Friday, May 9, 2014

Lewis Carroll Wasn't On Drugs

Everyone thinks they know the story of Alice in Wonderland. After all, it's been adapted to film, television, and stage several times. Novels retell it as if it were a fairy tale. Never mind that it's a full length novel with themes and subplots they can never do justice to. But few people have actually read the book. Those who have did so at such a young age that they can no longer recall more than a rabbit, a smiling cat, and something about playing cards.
I read it last year, researching the Lewis Carroll's origins as I went. Now I have to grit my teeth whenever people get things wrong.

See that title? Do you see it? Now look again. You've been saying it wrong your whole life. Oddly enough, the word adventures seems to get left out in retellings and adaptations. Another thing people don't know: there is no Mad Hatter.
"Wait, what?" Such an iconic character isn't included in the original Alice? Oh, he's there alright. But never once is he referred to as the Mad Hatter. His name is the Hatter, and Alice does accuse him of being mad, but that's not part of his identity.
I understand when people don't know this. What's a messed up name here and there? But there's one Alice "fact" I just can't accept.
Lewis Carroll was not on drugs. I haven't been able to find any evidence for that, and when people tell me he was, they heard it from a friend of a friend. You cannot write a book while high. Song lyrics? Yes, as the sixties have demonstrated. But books require critical thinking. Especially if that book is Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.
Yes, the novel has a hazy, dreamlike tone. Yes, Alice drinks strange substances that make her smaller. Yes, Alice nibbles mushrooms and gets higher, er, taller. Yes, one of those mushrooms is home to a hookah smoking caterpillar. But all those so-called drug references quiver in the face of the greatest power of all: math.
Carroll was also a mathematician. After reading Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Queen Victoria asked him to send her a copy of his next book. She got a math textbook in the mail. Carroll definitely knew how to troll his readers.
Shortly after Alice arrives in Wonderland, she notes that things like size and gravity don't function the same in this reality. Neither does her memory. When she attempts to recite poetry, a task any upper class Victorian schoolchild ought to be proficient in, it comes out wrong. More on that later. Next, she tries math.
"Let me see: four times five is twelve, and four times six is thirteen, and four times seven is—oh dear! I shall never get to twenty at that rate!"
We use a base ten system. That means we don't use double digits until after nine. The triples start after ten groups of ten have been filled up.
Here, Alice starts off with a base 18 system. The usual answer for 4 X 5 is 20. 18 is now the new 10. 10 + 2 = 12.
Next she moves up to a base of 21. 4 X 6 is 24 in our world. 21 is 10, 21 + 3 makes 24, so the answer is 13.
Following this pattern, Alice would now go to a base 24. 4 X 7 is normally 28. Do the math and she'd get 14. Do you see now why it will take her forever to reach 20?
Then there's his satire. Didn't I promise you I'd get to the poetry eventually? Before Alice's  adventures in Numberland, she attempts to recite a sappy educational poem called "Against Idleness and Mischief." Here's how it's supposed to start:
How doth the little busy Bee
   Improve each shining Hour,
And gather Honey all the day
   From every opening Flower!

How skilfully she builds her Cell!
   How neat she spreads the Wax!
And labours hard to store it well
   With the sweet food she makes.

Can we all say a collective laaaaaame? Here's what Alice says instead:

How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail,
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale!

How cheerfully he seems to grin,
How neatly spreads his claws,
And welcomes little fishes in
With gently smiling jaws!
So instead of a clever, industrious little honey bee who spreads honey and joy and good morals, we have a scary crocodile who wants to kill you.
A few chapters later, Alice recounts her difficulties to the mushroom-sitting, hookah-smoking Caterpillar. He instructs her to recite "You Are Old, Father William".That's the first line of another sappy educational poem, The Old Man's Comforts and How He Gained Them. It starts like this:

"You are old, father William," the young man cried,
"The few locks which are left you are grey;
You are hale, father William, a hearty old man;
Now tell me the reason, I pray."

"In the days of my youth," father William replied,
"I remember'd that youth would fly fast,
And abus'd not my health and my vigour at first,
That I never might need them at last."
This is what Carroll came up with:

"You are old, Father William," the young man said,
"And your hair has become very white;
And yet you incessantly stand on your head—
Do you think, at your age, it is right?"

"In my youth," Father William replied to his son,
"I feared it might injure the brain;
But now that I'm perfectly sure I have none,
Why, I do it again and again."
File:Alice par John Tenniel 16.png
Father William proceeds to turn somersaults, balance an eel on the end of his nose, and, when he's finally annoyed with the young man's questions, threaten to kick him downstairs. When the Tim Burton movie came out, They Might Be Giants turned it into a song.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is significant for being one of the first children's books designed to tell a story, not spread teachy-preachy lessons. In addition to the poetry, Carroll spoofs expectations with a character called the Duchess, who usually gets left out of adaptations. She insists on finding a moral in absolutely everything.
"I can't tell you just now what the moral of that is, but I shall remember it in a bit."
"Perhaps it hasn't one," Alice ventured to remark.
"Tut, tut, child!" said the Duchess. "Everything's got a moral, if only you can find it."

Alice, the Duchess, and a random flamingo
But wait! You say, "What about all those drug references you mentioned earlier?" Alice's change in size is probably meant to represent division and multiplication. In Western culture, mushrooms were not used as drugs until 1955. It is unlikely that Carroll would know about their hallucinogenic properties. Hookah has been around far longer than that. The Moors invented it in the 16th century. What else did the Moors invent? Algebra!
Or maybe he just likes hookah.
Then there's the sequel, Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, which is read less than the first one. Some popular elements of Alice adaptations (the unbirthday party, the Jabberwocky, Tweedledee and Tweedledum,) actually come from here. Cards were a motif in the first book. This time around, chess is the game. Alice meets the Red Queen, who impressed her with her ability to run at ridiculous speeds. This is a reference to the way queen pieces move in the game. Later on, she runs into the White Knight, a pathetic sort of fellow who can't stop falling off his horse. His clumsiness comes from the L-shaped way knights move. The Red King spends most of the book asleep as kings are the most useless piece in the game. Chess is a hard enough game to understand while in your right mind. Good luck writing about while loopy. Where did this rumor come from in the first place? My money's on Jefferson Airplane.
Thank you, sixties. Thanks a lot. Jefferson Airplane lived through that era when bands bothered to hide the drug references in their songs. Is White Rabbit an Alice song with hints about drugs, or a song about drugs with hints about Alice? Lots of things don't match up with the book. The White Knight never walks backwards. It's the Queen of Hearts, not the Red Queen, who says "Off with your head!" And Alice's transformations are caused by cake, drinks, and mushrooms, never pills. Lewis Carroll was known to experiment with opium from time to time, but not anymore than ordinary men did in those days. LSD wasn't invented yet. Even on the off chance that he did receive some inspiration from drug use, the book as a whole was a product of critical thinking. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is a witty, sarcastic take on Victorian children's literature. There's no way he could've written it while high. Grace Slick is entitled to her own psychedelic interpretation of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. But that doesn't mean we all have to see the story the same way, especially when such little of it matches up with facts.

No comments:

Post a Comment