She generally gave herself very good advice, (though she very seldom followed it).

- Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Alice and the Cheshire Cat

I realized that there was something I'd been missing while reading Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and that something finally became clear about a week ago.

For many years I had blindly believed, or trusted, that the Cheshire Cat was an unbound entity within an already tenuously bound dreamworld, and that his movement and transparency were simply natural attributes and in accordance with his nature and function. But then, when I started to think about the moments that the Cheshire Cat reappears after he's met Alice in the woods, it dawned on me that he might be a figment of Alice's imagination (within a larger figment of imagination). For a great deal of his episodes, the Cat is only visible to Alice (though I think the Queen does eventually see him and thus ensues a long argument about how to behead the Cat since it is already separated from its body). I wondered then, would it be possible to read the Cat as a double of Alice? In other words, could Alice and the Cat be the same person in separate guises?

I find it telling that Alice first meets the Cat when she's trying to discover which way to go (after the mad tea party which has left her a bit disillusioned and frustrated, and during which her identity, reason, and values have been questioned by three mad persons already!). She's confused and she comes, aptly enough, to a crossroad. There in the tree, waiting for her, is the Cat. The Cat is unfettered and has absolutely no limitations within that world, while Alice is continuously hemmed in by other characters who either physically detain or trap her (like the Queen) or who criticize or make her doubt her own mind (like the Mad Hatter, the Caterpillar, the flowers, etc...) There are very few affirming characters - but Cheshire Cat, while not affirming exactly, is in some ways encouraging in that he is open-minded. He doesn't tell her which way to go, or question what she is, or try to tell her what she is in physical terms - he just tells her the one truth of Wonderland (which we would hope she was already beginning to work out for herself, and which she must have at least come to realize after the tea party) namely: everyone there is mad.

The Cat explains what madness is (i.e. acting the opposite of how one is expected to act, or against propriety) and defines (the only definition he offers) Alice as mad. Then the Cat continues to reappear at moments in which Alice is trying to behave according to the rules (for example, the croquet game) but is being frustrated by the unfairness of the circumstances. Alice tries playing by the rules, and the Cat appears and disrupts the rules - specifically making fun of the Duchess and the Queen (the two main cheaters). Then during the trial, when Alice is being unfairly judged, the Cat also reappears and disrupts the scene, focusing on the Queen and making fun of her and perplexing her by eluding her favorite punishment by his very nature.

If we were to imagine, for a moment, that Alice and the Cat are two different sides of a child's personality, we might see that Alice is the outer face of a well behaved child (who responds to things beyond its control by trying to be patient and logical) while the Cat is the more disruptive, inner side that responds to injustice by creating havoc, and eschews rules that it finds pedantic and ridiculous by making up its own and making fun of authority. Of course, Alice doesn't have to be the outer self and the Cat the inner self, it might just be two equal sides, or a blending that is virtually inseparable, as I think it is for almost all of us.

But it's been a while since I've read Alice, so don't take my word for it. Especially since I was too lazy to look any of this up.

So, all of that to say, I was thinking today about some remarks a friend made to me after class. She said that another girl told her that I have a "soothing voice" and I am "so calm" in general that I put people at ease, and that if she were my student, I would probably put her to sleep. I don't think she meant it in a mean way, and I didn't take it that way either, because I hope that I've become a better judge of character than that by this point. But the description sometimes rankles. I think it's fair to say that that is probably how most people perceive me: calm, rational, soothing, nice - these are the usual adjectives. My mom once said that, if she didn't know me, she would think, by my eyes alone, that I was a very calm, tranquil person (green is a soothing color). (She then made some snide comment about looks being so deceiving, etc... - thanks, Mom.)
Anyway, it's a common thing with me. I guess I do appear calm. Maybe too calm...

T. H. White writes in The Once and Future King (pg. 339 - see, I wasn't too lazy to look this one up):

"But the curious thing was that under the king-post of keeping faith with himself and with others, [Lancelot] had a contradictory nature that was far from holy. His Word was valuable to him not only because he was good, but also because he was bad. It is the bad people who need to have principles to restrain them. For one thing, he liked to hurt people. It was for the strange reason that he was cruel, that the poor fellow never killed a man who asked for mercy, or committed a cruel action which he could have prevented...People have odd reasons for ending up as saints"

I've always liked White's characterization of Lancelot; I feel like I can relate to it. My two favorite colors are red and green - not just apple red, or sage green - I mean crimson and sea-green; we're talking deep colors here. Serious stuff. I like them, even though they are opposites, and recently I realized that I like them equally. When I was younger I always gave the preference to red because I felt that it had more to recommend it. Red is the color of passion, assertion, aggression, blood, pugnacity, spirit - things that I value very highly because at one time I felt that I had them, and somewhere down the road I think that I lost them. Before, green was Drew's color (it's his favorite) so I never thought of claiming green for myself (and it hadn't occurred to me that I could have more than one favorite color without being a confused person). Drew and I split everything, instead of sharing. He takes math, I take English; he takes karate, I take theater; he drafts, I draw; he writes poetry, I sing, etc... We have an unspoken agreement that we don't compete with each other - we always pick our separate battle fields and compete against other people, but we don't encroach on each other. Whatever he chooses to be good at, I will choose the opposite (if there is such a thing). It was the same way with colors.

But now that I'm a grown up (or something resembling one) I have come to value green as much (and sometimes more) than I value red. Green is the color people associate with me (according to Lainey), for various reasons, I'm sure. Green is calm, alive, tranquil - basically everything that blue is except without being sad, and everything yellow is but without being (don't hate me, yellow-lovers) a little on the ridiculous side. Green is not a passionate color, though. At least, that's not how I see it. Green sort of thinks first before it acts, or most of the time it doesn't act - it waits. Not as much as blue, but it's still not an action color. I think.

So why the T. H. White quote? Basically, I think that people tend to have two (or more) sides to them (I won't go so far as to say 'personalities'), and I think that those sides aren't clearly separated, but rather they are a blend (on the inside I would be a blend of green (my outside color) and red (my inside color)) - which all sounds very weird, but I'm doing my best to "make it more sense".

I think people have different colors that blend to create who they are (metaphorically speaking). But I don't know if everyone's colors are opposites. In other words, I think that many people have complementary colors in their natures - purple and pink, blue and green, yellow and orange, red and gold, silver and indigo. I think a lot of people are balanced, and that perhaps less (though I don't know, the numbers might be equal) have contrary, contradictory natures. Like Lancelot, and, I think, like me. Maybe everyone has some aspect of contradiction. Probably so.

My contradictions tend to lie along the lines of red and green. Lancelot's Word, for me, would be what most people perceive as my ability or predilection for liking people, for being "nice," essentially, and for looking on the bright side and always remaining calm, poised (as, today, one person even went so far as to say "perfect"). I do these things often; they are the green part of me, the visible part. But the only reason they exist is because of the invisible, red part. Because, truth be told, I don't naturally like people, and I don't view things optimistically at all, and I'm a very moody person. And as for being "perfect," which I take her to have meant it in a Mr. Rogers' everything's-great-in-the-neighborhood kind of way, that's simply not true at all.

So, I want to introduce, for a brief and narcissistic moment, the red side of me. In class today, a classmate criticized the idea that a teacher should "like" her own writing first in order to then like all her students' writing - all this liking being requisite to good teaching. I agreed with that statement, so I was surprised at the contempt he had for the idea of liking being a necessary thing in teaching. I think his standpoint was that bad writing is bad writing, and no amount of hippy-dippy "I'm OK, you're OK" is going to change that, with which I totally agree.

However, I think it is important to like other people and their writing, and to look at the world with a view focused on the potential in things rather than their reality. I defend this position mainly because I agree that bad writing is bad writing, and frankly speaking, to my mind, there is no such thing as good writing.

The reason I look for the potential in people and things is not because I naturally view the world through a rosy lens but precisely because I don't. I am an extremely critical person - almost to the point of being hyper-critical. When I first meet a person, I involuntarily begin to make a note of all their physical imperfections (which is why I can remember the eye color of almost every person I know), and I make notes about their personalities as well; whether they are perceptive or dull, quick-witted or dense, starving for attention or distant, a complainer or a joker. Most people fall into these categories - the girl who called me "perfect" and "calm" is a complainer, by the way. It is because I see these things in everything I look at that I try not to look at them, but instead see what they could be.

It's the same with writing, acting, pretty much everything. When I hear someone sing, I think "oh, that could have been better - not enough breath, a little flat" - when I watch a show, I almost can't enjoy it because I'm so busy thinking about how forced the acting is and wishing that the actor would just let go and be (I have seen perhaps one or two performances in my entire life that I would classify as "good" acting). All of this to say, to me there is only a black and white standard in the end. Things, concepts, theories, and people are either perfect, or they are irrelevant.

Can you see why I'm a Presbyterian?

If the standard for good is perfection, nothing is good. Which is why, when someone asks me how they did, I say "you were great". I'm not lying and I'm not being fake - because I'm not judging them by my standard of good and bad - what has happened is that I've enjoyed something because of the potential I saw in it and the moments in which it came close to anticipating perfection. And because I think there are things that are more important than being bad or good or perfect or relevant: if I like something, that's enough for me. And because I like it, instead of judging it, there will be room for it to grow into something else.

So, what I'm trying to get at, in the end, is that because of this standard I have, and my own natural disinclination to get close or bother about other people, I have worked hard to become a person who encourages others and tries to build meaningful relationships. That's my Word. And I have it because I need it. It's the bad people who need principles to restrain them, and it's the selfish misanthropes who need friends.

But I like my red and green selves equally. Even if they are at odds with one another, and cause me a lot of confusion and frustration with myself. I think they give me an insight into things that I don't think I would trade for a more balanced disposition (even though I'm sure my Mom and Dad would heartily disagree!). And if people want to see me as calm, it doesn't really do me or them any harm in the long run, does it? I figure if they like my green side, they'll eventually like red me too.

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