Alice in Wonderland and Philosophy, edited by Richard Brian David

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: Alice in Wonderland and Philosophy

Author: edited by Richard Brian Davis

Why Did I Read This Book: I got it in January, a release clearly meant to tie in with the Tim Burton Alice in Wonderland cinema release. It seemed interesting to me, so I grabbed it. I am not a person for whom deep philosophy holds much resonance but I reckoned I could hold my own in a book from the Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture collection. Turns out I was mostly correct in that respect.

Availability: You can get a copy here:

Comments: Whenever I think of Alice in Wonderland, I always think of a passage from Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman, wherein one character is going on at length about his theories and another tires of his monologue:

“The very latest approach to Alice is just to dismiss it as a rather charming children’s book.”

That was always my opinion, too, that it was an outlandish story told to amuse a little girl and that all the analysis many put into the book was all so much hot air. However, there was always a niggling idea that Carroll could have hidden meaning that did not register in my young mind when I read the book. I wondered how differently I might look at Alice in Wonderland if I read this book. I already had the drug culture down, thank you very much Grace Slick. So it was possible there was more to the book and varying ways of interpreting it.

Overall, this book was a disappointment to me, and that may be a user problem, I am ready to admit. I wanted this book to explain the philosophy of Alice in Wonderland. Several articles used Alice in Wonderland to explain philosophy, and if that seems like a fine distinction, it really isn’t. The former explores philosophical points in the book. The latter uses book elements to illustrate philosophical points. You can do the latter with anything. I could, if I tried long enough, find a way to illustrate any philosophical tenet using my cats, organic bathroom cleaners or the content of the junk drawer in my kitchen. You can use just about anything to prove a theory if you don’t mind stretching a metaphor until it almost breaks. That seems to happen a lot in some of these articles, and while it wasn’t what I particularly wanted, the book is titled Alice and Wonderland and Philosophy, which means that my complaint is just me… well, complaining. The book didn’t misrepresent itself. I just wanted something else.

Of the essays that discussed the philosophy in Alice in Wonderland, several were quite informative while still being entertaining to me. “Wishing it Were Some Other Time: The Temporal Passage of Alice” by Mark W. Westmoreland and “Reasoning Down the Rabbit Hole: Logical Lessons in Wonderland” by David S. Brown both satisfied my need to explore the philosophy in Alice yet were easily read and understood by a philosophical layman like me. There were several other very good essays in the book but those two stood out for me as the best.

However, despite the fact that about half of this book was quite good, two of the essays were so bad that I wondered if perhaps it was my lack of philosophical grounding that caused my reaction, but ultimately, I decided it was that the articles were, in fact, not that good.

Okay, I will admit that perhaps it all boils down to a certain level of perspective, but I found Mark D. White’s “Jam Yesterday, Jam Tomorrow, But Never Jam Today: On Procrastination, Hiking and… The Spice Girls?” to be insufferable. The idea behind the article is sound, I suppose, but the style was too precious. I very much got the feeling that Dr. White may be a man who thinks he is very funny. Perhaps he is in person. On paper he is worse than your tiresome uncle, the one who tells you long stories with endless asides and laughs at his own jokes as you smile politely and groan inwardly. Opinions may vary but here are some passages that fuel mine:

When our proud worker looks back over her past experience of the job, she remembers good times; when she looks forward into the future (it’s right over that hill, behind those trees), she also sees nothing but happiness and mirth.

Just a mild groaner. If this were the only one, I wouldn’t have thought twice. But it isn’t the only one. Sadly. The whole thing is peppered with these sort of uselessly “funny” asides.

Think about Wham! -just when you thought I couldn’t sink any lower. Though having no apparent value of his own, Andrew Ridgely did contribute to the early success of George Michael.

So, he teaches college students, right? Like, kids in their late teens, early 20s? I wonder if he thinks using Wham!, the Spice Girls and INXS as examples somehow give him street cred with the kids. I realize I am dating my own words horribly with this reference, but this is all starting to remind me a little of Dr. Meredith from Real Genius, when he says, “I think the young people enjoy it when I get down verbally, don’t you?” But less endearing.

But all the same, adding a fifth member to a four-piece band, even if she’s not the greatest, can “complete” the group – I mean, seriously, could Posh Spice even sing? But you can’t imagine the Spice Girls without her, can you? (Go on, try… told you so.)

Right about here I was hoping that this trend of pointless asides, dealing with topics as varied and arcane as Posh Spice and hiking in Utah, with this sort of forced humor would stop. No such luck (and remember that while I am sharing only the most egregious examples, they are just a few in this article).

But not only are the asides pointless at times, but all that parenthetical wittiness butcher the flow of the good professor’s argument:

It would still be reasonable to say that even if there were an occasional bad day (I could not find anyone who needed my help because I had simply done that much good), for very few real-world experiences lasting any decent length of time are without moments of misery and woe. (Just think of the films of Keanu Reeves – utterly brilliant overall but with all-too-frequent woe.)

And it goes on…

As a possible example, Moore suggests the institution of punishment, in which one evil–a crime, or an extended dance remix of the latest Andrew Ridgely single–is followed by another evil–punishment, of the ambient flip side of the aforementioned extended dance remix–presumable to serve justice (or to clear the dance floor for the 5:00 p.m. curling match).

and on…

But let’s move on to why Elijah Milgram brought up this puzzle in the first place (never one to settle for second place, to be sure)–procrastination.

and on.

College students (raise your hands so we can see you, there you are) tend to be particularly frequent procrastinators, and presumably find the behavior less puzzling. (Okay, you can put your hands down now.)

Some may find this style of writing to be charming. I found it intrusive to the point that I have ranted about it here and only kept reading because unless something is so egregiously wrong that it offends my sensibilities to the point of insult, I soldier on. This article was not wrong. Just annoying.

The same cannot be said for “Unruly Alice: A Feminist View of Some Adventures in Wonderland” by Megan S. Lloyd. Oh dear, I sort of knew this one might not be a particularly good essay when I simply read the title because the Alice I recall was a continual force of order, insulted by the chaos around her. From my memory, she did her best to assign meaning to chaos. She was hardly an unruly girl.

But I read it anyway and by the first sentence knew I would be annoyed at the unruliness of the article. Lloyd told her students, in the course of studying feminist archetypes (among other topics), to write about fairy tales. Instead the students discussed Disney heroines, like Mulan and Belle. A couple chose Alice as their unruly fairy tale heroine, based on the Disney cartoon, and I guess in the spirit of unruliness, the professor did not correct the students and ask them to, you know, follow the topic, but embraced the idea of Alice and Mulan and Belle as fairy tale heroines.

This is all well and good, in a sense. Interesting discussions come from such deviations at times. But this one was a left turn down a wrong road because the students argued that:

…Alice, unlike other fairy-tale heroines, requires no fairy godmother, huntsman or good fairy–just her own wits and ingenuity–to navigate through Wonderland, keeping her head intact.

Well, you see, the reason she did not need a fairy godmother like Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty is because Alice is not a fairy tale but a Victorian creation in no way related to a fairy tale heroine, though the professor does try gamely to insist that in the land of Disney, Alice is a bridge between the old, dependent characters like Snow White, and the new characters like Mulan. The problem with this way of thinking is that just because Disney borrowed from old legends does not make the newer tales of young women in cartoons related to fairy tales.

Okay, my insistence that this whole article from the beginning is flawed because Alice is not a fairy tale is perhaps a bit pedantic, but it gets much worse from here. The author makes baseless assertions that don’t hold up to the most basic scrutiny.

The curiosity and confidence that Carroll instills in Alice connect her with other unruly women we studied in class, such as Lysistrata, Shakespeare’s Kate, Emma Bovary, Marie Antoinette, Marilyn Monroe, Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, Camille Paglia, Pandora and Eve.

This is the most baffling statement I think I have read in a long while and remember that I maintain I Read Odd Books. Really? I defy anyone to write out, coherently, the links Alice has to all of these women, and reliance on the notion of two X-chromosomes and “they were all mouthy trail blazers who didn’t listen to men, lol” won’t cut it.

Some of where this article goes wrong with me does boil down to opinion. Of course, Alice’s refusal to act demure like her sister causes her to fall down the rabbit hole, but overall, I didn’t find her as abrasive and intrepid as the author did. Far from being unruly, she is just a little girl in a strange place, and lack of manners, like sitting down uninvited at the tea party, really have a hard time applying to a little girl in a bizarro world. And her abrasiveness is to me a result of her orderly nature. She dislikes noise, mess, irrationality and similar. She is no different than any little girl who is presented with chaotic ideas. She asks why and when not given a good answer, rejects the premise in front of her. By falling down the rabbit hole, it is hard to say Alice was rejecting traditional roles. In fact, the most powerful people she encountered in Wonderland were women and she rejects them in their chaos as much as she did her sister’s orderly compliant role.

I realize my interpretation of Carroll’s story is my own, but the article just gets worse in what I sense are really obvious misreads of the text, or an over-ardent need to apply current feminist ideas to a charming children’s book. In the section dealing with the Duchess and her ill-treatment of her baby, it becomes clear that Lloyd and I inhabit different realities.

Today, this Duchess could be arrested for shaken baby syndrome or be demonized, like Britney Spears and Casey Anthony, and plastered all over the media.

It is a far, far leap from the cruel, callous Duchess and her pig baby to Britney Spears’ nervous breakdown. And it is hard to understand how it is that Casey Anthony has been demonized, Nancy Grace’s nostril flares notwithstanding. The woman either lost her child to a killer and did not care or she killed the child and did not care. It’s hard to apply media demonization of women to a woman who, in the eyes of most sane women, is at the very least a terrible human being and at the most a child killer. The logic in this eludes me completely, the examples make no sense.

Oh, and then we get to the whole pig as a rejection of motherhood thing. This is a tired argument, as the baby turns into a pig. A pig. Which when put on the ground ran off on four legs. The author asserts that Alice did not “exhibit cute baby syndrome,” as if recognizing that a baby turned into a pig and failing to coo at it somehow is a monumental and feminist thing to do. The baby was a literal pig, not a representation of a young girl’s attitude towards motherhood and babies in general. A literal pig. And Alice did what any little girl would do. She put it down and let it run off.

This will be my last example of the lack of logic in this particular piece, though for me there are others, and for me this last example is at the heart of applying feminist critique to old stories. Many times, flat out, the passages people use to prove some point or other simply do not mean what they think they do. In this case, the author interrupts her own argument that Alice is unruly in her attempt to explain a bit of modern feminist thinking.

Lloyd quotes the scene where Alice begins to say, “I don’t think,” and the Mad Hatter cuts her off by saying she should not speak, and his rudeness causes Alice to rise from the table and walk away.

The Mad Hatter’s glib remark sounds all too familiar as women, even contemporary ones, try to advance in the workplace. The Mad Hatter requires quick thinking but fails to see the intellect in a seven-year-old who has used her own wits to make it this far into Wonderland. The misogynist Mad Hatter disrespects methodical and contemplative Alice and, like his cohorts, couldn’t care less when she departs…

The problems with this in terms of feminist application, as well as how this contradicts the internal logic of the article itself, are as follows:
–A Victorian force for order doesn’t stick around when a clearly insane man is rude to her. Her leaving is in no way indicative that she felt she was not heard. She just didn’t want to deal with them, which, by the way, is exactly how an imperious little girl would react to be hushed.
–The reactions of a little girl to being one-upped by a lunatic character in a children’s book has very little to do with the modern workplace, full stop.
–If Alice offends people with her methodical contemplation, then it stands that she is, in fact, a force of rule and not an unruly character. Moreover, her attitudes of enforcing order, of speaking up, are not that revolutionary. Women have been forces of order from the beginning of time. They are and have been enforcers of custom, rules, etiquette and similar. Had Alice formed an army and taken over Wonderland, had she become an anarchist force, had she done anything but demand justice, order and sense, I could see calling her unruly. But then again, even the points the author uses to prove her ideas point in the direction that Alice is not unruly.

So, overall, while I don’t regret reading this book, I myself, if given the chance, would not shell out money for it again. If you want a copy, get one from your library or borrow one. In fact, this is one of those rare books I have no issue parting with. If you would like my copy, send me an e-mail to anitadalton at ireadeverything dot com. First comer gets the book, and if you disagree with my assessment, please comment freely and vigorously.

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