How Actually Druggy Is "Alice in Wonderland"?

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May 31 2016

How Actually Druggy Is “Alice in Wonderland”?

May 31st, 2016

Since a hundred years before Don McLean’s “American Pie” and later-stage Beatles songs came to dominate stoned conversations about lyrical symbolism, one book’s enigmatic appeal has lent itself perfectly to such speculation.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by English author Lewis Carroll (real name: Charles Lutwidge Dodgson), was published in 1865. Its possible allegorical meanings have been picked over with varying degrees of credibility by generations of scholars, students and bloggers.

A fascinating piece by Hephzibah Anderson on the BBC today reviews these myriad interpretations of Alice—ranging from a parable of British colonization to penis envy.

Unsurprisingly for a book in which the heroine drinks potion and eats cake to transform her physical state, drugs loom large in these readings. Anderson writes:

“Of course, sometimes a caterpillar smoking a hookah is just that–especially when he’s flanked by a magical mushroom. Since the 1960s, drug-lovers have read Alice’s antics as one big trip. The lyrics to Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” did a fair bit to cement the association: “Remember what the Dormouse said / Feed your head, feed your head.” From its heat-addled opening scene, there is a psychedelic vibe—besides all those pills, time moves erratically, and the grinning Cheshire Cat is here one minute, gone the next.”

The caterpillar scene, for example—at the end of which Alice eats two pieces of the magical mushroom, which make her first shrink more and then grow a greatly elongated neck—has a decidedly hazy tone, its circular direction not particularly suggestive of sobriety:

The Caterpillar and Alice looked at each other for some time in silence: at last the Caterpillar took the hookah out of its mouth, and addressed her in a languid, sleepy voice.  

‘Who are YOU?’ said the Caterpillar.  

This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, `I—I hardly know, sir, just at present—at least I know who I WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.’  

`What do you mean by that?’ said the Caterpillar sternly.

`Explain yourself!’  

`I can’t explain MYSELF, I’m afraid, sir’ said Alice, `because I’m not myself, you see.’  

`I don’t see,’ said the Caterpillar.  

`I’m afraid I can’t put it more clearly,’ Alice replied very politely, `for I can’t understand it myself to begin with; and being so many different sizes in a day is very confusing.’  

`It isn’t,’ said the Caterpillar.  

`Well, perhaps you haven’t found it so yet,’ said Alice; `but when you have to turn into a chrysalis—you will some day, you know—and then after that into a butterfly, I should think you’ll feel it a little queer, won’t you?’  

`Not a bit,’ said the Caterpillar.  

`Well, perhaps your feelings may be different,’ said Alice; `all I know is, it would feel very queer to ME.’  

`You!’ said the Caterpillar contemptuously. `Who are YOU?’  

Which brought them back again to the beginning of the conversation.

But does this mean that Carroll/Dodgson was into drugs? Not really, says Anderson:

“One of Dodgson’s own favourite authors was Thomas De Quincey of Confessions of an English Opium Eater fame, but though he dabbled in homeopathic cold remedies, there is no concrete evidence that he ever experimented with mind-altering drugs.”

Instead, many of the “drug references” supposedly identified in Alice are probably just in our heads, resonating with the LSD-influenced popular culture of the ’60s, ’70s and beyond. Which, as Anderson illustrates, makes them no less fun.

“Still, the druggy associations endure, as a line from The Matrix shows: “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.”

  • Philoreia R. Florence Fletcher

    It is important to recognize : A. Caffeine too is a mind altering & highly addictive drug, of which C.D./L.C. certainly did partake B. ‘Cold remedies’ & other O.T.C. medicines before [& we hope & assume after, for they are in fact safe, far safer in fact than the now legal Alcohol & many oft-prescribed non-Opioid & Non-Pleasurable & Non-Stiumlant & Dull & Non-Helpful Medications, when used with intelligence, care, & pride, very effective general purpose drugs, & of course perfectly not shameful companions for the logically & chemically inclined] the current century-prohibition included The Opiate in its forms from Opium to the Bayer Co. classic Heroin [of these, Opium is by far the more ‘trippy’, & has truly wondrous properties for inducing magnificent dreams, fantasias, & phantasmagorias ; Heroin is by far the better stimulant, pain killer, anti-convulsant, & practical medicine], as well as many other enchanting chemicals. If C.D./L.C. shared at least parts of his life with such chemical forms, & even if he was oriented to/addicted to/dependent medically upon them, in the time of his mortal tenure it would, rationally & happily, not have been a fact of tremendous attention or censure, much as was increasingly becoming the case at the turn of the 20th-21th Century for being gay [which in his time would be treated almost point-for-point identically to the way being a lover or even causal partaker of certain chemical forms today is treated, which is to say horrifically, utterly ridiculously, & lamentably]. Not only in general would the fact of a respectable mathematician taking Heroin or Opium or Cocaine privately not be considered some momentous & hideous revelation & crime that would warrant much attention, but D.C./L.C. is an exceedingly private man, not one likely to discuss either his private pleasures or medical treatments [or both] in a public or even privately but physically recorded fashion.
    This, all of it, when coupled with the rather blatant references [which would, if anything, have been more obvious to audiences at the time, for unchained drug use for pleasure was one of the only more or less acceptable physical hedonias, & unstigmatized treatment, whether occasional, consistant, or periodic, with this great variety of chemicals was something quite a good many people would have first hand knowledge of] to drugs & their effects in a small number of scenes on everything from perception to speech to thought, would cause me to believe that he was intimately familiar to at least an interested extent with the effects of at least a few types of the more marvellous drugs. Does this mean everything in Alice’s Adventures concerns drugs or were thereby inspired? Non, absolutely not! L.C. has native logical absolution, wondrous constitution, imaginary ability, unencumbered whimsy, & literary agility, to dream up whatever imageny he wishes. The chemicals inspire, but cannot endow, certain special sorts of wonder & clarity, if you know within quoin to look.