As we discussed in class yesterday (Engl 315), Alice"s exchange with Tweedledee in chapter 4 of Through the Looking-Glass seems to evoke Descartes' famous proof of existence in his Discourse on Method (1637): I think, therefore I am.
"Well, it no use your talking about waking him," said Tweedledum, "when you're only one of the things in his dream. You know very well you're not real."
"I am real!" said Alice and began to cry.
"You won't make yourself a bit realler by crying," Tweedledee remarked: "there's nothing to cry about."
"If I wasn't real," Alice said — half-laughing through her tears, it all seemed so ridiculous — "I shouldn't be able to cry."
That the question of Alice's reality should be framed as a question about the difficulty of distinguishing reality from dream points us, as well, toward the first of Descartes' Meditations (1641), where he explains his intention to throw out all his current beliefs because they are built on the misleading foundations of sensation. Isn't it the case, he imagines his reader objecting, that some sensations are beyond the range of doubt?
4. But it may be said, perhaps, that, although the senses occasionally mislead us respecting minute objects, and such as are so far removed from us as to be beyond the reach of close observation, there are yet many other of their informations (presentations), of the truth of which it is manifestly impossible to doubt; as for example, that I am in this place, seated by the fire, clothed in a winter dressing gown, that I hold in my hands this piece of paper, with other intimations of the same nature. But how could I deny that I possess these hands and this body, and withal escape being classed with persons in a state of insanity, whose brains are so disordered and clouded by dark bilious vapors as to cause them pertinaciously to assert that they are monarchs when they are in the greatest poverty; or clothed [in gold] and purple when destitute of any covering; or that their head is made of clay, their body of glass, or that they are gourds? I should certainly be not less insane than they, were I to regulate my procedure according to examples so extravagant.
5. Though this be true, I must nevertheless here consider that I am a man, and that, consequently, I am in the habit of sleeping, and representing to myself in dreams those same things, or even sometimes others less probable, which the insane think are presented to them in their waking moments. How often have I dreamt that I was in these familiar circumstances, that I was dressed, and occupied this place by the fire, when I was lying undressed in bed? At the present moment, however, I certainly look upon this paper with eyes wide awake; the head which I now move is not asleep; I extend this hand consciously and with express purpose, and I perceive it; the occurrences in sleep are not so distinct as all this. But I cannot forget that, at other times I have been deceived in sleep by similar illusions; and, attentively considering those cases, I perceive so clearly that there exist no certain marks by which the state of waking can ever be distinguished from sleep, that I feel greatly astonished; and in amazement I almost persuade myself that I am now dreaming.
Of course, Tweedleedee's taunt is not that Alice herself is dreaming, but that she is "only a sort of thing" in the Red King's dream.
Descartes goes on to suggest that perhaps the truths of "Arithmetic" and "Geometry," which don't really on sensation, are beyond doubt, "for whether I am awake or dreaming, it remains true that two and three make five, and that a square has but four sides; nor does it seem possible that truths so apparent can ever fall under a suspicion of falsity."
Nevertheless, the belief that there is a God who is all powerful, and who created me, such as I am, has, for a long time, obtained steady possession of my mind. How, then, do I know that he has not arranged that there should be neither earth, nor sky, nor any extended thing, nor figure, nor magnitude, nor place, providing at the same time, however, for [the rise in me of the perceptions of all these objects, and] the persuasion that these do not exist otherwise than as I perceive them? And further, as I sometimes think that others are in error respecting matters of which they believe themselves to possess a perfect knowledge, how do I know that I am not also deceived each time I add together two and three, or number the sides of a square, or form some judgment still more simple, if more simple indeed can be imagined?
This possibility — that my perceptions, which I had assumed to be of real objects, are simply placed in my mind by God — sounds rather like the idea that the world itself (including me) is nothing other than a projection of the mind of God: that I (along with everything else), am "only a sort of thing" in God's dream.
That there is no material world at all — that the cause of our perceptions is not mind-independent objects but God — would be precisely the position taken by the Anglo-Irish philosopher and Anglican bishop George Berkeley (1685-1753).
"Life, what is it but a dream?" is the question raised at the end of Carroll's two Alice books. What looks real to me might be a dream — my own or someone else's. If I mistake my dream of a life for reality, I begin to look like those "persons in a state of insanity" to whom Descartes refers. ("We're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad," the Cheshire Cat tells Alice in Wonderland, chapter 6. See update below.) If I'm only a sort of thing in God's dream, should I worry that He might wake up? Should I be troubled by what seems like a consequent loss of free will?
Of course, it's important not to overemphasize the frightening possibilities of Carroll's question. Insofar as it perhaps points toward the ideal or spiritual as the only true reality, it seems to echo Romantic protests against the materialism of the Enlightenment and modern science. Good to remember Carlyle here, whose Teufelsdoeckh, in Sartor Resartus (in a passage unfortunately dropped from the 8th edition of the Norton Anthology, though still available in pdf on Norton's website), announced (with a nod toward Shakespeare's Tempest),
So has it been from the beginning, so will it be to the end. Generation after generation takes to itself the Form of a Body; and forth-issuing from Cimmerian Night, on Heaven's mission APPEARS. What Force and Fire is in each he expends: one grinding in the mill of Industry; one hunter-like climbing the giddy Alpine heights of Science; one madly dashed in pieces on the rocks of Strife, in war with his fellow: — and then the Heaven-sent is recalled; his earthly Vesture falls away, and soon even to Sense becomes a vanished Shadow. Thus, like some wild-flaming, wild-thundering train of Heaven's Artillery, does this mysterious MANKIND thunder and flame, in long-drawn, quick-succeeding grandeur, through the unknown Deep. Thus, like a God-created, fire-breathing Spirit-host, we emerge from the Inane; haste stormfully across the astonished Earth; then plunge again into the Inane. Earth's mountains are levelled, and her seas filled up, in our passage: can the Earth, which is but dead and a vision, resist Spirits which have reality and are alive? On the hardest adamant some footprint of us is stamped-in; the last Rear of the host will read traces of the earliest Van. But whence? — O Heaven, whither? Sense knows not; Faith knows not; only that it is through Mystery to Mystery, from God and to God.
"We are such stuff
As Dreams are made of, and our little Life
Is rounded with a sleep!"'
Update (March 5)
In connection with the Cheshire Cat's provocative suggestion, Martin Gardner, in The Annotated Alice (New York: Bramhall House, 1960), points us to a February 9, 1857 entry in Carroll's diary:
Query: when we are dreaming and, as often happens, have a dim consciousness of the fact and try to wake, do we not say and do things which, in waking life would be insane? May we not then sometimes define insanity as an inability to distinguish which is the waking and which the sleeping life? We often dream without the least suspicion of unreality: "Sleep hath its own world," and it is often as lifelike as the other.