In 1898, two days after Lewis Carroll’s death an anonymous obituary summed up the life of this remarkable, enigmatic Cheshire cat of a man who was always coming and going in and out of peoples lives; always wearing a sly, knowing grin and forever speaking in riddles. “Mr. Dodgson’s life was as grotesque in it’s contradictions as his most deliciously absurd conceptions”. More than any Carrollian biographer this unknown voice cuts through the heart of the Carroll myth and touches on something of the uncertain, ambiguous and hesitant “don” underneath.
Even the choice of which name to employee poses a problem and scholars have been at cross-roads and often at cross-purposes in critical examinations of his life and writings since his death. Where does Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, the shy, somber, stutterer end and Lewis Carroll the master of Wonderland begin? Is there a line somewhere in his identity which can be used to separate the two halves of his whole or are they tangled together and inseparably confused? Is it safe to discuss Dodgson when referring to his mathematical lectures and use Carroll only when addressing his literary creations? This too is problematic as logic was the single trait which underpinned both he, the college lecturer and he, the storyteller. Yet logic can not be used to any great effect in sorting out the dual nature of the man because there is too much illogic in his legacy.
It may be best if we use the same circular logic which Dodgson / Carroll so eagerly utilized in an attempt to understand the man. There is the figure of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson and beneath him there is Lewis Carroll and beneath him is Dodgson beneath whom is Carroll, ad infinitum. He has become a carnival mirror of reflected identities, each reflecting a distorted, if not outright false image of the other.
Let us return for a moment to the unknown author of Carroll’s obituary when he uses the word grotesque. What does this mean? Today we to easily accept the meaning to be anything gross or monstrous but this is only one meaning and is far removed from the initial definition and the popular understanding of the word in the 19th century. The word grotesque comes from the Latin and shares the same root as Grotto, meaning a small cave or hollow. Grotesque’s were the artistic rendering on the cavern wall of ancient Rome rediscovered in the 15th century and used as an inspiration for Gothic architecture. They were adornments or affectations of hollow places. The term grotesque was applied to any art form whose fashion was in accord with the gothic tradition, the most well known of which was the eponymous gargoyle. However, the gargoyle (French meaning throat) when removed from its purpose as a drain spout must be properly called a grotesque, or alternately a chimera which is a mythic creature composed of many constituent parts combined into a single whole. This side trip into linguistic history was necessary in order to illustrate just how apt that obituary really was.
Dodgson / Carroll truly was a grotesque. Rather than attempt to decipher which identity was the real person (the history of Carroll scholarship shows this to be futile) I have concluded that quite the contrary, neither identity was real. Both were distorted reflections of the other. They are mere affectations adorning the hollow space of the man who was both Dodgson and Carroll and neither Carroll or Dodgson in equal measure. Carroll was a chimera composed of the college don, religious believer, logistician, poet, maker of non-sense, master of illogic, mathematician, child and old man. But the man never found a way to reconcile these individual parts in the real world. He retreated (not escaped) into the world of Wonderland and only there, within its curious circular cosmology could the whole man exist. In a curious way this proved to be just the place he needed to be. His duality was not pathological as some have argued; it was all too human and therein lies the secret to unlocking the mystery of his true identity.