24 January, 2006

Sylvie and Bruno: tangent I

"Always, in this wood," she began after a pause (silence seemed natural in this dim solitude), "I begin thinking of Fairies! May I ask you a question?" she added hesitatingly. "Do you believe in Fairies?"

The momentary impulse was so strong to tell her of my experiences in this very wood, that I had to make a real effort to keep back the words that rushed to my lips. "If you mean, by 'believe', 'believe in their possible existence,' I say 'Yes.' For their actual existence, of course, one would need evidence."

"You were saying, the other day," she went on, "that you would accept anything, on good evidence, that was not a priori impossible. And I think you named Ghosts as an instance of a provable phenomenon. Would Fairies be another instance?"

"Yes, I think so." And again it was hard to check the wish to say more: but I was not yet sure of a sympathetic listener.
27 years after these words were published, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the arch-rationalist Sherlock Holmes, received copies of the now-infamous Cottingley Fairies photographs, and after some hesitation declared them authentic. Two little girls, Elsie and Frances, really had caught a troupe of fairies on camera near Cottingley, Yorkshire, in 1917. The two cousins would wait for over 50 years after Conan Doyle's death in 1930 to reveal the obvious truth: that the pictures were phoney.

The prints remain, nonetheless, beautiful. Despite the First World War, the spirit of Sylvie and Bruno has lingered on in the Old Britain of the 1920s. There is something very powerful at work here, something revelatory. It seems that scepticism, epistemology, the emotion of belief have become unexpected themes of this website; and these currents are present here most of all. In the quotation above, faith is operating in the context of a period scepticism, the kind that uses words like 'evidence' and 'provable'. Faith, in fact, is operating in tension with this scepticism. It is easy enough to sneer at old Conan Doyle, of course; easy enough, likewise, to sneer at C. L. Dodgson, Oxford mathematics professor, author of textbooks on symbolic logic and Euclidean geometry, happily promoting his magical dreamland of fairies, the tenets of his Christian belief patterned by a calculus of joy and melancholy. Both men wanted something which their age was beginning to deny them, or at least beginning to make difficult for them. And today the charge of sentimentality is the greatest anathema to bourgeois taste: hardly anything could be worse. Even our most resolutely conventional minds have become infected with a delight in the cold and analytical, a symptom of modernism before the postmodern.

This, then, is what Sylvie and Bruno offers us, as an antidote to our lugubrious game, of which we all secretly are tiring: the pure, the chaste, without irony. A reason guided by a simple heart. Faith in fairies.

And. . . the love of beautiful little girls. This is something we cannot know: how a grown man, wise enough in his cogitations, and as cynical as any, can see an image of innocence—whether Elsie Wright (above) or Alice Liddell (below, rather more Sylvie than Alice)—and give himself utterly up to her. The eroticism of both pictures is so evident as to inspire Freudian thoughts with dangerous ease.

Even in Conan Doyle's day, Freudian thoughts were becoming de rigueur. But in the land of Dodgson such thoughts are of no use; they hasten death. Reading his book requires a great suspension, not only of disbelief, but of that faculty unreasonably valorised with the word taste. Carroll, like Conan Doyle, shows us something more than mere scepticism, more than the superiority of spirit that springs from Scientific Progress. He shows us a humanity, at its most unpalatable, and thus in its most valuable form.

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