Wednesday, 28 June 2017

But, said Alice, where does that quotation come from? - Clémentine Beauvais

This is an abridged translation of a blog post I originally wrote in French.

It's probably the most-quoted Lewis Carroll quotation on French social media.

Except it's not by Lewis Carroll. 

Today, the strange story of the apocryphal Lewis Carroll quotation that enthralled the Francosphere.

It all started a few years ago. I can't remember the first time I saw it, nor the second, but I remember that after a while I started to wonder where that Alice in Wonderland quotation that we were seeing everywhere on Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest came from. That quotation is generally seen as the following in English:
But, said Alice, if the world has absolutely no sense, who's stopping us from inventing one?
I was seeing it everywhere. On French social media, many of my book-loving friends were frantically sharing prettily-decorated versions of the following quotation, in its French and English versions:

Perhaps you have seen it too. I was mildly irritated by this quotation, because - although at the beginning it didn't really occur to me to doubt its authenticity - it didn't seem to me very Carrollian in spirit. Too lovely for Carroll, really - a bit bland, a bit twee, a bit platitudinal. I kept thinking 'God, out of ALL the possible Carroll quotations, why pick this one?'

Gradually, I started to seriously wonder if it had been taken out of context. So I went back to the books and, of course, couldn't find it anywhere. An email to the Lewis Carroll Society of North America confirmed my guess: that sentence doesn't exist in the Carroll canon.

So where had it come from? I did a little bit of research, which I'm not claiming at all is valid (I have no experience in researching that kind of thing), but I've come up with 2 hypotheses:

1) The quotation was probably invented by a francophone person.

Let's call him Louis Carole (though, judging by the gender imbalance in the bookosphere, it was more probably a Louise Carole).

Image result for made in france

I'm not 100% sure of that, but when you look for that quotation, there are more francophone links than anglophone ones; and many of the anglophone ones link back to francophone pages. The quotation is virtually unknown in Spanish (one occurrence, linked to a French page). 

So my theory is that the quotation was invented by a bored Francophone.

2) It probably emerged on the Francosphere around 2000-2001.

At least, the oldest traces I can find on Google of that sentence are from 2001. It arrives much later on the Anglosphere: one tiny mention in 2002, then a few more in 2005, but until 2013 it is fairly rare. In the past few years, it's risen in popularity hugely on both sides. 

But where does it come from?

No precise idea, I'm afraid. I would theorise that Louise Carole got inspired by a mixture of different Carroll-related things. The closest we get to it in the Carroll canon is this extract: 

‘If there’s no meaning in it,’ said the King, ‘that saves a world of trouble, you know, as we needn’t try to find any. And yet I don’t know,’ he went on, spreading out the verses on his knee, and looking at them with one eye; ‘I seem to see some meaning in them, after all. “—said I could not swim—” you can’t swim, can you?’ he added, turning to the Knave.

As you can see, it says exactly the opposite to what the apocryphal quotation states, but it may be a case of misremembering. Otherwise, the closest in the 'extended canon' would be the Disney song 'In a world of my own' - 

But even that charming little song has very little to do, at least as far as its meaning is concerned, with the apocryphal quotation, as it says precisely that, 'in a world of [her] own', 'everything would be nonsense'.

I'm fascinated by the huge success of this quotation, clearly due to its inoffensive celebration of childhood, of the power of imagination, of freedom - in terms that doubtlessly chime with Millennials, although arguably quite foreign to the spirit of Carroll. Amazingly, the quotation has now appeared in at least 2 published books (!) including a very famous French YA novel, and, even more comically, in an article in a major national newspaper in France, advertising the biggest annual children's book fair, whose theme, that year, was... Alice in Wonderland.

I guess we can now consider that quotation to belong itself to the extended Carroll canon. When I mentioned its non-existence on a Facebook thread, someone replied: 'But, said Alice, if that quotation absolutely doesn't exist, what's preventing us from inventing it?'


But I'm not sure Dodgson would have 'liked' that reply...


Clémentine Beauvais is a writer in French and English and a lecturer in Education at the University of York. Her published work in English includes the Sesame Seade mysteries (Hachette, 2013-2015), the Royal Babysitters series (Bloomsbury, 2015-2016), and Piglettes, a translation of her French YA novel Les petites reines (Pushkin Press, July 2017).


Andrew Preston said...

Perhaps it's only the ultra academic, and intellectually educated mind that it irritates, and finds twee.

Susan Price said...

Clementine, I'm quite impressed by your research!

Andrew, I'm barely educated and unacademic and I find it twee and irritating.

Because it's a false trader - claims to be by the mathematician and logician, Carrol, when it isn't. It has none of his style (in English anyway.)

And then, how is it defining 'world' and 'sense'? Once you take a careful look at the meaning of those two words, it falls apart.

The natural world has plenty of 'sense' and meaning. It's a harsh kind of sense that has little value for mankind and will likely destroy us fairly soon. We can invent as much new 'sense' for the natural world as we like- Adam and Eve and God, for instance - but it won't make any difference.

If you say 'world' means 'society' - well that already has a sense that we invented and we continually do reinvent it, quite often for the worse.

So it's just an empty rattle of words which, quite insultingly, claims to be by Lewis Carroll.

Catherine Butler said...

This kind of thing is irritating, and very difficult to extirpate once it gets abroad, like knotweed. I suspect that Pooh gets these blandly uplifting mal mots foisted onto him even more than Alice.

Chitra Soundar said...

I'm always wary of quotes I find on the Internet - I have to find attributions before I use them - because a lot of them are recycled too. A fascinating look at this quote for sure. thanks for sharing.

Ann Turnbull said...

There was some horrible sentimental stuff attributed to Winnie the Pooh recently, wasn't there? Absolute rubbish - as is this Alice stuff. Nobody who had read and loved the books would believe for a moment that it came from them.

Anonymous said...

I just found it in an Italian novel published in 2014, Alessia Gazzola's "The Princess’ Bones". Since she called her protagonist Alice, there are often Carrol quotes in her books... including, unfortunately, this apocryphal one. This is very irritating also because she does extensive research for other topics in her novels...