Alice in the World Wide Web

Poets have their canon, physicists their string, general interest readers their New Yorker, Sartre’s Self-Taught Men their alphabetized reading lists, not so desperate housewives their Pioneer Woman. Does the reader in the Web look for a clean well-lighted place, a site of one’s own? What do you want to read today?

Alice asks the Cheshire Cat “which way I ought to go from here.” “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat. “I don’t much care where,” said Alice. “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.

How do we decide what to read? Can literature tell us what to read, what we should read? Martin Gardner, in The Annotated Alice (1960), says that “The Cat’s answer expresses very precisely the eternal cleavage between science and ethics. As Kemeny [A Philosopher Looks at Science, 1959], makes clear, science cannot tell us where to go, but after this decision is made on other grounds, it can tell us the best way to get there.” What other grounds?

Librarians at Alexandria knew how many scrolls were on hand. How many scrolls we now have online is a more difficult question. Ulrich indicates they’ve more than 300,000 “periodicals of all types – academic and scholarly journals, Open Access publications, peer-reviewed titles, popular magazines, newspapers, newsletters, and more from around the world.” Add to those, millions of blogs, scores of white papers, piles of procedure bulletins, egrets of email, spools of spam, pop-ups of poems, Hosannas of EBSCOHosts!

Why do you want to read today?

“Off with their heads!” Rhetorical Images of Heads of States

Mao: Another head in a different time and place.

“Off with their heads!” shouts Carroll’s Queen in Wonderland. Just so, Platon has beheaded them all in “Portraits of Power,” in the December 7 New Yorker.

The head of state is not a whole person, but a symbol, but of what?

“The king is an erection of the body politic,” Norman O. Brown says in Love’s Body. “The king personifies the pomp and pleasure of the community; but must also bear the burden of royalty, and, as scapegoat, take away the sins.” Yet the head retaliates with tyranny over the body.

The head of state is a figure, a doll, a clown, a puppet. But the heads glower like lead. The flash of the moment turns the head to metal. Platon’s photographs are like statues, busts; the heads in the color photos are surrounded with an eerie blue halo, as from a welder’s torch, echoed in Mugabe’s photo with a blue glow around his face, and a thin blue glow around his otherwise dark eyes.

England’s Gordon Brown, left eye slightly askew, appears to be saying, like Mad magazine’s Alfred E. Newman, “What, me worry?” While across the Irish Sea, Brian Cowen looks like a Roddy Doyle character just informed Ireland has made it to the World Cup finals, eyes disbelieving, mouth ready for the celebratory pint.

But not all the heads are smiling to be beheaded, nor are they all quite beheaded; two of the three women are spared, along with Qaddafi, who sports a paisley shirt that could have been worn by Sly Stone in There’s a Riot Goin On

Some of the heads shed an animal sense: Ahmadinejad a fox, Mesic an old dog. Some smile like they just ate the opposition (South Africa’s Zuma), or mischievously, like the Imp of the Perverse (Italy’s Berlusconi).

The electronic version of the portfolio contains a few more photos than the print version, and a couple of those are classics: Estonia’s Tooma Ilves, bespectacled with bowtie; and Lithuania’s Dalia Grybauskaite, looking very much like a Baltic Hillary. It’s not clear why these did not make the hard copy cut. The online recorded commentary by Platon on each head is remarkable for its detail and accessibilty to an otherwise “behind the wall” process that readers of the print version alone don’t have. Platon’s comments are devoid of political content, focus on the passion he has for his craft; he has time to barely brush against these men and women who surely have seen so much, and his task is to capture all that they have seen in a flash and convert it to metal, which he does with alchemical art. 

And Obama? Give this man his body back; the photo is from a previous sitting – it was decided he would not sit for a photo like the others at this time and place.