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Selva Oscura: On the Forest and Forgetting

January 18, 2018

…but she ran off as hard 

as she could, and soon found herself safe in a thick wood.

Alice in Wonderland[1]


What is lost in the forest?


By this, my question is double. First, what am I privileged to leave in the forest, and beyond—or perhaps facing—what does the forest, to no accordance with my own wishes, take for itself? From Shakespeare and Hellenic tradition, there is the magical wood cleaved against the social hierarchy of city or kingdom. There, the forest gladly slakes itself on the fetters of rank and breed— at least, while we have yet to leave; dryads and fairies are not its magic, but the suspension of identity, whereupon the latent and carnal forces—love, lust, id—take centre stage. In the strongest terms, the forest severs a personal connection to a name— the act of interpellation, whereby an ideology hails its subject to a label, here a little English girl— and leaves bare the Subject. Carroll’s Alice, at the foot of her forest of anonymity, knew this well:


Only think how convenient it would be if you could manage to go home without it! For instance, if the governess wanted to call you to your lessons, she would call out "Come here --," and there she would have to leave off, because there wouldn't be any name for her to call. (Through the Looking Glass, 171)


‘Loss of name’ is not epistemically sufficient. Abandonment must be distinguished from suspension; where Alice aspires to total anonymity, it is in the shadow of a lament, that what the forest does will merely discombobulate or confuse the chain of signification: ‘I shouldn't like to lose it at all – because they'd have to give me another, and it would be almost certain to be an ugly one’ (171). Here the prior distinction between what is left and what is taken becomes of use. Following Alice’s fear, it is the current name that is left behind— the forest, whether necessarily maintaining an equilibrium or itself unwilling to bear the burdens of the human network, brands back upon those who exit a new name, perhaps that of another who sought escape? Those receiving Alice’s old name would be bound to heed her governess’ calls and the motley tasks of a little girl— better for them not to ‘answer at all, if they were wise’ (171).


Yet as so often turns out for Alice, she is merely half-right; the forest does not retain, as she hopes, yet neither does it offer an ‘ugly one’ in place of ‘Alice’. As she with ‘her arms clasped lovingly round’ a Fawn companion ventures out into an open field, the roles which resurface are those which went in, respectively. ‘Alice— Alice— I won’t forget it now’ (172), as she claims; the reader is enough satisfied, Alice certainly being her name from earlier chapters. Were she to remember herself differently— how could she ever know? What is truly lost of Alice can only appear in light of this name which is found: ‘I won’t forget it now’ (172). This memory of forgetting itself is not forgotten, and it is by this moment made integral to her identity; the forest in the contemporary age, as it was already in Carroll’s Victorian, is no longer the unique locus of the magical. Yet even in the dwindle of the sacred, the temporality of the forest lags behind the secular age: Nietzsche’s ‘old saint has not heard in his forest that God is dead! (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Prologue 2).[2] Ubiquitously magical, Wonderland privileges not its forests, disinterestedly flanking palaces and seacoast. But despite this dissemination, the forest is not without its own powers: in remembering the loss of her name, Alice sustains the glimmer of that earliest wish, to return home nameless. Herself remains an I, but fractured, an indivisible kernel of anonymity there. Incapable of grand reversals of old, Alice’s forest is nonetheless a conduit to some sacred acts: the Fawn, which bounded so fearing Alice as it remembered itself, still received her loving embrace amid the forgetful walk. If impermanent, the space of the forest nonetheless allowed an encounter with the Lacanian real; what is left behind upon exit is described only in memory and identity, ‘Alice— Alice—’ as symptom, the little wound of that prior spell. 


What the forest has taken is simply the previous idea that identity and name are stable, guaranteed delimiters. It is not important whether or not they are such; that the sylvan amnesia itself is left with its travellers, signals toward the speculative reality of namelessness, a whisper of the utopian image of Edenic nature. Alice’s failure is the again (I won’t forget it now); it is understandable, that she may fear such forgetting, lest it once bring her to ‘another one… certainly… an ugly one’, yet it is a further guarantee of her self-captivity. If names cannot be left behind, let assumptions of the givenness of the system at least take their place. 


Early in Alice in Wonderland, Alice’s first venture into the (ostensibly different, less forgetful) woods coincides with well-known appearance of the smoking Caterpillar; it is here, and in him, that every doubtful morsel (you know/ I don’t know) or hesitance (not quite right/ It’s wrong from beginning to end!) finds its counter. She is, so to speak, bewildered. Still, the Caterpillar’s method is not a mere Socratic pastiche, nor simple wordplay. The curt rhythm of the Caterpillar (who are you?/Keep your temper/I don’t know), as all of Carroll’s choices, is more than ornamental; it is here, atop a mushroom in a strange wood, yet in a wood nonetheless, that Wonderland’s transfiguring acts reach a self-conscious epiphany. Amid stretches of ‘silence for some minutes.’ where ‘[t]he Caterpillar was the first to speak’ (62) —garrulous Alice begins finally to, her presumptive verbal tic (you know!) neutered against the clipped responses. Ceasing to project anxious knowledge (you know!) onto those she encounters, she confronts her own debit in the echo of the forest; only in admission of her total bewilderment does it open to her. A forest is no cave—its reverberations are weak, partial; the full phrase is survived only by its echoed suspicions. Yet this same force united the Fawn and Alice: one of deferral, to an other in whom the lost idea of the I—that prior carapace of hermetic self-knowledge—is yearned.  Its lamentation, knowing no ground or image—no self to perform mourning—is entangled with its inexplicable form. What emerges is an infinite loss, a solitude which does not end at the treeline, but blossoms from anxious internal loneliness as empathy.

Why then, depart at all? Survival of the forest is its own impossibility. At the climactic end of Alice in Wonderland—swarmed by the Red Queen’s court (Off with her head!)—Alice wakes only to find herself covered not with ‘nothing but a pack of cards’ (120) as she defiantly declares, but with ‘dead leaves that had fluttered down from the trees upon her face’ (131). Purely receptive being—Alice listening— is unsustainable: asserting herself again from under the spell of the other, Alice reclaims her own observations and relinquishes that sylvan cast, waking reactively back into a reality of suppositions—but also one of subjectivity.



[1] All literary citations from Carroll, Lewis, Jeffrey Meyers, John Tenniel, Martin Gardner, and Lewis Carroll. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland ; &, Through the Looking-Glass. 2012.

[2] Nietzsche, Friedrich, and Reginald John Hollingdale. Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for Everyone and No One. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 2006.

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