I was about eight at the time, and when I chewed on my cap afterwards it tasted like seasalt. We were in a Cornish village on holiday, and I was scampering across the harbour walls, wearing my cap, when a flurry of wind snatched it off my head and dumped it in the sea.

The crown of my head, exposed, forms a tough little peak like the tip of a boiled egg, ready to be cracked open with a spoon.


Hatter - CT
Illustration: Chris Townsend

I’m thinking about the Mad Hatter, and about madcaps, mad hats. Carroll’s Hatter is ‘mad’ (mad as a hatter), according to Alice speculators, because hatters, susceptible to mercury poisoning from the fumes produced in the hat-making process, often did go mad. The Hatter, who claims to be stuck at an endless tea-party after a quarrel with Time (‘ever since that […] he won’t do a thing I ask! It’s always six o’clock now’) is, like so many of the creatures Alice meets, all caught up in the dead ends of meaning and the strange interferences between reality and language. Hats, though, are eccentric things anyway. They can drastically change our silhouettes: in the classic Alice illustrations by John Tenniel, the Hatter’s hat is bigger than his body. And hats are the most superfluous kind of costume piece, are made to be removed. Chapeau. Hats off to you.

There is something especially haunting about a hat out of place: a hat without a head, without a face. I remember staring down horrified at my cap bobbing insolently about like a little blind bird on the water until my dad heroically swam out to rescue it (because it wasn’t really very far out and because that’s what dads do). And when I visited the Magritte exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago this June I was bewitched by his ubiquitous bowler hats: sitting like found objects, unperturbed, or bobbing above empty spaces where faces should be.

I am putting my thinking cap on.

There is a certain propensity, proper to childhood, for seeing faces in things. Cars and stones and bits of wallpaper and the sandwich on my plate conspire into face-like constellations. The world seems to want to look back at me, to speak back to me. Lying in my floral-sheeted bed at night in my first and best remembered bedroom, I would stare at the wall unsleeping and in my dreamy state the face of an old wise man would appear in one of the knots in the wooden beam by my bed. As my mind drifted his face grew distinct, contouring itself out of the dark wood. I remember it very clearly, the face I fell asleep to every night.

This face by my bed seems alive and unwilled, a stubborn kind of object life, insisting in gaps and empty spaces. But the thing, I think, about faces, is that they are not accidental: are not things found but a making of things, or a seeing, a screening, a way between things. The face I think I’ve found is a face I’ve daubed onto things. Which means, I suppose, that the face by my bed, or in the triangle cutouts of my sandwich, or up in the clouds, is all my own. There is a world beyond me and it is made up of strange fibrous stuff and things and in all its numb opacity I put it back into my own image. The face the world seems to take is the image of my own hungry search for correspondence, for intimacy.

As we grow older and the world grows a little less lithe, a little more familiar (though no less strange), faces stop appearing in things and become something more of a chore. ‘I have no head for faces.’ Faces fade or blur or stop equaling intimacy. The spontaneous simplicity of a face gives way to those more complex experiences of misrecognition, altered recognition, the strange-in-the-familiar, the not-quite known. We come to know intimacies turned away or amputated, intimacies complicated. Or (worse?) intimacies turned commonplace, turned cliché, the bored or replaceable or the troped. The world seems to turn its face away. Turn your face away and you expose your neck. Your neck: a stupid tube of veins, blank flesh, faceless or defaced. De-faced, necks are made for kissing, but also for decapitation, and with that we’re back in Wonderland. (‘Off with your head.’)

The unearthly thing about those Magritte hats and my lost floating cap has something to do with the turning away of the face and the dead blankness left over where it used to be. To a child, a face is a place to return to, a place of reassurance, a place drawn out over and over, like my wise old man in the wood. Face implicates character, character which comes from the Greek kharakter, which means engraving, which makes a character the static trace of something, a scratched-out point of recognition and return. Why are hats mad? Maybe because, when authentic recognition or meaning starts to falter, I try to catch you, which means to try to trace you back, characterize you. A silly thing to do, really, a madcap scheme, but there we have it: I’m growing up.

Hatting madly or madly capping, trying to remember things, claw them back into place. Or looking for a face in the wall and not finding it this time, which is an anxious, an un-homely sort of a feeling. One that makes it harder to fall asleep.



Polly Dickson is working on a PhD in nineteenth-century French and German literature at Cambridge University, where she also completed a BA in French and German and an MPhil in European Literature. Her project focuses on the writings of E. T. A. Hoffmann and Honoré de Balzac. She tweets at @pollyletitia.




The column: Flummox

Flummox, from the mid C19th flummock: to bring to confusion; to ‘do for’, cause to fail; to confound, bewilder, nonplus… The world is made of stuff and non-sense. Flummox is about being caught amongst things, and about ways between things, and about our strange encounters with the ever bewildering lives and narratives of stuff, things, the nonhuman.

Polly Dickson is working on a PhD in nineteenth-century French and German literature at Cambridge University, where she also completed a BA in French and German and an MPhil in European Literature. Her project focuses on the writings of E. T. A. Hoffmann and Honoré de Balzac. She tweets at @pollyletitia.