the relationship between the name and the object that name signifies.Â Â The names and bodies of the insects follow a logical order; the bread-and-butterfly is made of bread and butter.Â Â The form fits the title.Â Â The same cannot, however, be said about the name â€œhumanâ€ and what it signifies.Â Could the forest itself be questioning Aliceâ€™s title and form?Â Â Without any clear connection between what she is and what she is called, Alice has no means of working through the problem logically.Â Â The induced forgetfulness of the forest brings this question to bear, and Alice must find a way to pass through the forest in order to remember her name and keep her identity intact.Â Â Once she does make it through, she recovers her memory fully, as does the fawn she runs into while in the forest.
To take an entirely different view on the subject of the forest, it is also possible that by removing the names and their meanings, the standard relationships and hierarchies built into names are deconstructed.Â Â So long as neither Alice nor the fawn she meets has any clue what their names are and what their relationship should be, under â€œnormalâ€ circumstances, the fawn exhibits no fear of Alice.Â But outside of the forest, with the burden of memory restored, the fawnâ€™s fear of humans returns as well.Â Â In this light, the forest can be seen as almost Edenic, and the implication is that by categorizing and confining nature to formal structures, the relationship between the human and the natural world is somehow damaged.
Living Backwards: the Impossibility of the Looking Glass World
Though it comprises only a very small section of the story, the conversation between Alice and the White Queen in the first half of â€œWool and Waterâ€ introduces another important aspect of the Looking Glass World: the impossible.Â Â The realm of the impossible is absolutely vital to the Looking Glass World, for the same reason that the comparatively strict bounds of logic governing our own world holds the same magnitude for us.Â Â The Queen informs Alice that she lives backwards.Â Â Despite all she has seen and experienced, Alice is unable to grasp the fact that however impossible it may be in her own world, in the Looking Glass World, the standard, linear notion of time can be broken, or at least altered.Â Â Time can run forward or backward.Â Â Memory can run in both directions at once.Â Â So long as time fits into the logic of the Looking Glass World, it can do anything it wants.Â Â Alice does not realize how important it is for her to see past her own biases and recognize the validity of such logic.
As an aside, it is more than slightly ironic that a world so utterly devoted to linearity as a structure (i.e. the chess board, standardized movements according to the rules of chess, Alice fighting her way from square 2 to square 8 in a straight line) that one could defy those rules and live backwards, but again, the rules of Looking Glass logic apply, and that suffices.
Of Toves and Borogoves: Jabberwocky and Looking Glass Language
Let us project our young heroine further into the story, to her fateful meeting with Humpty Dumpty.Â Â By this point, Alice has refereed a battle between the contrary-minded Tweedledum and Tweedledee, played â€œpin the shawl on the queen,â€ and gone shopping in the looking glass supermarket.Â Â All along, she has struggled with the figures she meets not being able to understand her, taking all of her colloquialisms and turns of speech literally, and Humpty is no exception.Â But what Humpty specifically calls into question is the ambiguity of implied meanings, metaphors and empty rhetoric.Â Â Here again, Derridaâ€™s ideas on deconstruction of language, especially metaphor, come to mind as we examine more closely a few specific segments of their conversation.
Â â€œHow old did you say you were?â€
Alice made a short calculation, and said â€œSeven years and six months.â€
â€œWrong!â€ Humpty Dumpty exclaimed triumphantly.Â Â â€œYou never said a word like it!â€
â€œI thought you meant â€˜How old are you?â€™ â€ Alice explained.
â€œIf Iâ€™d meant that, Iâ€™d have said it.â€Â 
Humpty Dumpty tricks Alice by asking her to repeat an answer to a question he never asked.Â Â Humpty turns the meaningless additives that are dropped into conversation back upon Alice.Â Â She, of course, falls for the trick because these patterns are so engrained in our language, we are no longer even cognizant of them.
â€œthey gave it me â€“ for an un-birthday present.â€
â€œI beg your pardon?â€ Alice said with a puzzled air.
â€œIâ€™m not offended,â€ said Humpty Dumpty.
â€œI mean, whatÂ isÂ an un-birthday present?â€
Here we see the literal interpretation of a metaphor, the ambiguities of the language made painfully obvious.Â Â The metaphor of begging â€œis no longer noticed, and it is taken for the proper meaningâ€¦â€Â Â or what Derrida calls a â€œdouble effacement,â€Â Â meaning that both the literal meaning and the metaphoric meaning are reduced to insignificance.
â€œWhenÂ IÂ use a word,â€ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, â€œit means just what I choose it to mean â€“ neither more nor less.â€
â€œThe question is,â€ said Alice, â€œwhether you can make words mean so many different things.â€
â€œThe question is,â€ said Humpty Dumpty, â€œwhich is to be master â€“ thatâ€™s all.â€
This last excerpt questions whether or not words can have any definite meaning at all.Â Â What it is that is inherent in the nature of words that drives us to place so much emphasis on them?Â Â As the language is broken down to itâ€™s most basic components and analyzed, Alice finally begins to understand the logic of the Looking Glass World.
With that important step, Alice returns again to the poemÂ JabberwockyÂ in the hopes that Master Deconstructionist Humpty Dumpty can help her to interpret it.Â Â Of course he does translate it for her, and in doing so brings in yet another important element of the Looking Glass World.Â Â We have seen before how in the hyperreality of the Looking Glass World, objects and ideas get pushed together to form new things.Â Â The â€œportmanteauxâ€Â Â ofÂ JabberwockyÂ serve much the same purpose.Â Â Slimy and lithe are combined to form â€œslithyâ€Â Â â€œTovesâ€ are part badger, part lizard, and part corkscrew.Â Â These amalgamations of ideas form an integral part of this logic, for the function of the hyperreal is to process reality, to combine and synthesize it.
Once Alice learns this crucial lesson, the weight of the story shifts in her favor.Â Her encounters with the lion and the unicorn, as well as the Knight Inventor, display a much different Alice than before.Â Â She understands the logic of this new world, and moreover, she knows how to use that to her advantage.Â Â She begins to deconstruct the characters she meets.Â Â She realizes that her loyal White Knight has not invented what he claims to have, his claims are nothing more than pretense.Â Â In fact, the implication is that she realizes everything about the Looking Glass World is false, a detail that gives her immense power over everyone else, allowing her to finally achieve that last square and become a Queen herself.
In her final conversation with the other two Queens, Alice is put to the test.Â Â The Queens ask her question after question, and attack every answer she gives.Â Â As their questions get more and more peculiar, Alice begins to find her own Looking Glass logic to argue back with.Â Â She begins to return in kind, and finally, when the debate is at its most ludicrous, the Red Queen and the White Queen fall asleep.Â Â Alice outlasts them both.Â Â In the final pages of the story, Alice takes command of her situation and sends the whole thing spiraling.Â Â It is here that she wakes up; the Looking Glass world is gone, and Alice is left in her own world again.
Deconstructing the Mirror: A Post (Modern) Looking Glass Alice
The final question we are left with is where Alice stands in relation to the simulacra.Â Â As itâ€™s creator, Alice was ultimately in control, yet it seems as though the dream overpowered her, took her place, and reduced her to a mere pawn, or worse yet, to little more than a player in someone elseâ€™s dream.Â Â Â It is obvious that Alice wonders about this as well when she remarks to her kitten â€œIt must have been either me or the Red King [who dreamt it all].Â Â He was part of my dream, of course â€“ but then I was part of his dream too.â€Â Â Â Aliceâ€™s encounter with the hyperreal forces her to question every fundamental assumption she has concerning her world and the logic that guides it.Â Â In doing so, she must also question which of the doubles is more real.Â Â The confusion between the real and the hyperreal has a tremendous effect on Alice, predicating the kind of fear and paranoia that would become a cultural obsession in the following century, in which many now believe that there really is no distinction.Â Â However, that argument only transfers Aliceâ€™s problem to us, leaving us to wonder which reality came first, which gave birth to which?
So we return now to our starting place, to the image of Alice standing before the mirror, hand almost touching itâ€™s surface.Â Â But this time she has just come back through, emerged into a world that is at once familiar and utterly changed, permanently altered by itâ€™s own reflection.
Â The use of the word â€œDeconstructionâ€ implies an on-going process, not only within the boundaries of this essay, but in the Looking Glass World itself.Â Â The use of Derridaâ€™s terminology is deliberate, as my exploration is based on the principles of deconstruction, applying them toÂ Â the thematic and logistical complexities the Looking Glass World presents.Â Â My goal is to arrive at some understanding of what this little girl named Alice underwent when she pushed her way into the mirror and arrived at the other side.
Â Aliceâ€™s Adventures in Wonderland, pg 2.Â Â All of my references are to the Bantam Classic edition of Lewis Carrollâ€™sÂ Aliceâ€™sâ€¦ & Through the Looking Glass, Bantam Books, 1981.
Â Jean Baudrillard,Â Simulacra & Simulations, translated by Sheila Faria Glaser, University of Michigan Press, 1994.Â Â pg 121
Â Borrowed with thanks from Jim Morrison and the Doors.
Â Carroll,Â Â pg 112
Â Baudrillard, pg 95
Â Baudrillard, pg 2
Â For more examples of the â€œotherworldâ€ in childrenâ€™s literature, see JM Barrieâ€™sÂ Peter Pan, Johnsonâ€™sÂ Picture for Haroldâ€™s Room, and Burnettâ€™sÂ Secret Garden, to mention only a few.
Â Carroll , pg 113
Â Carroll, pg 113
Â Carroll, pgs 123-4.Â Â I am given to read the cattiness of the flowers as an ironic parody of feminine vanity, perhaps reflecting Carrollâ€™s preference for childlike simplicity over the excessively made-up women of the upper classes of Victorian England.
Â DalÃ¬ is, perhaps, the most fitting example of the surrealist movement during the first half of the 20thÂ century, famous for juxtaposing seemingly disparate elements to suggest a connection between them.Â Â DalÃ¬â€™s paintings often depicted man / machine hybrids, a man with a piano growing in place of an arm, or a toaster in place of a foot.Â Â These paintings reflected a deeply rooted societal anxiety over the status of the human in an increasingly technological world.
Â Carroll, pgs 134-135
Â My discussion of Derrida in this section is derived mainly fromÂ White Mythology, in which he attacks the reliance upon metaphor to convey meaning as being problematic, too open to interpretation, thereby reducing the efficacy of language.
Â The following excerpts are from Carroll, pgs 167-169.
Â Jacques Derrida,Â White Mythology,Â Â translated by Alan Bass, fromÂ Margins of Philosophy, University of Chicago Press, pg 211.
Â PortmanteauÂ Ã Â a word or morpheme whose form and meaning are derived from a blending of two or more distinct forms (as in smog from smoke and fog).Â Â Merriam Websterâ€™s Collegiate Dictionary, 10thÂ Edition, 1993.
Â Humpty Dumptyâ€™s interpretation ofÂ JabberwockyÂ can be found on pages 170-171 ofÂ Though the Looking Glass.
Â I borrow heavily in this passage from Severo Sarduyâ€™sÂ Written on a Body: â€œHad one of my images, cast into the world, taken my place and relegated me to the role of reflected image?â€ pg. 105.
Â Carroll 217-218Â Â This passage comes at the very end, leaving the reader hanging, forced to question the entire relationship between our world and the simulacra.Â Â Which gives rise to which?