“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in a rather dismissive tone, “it means exactly what I want it to mean: neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “can you make words mean so many different things.”
“The question,” said Humpty Dumpty, “is who is going to be the boss—that’s all.”
The above excerpt is from “Alice through the looking glass and what she found there”, a book published at the end of the 19th century by the Englishman Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, known by the pseudonym Lewis Carroll. Humpty Dumpty is an anthropomorphic figure present in several literary works in English. Some representations show a man with an egg head, but the most classic is of a large egg with human features, arms and legs and ideas.
In the dialogue with Alice, Humpty Dumpty reveals himself to be arrogant. and authoritative. From the top of a wall, he barely looks at the interlocutor who is on the ground and she has to raise her head as if she were before a throne. He often despises her in favor of his authority and supposed superiority.
But nothing is more useful, in this meeting between the girl and the oval creature, than a fragment of the dialogue in which Humpty Dumpty talks about the meaning of words. Or rather, the meaning he chooses to give the words. Even if it doesn’t make any sense.
When Humpty Dumpty says that what everyone says will only mean what the boss says it means, he is talking about manipulation, propaganda and censorship. It is the will overcoming the truth or reality. According to the eggman, it doesn’t matter the fact or the most obvious of meanings. What counts is what those in power decide what is said, or can be said.
Such are dictatorships. Or so dictatorships arise.
In Humpty Dumpty’s world, it doesn’t matter what you mean. But what the boss wants you to say, even if the subversion of meanings sends the interlocutor to jail or imposes silence under penalty of fine and imprisonment.
The most unusual thing is that egg-man behaves as if he were in the noblest position of defending words. A guardian. His arguments make no sense. He applies a veneer of virtue over himself to hide what he really is. A despotic and authoritarian figure.
Humpty Dumpty doesn’t care about anything other than his own worldview and his alleged ability to say what each thing comes to be. What each “really” said or meant. And what each one said, even without saying. His dialogue with Alice teaches about totalitarianism, populism and censorship.
At another central point in the conversation, Alice realizes the obvious. An egg-man balancing on a wall thinking that this is a throne is something very precarious. “Don’t you think it would be safer on the ground?” asked Alice. “Ground”, in the case of Humpty Dumpty’s dictatorial delusions, could perhaps also be a reference to reality or a commitment to factual reality.
But Humpty Dumpty, even being an egg, feels invulnerable.
“Of course I don’t! If by any chance I should fall — which I don’t have the slightest chance of — but if I fall…” Humpty Dumpty said. In a ceremonial tone, he added that he had protection. That the King had promised him “out of his own mouth” that he would send all his horses and all his men. “They would lift me up again in a second.”
Alice’s meeting with Humpty Dumpty remains chaotic and demarcated by the authoritarian posture of the egg-man who doubts, inspects, checks what the girl says . Even an absolutely simple mathematical subtraction: 365 minus one. The egg-man wants to be in control. He wants to have the final word.
Alice got tired and left. She said goodbye, but Humpty Dumpty pretended not to hear. In her mind, she said an incomplete sentence: “Of all the unsatisfying people I’ve ever met…”. Carroll seems to have left the gap for each of us to find our own complement to the phrase.
An act of intellectual, creative and even civic freedom. An increasingly threatened freedom. For Humpty Dumpty does not exist only in literature. He is lurking, looking at the world from above and deciding what everyone can think, say or what each thing said or written means. He thinks he can do anything. After all, he calls himself the king’s friend. He remains to know who is the king.