What would Lewis Carroll say?

Front cover, The Hunting of the Snark

The poison water case studies of our “Experts and the Public” course have illuminated just two examples of conflicts in which, no matter how we dissect, analyze, or prescribe, we must conclude that the public (“The Other”) is on the losing side without a clear way forward.  The other losing side, the powerful and elite that collectively might be called “The Establishment,” can use power and privilege indefinitely to overcome, silence, dilute, and prolong so that nothing is ever resolved.

We have chronicled the rise of lay experts, those motivated by a need to stay healthy and trapped by circumstances beyond their control, who attain a sophisticated and growing knowledge of the matters at hand, in the vacuum of substantive guidance.  Baptised by fire, these reluctant foot soldiers understand the bottom line, if not much of the intricate science about the poisoning of their communities, probably better than established experts. Maybe that is why The Establishment seeks to silence them.  In any case, resolution of the crisis is stalemated, and victimhood is institutionalized in the fabric of these communities, and many others yet unnamed.

The public cannot decisively win by any means short of outright revolution, which is not a practical option.  So how will mass suffering by allayed?  The most likely answer is through the process of social movements, the continued application of pressure by many bearing on repressive attitudes and circumstances.  With enough pressure applied for a long enough time, anything can be made to yield, whether the pressure comprises molecules or humans.  Historically, this process takes decades or centuries.

Which leads me to wonder what Lewis Carroll would say.  In social revolution, pen and paintbrush become swords in the hands of master satirists: Aristophanes, Voltaire, Shakespeare, Lewis Carroll.  Since they are not here to speak to us about poisoned water in America, we can rely on metaphorical blending to give new interpretation to existing works.  What better work of satire to fit to modern narratives than Lewis Carroll’s 1876 poem, The Hunting of the Snark?

A re-reading of Snark in the context of present events is not an individual exercise, so I will rely on a rich discussion by several imaginative commentators to bring the metaphor to life and to bear on the present injustices.  The text of the poem is found here.  For the full impact,  find a copy with Henry Holiday’s original illustrations.

The Hunting of the Snark opens with “The Landing,” in which the Bellman carries each crew member ashore by the hair.  In the first page, the Bellman proclaims, “what I tell you three times is true,” which Eileen Byrne has named “the Snark syndrome,” the phenomenon in which the oft-proclaimed is elevated to “knowledge” status and used to guide policy.

Plate 1, The Hunting of the Snark

In Snark, the Bellman is an authority figure who demands attention and deference but is incapable of providing useful guidance.  Through the rest of the poem, the Bellman prattles about ringing his bell, as if the bell detracts from and atones for his own lack of substance. Who is the Bellman in Flint or Washington, DC?

This was charming, no doubt; but they shortly found out
   That the Captain they trusted so well
Had only one notion for crossing the ocean,
   And that was to tingle his bell.


Plate 5, The Hunting of the Snark

The Baker, “who could only bake Bride-cake,” received a warning from his Uncle about the Boojum, a most dangerous variety of Snark.  The Baker does indeed vanish away at the end of the poem.

‘But oh, beamish nephew, beware of the day,
   If your Snark be a Boojum! For then
You will softly and suddenly vanish away,
   And never be met with again!’


Plate 9, The Hunting of the Snark

One of the most interesting, if baffling, scenes in the poem occurs in “Fit the Seventh: The Banker’s Fate,” when the Banker is attacked by a Bandersnatch. The Banker tries to bribe the Bandersnatch and is almost seized and escapes but goes insane.  The fright causes the Banker to turn black in the face, while his waistcoat turns white. The Banker is portrayed in the scene playing the bones.  After the Banker’s fright, the Bellman abandons him in his chair on the rocks.

Down he sank in a chair—ran his hands through his hair—
   And chanted in mimsiest tones
Words whose utter inanity proved his insanity,
   While he rattled a couple of bones.


This is a reference to blackface minstrelsy, which was immensely popular among lower class Americans in the nineteenth century because it was participatory entertainment and gave the audience a voice.   In blackface minstrelsy, blackness was a signal of an intruder or outsider (Cockrell, 1997).  Lewis Carroll was calling someone out as an intruder in Victorian England. Who is the Banker in our narrative?

What about the Snark itself — the Boojum — which the audience is never allowed to see?  Does it even exist, or is this just a convenient mythical creature to point blame for events that are unexplained or hidden?  There are surely analogs to the Snark/Boojum in the conduct of repression. What do you think?

In the midst of the word he was trying to say,
   In the midst of his laughter and glee,
He had softly and suddenly vanished away—
   For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.


The Bellman

Byrne, E. M. (1993). Women and Science: The Snark Syndrome. Falmer Press, Bristol, PA.

Carroll, William.   “The Banjo as Metaphor in Nineteenth-Century America.” Unpublished class presentation, 2017.

Cockrell, Dale. Demons of Disorder : Early Blackface Minstrels and Their World.  Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Thanks to Bill Carroll for sharing his research on 19th century blackface minstrelsy in class on August 1!

Illustration credits:  Henry Holiday (1839-1927) after Lewis Carroll [Real name: Charles Lutwidge Dodgson] (1832-1896) – The Hunting of the Snark: An Agony in Eight Fits by Lewis Carroll, MacMillan and Co, Limited, St. Martin’s Street, London, 1931.

2 Replies to “What would Lewis Carroll say?”

  1. Another thought-provoking post.

    I’ll be honest, it was hard for me to read the sentence about needing decades, if not centuries, for the kind of “mass suffering” we’re studying to be allayed (despite the fact that for a while now I, myself, have been reluctantly coming to the same exhausting conclusion).

    I am intrigued by your framing of the problem as one of two “losing” sides: the public “Other” and the “Establishment.” I would love to know more about this conceptualization. I think I understand why you view affected residents as “losing,” but what about the establishment do you see this way?

    Perhaps your answer is in your reference to “The Hunting of the Snark.” I love the questions you pose. I really do wonder what your interpretation is.

  2. In the poem, the Bellman and the Banker represent “The Establishment.” When the Bandersnatch attacks, the Banker tries to bribe him and fails. The attack renders the Banker insane; his privileged position (and money) do not protect him from danger. The Bellman then abandons him on the rocks.

    In spite of his position of privilege and authority, the Bellman is an inept leader. The members of the expedition do not defy his authority, but they quietly have concerns based on what they have seen. What will happen when the Bandersnatch or the Boojum come for the Bellman? By the Bellman’s own example, the expedition is governed by a policy of “every man for himself.” He cannot rely on the others to protect him (even if they could), and he is apparently not capable of protecting himself.

    If the Bandersnatch is an insidious threat like toxic water and the Boojum an impending ecological disaster, nobody is exempt from harm. “The Establishment” in contemporary contexts may realize a short-term gain from financial dealings and the continued exercise of power, but their human bodies will not be able to escape harm, especially if the threat is so pervasive that it cannot be evaded.

    For example, someone could stockpile water, but what would they do about fresh vegetables, meat, and grains, when agriculture becomes a casualty? When toxins are circulating through the water supply, the soil, and the food chain, there may come a point of collapse where privilege, power, and prestige cannot sustain systematic inequality, and new currencies will arise. Unfortunately, humanity may not survive to see any winners. Or the cure may take millennia.

    I guess this post is sort of a downer, but Lewis Carroll’s insights are on point, I believe.

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