Dodgson in Numberland

January 27: Charles Dodgson was born on this day in 1832. Attempts to unravel The Mystery of Lewis Carroll (title of Jenny Woolf's 2010 biography) have approached the writing and the man from all sides of the looking-glass. The following is from the Robin Wilson's Preface to Lewis Carroll in Numberland (2008):

If Dodgson had not written the Alice books, he would be remembered mainly as a pioneering photographer, one of the first to consider photography as an art rather than as simply a means of recording images. …If Dodgson had not written the Alice books or been a photographer, he might be remembered as a mathematician, the career he pursued as a lecturer at Christ Church, the largest college of Oxford University.

Numberland is aimed at the general reader, and though it explores a wide range of Dodgson's mathematical interests, it also does the literary math:

Arthur: For a complete logical argument we need two prim Misses—

Lady Muriel: Of course! I remember that word now. And they produce—?

Arthur: A Delusion.

Lady Muriel: Ye—es? I don't seem to remember that so well. But what is the whole argument called?

Arthur: A Sillygism.

                                                 (from Sylvie and Bruno)

 

"I know what you're thinking about," said Tweedledum; "but it isn't so, nohow."
"Contrariwise," continued Tweedledee, "if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn't, it ain't. That's logic."

"I was thinking," Alice said politely, "which is the best way out of this wood…?"
                                                  (from Through the Looking-Glass)

Carroll's books and journals are full of puzzles, paradoxes, mindbenders, and an array of speculative or just madcap inventions. Some of these, such as his games of "Circular Billiards" and "Arithmetical Croquet," may reflect no more than the mathematical musings of an Oxford don; some others, such as the Professor's boot-umbrellas for horizontal rain in Sylvie and Bruno, are clearly aimed at provoking Victorians into some alternative thinking.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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