This article is part of The Nation’s 150th Anniversary Special Issue. Download a free PDF of the issue, with articles by James Baldwin, Barbara Ehrenreich, Toni Morrison, Howard Zinn and many more, here.
“Tut, tut, child!” said the Duchess. “Everything’s got a moral, if only you can find it.”
Alice in Wonderland. Does Alice in Wonderland have anything to teach readers of The Nation today, any lessons for the decades ahead? Any wisdom that might have helped readers of the magazine over the last century and a half in their search for a more just, nonviolent, humane world—if they had only been open to the possibility?
These questions are less bizarre than they might immediately appear. For starters, Lewis Carroll’s comic masterpiece and the weekly where this essay is being published had almost simultaneous beginnings. Only two scant days separate July 4, 1865, when the adventures of Alice first saw light in London, from July 6 of that same year, when The Nation’s inaugural issue came out in New York. And just seventeen months later, in December of 1866, this magazine favorably reviewed the American edition of Alice in Wonderland, calling it “wonderfully clever,” its creatures “wholly nonsensical,” a book that “runs over with fun.”
Alas, from that moment onward, the paths of these entities nearly twinned at birth quickly diverged. Alice in Wonderland went on to become one of the most popular books of all time (second only, it is said, to Shakespeare and the Bible), and Wonderland a place that old and young (and—oh, dear—Disney!) found worthy of incessant visits. The Nation was, to put it mildly, far less popular. Without belittling the myriad successes and triumphs of The Nation and the vast, radiant, contradictory left-wing and liberal movement it represented during these last 150 years, it is undeniable that history has not been kind to many of our causes and dreams. Though I wouldn’t go so far as to bemoan, as the little girl in the book does, that “things are worse than ever…for I never was so small as this before, never!,” we certainly are distant from the utopias we wanted to turn into glorious reality, far from the lands we wondered about and keep longing for.
What messages, then, might be hidden like gems inside Alice in Wonderland—tidbits and intuitions that would have abetted radicals and revolutionaries in their quest for justice, peace and freedom; pitfalls and mistakes and perhaps Mad Tea-Parties that might have been avoided; advice for the future?
“The game was in such confusion that she never knew whether it was her turn or not.”
I had read Lewis Carroll’s book many times—first as a child and then to my own children, and recently with my wife, Angélica, simply to relish its chaotic wit—but to once again plunge down the rabbit hole, employing as a lens the perspective of 150 years of struggle for a better world, was surprisingly revelatory and frequently disturbing, with many phrases and situations resonating with my own experience of progressive activism and engagement over the course of more than fifty years.
Had I not spent, along with so many of my luminous comrades, too many hours “busily painting [white roses] red”? Have we not habitually exclaimed to those who would like to sit at our table, “No room! No room!”—when there was, in fact, “plenty of room”? And doesn’t this sound sadly familiar: “The players all played at once without waiting for turns, quarrelling all the while, and fighting.” Reminiscing about countless meetings with militants from an array of left-wing organizations and factions that were, like the mouse, “so easily offended,” having ardently bickered over tiny, rarefied details and abstruse, murky theories, I can’t resist Alice’s observation that “the Hatter’s remark seemed…to have no sort of meaning in it, and yet it was certainly English.” And I found it all too easy to identify with Alice as she muses: “It’s really dreadful…the way all the creatures argue. It’s enough to drive one crazy!”
To those who nod their heads in appreciation, remembering their own misadventures in Jargonland, Lewis Carroll won’t let us off the hook so easily. When Alice, polite and invariably reasonable, presumes—as we would—to be above the surrounding bedlam, the Cheshire Cat has no trouble in proving that she is just as insane as everyone else: “You must be,” the Cat states irrefutably, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”
At times, that general madness takes the form of harmless nonsense, but it is also often embodied insistently, nightmarishly, in Wonderland violence. “Sentence first—verdict afterwards,” the Queen of Hearts commands, as if she were Stalin or Mao. Beatings, mock trials, threats of imminent execution, inhumane treatment of underlings and, above all, the incessant chopping-off of people’s heads at the slightest mistake: “They’re dreadfully fond of beheading people here: the great wonder is, that there’s any one left alive!” As if Lewis Carroll were unwittingly warning us of the looming dangers of dictatorship, whether perpetrated by twentieth-century revolutionaries assaulting heaven in the name of the people, or regimes trying to salvage capitalism and privilege against the assault by those neglected, beleaguered people themselves. The crazed rush toward the future justified by the fierce urgency of now, the certainty that “there was not a moment to be lost”: we repeatedly find ourselves impulsively going down the nearest rabbit hole, “never once considering how in the world…to get out again.”
“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to walk from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
So, where do I hope to get to myself with this somber meditation on Alice and her potential adventures in Leftland? Is it fair to turn a book so rowdy and lighthearted into an ominous critique of radical projects and methods? In despondently imitating the gloomy March Hare by selecting only lamentations as my bread and butter, am I not ignoring what is essential, enduring, lovable, emancipating about Lewis Carroll’s story and characters?
Because Alice in Wonderland can also be read as a seditious text, overflowing with utopian impulses. Why not emphasize Alice’s realization “that very few things indeed were really impossible”—a credo that has fueled the fire of so many social crusades, that the gay-rights movement and the ecological wave of initiatives and protests have recently revealed to be true? Why not blaze in bold letters the words of the Duchess: “The more there is of mine, the less there is of yours”—a dictum that skewers corporations and greedy executives who collect millionaire bonuses while rejecting a raise in the minimum wage? The book celebrates rebellion and disobedience (the Cook throws frying pans at the Duchess, the Duchess boxes the Queen’s ears, the Knave steals tarts, Alice refuses to cooperate, the guinea pigs cheer despite being suppressed), while despotic figures are derided as bumbling and ineffective.
What we should rescue, above all, from Alice in Wonderland is its subversive, rambunctious humor—the same wildness, the same core questioning of authority that has inspired the insurrection and resistance and dissidence of millions over the last century and a half, the imagining of a possible parallel reality that does not obey the rules of a society in dire need of change. It is this carnivalesque energy and playfulness that we should recognize and embrace as ours, a crucial part of our progressive identity.
The tendency, of course, is toward the opposite language and style and demeanor on the left: a heavy, ponderous solemnity, as if all the tragedies of history were weighing us down. We take ourselves, and our discourse, seriously, and for good reason. The suffering is immense, the injustice intolerable, the stupidity widespread, the depredations of the industrial-military-surveillance complex expanding, the future dark and dystopian, the planet on the verge of apocalypse.
All the more reason, then, to exult in our own liberation when we have the chance, to revel in the thrill of breaking conventions and interrogating our own beliefs, certitudes and dogmas. All the more reason to recognize the re-enchantment that is reborn with each small act of hope and solidarity, and to extol the sheer joy that accompanies the certainty that we need not leave the world as we found it.
“It must be a very pretty dance,” said Alice timidly.
“Would you like to see a little of it?” said the Mock Turtle.
“Very much indeed,” said Alice.
During the Chilean Revolution (1970–73), the people of my country marched endlessly, attending interminable rallies in defense of the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende. The energy of those brothers and sisters by my side, their resilience and fortitude and inventiveness, their irrepressible jokes and homemade placards, have inspired me ever since. What has also stayed with me is how much more vibrant and creative those men and women in the streets of our city were than most of the men (they were predominantly male) who droned away for hours on the podium, exhorting, analyzing, swearing that the masses could not be stopped. I wondered then—as I do now, so many decades later—why the enthusiasm and defiance of those democratic multitudes were not unleashed, why there was such a contrast between the leaders and the people. And it pains me that our peaceful revolution culminated in a disaster: Allende dead, so many tortured, persecuted, exiled, so many dreams that ended, seemed to end.
The King in Alice in Wonderland has some grave and presumably commonsensical advice for the White Rabbit about how to tell a story: “Begin at the beginning…and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”
He is mistaken.
Those of us who thirst for a different world, who seek alternative horizons, know that you do not stop when the end has been reached, that there is no end to our need for justice, that rebels never go “out altogether, like a candle.” Rather, we are like the Cheshire Cat. Even when our body has vanished, a grin will always remain obdurately behind, a ghostly presence, to prove that we were once here and may re-emerge, that we can’t go on but, as Lewis Carroll’s heir, Samuel Beckett, understood, we must go on.
Ultimately, as The Nation faces the future, this is what we should learn and cherish from Alice in Wonderland for the next 150 years of illumination and struggle, the challenge that this fantastically absurd text provides us.
After so many tribulations and trials—those we have been through and those that await us anew—are we brave enough to respond, again and again, to the Mock Turtle’s invitation: “Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, will you join the dance?”
I believe he is not wrong, that Mock Turtle, when he sings, when he promises as he dances that “there is another shore, you know, upon the other side.”