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The Walrus and the Carpenter

April 29, 2014

I don’t know why but I often find myself mentally redoing projects that I did in university. Usually it’s the ones where I had to present something. I imagine myself standing back there in front of the class again, and what I’d say if I were doing the presentation now.

In an English course once I had to memorize a poem, recite it to the class, and give a little analysis of it. A lot of people chose song lyrics. That was a mental shift for me — it hadn’t occurred to me before that that poems and songs are the same thing. Ever since that assignment I’ve thought of poems and songs a little differently.

This morning if I were picking a poem to memorize and talk about it would be the Walrus and the Carpenter, from chapter 4 of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/12/12-h/12-h.htm#link2HCH0004 There’s always been something really horrible about that poem, to me, and maybe now I see what it is.

The story: the “Walrus” and the “Carpenter” are walking along a beach. They entice a bunch of oysters to follow them. The oysters are excited to go for a walk, but they get tired and sit down to rest. Then the Walrus and the Carpenter eat them.

As I see it now, there’s something very characteristically modern in this story. At the climax of it, when the oysters have gotten tired and sat down, the Walrus casually mentions that it’s “time to feed”. The oysters pleed for their lives, and the Walrus answers them,
“The night is fine. Do you admire the view?”

It’s horror, but it’s so understated as to be matter-of-fact. From the perspective of the oysters what’s happening is terrible; but the Walrus and the Carpenter are on such a different plane that in some sense they aren’t experiencing the same event. They’re just having a nice dinner. They’re aware that their actions are a tragedy to the oysters, but there’s no necessity for them to empathize with that and so they don’t.

You get the same sense of disconnection reading Franz Kafka, and people like that. It’s not about good and evil, these modern writers seem to be telling us. It’s about the powerful and the powerless; the informed and the uninformed. But the differences between these groups are not fundamental. At various times they seem like one big group — Walrus, Carpenter, and oysters all walking along the beach together. They experience some things in the same way — the pleasure of the walk — and to that extent they’re in the same story. But then, seemingly by accident, part of the group gets hungry and decides to eat the rest of the group. From the standpoint of the eaters this is completely unremarkable; it’s just a thing that happens.

In most of the horror stories we knew as kids there was some supernatural creature doing evil things. The devil tricked people, or ghosts haunted them, or dragons robbed them. Some creature that was clearly an outsider perpetrated the evil, and it clearly was evil. There was never a sense that the dragon had its own perspective within which its actions were perfectly acceptable, and even ordinary. There was no sense that the dragons and devils and demons were the same as everyone else.

There was a line in a comic strip called Pogo which said “We have met the enemy and he is us.” That’s the sense you get in more modern stories. The evil isn’t supernatural — on the contrary, it’s often ordinary to the point of being banal. It isn’t other, it’s us. But it’s also not us, depending on circumstances. You might have a job that requires you to do something harmful, but you could as easily be fired and replaced by someone else. So evil things aren’t perpetrated by evil people. In fact, depending on your perspective the evil may or may not exist for you.

The enemy, if there is one, is us. Well and good for Camus to say that it’s the duty of thinking people not to be on the side of the executioners, but how can that be practically achieved? Where are the opportunities for meaningful choice? They must exist, but they’re well-hidden.

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