The Age of Alice: Fairy Tales, Fantasy, and Nonsense in Victorian England
WORLDBACKWARDS: Lewis Carroll, Nonsense and Russian Avant-GardeBy Nikolai Firtich
In 1914 Roman Jakobson made the following observation concerning the concept of “worldbackwards”(mirskontsa in Russian) proposed by Russian futurist poet Aleksei Kruchenykh (1886-1968) as a literary method for uncoupling narrative from a normal time sequence: “You know, none of the poets have said ‘worldbackwards‘ before, only Bely and Marinetti perhaps sensed it a little, but nonetheless this grandiose thesis is fully scientific… and clearly outlined in the relativity principle”.The first expression of this concept in print occurs in Kruchenykh’s commentary on his own poem “Old Tongs of Sunset” published in the collection A Slap on the Face of a Public Taste (1912), where he writes the following:
author’s commentary -
“carrying the world -
in the work of art
could also be expressed as follows: instead of 1-2-3
events are positioned as 3-2-1 or
3-1-2 this is the way it is in my
Even the typographic composition of this commentary reflects Kruchenykh’s introduction of the concept of an alogical “shift” in chronology that would violate the linear progression of time. The initial notion of “worldbackwards” could then be described as a reflection on the relativity of time in its function within the creative process. In Kruchenykh’s words the artist is free “to trace the world backwards” (Kruchenykh 1999, 54), arranging the narrative episodes without concern for chronological motivation through the reconfiguration of word order, syllables, phonemes, and so on for the purpose of discovering new meanings.This method is manifest in a number of poems and prose works by Kruchenykh and Velimir Khlebnikov (1885-1922), most notably in the collection The Wordbackwards (1912) and in Khlebnikov’s short play by the same title.
Several years after his initial remark, Jakobson again addressed the problem of temporal shifts in literature. In his brochure The Newest Russian Poetry, Sketch One: Approaches to Khlebnikov (1921) he discussed the thesis of “worldbackwards” in connection with Khlebnikov’s play. Jakobson lists numerous ways in which the device of temporal shift was used by earlier authors such as Lawrence Stern and Leo Tolstoy while pointing out that, in contrast to them, the Russian futurists’ use of temporal shift did not require semantic motivation.
It is surprising that Lewis Carroll is not included by Jakobson among the predecessors of Kruchenykh and Khlebnikov. In fact, however, Carroll had put forward a very similar idea in his celebrated Alice books: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass (1871). Introducing Alice to peculiarities of the “Looking-Glass Land” the White Queen says: “Living backwards…always makes one a little giddy at first - but there is one great advantage in it, that one’s memory works both ways.” Logical Alice responds that her memory works only one way and that she cannot remember things before they happen. The Queen expresses regret at such an unfortunate limitation of Alice’s memory and remarks that she, personally, remembers best the “things that happened a week after next.”
This is just one of many examples from the work of the English author that exhibits points of correspondence with the ideas and creations of writers and visual artists associated with the Futurist milieu of the Russian avant-garde. Along with the founders of the “beyond mind language”( zaum’ in Russian, also translated as “transrational language”), Kruchenykh and Khlebnikov, other Futurist poets and artists, such as Kazimir Malevich (1879-1935), Elena Guro (1877-1913), David Burliuk (1882-1967), contributed to this alogical phenomenon that can be defined as an aesthetic movement against conventional logic and reason, designed to debunk the traditional artistic methods. The metaphysical coloring of this movement is evident in its aspirations to arrive at a higher logic and to transcend the boundary of our reality in order to explore other realms and dimensions. Such a breakthrough is accomplished by creating works of art that appear, from the conventional viewpoint, as either totally nonsensical or, at least, semantically enigmatic.
The question of Lewis Carroll’s influence on various fields of literary and visual arts, especially on surrealism, has been addressed in scholarly literature in some detail. In connection with Russia, however, this question appears not yet to have received the attention it deserves, although the first Russian translation of Alice’s adventures appeared as early as 1879 under the title Sonia in the Kingdom of Wonder. This was followed by three more translations published in the first decade of the 20th century. One can therefore assume that this extraordinary tale did not go unnoticed by the many representatives of the Russian avant-garde. Since the field of connections between Carroll and the avant-garde is rather vast, for the purpose of this essay we will limit ourselves to observations that illuminate the relationship between Carroll’s “nonsense” and the experiments of Russian “alogists” that led to their arrival at non-objective art.
Three broad areas of correspondence between Carroll’s fictional creations and the ideas generated by Russian avant-garde can be identified. The first belongs to the playful field of literary “nonsense,” where semantic shifts create images and situations that appear nonsensical from the conventional viewpoint. This area also includes linguistic experimentation, which may involve the creation of new words and even languages. The second area of correspondence lies in the metaphysical (spiritual) realm where other worlds and dimensions are explored or intimated, often in the context of literary techniques that undermine traditional notions of meaning. Thirdly, there is the presence of artistic épatage leveled against the dominant contemporary social and cultural institutions.
In the course of recent decades, the metaphysical tendencies of Russian avant-garde received considerable scholarly attention, particularly the links between the concept of hyper-dimensionality advanced by P. D. Uspensky and the theoretical constructs of Kruchenykh and Malevich.In sharp contrast, the playful aspect of the Russian avant-garde expressed in literary and visual nonsense attracted considerably less attention. Yet the notion of “nonsense” cannot be discounted when addressing the complex of ideas that led to a creation of the transrational language and prepared the path for the appearance of non-objective art in Russia.
Let us take the most elementary example of nonsense poetry from Lewis Carroll, the first two stanzas of a poem “Father William” from the first Alice and look at it in the context of the early Russian avant-garde.
“You are old, father William” the young man said,
“And your hair has become very white;
And yet you incessantly stand on your head -
Do you think, at your age, it is right? “
“In my youth,” father William replied to his son.
“I feared it might injure the brain;
But, now that I’m perfectly sure I have none,
“Why, I do it again and again.” [The Annotated Alice,70]
This playful and at the first glance innocent poem, nevertheless contains ideas which later acquired prominence in Russian Futurist aesthetics. First of all it is the conflict between rational - i.e. conventionally “correct” – “common sense” and thinking that departs from the norm, and is therefore unconventional. This is expressed in terms of standing on one’s head; in other words, of seeing the world from a radically different point of view (figure 1). The poem also features a rejection of the brain, the seat of logic and rationality. Thirdly, at the heart of the poem we find a clash between “useful” and “sensible” activity with what from a utilitarian viewpoint seems to be “nonsensical” and “useless” behavior.
The idea of the “world turned upside down” was fundamental to the alogical vision of the Russian futurists. One need only mention the famous photograph of Kruchenykh, Matiushin, and Malevich with the piano hanging upside-down in the background, surrounded with upturned furniture (figure 2). This photograph reflects the idea of a semantic shift leading to new possibilities of artistic vision, an idea, also expressed by Elena Guro in one of her poems of 1912:
And, suddenly, I thought what if
We turn chairs and sofas upside down,
Turn the clock on its head?
The dawn of a new era would come
And will open new lands.
The alogical image created here by Guro is quite similar to Carroll’s Wonderland, where all logical connections are shifted and the concept of linear time does not exist. As Alice discovers, everybody is “somewhat out of their minds” and she realizes that tools other than logic and reason are required to comprehend that land. The Cheshire Cat tells Alice: “We are all mad here.” When Alice objects to being mad, he calmly responds: “You must be, or you would not have come here” (The Annotated Alice 89).
Rejection of rational thought, forsaking of reason as an instrument for exploring the mysteries of creativity, formed the central plank of the Russian futurist platform. A characteristic example is Malevich’s statement that crowns the list of futurist Easter wishes of 1915: “Reason - is a prison chain for an artist, therefore I wish to all artists to go out of their minds”. In his booklet of 1916, From Cubism to Suprematism, Malevich developed this idea in its application to contemporary art by stating that “all artistic forms are waiting to be freed, so they can speak their own language and not be dependent on reason, sense, logic, various laws of causality, etc…” thus emphasizing again the “non-reasonable” essence of art (Malevich 25).
Malevich’s assertion creates a bridge with Kruchenykh’s radical anti-utilitarianism as expressed most vividly in the following statement: “Uselessness, senselessness (nonsensicality), mystery of the powerful non-entity - these are the contents of new poetry!” (Sukhoparov 1994, 33). The concepts of “uselessness” and “senselessness” in art (seen in contrast to the utilitarian view of artistic output) were instrumental parts of Kruchenykh’s alogical program, which found fertile soil in Malevich’s own interpretations of the same themes.
Indeed, Kruchenykh was the most radical and dedicated artist of alogical non-sense. The futurist opera Victory Over the Sun, the libretto for which was written by Kruchenykh in 1913, should be considered as the most outstanding masterpiece of “nonsense” literature of the early twentieth century avant-garde. In this light, parallels with the Alice texts of Lewis Carroll are particularly revealing. There are striking similarities between the second act of Victory and Alice’s experiences during her adventures in Wonderland (Chapters Two, Three, and Four).
Scenes Five and Six of the Second Act of Victory describe the mysterious “10th Country” of the future as seen through the eyes of a character called simply “Fatman.” It is here, in Fatman’s wanderings in this strange land, that the parallels with Alice’s exploits can be discovered. For example, Fatman’s exclamation, “What kind of country is this? How could I know that I would be locked up without being able to move either my arms or legs” (Kruchenykh 2001, 400) reminds of Alice’s reflections on changing in size until she literally gets stuck in the house and cannot move her limbs. “What will become of me?” sadly thinks Alice. “It was much pleasanter at home.” But she immediately exclaims “and yet-and yet-it’s rather curious, you know, this sort of life!” (The Annotated Alice 58). In Kruchenykh’s text Fatman, after having complained about his predicament, also becomes curious: “…what if one could climb up the stairs to the brain of this house and open there a door #35 - oh, what wonders! Yes, all is not so simple here, although it looks just like a chest of drawers, but one just roams and roams around” (Kruchenykh 2001, 400). Alice, as we know, also tries to open the door, beyond which a wonderful garden can be seen, but before she is able to do that she has to wander around quite a bit and experience a number of transformations. Everything she encounters turns out to be not quite what it seemed at the first glance.
In Through the Looking-Glass, Alice climbs up onto the fireplace mantle shelf in order to get into the “Looking-Glass House.” Inside the Looking-Glass the concept of time turns out to be irrelevant (instead of arrows the clock has a grinning face). Analogously, Kruchenykh’s Fatman, having climbed up into the “Brain of the House,” also seems to be in sort of a “Looking-Glass Land,” exclaiming “‘Wow, I almost fell’ (looks through the crack in the clock: tower, sky, streets are all upside down-just as in a mirror).” He tries to find out what time it is: “Where do your clocks turn, and arrows?” and receives a mysterious reply “both arrows turn back right before dinner” (Kruchenykh2001, 401). Among the numerous puns on the relativity of time in Carroll’s works, a particularly memorable one is the scene in Alice in Wonderland during the “Mad Tea Party,” when Alice also inquires about time and finds out that the clock always points to six o’clock, which happens to be dinner time (The Annotated Alice 96-99).
In Victory, Kruchenykh’s Fatman, trying to understand the “10th country,” comes to the conclusion that everything is complicated there: “All the roads here are mixed up and go up to the earth and there aren’t any side exits” (Kruchenykh 2001, 401). He then receives the advice “please, there is an entrance, you can exit right back, there aren’t any others.” In much the same way, but in a text written fifty years earlier, a frustrated Alice tries to walk up to the top of the hill in the Looking Glass Land but always ends up in the same spot from which she had started. Carroll’s Alice and Kruchenykh’s Fatman both try to approach a new reality from a conventionally logical viewpoint and end up in a dead-end situation.
These parallels between the texts of Carroll and Kruchenykh point to the possibility that playfully alogical world of Lewis Carroll was closer to Kruchenykh’s creative imagination, than, for example, Uspensky’s theoretical constructs about other dimensions. It is also noteworthy that Kruchenykh was one of the most dedicated collectors of children’s art, and not unlike Carroll, paid close attention to the specifics of children’s comprehension and imagination.
Let us return to the scene of the “Mad Tea Party,” which contains themes central not only to Russian Futurism, but to the avant-garde in general. There is, first, the subject of madness, or in other words, the rejection of so-called common sense; second, there is the motif of time treated not in linear but in relative terms; third, there is the matter of behavior that breaches the limits of the socially acceptable. All these themes are presented in a totally nonsensical fashion.
The absurdity of the situation is marked in the beginning of the chapter by the puzzle thrown at Alice by the Mad Hatter: “Why is the raven like a writing-desk?” This absurdist query brings to mind Malevich’s alogist painting A Cow and a Violin (1913, figure 3) or Kruchenykh’s assertion that the best rhyme for the word “theater” is the word “cow” (Sukhoparov 1994, 229). The following statement by Malevich is also quite Carrollian: “The supreme work of art is created when the mind is absent.” Then he concludes: “Of course many will think that this is absurd, but to no purpose, because it’s enough to light two matches and put up a wash basin.” (Malevich 57). In all of these cases, as the result of a semantic shift, we have the creation of a new, free, artistic space to which rational laws cannot be applied. Common sense and reason are useless in this kind of situation and a person needs to rely on intuition in order to function in this space.
The debunking of the traditional perception of time as a linear progression takes a central place in the “Mad Tea Party.” Time becomes an animate being, which could be convinced to move faster, or to go backwards; or it might decide to stop altogether. One needs to recall here that the interpretation of time played an important role in the milieu of the early Russian avant-garde. Aside from the chronological shifts in Victory mentioned earlier, it is enough to recollect the famous painting by Malevich, An Englishman in Moscow (1914, figure 4) where the word “hour” occupies a central place and a looming fish together with a red arrow forms something akin to a clock pointing to 5 PM, which happens to be the traditional tea time in England (“five o’clock”). We know that, Velimir Khlebnikov based a number of his theories on his calculations of the cyclical nature of time. However, Lewis Carroll had already addressed many of these issues in his original interpretation of temporal problems, presenting them in a playful and puzzling manner, which affected the imagination of his readers. For example, Carroll’s idea of “living backwards” in the sense of freely moving back and forth in time (as indicated above) found its reflections in Herbert G. Wells’ The Time Machine and, notably, in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Strange Case of Benjamin Button,” among many others. (The Annotated Alice 97, 247)
The eccentricity of the “Mad Tea Party” is expressed by the anti-social behavior of the participants, which may constitute an ironic comment on the artificiality of Victorian manners. The Mad Hatter and March Hare switch their sets of dishes and splash their tea on the Dormouse, which shocks the well-mannered Alice terribly. The épatage of Russian futurists comes to mind when one reads these lines. Curiously enough, the ritual tea drinking had often accompanied Futurist public lectures and disputes. Particularly interesting is the fact that Kruchenykh used to splash his tea out onto the respectable audience, trying to awaken it from its bourgeois somnolence (Sukhoparov 1994, 60). By this gesture Kruchenykh, in effect, turned into reality the fictional image created by Carroll. This parallel with Carroll’s Wonderland is further supported by the following sentence from the alogical text of Kruchenykh’s and Khlebnikov’s collection The Worldbackwards (1912): “The spilt-out tea and many wonders that killed the pleasers with their light” (23).
This excerpt is from the prose work by Khruchenykh entitled “Journey Around the Whole World” which, arguably, comprises the centerpiece of the book. It is indeed the most experimental text in the collection and has been defined by Vladimir Markov as “an attempt at creating a prose of a totally new type” and compared by him with the much later “automatic writing” of the Surrealists. Moreover, it seems that all of Kruchenykh’s poems in this particular collection can also be read backwards, which does not hamper their meaning, because the meaning itself is alogical and non-static.[ 16] Significantly, in about the middle of the collection we find a short poem by Khlebnikov typeset in such a way that it can only be read in a mirror reflection.
This points to one more link between Carroll and the Russian avant-garde, this time in the area of linguistic experiment. Many readers are familiar with the famous lines of the “Jabberwocky” poem from Through the Looking Glass, which was written in a language of Carroll’s own invention - “Twas brillig, and the slithy toves, did gyre and gimble in the wabe…” etc. When Alice first looks at the poem she cannot read it, for as she says “it’s all in some language I do not know” (The Annotated Alice 190). Realizing that it was a “looking-glass book,” Alice decides to hold the book to the mirror, but the meaning of the lines, despite the fact that she can now read them, still remains obscure. Admitting that she cannot understand the poem, Alice reflects that “Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas - only I don’t know exactly what they are” (The Annotated Alice 197). The poem therefore is written in a language the meaning of which is flexible, non-static, and strikingly similar to Kruchenykh’s method of mixing understandable words with words of his own invention.
The Russian Futurists began their language experimentation with palindromes and the reading of words backwards that gave them a new meaning. The next step was the creation of a new language, which even if read in a mirror would still remain obscure, or as Kruchenykh put it “a language with no particular meaning”(Kruchenykh 2001, 55). In other words, not unlike Carroll’s Alice, the Russian Futurists had gone “beyond the looking glass” into the land of new creative dimensions. Thus, the parallels with Lewis Carroll addressed in this essay help to illuminate the imaginative and playful aspect of Kruchenykh’s “worldbackwards” as part of the alogical current of the early Russian avant-garde. As was testified by Malevich the alogism of Kruchenykh’s Victory, in which nonsense and metaphysics were inseparable, was an important steppingstone for the Russian artists’ movement towards non-objective art.
It seems appropriate to end this discussion with a quote from a 1901 essay by Gilbert Keith Chesterton, entitled “In Defense of Nonsense,” where the author argued for the connection between nonsense literature on the one hand, and spirituality on the other.
Nonsense and faith (strange as the conjunction may seem) are the two supreme symbolic assertions of the truth that to draw out the soul of things with the syllogism is as impossible as to draw out Leviathan with a hook. The well meaning person who, by merely studying the logical side of things, has decided that “faith is nonsense,” does not know how truly he speaks; later it may come back to him in the form that nonsense is faith.
Moreover, Chesterton suggested that if “nonsense is to be the literature of the future, it must have its own version of the Cosmos to offer; the world must not only be the tragic, romantic, and religious, it must be nonsensical also.” Therefore, in Chesterton’s view “nonsense will, in a very unexpected way, come to the aid of the spiritual view of things.” (Chesterton 46)
Chesterton’s observation turns out to be quite prophetic indeed if one is to look at development of the avant-garde art and literature in the 20th century. From Apollinaire and Giorgio De Chirico’s “Pittura Metafisica,” through Dadaism and Surrealism to the Theatre of the Absurd and to Post-Modernism, the avant-garde exhibits various manifestations of nonsense and turns to the illogical and mysterious realms, thus, albeit often in iconoclastic fashion, alerting us to the spiritual side of things. Among other important innovations, the Russian avant-garde pioneered “alogism,” which championed “nonsensicality” as the guiding principle of new art, thus establishing a “worldbackward” spiritual connection with Carroll’s Wonderland.
- Sukhoparov, Sergei. Aleksei Kruchenykh v svidetel’stvakh sovremennikov (Munchen:Verlag Otto Sagner, 1994), 227. All translations from Russian are mine unless otherwise indicated. N.F. Back
- Kruchenykh, Aleksei. Stikhotvoreniia. Poemy. Romany. Opera (St. Petersburg: Akademicheskii proekt, 2001), 261. Back
- One of the most successful definition of “worldbackwards” to date is provided by S.R. Krasitskii: “The concept of ‘worldbackwards’ became one of the key principles of Futurist aesthetics…it represents a violation of standard chronology, rejection of the linear movement of time from past to future, rejection of the commonly assumed connections and causal relations, intensification of alogism, unpredictability, departure beyond the boundaries of traditional positivist assumptions, which led to a sui generis Futurist Gnosticism.” See Krasitskii, S.R. “O Kruchenykh.” Aleksei Kruchenykh. Stikhotvoreniia. Poemy. Romany. Opera (St.Petersburg: Akademicheskii proekt, 2001),15. Back
- Jakobson, Roman. “Noveishaia russkaia poeziia. Nabrosok pervyi: Podstupy k Khlebnikovu.”Raboty po poetike (Moscow: Progress, 1987), 284-285. Back
- Carroll, Lewis. The Annotated Alice: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Introduction and notes by Martin Gardner (New York: Wings Books, 1993), 247-48. Back
- Of particular interest are the following essays: Jeffrey Stern, “Lewis Carroll the Surrealist” Lewis Carroll: A Celebration. Essays on the Occasion of the 150th Anniversary of the Birth of Charles Ludwidge Dodgson (New York: Clarkson N.Potter, 1982), 132-153; Ann McGarrity Buki, “Lewis Carroll in Finnegan’s Wake” in the same collection, 154-166. Back
- All these translations were soon to be followed by Vladimir Nabokov’s Ania v strane chudes BackAnia in Wonderland], published in Berlin in 1923. For the history of Alice’s translations into Russian, see Nina M. Demurova’s highly informative article “Alice Speaks Russian: The Russian Translations of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass” Harvard Library Bulletin, 5/ 4 (1995): 11- 29. According to a number of sources, Lewis Carroll’s works on mathematics were considered as quite traditional and unimaginative. Contemporary scholars, however, describe his works on logic, as way ahead of his times. It was these works, as well as the texts of the Alice books, that started to attract the attention of modern mathematicians and physicists from the 1930’s in the West and in the 1960’s in the Soviet Union. It appears that the first translations of Carroll’s works on logic were published in the Soviet Union only in the 1970s. For more information on this subject see: Warren Weaver “The Mathematical Manuscripts of Lewis Carroll” and R.B. Braithwaite “Lewis Carroll as Logician” in Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland. Authoritative Texts of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Through the Looking Glass, The Hunting of the Snark. Backgrounds. Essays in Criticism (New York: W.W.Norton &Company, 1971). Back
- So far any documentary evidence of futurists’ familiarity with Carroll’s works has not been uncovered. However, the multiple translations suggest that Alice books were present in Russian cultural milieu, which makes this connection quite probable. Back
- Among the best studies that address this issue are: Charlotte Douglas, Swans of Other Worlds: Kazimir Malevich and the Origins of Suprematism 1908-1915 (Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI Dissertation Information Service, 1990): Linda Dalrymple Henderson, The Fourth Dimension and Non-Euclidian Geometry in Modern Art (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton UP, 1983). Back
- In his fundamental study of Russian transrational poetry Gerald Janecek makes mention of nonsense, but only in passing. He does note, however, that one should not overlook “the playful, humorous, fanciful aspects also to be found in zaum…Zaum can indeed be read for comic, sometimes parodistic effect, and in Kruchonykh there is little doubt that this is intended.” See Janecek, Gerald. The Transrational Poetry of Russian Futurism (San Diego: San Diego State UP, 1996), 348. Back
- Guro, Elena. Sochineniia (Oakland, California: Berkeley Slavic Specialties, 1996), 104. Back
- Malevich, Kazemir. Sobranie sochinenii v piati tomakh (Moscow: Gileia, 1995)1, 26. Back
- P.D. Uspensky developed his theory of hyper-dimensionality in following two works: The Fourth Dimension (1909) and Tertium Organum: The Key to Mysteries of the World (1911) Back
- In 1913 Kruchenykh published his collection Porosiata BackPiglets], where alongside his own poetry he placed poems by a 13 year-old girl named Zina V. (Zina Vi.A. Kruchenykh. Porosiata). In the following year he released a miscellany where the children’s stories were complimented by their own drawings. (Sobstvennye rasskazy i risunki detei BackTales and Drawings by Children]). Back
- Markov, Vladimir. Russian Futurism: A History (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1968), 43. Back
- What is meant by “backwards” here is not the actual reading of the words from right to left, but, rather reading the sentences, or lines of the poems, in the reversed order. Back
- In his commentary on “Jabberwocky” Martin Gardner suggests that “there have been attempts to produce a more serious poetry of this sort - poems by the Dadaists, the Italian futurists, and Gertrude Stein, for example,” (The Annotated Alice 192). However, he does not provide examples or analysis of this connection, nor does he mention the Russian avant-garde. A fairly extensive literature on “Jabberwocky” has been produced over the last few decades. For example see: Flesher, Jacquelin. “The Language of Nonsense in Alice,”; Sewell, Elizabeth. The Field of Nonsense. Back
- Chesterton, G.K. “In Defense of Nonsense.” The Defendant (New York: Dodd, 1902), 46. Back