Carroll and Borges: Two Perspectives on Individualism

Author’s Note: Dedicated to Alicia Cerezo

“Rara temporum felicitas ubi sentire quae velis et quae sentias dicere licet.”
—Tacitus, Historiae, 1.1

“I don’t like belonging to another person’s dream.”
—Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass, VIII

There is a quick and easy way, I say, to introduce young readers to the political allegory of Lewis Carroll’s Alice Through the Looking-Glass (1871). In Chapter VII, “The Lion and the Unicorn,” the author draws out three figures from the crest of the United Kingdom. He sets them to fighting and arguing with each other. The Lion and the Unicorn battle over the crown of the White King, who, of course, won’t relinquish said crown to either one: “Dear me, no!” he says, “What an idea!” All three of these characters also address Alice.

Young readers will remain mesmerized by the fantastical details of Carroll’s novel, but the existence of its political allegory should be obvious to adult English readers. If its meaning remains dim to them, its most glaring details should help. First, the chapter’s opening context is human violence, specifically war, represented as the state of nature. Soldiers “seemed to fill the whole forest,” and “the ground was soon covered with little heaps of men,” and “confusion got worse every moment.” When Alice emerges from the woods, she encounters the arch-symbol of the British liberal order. The White King sent those soldiers into the breach, and he administers the rest of his realm with runners. Nevertheless, he lacks sufficient authority or power to impose peace nearer to home. “They’re at it again,” reports one of his two Anglo-Saxon messengers, referring to the Lion and the Unicorn fighting in town.

Carroll’s allegory represents the oxymoronic paradox that constitutes “natural law.” The expansionist United Kingdom keeps the state of nature at bay at its frontiers; but England (the Lion) and Scotland (the Unicorn) embody an age-old internal conflict that makes possible the outwardly aimed repression of that same state of nature.

Carroll wrote an ingeniously monarchical (Tory) vision of the same natural law espoused by Locke and Madison. A weak third party—the White King—keeps his crown precisely because the two more powerful actors—the Unicorn and the Lion—must agree to preserve his life in order to protect their own. A natural compromise between powerful partisans who respect a minority—if only because they might someday be one—courses through the Anglo-Saxon tradition from the Magna Carta Libertatum to Federalist 51. “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition,” says Madison, “the stronger individuals are prompted, by the uncertainty of their condition, to submit to a government which may protect the weak as well as themselves.” Carroll restates this figuratively and from the weakest point of view. Alice leaves the wilderness, befriends a fearful king—the scenario’s true “chicken”—and then witnesses a triangular peace:

“I should win easy,” said the Lion. “I’m not so sure of that,” said the Unicorn. “Why, I beat you all round the town, you chicken!” the Lion replied angrily, half getting up as he spoke. Here the king interrupted, to prevent the quarrel going on: he was very nervous, and his voice quite quivered.

We can now have a conversation about Anglo-Saxon traditions and values, about that long chain of events in English history whereby humanity’s natural violence dovetails with something that, over time, comes to resemble the modern liberal order.

The French phrases on the same crest alluded to by Carroll’s king, lion, and unicorn indicate a path backwards in time, a labyrinth that opens before us like a rabbit hole under the English Channel (La Manche in French). Now, tracing the origins of proper governing structures becomes murkier. Honi soit qui mal y pense, a maxim from the Norman-French spoken by England’s medieval ruling caste, means “shamed be whoever thinks ill of it.” According to chivalric legend, when Joan of Kent’s garter slipped off her leg, causing the royal court to laugh, Edward III (1312–77) placed it on himself and returned the shame to those who mocked her. Civilization first protects women from a malicious horde. Likewise, Alice and that White Queen flying around in the background of Chapter VII of Through the Looking-Glass signal natural law’s first order of business as its defense of females against volatile bands of male rivals: “There’s some enemy after her, no doubt,” says the White King, “That wood’s full of them.”

Next, the phrase Dieu et mon droit, a motto attributed to a battle cry by Richard I (1157–99), means “God and my right.” We might debate whether God’s grace justifies a monarchy, but over the course of human history, natural law surely works its coordination of rivals in mysterious ways. As a result, divinity concepts lurk proximate to mythical women and mystical symbols like crowns. Carroll, after all, was a mathematician at Christ’s Church in Oxford.

Carroll’s allusions to more modern power arrangements emerge from these impressions of the archaic past in Through the Looking-Glass. When the Lion and the Unicorn pause to enjoy refreshments, an odd plum-cake materializes. Chapter VII concludes with Alice attempting to divvy up the cake, but it magically resists: “I’ve cut several slices already, but they always join on again!” Finally, in the uncanny republic of the looking-glass, “the cake divided itself into three pieces.” To the degree that any alienated society recovers its sense of justice, it’s always going to be a matter of post hoc ergo propter hoc. When a power struggle—like a war between Scotland and England—concludes, only then can a triadic constitutional plan rise from the ashes and sneak itself into the national architecture as the arbiter of civility between exhausted rivals.

But what we might call the “plum-cake peace” in Through the Looking-Glass doesn’t last. The Unicorn objects that Alice has given the Lion twice as much as him, and then “before Alice could answer, the drums began.” Carroll’s point is that the natural law sustaining a constitutional monarchy is itself a response to a natural law of human sentiment. There’s no other way. Envy always rears its ugly head; without some agreement regarding how to slice society’s pie, so to speak, violence returns inevitably. Could it be that some beneficent form of tyranny, a “divine right of kings,” or, if you prefer, a “divinely ordained constitution,” is the only way to avoid a nation’s urge to divide against itself? And isn’t that another form of self-deception? A kind of fantastical theater in the round? Perhaps. But if it’s the only one that works, how unreal is it?

I’ve got to confess that I’ve only returned to Lewis Carroll because Jorge Luis Borges quoted him in the epigraph of his story about circular ruins. Except that Borges miss-quoted Carroll. He wrongly cited an enigmatic phrase, “And if he left off dreaming about you…,” as if he lifted it from Chapter VI of Through the Looking-Glass. In truth, it’s from Tweedledee’s speech in Chapter IV. I think it’s strange that I’ve never met anyone who’s ever noticed.

And I have another confession to make. It was in fact Borges who taught me that Carroll’s allegory about a king, a lion, and a unicorn concerns more than the factional (and fractional) history of the United Kingdom. It’s ultimately about the viability of individuals. In other words, Borges showed me that Carroll showed us that modern individuals are people whose existence requires something more than constitutional restraints on dueling parties. Individuals also require respect qua individuals. The preconditions for a liberal order are individuals who respect other individuals. Without us, it’s hard to envision a peaceful society growing and advancing into the future. And if we can’t imagine such a society, how on earth can we constitute one? Allow me to explain how Borges explains Carroll.

My recent experience of Borges has been like that of James Stewart’s character in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) when he realizes Raymond Burr has just seen him. I don’t mean that Borges murdered his wife, no. Rather, unless you read him next to other important Anglo authors, such as Thomas Jefferson and Lewis Carroll, you won’t realize that he’s studying your culture as much as you’re studying his. In 2020, after a plague and another embarrassing political season in the United States, I left off being a Hispanist for a while and contemplated my own country again. I went backwards in time, reading Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (1835–40), Hamilton, Madison, and Jay’s The Federalist Papers (1787–88), and Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (1785). Then, on a hunch, I looked again at three texts by Borges: “Nuestro pobre individualismo” (1946), “El Aleph” (1945), and “Las ruinas circulares” (1940).

I was young when I met Borges in 1984. I couldn’t understand his stories at that age. And I certainly had no idea he was thinking about us, that he was one of us. Now I can see that, much like Poe, Borges expresses the angst of an Anglo individualist lost in an ocean of ethnocentric collectivism. It’s not that such angst is uniquely Anglo; there have been other cultures and historical moments when self-conscious individuals have felt compelled to broadcast their uniqueness across space and time. But Borges shows us that modern, thoughtful, respectful, and self-doubting individuals are scarcer than Americans realize. His writing recalls for us Tacitus’s phrase: “That rare happiness of times when one may think what one wants and say what one thinks.” Most of human history is a dystopia. Its exceptions just test the rule.

“Nuestro pobre individualismo” laments the lack of individualism in Argentina in the decades following the decline of liberal democracy there. It opens with nostalgia for the great reformist poet John Milton, author of Paradise Lost as well as an epic defense of freedom of the press known as Areopagitica, the latter delivered at the height of the First English Civil War in 1644 (see Acts 17). “El Aleph” represents that same diminutive Argentine individual in the guise of a mystical sphere that measures a mere “two or three centimeters” in diameter. It’s a painful irony that alludes to Jefferson’s description of mysterious globules of warm air in the Virginia countryside which pass by him in “two or three seconds” and measure “20 or 30 feet diameter.” Jefferson estimated that these masses of air were just about the temperature of a human body. Jefferson had in mind that “sphere of personal liberty” popularized by such eighteenth- and nineteenth-century liberal authors as Humboldt and Mill. “Ah yes, Thomas Jefferson,” Borges once said in an interview, “the architect of democracy, and the democrat of architecture.”

Turning finally to “Las ruinas circulares,” we read Borges’s tragic ode to Carroll. Tragic, I say, since the individual who emerges there remains an illusion, a stillborn fantasy who evaporates before he can disseminate his ideas or combine with others to establish any semblance of a social order. The story’s first line is ominous: “No one saw him disembark in the unanimous night.” The anonymous and “taciturn” man arrives by river at a circular gray temple, one “crowned with a stone tiger or horse.” A cold, imperfected vision of the crest of the United Kingdom animated by Carroll three generations prior. Alone in the abyss, our solitary figure tries to start something by worshipping Fire; he also hopes to bequeath his secret knowledge to an imaginary protégé. Fire promises him success, only to withhold it, at which point the man realizes that he too is just a figment of someone else’s imagination. Jefferson observed over and over that Latin Americans would remain trapped by their primitive religious mindset. A liberal Latin American is a rarity, someone doomed to linger in another’s dream, groping about in the darkness, downstream from the proper appreciation of individuals needed to sustain his existence. Borges’s story articulates a Latin American’s understanding of the Rivanna River. Someday he’ll see that circular monument to British natural law atop Monticello; until then, he can only dream about it.

Photo by Chris Collins —Wikimedia Commons & Cancillería Argentina — Wikimedia Commons — Edited by Jared Gould 


  • Eric-Clifford Graf

    Eric-Clifford Graf (PhD, Virginia, 1997) teaches and writes about the liberal tradition as authored by men like Alexander Hamilton, Frederick Douglass, and Jorge Luis Borges. His latest book is ANATOMY OF LIBERTY IN DON QUIJOTE DE LA MANCHA (Lexington, 2021). All of his work can be found here:

4 thoughts on “Carroll and Borges: Two Perspectives on Individualism

  1. I think (and hope) you are onto something. The Borges vs. Jefferson dichotomy is perhaps starting to crater, finally. I think of those tides in Federalist 64. Things are, I think, reverting to the mean again. Liberty is now a growing aspect of the Spanish language. It’s more. I think we’re changing places. It remains to be seen if Bukele and Milei can hold on and if the rest of Latin America can recognize something in them. I’m more optimistic about Latin America than the U.S. It’s why I cannot support a wall. A wall to protect what exactly? A terminal case of Athenian madness? Identity politics? People who vote for more government and respect corrupt institutions like MIT and Harvard? Bring on the Latin Americans, and try to get them to read more Borges and Carroll.

  2. This is interesting because I have always dismissed Lewis Carroll’s Alice Through the Looking-Glass with two words: “Mercury Poisoning.”

    Mercury is a potent neurotoxin that was used in the 19th Century to make hats — something to do with processing the animal fur into the felt from which the hats were made. The people who worked in the factories that made hats (“hatters”) breathed in the Mercury fumes and were thus poisoned. The “Mad Hatter” is a fairly accurate description of this type of Mercury poisoning, and reports are that everyone living in the towns where hats were made would be exhibiting some of these behaviors because they were suffering from some extent of Mercury poisoning.

    That would have included Louis Carroll, although it gets better…

    The earliest form of photography, the Daguerreotype method, involved fuming the image to Mercury vapor to make it visible — and it was breathing the vapor that was the problem. Louis Carroll was quite active in Daguerreotype photography — thus exposing himself to even more Mercury vapor than was in the ambient air of his town.

    Heavy metals are toxic — it was the Romans sad experiences with Lead, it is Mercury here, but before we condemn them, let’s not forget our own sad experiences with Asbestos and PCBs. And in fairness, felt hats eventually fell out of favor in part because people started realizing the consequences of using Mercury to make them. (Fashionable ladies then turned around and almost made the Atlantic Puffin extinct, but that’s another story…)

    I have always viewed this book as the raving of a lunatic — someone suffering the toxic consequences of Mercury Poisoning. The Lion and the Unicorn becoming animate and then battling each other is a hallucination — a symptom of what, for all intents and purposes, is a mental illness (although it technically is not, and we have chelation therapy today).

    The book is a goldmine of quotes, with Alice’s trial being sadly descriptive of the Kangaroo Korts which plague academia today (I’ve used the “sentence now, verdict later” quote more than once). But it also can be read as a condemnation of the “Bloody Code” of the late 18th Century and supportive of the continued reforms in British law that people were urging at the time. The hallucination of the crown becoming animate can be read in terms of the tensions that then existed in Ireland, with the Anglo-Irish War being fought 1919-1921 and most of Ireland then becoming independent. Etc…

    But I still say Mercury Poisoning is no small part of it…

    1. Nah, too easy, Dr. Ed. Like calling Dali insane or attributing the Popol Vuh to pagan confusion. Besides, the truth always emerges from the interface of reason and unreason. So, crazy perhaps, but there’s logic there too. Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass are an extended allegory involving theology and the political history of the Anglo world. He states the latter outright. You yourself say it has political implications and offers a sound critique of the perils of social justice. And a guy with his mathematical skills? Just because you’re crazy doesn’t mean you’re ignorant. Many times, quite the opposite. What is MIT if not a hotbed of reason producing neoracist madness? If that is mercury poisoning, then we need more of it. More mercury, please; fewer cell phones. I must confess, however, that I truly appreciate even the remote possibility that you found this piece at all interesting. Cheers.

  3. An interesting approach to individualism, especially with a view of Latin America: “A liberal Latin American is a rarity.” From my research in Cali, Colombia (a squatter settlement), I encountered many upstart individuals — at the lowest rungs of society rather than at the pinnacle of literature. And then I think about us, and I wonder if “liberal U.S. individuals being a rarity.” Is this just flipping the units of analysis or getting lost in cultural exemplars as abstract representatives of entire populations?

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