08 March 2010

Look back at Alice: A.S. Byatt remembers Wonderland

In keeping with my curmudgeon-y film day, I declare I have no intention of seeing Tim Burton's Alice. One, I've got Burton's imagination down pat, I know exactly what the film is going to look like. Two, film makers are going to have to make good films rather than resorting to newfangled techniques, 3D, and other Oz-ean gimmicks to get my bum back in one of those movie theatre seats. Three, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is too important a book to me for me to see on film.

Thanks to Burton nonetheless. The brute force of the Hollywood machine has propelled all things Alice back on the tip on the culture's mind. It's a well-known story but not one that isn’t discussed as often as you'd think. Even in academia, few have attempted interpretations. The truth is no one really knows what to make of the books. Undeterred, A.S. Byatt admits in her Guardian article that Alice stands on its own, "it's different from other imagined worlds."

Time and space are different here, "progress in the looking-glass world is in mad rushes and jumps at inordinate speeds across the chessboard". It's some "other kind of order", perhaps one emanating from Carroll understanding of the order of nature. His background was in mathematics.

Alice makes you think about its language, it makes you, along with Alice, try to sort out a world that only keeps amplifying its resistance to analysis. Alice remains in control of her mind until she recognises this world’s she’s in for what it is.

Byatt makes a fascinating comparison between Alice and other children’s book of the time. Distinctive features of 19th century British children’s literature include, self-sufficience, the undefeatable armour of the British child. Also, British children keep their wits about them even as they are often taken to different, worlds and wonderlands.

This, I believe, arcs back to Defoe’s 18th century tale of Robinson Crusoe, a tale which heralds steely British nature. By recreating as much of the British world and his British-ness on the island, Crusoe can thrive in any desolate, barbarian setting.

These were times of indoctrination, in the unwavering superiority of the British empire, from Defoe’s time to its height, in the second half of the nineteenth century, when Alice, Kipling's Jungle Books and The Wind in the Willows were published.

British inner strength, the one that can see it through any jungle or wonderland, was originally based on the real time Robinson Crusoe, who was found on a deserted island, alive, yes, but absolutely barking mad. One has to wait until Golding’s The Lord of the Flies, to get a real taste of the frailty of the human mind (even British) when confronted with a “savage” environment.

In the end though, the hardiness of Alice’s mind and her self-control is not an unworthy trait to convey to young minds, especially young girl’s minds. And, it goes without saying that it’s Carroll’s imagination and our imagination of it that makes Alice a singular gem in world literature.

[The Guardian]

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