24 May 2010

Martin Gardner

“Seven years and six months!” Humpty Dumpty repeated thoughtfully. “An uncomfortable sort of age. Now if you’d asked my advice, I’d have said, ‘Leave off at seven’ — but it’s too late now.”

“I never ask advice about growing,” Alice said indignantly.

“Too proud?” the other inquired.

Alice felt even more indignant at this suggestion. “I mean,” she said, “that one can’t help growing older.”

One can’t, perhaps,” said Humpty Dumpty, “but two can. With proper assistance, you might have left off at seven.”
-- Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass,
and What Alice Found There

That exchange represents, as the writer Martin Gardner observed, perhaps the subtlest joke in the Alice books, and it’s to be wondered whether I’d ever have understood it properly had Mr. Gardner not pointed it out. Humpty is talking about killing Alice, after all, and even if readers may not understand him, she does — her response is to change the subject as quickly as possible.

Now Gardner himself has died, at the age of 95. (Presumably, murder did not come into play.) That I have not read all of his more than 70 books, on the grounds that not all of his subjects interest me, merely indicates that I am not like him: everything seemed to interest Martin Gardner.

I know him best for The Annotated Alice, a scrupulously detailed work, first published in 1960, in which Gardner unravels the riddles of Carroll’s Alice books. His marginalia are consistently witty, absorbing, and illuminating; their only real shortcoming, as other critics have pointed out, is their refusal, in 1990 — when they were revised, updated, and expanded — to admit Carroll’s most distinguished modern heir, John Lennon. At heart, Gardner may have been too much an old fogey to concede the significance of the Beatle’s inspired nonsense. (So be it: that leaves something for the rest of us to write about.)

Such is Gardner’s scholarship that subsequent studies of Alice routinely cite him, and such his success that a seemingly endless stream of “Annotated” editions of other texts followed, some written by Gardner himself, though few really deserving of the treatment.

After all, how many books are as deceptively dense as Alice? James Joyce at least fires off warning shots to tell you that, when reading him, you will need to refer to outside texts and “concordances,” but Carroll never does. And indeed, it’s perfectly possible to read Alice as most people do — superficially — and to derive a great deal of pleasure from the books, or else to let Carroll’s fantasies flow into our own, without fully understanding either.

Born in Tulsa, trained as a philosopher, and employed as the editor of a children’s magazine (Humpty Dumpty, no less) and as the puzzle editor of Scientific American, Gardner doesn’t seem to have restrained himself from studying and writing about any subject under the sun. He was forever curious — and curiouser.

In most regards, then, he was a dilettante in the best sense, and an amateur intellectual: a cross between a Victorian eccentric and a Yankee ingenious. Both strains are a bit cranky, yes, but there was also something pure and joyful about his mind, and he shared that with his readers, not merely following his bliss but inviting us along for the ride.

One of his favored pursuits was the debunking of pseudo-science. Nowadays, when so many Americans are so avidly debunking real science (or attempting to), and advocating the study of supernatural causes of natural phenomena — and when so many esteem their own, uninformed opinions over any facts, evidence, and expertise — I really fear that we shall not see Martin Gardner’s like again.

1 comment:

Alex said...

What I loved about his writing was that he was rigorous and demanding of himself and his readers -- but not so dogmatic and rigid that he couldn't be fanciful and joyous.

He will be missed.