Words: Andrea Zanin
Illustration: Fleur Beech

Something curious (a muttering White Rabbit with pink eyes and a pocket watch) plus a magnum of boredom was all it took for Alice to take a leap down the rabbit hole, and she has been traversing the ages ever since; inflicting her philosophy and fashion on 150 years’ worth of society. The world has long-been partial to a little lunchtime lunacy – a mad hatter’s tea (that whole medieval jester thing totally caught on) – but longevity is an entirely different kettle of fish, one that does not come cheap, especially with the mind of the fickle masses as mediator. As it turns out, Alice drives a hard bargain – offering as payment not only the epiphany of a revolutionary new hair embellishment (all hail the almighty Alice-band) but an antidote to the ‘here and now’; an escape; a place that exists as other to current circumstance – a Wonderland.

The thing about the Wonderland that Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) breathed into being on a boating trip up the Isis all those years ago, is that it is as deadly as it is delightful. Perforated with hookah-smoking caterpillars, babies that turn into pigs, a cat with a malevolent and persistent grin, a Mad Hatter who talks to time and pretends tea is wine, flamingos used as mallets in game of croquet, a queen with a predilection for decapitation and another who lives backwards and remembers forwards, Wonderland is no stroll in the park; more like a high-speed chase through an inner city street in Johannesburg – you gotta keep your wits and watch your back, also your head. Under the very apt guise of ‘children’s tale’ the dangers that sneak around the story, nabbing disengaged readers with ironic irrationality, are easily overlooked. Before you know it, you’re contemplating life’s greatest puzzle, aptly posed by Alice as “Who in the world am I?”, and wallowing in the excruciation of an existential enigma.

Never once did dear Alice imply that Wonderland would be entirely scrupulous. She merely opened a door and asked us to follow

Nonetheless, it’s not likely Lewis Carroll could ever have envisaged that his unassuming (yeah, right!) heroine would open a Pandora’s Box, overflowing with a disarray of utopian fairylands and maniacal mirages – each one different, deeply personal but never without an essence of neurosis. Carroll’s Cheshire puss tells Alice she must be mad or else she wouldn’t have come here, to Wonderland; a place that is (dangerously) whatever we want it to be. Whether it’s an X-rated musical fantasy (Bud Townsend), a three-volume pornographic graphic novel (Alan Moore), a phantasmagoria of Alice-infused imaginings (Marilyn Manson) or a deserted island with a never ending supply of rum, a house made of candy or a world with no war or perhaps no people (or bugs), Wonderland has become a metaphor for the place that we go to when we want to be somewhere else, no matter how dreamy, dark or dirty.

Never once did dear Alice imply that Wonderland would be entirely scrupulous. She, who personifies the antithesis of an anaesthetised world, merely opened a door (or a can of worms – perspective dependent) and asked us to follow. Our point of abjuration may or may not be ethically inconspicuous – it’s one of the perks of fantasy – but then again, it’s not usually the ‘niceties’ that jolt complacent narcoleptics out of the brain trance imposed by fear or mediocrity; it’s danger, madness and curious things that encourage participation and force people out of a pleasant mental lethargy. Wonderland is not always safe but it is vital. Morpheus knew it:

“You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.” (The Matrix)

So did Dylan Thomas; “rage rage against the dying of the light” (Do not go gentle into that good night) – death, sure, but is boredom not a metaphoric death of soul? Thomas encourages us to take the pill; the one that chooses life by raging against our desire to withdraw. Neo did it; he took the pill, like Alice, and crawled pretty deep down the hole it conjured. It sure as hell didn’t un-complicate his existence but it certainly thrust a whole bunch of life-affirming energy down his throat – all that death, sex and aggression (Freud is so smiling right now).

And yet, it seems strange that we might look to our fantasies to affirm the state of our very existence when they should offer an alternative to the reality we are trying to circumvent. But how else do we learn to cope with reality if not by processing it through fallacy? The apparent derangement inherent in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland makes palatable an intrinsic ideological warfare that escapes no thinking individual. Carroll’s book is not a comfortable read – there will be no afternoon snooze with a scone and spot of tea. Even Alice admits “It was much pleasanter at home, when one wasn’t always growing larger and smaller, and being ordered about by mice and rabbits.” What Carroll implies by the strange assimilation of hilarity and agony that punctuates Alice’s world is that ‘escape’ is a tool; a mere construct of what we know (life) – it’s not about the fantasy in and of itself; it’s about using Wonderland, the point of avoidance, to infuse reality with life. Make sense? No? Well, we’re all mad here anyway.

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