Carroll, Cross-Contour, and the Demi-Fecund Ram: An Interview with Mahendra Singh

ROBINSON: It’s interesting that you chose the platform from which you’re launching these things as Carroll because, of course, to an unread heathen such as myself, approaching him, I’m not seeing the contemporary references. Because when he says bathing machine, that’s as exotic to me as any other particular combination of two words.

SINGH: Like women wearing bloomers.

ROBINSON: Right, I can at least picture a bloomer, but a bathing machine is something beyond the scope of my imaginative powers [Singh laughs]. And it’s interesting because, as you pointed out, he’s making all these different contemporary references that have almost been absorbed by the …

SINGH: The hands of time.

ROBINSON: Right, and you’ve served that in an interesting way because you’ve added a new layer of complexity. I would hesitate to call it illustration because of that – because, it seems to me anyway, a lot of the images are transformative versus illustrative.

SINGH: Yeah, you’re right. There is a different illustrative process going on here. I had a lot of challenges with Lewis Carroll. First of all, it does refer to his time. And it’s poetry, too, pretty surreal non-sensical poetry. How do you actually draw some of these ideas? How do you draw an idea? Surrealism does allow you that little oomph that can help you draw that which is not real, and that which is purely abstract, and that which is purely intellectual. And Lewis Carroll is very suited for that because his work is highly complex– he was a very educated, literate man. I don’t think he would have cared too much for the surrealist aspect, but he would have very much approved of the idea of injecting people with a good dose of culture with a capital K, because he was very much into that. Kulture, and CH of course, K-U-L-C-H... anyway. That’s pretty much the deal, to use illustrative techniques to do that which is really not suited to illustration. Which is drawing ideas – and a lot of them, too. How do you draw ideas?

ROBINSON: That’s an unanswerable question, I would imagine.

SINGH: Yeah, that’s kind of the nub. There’s two basic forms of illustration. There’s one [mode] where you draw a scene, right? Robert Fawcett is a great example. Even the illustrations of Victorian stuff that we love so much, they didn’t draw anything conceptual, usually. If there was a [scene] of Captain Nemo in a submarine, that was what they drew. And some of that stuff is pretty sedate. It’s basically wallpaper, although, it’s beautiful wallpaper. But the trick of it is, when you just draw what’s going on, you then really have to draw the living hell out of it. You have to make it so visually beautiful and complex that the eye wishes to look and linger. And that’s something that is slipping away today. People can no longer draw realistically– instead, now they are going to conceptual, which is fine. To me, conceptual illustration in comic books, it's not as easy as people think it is. I mean, anybody can get a quick idea, but it’s usually the twentieth idea is the one that will work.

The art of the literal. Drawn by Alphonse de Neuville and Édouard Riou.

On the Snark, I would sit down and think of a bunch of ideas and mess around with them, realize after a week that it wasn’t working, come up with another one, and then you have to fit it into the flow, of course. You know, backwards and forwards. I think that's what's working with the Snark, is it’s a traditional, realistic technique combined with the more modern conceptual approach. With surrealism filling in the gaps.

ROBINSON: One of your extrapolations that seemed to occur most frequently was the pulling back of reality.

SINGH: Oh yeah, the different layers of reality.

ROBINSON: Even from the first couple pages where the Carroll poem is describing them boarding the ship, but what you're showing is your crew men on stage, and then the water is flowing in and then they are actually lifted up by the tide. And you pull back the scenery again and again. Where did that particular conceit come from?

SINGH: You know, when I started doing this book it was the very first thing that popped into my head. I knew it would start on a stage as a performance and I knew it would end on a stage with all the objects involved revealed as being just stage props. First of all, Lewis Carroll was very fond of the theater and actors and make-believe. And I’m nuts about the theater, too, and it’s a perfect metaphor for the way we frame art. To frame a theater inside a theater… and if you notice carefully, there’s several set changes – scene changes – in the story, over, and over, and over. Like striking the scenery and bringing up a new curtain and all of this. So what you get, really, is recursion. You get more and more levels of recursion. And that works on several levels for Lewis Carrol, when you think about his nonsense poetry and prose.

What nonsense really is is playing a game with the logic of words, and the logic of stories, and the logic of reality. And what you’re really doing is imbedding a logic inside another logic and then letting them interplay, in a sort of loop. You take the idea of the quest – the classic plot device of characters chasing after a dangerous animal – and then you embed that in Victorian reality. Lewis Carroll then embedded that in unreality. Where objects of reality don’t relate to one another the way we expect them to do. For instance, you have a map that is blank. Okay, this is unreal, and yet it works perfectly. Again, this is unreal. So, he’s embedding a real object with a real function inside a real situation in which it cannot work. And then again, you can move backwards and forwards. So you have multiple layers of looping, recursive sorts of things. And so the theater thing works perfectly for that. Because, you know, it’s make believe. Theaters make believe, there’s willing suspension of disbelief. And so it’s a very good metaphor – I guess that’s what it was – for nonsense, Carrollian nonsense itself.

ROBINSON: You know, it might have been some of the other references that made me think about this, but I had never considered – until I was reading your Snark – the similarity of Magritte to something like a roadrunner cartoon, where similar things are used [laughter] as a gag. When you had transition where they’re sailing across and there’s the painting of the mountain in the water, its being replaced by the off-stage people by the painting of the mountain with the ship, which is brilliant. It’s funny because I keep on thinking Magritte, Magritte, Magritte and then I hit that and I thought: roadrunner.

SINGH: Yeah, I mean, I never thought of roadrunner, but you’re absolutely right. Roadrunner does have those shifting frames of reference where you have one frame and you step outside and you’re looking at that from another frame and you step outside and you’re looking at that from another frame and there’s a certain style of making art – and it’s not Western, I think it’s very oriental, actually, deep down inside – where you have … You know the Thousand and One Nights? The stories are nested within each other. That’s a technique that has always fascinated me, and to do it visually is a lot of fun. It requires very careful planning and prearranging, and you’re designing a theater piece, really. Everybody’s got to be lined up just so. But once you create that nested effect, if you do it smoothly and carefully it creates a wonderful shifting of the ground underneath your feet, and it does suit Lewis Carroll very well.

ROBINSON: At first blush, I was thinking that some of the specificity of the reference is kind of at odds with the pure surrealism or dadaism. But, I guess, the more I saw it as integrated with the Carroll aspect, it made more sense.

SINGH: Yeah, that worried me to when I made this because first of all, as you may or may not know, the surrealists of the 1920s – the guys who got the thing going – they loved Lewis Carroll. They called him a proto-surrealist. They, in fact, didn’t know too much about him. And they made some big mistakes about his ideas and Lewis Carroll himself, I think, would have hated surrealism with a passion [Robinson laughs]. I mean, really, really hated it. It was against everything he stood for in his life. He was a man who believed in structure and society and God – he was very religious. It would have really made him spit up in fury. And I’m also a Carrollian. I’m an editor – the temporary, I hope – editor of the Carrollian magazine, The Lewis Carroll Society of North America. You know, I don’t want to do violence to the author’s intentions, and I thought about this for a long time. First of all, there is no way that I could tackle some of these ideas and visually fun to look at without dragging in some surrealist stuff. It just had to be that or way or it would have gotten kind of boring after a while. And also, when you look at some of the drawings, the connection with Carroll – you cannot verbally express it. You will notice after a while that the connections are non-verbal or just too complex to express in words.

The one I like is the one with the blank map. You know, you could probably write a small essay on how that works. The map is blank because they cannot see it, is another way of saying it. But it reflects back and forth, because Carroll was also a logician, a very good logician. And so as far as the viewers of the map are concerned, it is a logically true statement to say the map is absolutely blank. And as far as we the readers are concerned, it is a logically true and verifiable statement to say that the map is absolutely correct – at all time, in fact. Because it always says ‘you are here,’ in French. [Robinson laughs] You have an object from the real world embedded in another imaginary world where it satisfies the requirements both for the people inside the imaginary world and the requirements of the people outside the imaginary world – assuming we’re not imaginary, of course. [Laughter]

ROBINSON: And of course there's an extra layer in that every time that you’re pulling back and revealing the process, it is encouraging us to remember that we are reading something.

SINGH: That’s right. You’re reading something and, in theory, you may yourself be read, at some point. It’s really … this recursion process has always fascinated me – in art and philosophy and so forth. You know, in Western art, it’s always been a bit dodgy. And I don’t think it really took off until post-modernism, which has always surprised … well actually it doesn’t surprise me at all. Because in Western thinking the idea of infinite recursion is anathema. It is quite literally blasphemy. I think the reason is because Western culture is monotheistic. And, I don’t know, are you religious?


SINGH: Okay, good, because here it comes … another rant [laughing]. In monotheism you have this thing where – I’m not sure if you’re an atheist as I am – you’ll sooner or later stop by some outraged person who will tell you that if you’re so damn smart, just tell me, who made the world? And of course, the answer is God. And then you snap back at him, as you will, then who made God? And this person will tell you very clearly – and very succinctly – that God made himself, that God always existed. And the point of that is, in Western thinking in general, infinite recursion is impossible for the mind. In Western mathematics and logic, the infinite recursion is not allowed, okay? It’s just the rule of logic, which is fine. But, since my father is an Indian, and he’s a very devout atheist [laughter], he made sure I got a good dose of some of this Hindu metaphysics. And one of the basic ideas of Hinduism – classical Hinduism – is that infinite recursion happens all the time. And so you can keep moving the frame backwards and backwards and backwards. And to the classical Hindu metaphysic – you know, the classic Hindu philosopher and even Buddhists, I think, perhaps – this idea is not at all bothersome. So it’s a bit dizzying, so what? Life is a bit dizzying [laughs]. You know? And I think that’s kind of where this has always interested me. And we now know that in contemporary literature and art and so forth, we’re getting a lot of that … Westerners are finally relaxing about reality and realizing it’s up for grabs.