Time is short. It is 06:43, and the dog snores gently on his cushion.
My mentor for today advises steadfastly that when one feels blue there is one surefire way to beat it: and that is to believe six impossible things before breakfast.
I choose an unlikely text. It concerns a little girl called Alice, and her dreamlike adventures: short episodes which fade nightmarishly from one scene to another. Nothing seems to make sense in the works of Lewis Carroll.
Alias, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson: author of Alice in Wonderland and Alice in the Looking Glass. He brought us a strange kind of nonsense. Its popularity has endured since the first novel’s publication in 1865.
While nothing overtly makes sense in these strange writings, and the humour is sometimes stylised to the point of sinister, that proverb about babies and bathwater comes to mind. Dodgson was a strange soul, but his diverse abilities mean that much runs between the lines of his nonsense.
He was a fabulous mathematician and logician, and one of the first accomplished early photographers. His eye for a scene is there in Alice’s adventures: each episode a highly visual moment. Think: when you recall episodes from Alice, don’t they always occur in pictures? A strange group sitting round a table having tea, a baby turning into a pig and running away? Playing cards walking around?
And like photography, his logic lurks beneath his writing, like a pike in a lake.
His exchanges so often take the evidence of the moment – however unlikely – and use it to solve a problem.
Like six impossible things before breakfast.
Alice is feeling lonely in this strange Wonderland, and tears begin to run down her face. This distresses the White Queen and she rushes to solve the problem: “Consider what a great girl you are,” she implores her, “Consider what a long way you’ve come. Consider what o’clock it is. Consider anything – only, don’t cry!”
Alice laughs despite herself. Can considering keep you from crying?
The queen gives her something to consider. She claims to be ancient: 101 years, five months and a day.
Alice is laughing by now. That’s impossible, she says.I can’t believe that!
And the Queen says the strangest thing. “Try again. Draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.”
It sounds like a yoga lesson. As if we have an impossibility muscle which needs to be stretched. And to compound the lesson the queen advises Alice that she practiced believing impossible things for half an hour a day as a child. “Why,” she adds, “sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast!”
Now these words still might ring as nonsense to you: but beneath I can hear a voice saying something.
Because impossible is a very subjective word, is it not?
It puts into words that shut-door feeling, the ultimate limit on our abilities. There are some things which really are impossible: human unaided flying for example; but we use that knowledge to deem whole realms of possibilities crazy.
It takes a strong person indeed to stand up and ask, why is that impossible?
But it pays dividends. Look at Isaac Newton.
Newton believed many things no one had even thought about before. He wrote the book which outlines the three laws of motion, sure,and gravity; but he believed much more: that light is composed of all the colours – who’d have thought it? – and he used it to make a reflecting telescope. He believed things cooled to the temperature of their environment, he believed that sound travelled at speed, he believed that gold was more valuable than silver. His believings sound like common sense but many of them were impossibilities once.
Of course, there are the impossibilities which even now remain only on the verge of reality now. Newton worried at alchemy – turning base metals into gold – throughout his life. He was sure a substance could be found which turned base metals into gold. He was struck by the “Diana’s Tree”: an alchemic experiment where silver nitrate and mercury in a solution were made to produce crystallised silver.
He believed, fervently, that precious metals “possessed a sort of life”.
These days nuclear physics shows messing with nuclei can change an element. Nitrogen became oxygen in an experiment by Ernest Rutherford in 1919. Platinum atoms have been turned into gold atoms. They lasted for five seconds before they broke apart. But you get the picture.
Impossible is a dodgy concept. We know there are some things which can’t be done: but it’s a dull old business, accepting impossibility at its face value.
So I am with the white queen. We know there are impossibilities: but I’ll be testing that impossibility muscle six times before breakfast, just the same.