July 29, 2002
'Twas brillig, and the slithy tovesWhat, you didn't think that Lewis Carroll's Alice books had anything to do with the real world? Well, have you tried casting Osama bin Laden as the Snark lately? Try it, and re-read the Hunting of the Snark. You'll get a shock.
It doesn't end there. Re-reading Lewis Carroll today is a scary experience.
Follow me down the Rabbit Hole for a moment, if you will.
The Hatter opened his eyes very wide on hearing this; but all he said was, 'Why is a raven like a writing-desk?'Oh, but is it? When Alice leaves Wonderland and jumps into the land of the Looking Glass, she gets this explained to her in a little more detail:
'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less.'And Humpty Dumpty is closely followed by the Tweedle-twins:
'I know what you're thinking about,' said Tweedledum: 'but it isn't so, nohow.'Is this beginning to sound familiar yet? But Alice, even little Alice, figured it out in the end:
'Have you guessed the riddle yet?' the Hatter said, turning to Alice again.It seems that a sheltered Victorian girl could see through the nonsense that she was being served, which is more than we can say for the average educated and well-informed member of the American public today. The American mainstream media appear to have subscribed wholeheartedly to the premise that a word means exactly what they choose them to mean. Patriotism winds up meaning signing up to be a snitch on your neighbor, and nobody bats an eyelid about any of it. It's the Mad Hatter's tea party all over again -- there's the Mad Hatter and the March Hare, using the sleeping Dormouse of the American public to rest their elbows on and talking over its head (...but, as Alice thought at the time, "Very uncomfortable for the Dormouse only, as it's asleep, I suppose it doesn't mind.")
But it gets worse, much worse, when Alice leaves the tea party and comes to the court of the Queen of Hearts. The words "Off with his head!" are becoming rather commonplace these days, and as for the rules of playing the game -- be it croquet or foreign policy -- again little Alice sees through it all:
'I don't think they play at all fairly,' Alice began, in rather a complaining tone, 'and they all quarrel so dreadfully one can't hear oneself speak -- and they don't seem to have any rules in particular; at least, if there are, nobody attends to them -- and you've no idea how confusing it is all the things being alive; for instance, there's the arch I've got to go through next walking about at the other end of the ground -- and I should have croqueted the Queen's hedgehog just now, only it ran away when it saw mine coming!'Cast the 'players' as the current crop of warmongering politicians, and they are playing a game with things that are alive -- the people, the ecology, the planet itself -- and they care as little about any of it as the Queen of Hearts ever did about walloping a hedgehog with the head of a live flamingo. You use what you have, after all -- isn't that they only rule of the game? Alice and the Duchess have a neat little conversation about this -- the fact that every story has a moral, or is damn well supposed to, and by this stage applying the conversation to our day and age begins to hurt:
'The game's going on rather better now,' she said, by way of keeping up the conversation a little.We might as well all have gone to the school where the Mock Turtle followed his frighteningly apt curriculum:
'Reeling and Writhing, of course, to begin with,' the Mock Turtle replied; 'and then the different branches of Arithmetic -- Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision.'Oh, how very good we have become at Distraction, Uglification and Derision. Ambition, of course, America has always excelled at. The question is, did we start on the Carrollian Arithmetic curriculum after or long before the tragedies of September 11? (Isn't it odd -- there doesn't seem to be a need to put a year down. Say September 11 and the kneejerk response appears to snap one's arm into a... well... call it a salute, and start to sing "The Star Spangled Banner," and there will be people in the audience who will be watching to see if you get all the words right.)
But it gets even worse. While the King and Queen of Hearts are arguing with the executioner about how best to behead the Cheshire Cat (if you don't remember, the executioner's argument was that you couldn't cut of a head unless there was a body attached, there was no body attached to the Cheshire Cat's floating grin, and he wasn't going to start doing such idiotic things at this time in his life; the King argued that anything with a head could be beheaded; and the Queen, of course, was simply restating her usual argument that if something wasn't done about the situation forthwith she would have everybody executed, all around...), what we have going on in the background is the preparation for a trial.
This is just too good to be true. I'll leave it largely uncut, and without comment:
'Take off your hat,' the King said to the Hatter.Curiouser and curiouser, as Alice herself put it. This ties in so very neatly with the way justice is being angled in the modern "justice-for-all" world. If your name isn't on the incriminating letter and it isn't in your hand, it's all the more damning as evidence -- because it only PROVES that you meant mischief.
God forbid that it should prove, as it should in a non-Carrollian world, that the letter had nothing to do with you at all.
But then again, we are constantly being asked -- as Lewis Carroll himself once put it -- to believe six impossible things before breakfast. Why should a trial like this raise any eyebrows these days?
As clever little Alice said, it's a great game of chess being played all over the world -- "if this is the world at all, you know." And somehow there seem to be a great many pawns on the board. And look -- they're us.
And all we have to do, look you, is play the game -- get on with the moves, go where we're told to go, do what we are told to do, and if do this then nobody gets hurt. Well, nobody that you or I care about. Who, after all, cares about a bunch of Afghan wedding guests -- and that was an accident anyway. Don't raise your voice, and don't ask for favors, because there ain't no such thing as a free lunch, in case you've forgotten that. You pay for everything, and if all you seem to be able to afford these days are your bare bread and butter and only the oldest and shabbiest of principles, do remember that you have been promised jam -- promised it -- but only in certain circumstances:
'The rule is, jam to-morrow and jam yesterday -- but never jam to-day.'Today isn't any other day, you know, and you'd better understand that. Do what you're told. Think what you're supposed to think. And just in case you decide to think otherwise:
'Really, now you ask me,' said Alice, very much confused, 'I don't think --'Think carefully, now. Was there a flask on your breakfast table recently that said "Drink Me?" Did you by any chance nibble at a cake labelled "Eat Me" in currants on the top?
Do you feel the least bit strange and out of place these days?...
Welcome to Wonderland. There's a guitar over there, pick it up and start strumming, because, listen, someone is singing over there:
The sun was shining on the sea,
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Aleksandra Priestfield is a writer and an editor. She contributes her regular columns to Swans.
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