Sunday, 6 December 2009
“ he hadn’t quite finished his tea…”: hot drinks and trials
Nine years after their last boat trip with Alice, Lewis Carroll – Charles Dodgson – noticed a picture of her in the museum. She did not appear natural to him.
“Very pretty but not particularly natural”, he said.
He preferred to remember her the way she had been in the boat on the Thames, with the freshness of her childhood. It was then that she had posed for his photographic lens.
Let us leave Lewis Carroll in his melancholic thoughts and picture Alice the way Sir John Tenniel had sketched her, creating the illustration model for all the later editions of “Alice”. People say that the other illustrators had a hard time with Lewis Carroll’s obstinacy in counting the lines in the drawings they had made of Alice and comparing them with the ones by Sir Tenniel.
This is the picture of Alice, when she is about to testify in court, looking unfathomable and surprised, but less innocent than her other representations in the book. This is because she jumped up in such a hurry and has tipped over the jury – box – the jurymen and the Lizard onto the heads of the crowd, with the edge of her skirt.
The trial is the trial of the Knave, who is a accused of theft – “he stole the tarts” is the charge – and it is the scene of the last act, a landmark of the journey to Wonderland. We will linger here, because this trial, and the entire novel as well, is non –sense. This is not because the testimony of Alice makes no sense and causes the anger of the judges, that is of the King and the Queen who run after her demanding her decapitation. “Off with her head!” It is because in this trial a characteristic figure of the story reappears as a witness. Remember the Hatter, who shows up in court with a cup of tea in his hands.
Some chapters before that, at the Mad Tea Party, the March Hare, Dormouse, the Hatter and Alice were sitting around a table taking their tea, singing and solving weird riddles.
The Hatter turns up at the trial with his cup of tea, his characteristic hat – “that is not his” – in order to confuse the judges even more. He is upset. In his hands he carries a piece of bread and butter.
The Hatter is confused by this trial that he cannot understand at all since the only thing that he has in mind is his attempt to start drinking his tea a week ago. Instead of biting on the bread, he bites the cup by accident.
“and he hadn’t quite finished his tea when he was sent for…”
The questions and the events are already irrelevant to the case, that is the trial of the Knave. Let us focus our attention on the figure of the Hatter and to the recall - weird repetition – of that tea scene in court.
A weird figure interrupted from taking his tea and, complaining about not being allowed to drink it, who thinks and re- thinks about it, puzzled, quite different from all the other figures of the trial – lizards, guinea pigs, moles, jurymen, witnesses, soldiers and judges, in this coordinated dance of the absurd.
Suddenly, the trial is all about tea and whether you manage or you do not manage to drink it during a trial.
If instead of tea, the hot drink was coffee with milk…
If the hearing was about a coffee that someone had drunk while he was not supposed to…
If the trial had been about a murder committed by the defendant, but the hearing was veered to whether he had sufficiently mourned his mother – because among other things he had dared to drink some coffee the night before her funeral…
We should no longer be talking about the trial of the Knave but about the trial of Mersault in L’Etranger (the Stranger) of Albert Camus.
In l’ Etranger, Mersault he stands for a murder that he has committed for no obvious reason. In fact, the charges change in a bizzarre way and he finds himself defending his meaningless life and lack of feelings. According to the indictment, the discussion about the hot drink that he has already drunk and has enjoyed, i.e. coffee with milk, is of central importance.
On the other hand, if he had not yet drunk the beverage causing its discussion during the trial, but he was about to drink it at the moment of his arrest – very hot coffee which he can barely touch with his lips – and the bread with marmalade that he had for breakfast is eaten by his prosecutors in his own home, than the defendant should be Joseph K. in Kafka’s “The Trial”.
These beverages – tea and coffee – that do not cause drunkenness but enforce the sobriety of the drinker, appear by coincidence (?) in three especially absurd trials, discreetly highlighting the non - comprehensible, non – conceivable, non – sense of the three before – mentioned procedures: Thoughts, philosophical meditations and riddles around the tea table, relief after a painful sleepless night, and bleak omens for the incomprehensible accusations without even having yet drunk a hot coffee.
Is it possible that the sobriety and the limpidity of the hot drink can be completely defeated by the absurdity of a trial that pretends to be striving for the truth, while actually it is attempting to weave a net in which to trap the defendant inside it?
The hot drink that accompanied by country biscuits, the renowned madeleines, leads to a dreamy recreation of reality in search of the Lost Time, has its place also in the uncontrollable course of the dream, i.e. in the nightmarish version of a non reality.
It is the symbolic landmark of the entrance to another dimension of the flow of time and events: dreamy or nightmarish. Meditating over the steaming hot drink, a product of our civilization meant for pleasure and social gathering, away from the realm of necessity is the boundary between two worlds that overturns the balance, making a crossing between the world of ordinary logic and the world of miracles.
This works the other way around as well, since the hot drink and its ritual trigger the exit from the world of dreams into the world of reality:
When Alice escapes persecution in Wonderland, chased by the sound of rattling tea cups, the sound is gradually transformed into tinkling sheep bells.
This is how she gets out of the dream.