Journal of the Western Mystery Tradition
No. 15, Vol. 2. Autumnal Equinox 2008
Behind the Looking Glass, Sherry L. Ackerman. Cambridge Scholars Publishing; Newcastle, UK, 2008. 169 pages. £29.99 GBP.
review by J. S. Kupperman
Ackerman’s Behind the Looking Glass presents what is perhaps a unique view of the writings of Lewis Carroll. Carroll, the pen literary name of mathematician and Euclidean geometer Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832-1898), though generally known as a writer of the famous Alice books (Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass) was also a keen philosophical and theological writer, all of which was accomplished in those self same Alice books, as well as the two Sylvie and Bruno books and a handful of, to most of us, what would be less well known books of poetry. Ackerman takes us behind the mirror of Carroll’s fictional life to explore the life of Dodgson and both the philosophical and metaphysical influences present in his fictional writings as Carroll and his own place in the history of philosophy, theology and metaphysics.
Behind the Looking Glass is an intriguing book in several different ways. It is, first of all, possibly the first book to look at Dodgson/Carroll in this light. Here we now see Dodgson not simply as mathematician. No indeed. Dodgson, as Dodgson, was a prolific writer, having written far more under his own name than under Carroll’s, but also the foremost Euclidean geometer of his time. His love of Euclidean geometry, and its corresponding metaphysical connotations, would be one of the many factors that influenced Dodgson’s philosophical and esoteric, yes, esoteric, views on life, God and creation.
This is but one of the numerous influences on Dodgson’s life and we find that his friends and acquaintances read like a who’s who of famous artists, philosophers, mathematicians, scholars, etc., including the founders of the pre-Raphaelite movement, Alfred Tennyson and John Ruskin. Ackerman demonstrates what was perhaps a profound knowledge of Platonic and Neoplatonic philosophy as well as the works of René Descartes, with whom he had . . . issues. Ackerman also demonstrates the possibility of Dodgson having been familiar with Thesosophy, hermetism and Rosicrucianism and shows that he was deeply immersed in the ongoing debate between the growing power of empirical science and religious belief.
Through numerous quotes from letters of Dodgson and literary and historical critiques of Carroll’s most important works; Alice in Wonderland, Through the Looking Glass, Sylvie and Bruno and Sylvie and Bruno Concluded, Sherry Ackerman teases out the metaphysics Carroll hid in plain sight. These books are not just repositories of obscure late Antique and early Modern worldviews however. Behind the Looking Glass demonstrates keen satirical jabs at philosophers such as Descartes and, for Dodgson/Carroll, more important and contemporary, and opposing, philosophers such as George Berkley. There are also theological themes present, frequently reflecting Dodgson’s religious concerns such as the turning of the Anglican Church towards mere ritualism and away from what Dodgson viewed as proper religion. Even more significantly Ackerman shows the reader Dodgson’s deeply conviction that the essence of God was Love and that any doctrine that goes against this, such as the possibility infinite punishment after a finite existence, was un-Christian. Yet we are shown that these views are, themselves, not necessarily of Christian origin and instead come from Platonic theology and the idea of the One, the Good and the Beautiful (though perhaps saved by pseudo-Dionysius’s Christian Neoplatonism).
Behind the Looking Glass also takes us through the later years of Dodgson’s life, through which he continued, perhaps sardonically, perhaps esoterically, to refuse any connection between himself and Carroll, for to Dodgson they were two different people; even if they lived in the same body. We are shown that while the Alice books demonstrate Dodgson/Carroll’s younger years and philosophical notions, cleverly hidden in satire and prose, the Sylvie and Bruno books strip away many layers of obscurity and really demonstrate the author’s metaphysical worldview that has been so heavily influenced by Platonic thought as well as more contemporary trends in esoteric philosophy. Thus we get a more or less deep look at the whole of Dodgson/Carroll’s philosophical career through is fictional writing.
Finally, in the book’s two appendices we are given both a complete listing of the mathematical works of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson as well as a syllabus framing a possible introduction to philosophy course based on the Alice books and corollary texts including Plato, Plotinus and Descartes. It is a brief outline that can be adapted in numerous ways and presents an interesting way of approaching the study of philosophy, but also religion and the places where those two disciplines collide.
As good and interesting as Behind the Looking Glass is, the potential reader should be aware of a few foibles of Ackerman’s writings. In many places the book itself reads like it is falling down the rabbit’s hole, time and motion all suspended, and that it is taking its reader with it. While there are moments of stability the chapters have the tendency to jump around between topics with few discernable landmarks to help the reader figure out where they are and where they are heading to. This is especially true in the first two chapters but still occurs, though with less frequency, in later ones.
While Ackerman never assumes the readers familiarity with Carroll’s writing she does sometimes assume a familiarity with the figures of the time, frustratingly leaving out first names of certain poets, philosophers, artists and mathematicians. While said individuals are frequently quite famous, such as Lord Alfred Tennyson, others, possibly equally famous in their spheres of influence might be entirely unknown to a reader who is not familiar with 18th century mathematical circles. What is perhaps the most confusing, though, is Ackerman’s apparent reliance on the histories written by occult figures such as Arthur Edward Waite, Paul Foster Case (both under his own name and through his anonymous involvement with the Kybalion) who and Manly Hall. While their writings are all perhaps quite interesting and relevant to occult studies and the history of modern occultism, their histories tend reflect the occult fads of the time rather than what might have actually happened amongst, for instance, the ancient Greeks or Egyptians. But, notice the “apparent reliance” written above. It is, in fact, quite difficult at times to tell whether Ackerman is attempting to use these authors, and other similar occult writers of the time, as bona fide historians or is instead using them to demonstrate what would have been influential upon Dodgson; i.e. the question as to whether she is looking through the eyes of Dodgson/Carroll or not remains and at times she seems to be doing just this and at other times she appears to be taking their histories as fact, which is problematic. The question is only amplified through Ackerman’s introduction that tells the reader that some of what she will be relaying to us will be quite tongue in cheek and in homage to Carroll’s own wit and ability to obfuscate.
Though difficult at times to follow, rather like a grin without a cat,
Ackerman’s Behind the Looking Glass is an important book
for those interested in the works of Lewis Carroll and their place in
the worlds of philosophy, religion and esotericism. It suggests that a
deeper look into the importance and impact of Carroll’s work must
be taken and must be done so through two eyes: one peering through the
looking glass, and one looking behind it.