By Kerri Romeo
“In a minute or two the Caterpillar took the hookah out of its mouth and yawned once or twice, and shook itself.”from Alice in Wonderland, Chapter V
One of the most common interpretations of Alice in Wonderland supposes that Lewis Carroll wrote it under the influence of drugs and/or is about a drug trip. But like mainstream media today, sometimes the most obvious explanations are not the truth and are based on speculation without concrete supporting evidence. Context and culture affect what we perceive.
The 1960’s American pop culture (when the trippy interpretation arose) was a time of peace, love….and psychedelic drug use, making Wonderland an obvious story for a mind-bending adventure. But what influenced Victorian Era England and therefore writers, like Lewis Carroll, of the time? What introduces new ideas and culture? Trade with India and China brought the hookah to Britain. Contrary to the freedom and youth-based theme of the 1960’s, the hookah was originally associated with prestige and high society, as well as eastern religious leaders who sought a clear mind and deep philosophical thought — a characterization found in the caterpillar who frustrates Alice with his riddled conversation. Today we see controversy where yesterday we saw wisdom.
“Then it got down off the mushroom, and crawled away in the grass, merely remarking as it went, ‘One side will make you grow taller, and the other side will make you grow shorter.’”
Can we find truth in a balance between sensationalized speculation and the overlooking or underestimating our intelligence (and in this case of the writer)? Alice in Wonderland was written as literary nonsense (which actually requires a lot of sense) and throughout the story the author both celebrates and mocks Victorian society, from education and class to politics; so why not other aspects of the culture? Art often questions society without being required to support nor condemn it. Can we find more honesty in art than in mainstream media and so-called journalism today?
Surprisingly (or not?), drug culture was in fact prominent in Victorian England. Devastatingly so. Opium (usually in the form of laudanum) was initially sold as an over-the-counter remedy given to all ages from infants and children for everything from teething, coughs and hiccups to women during menstruation and pregnancy or anyone for digestive discomfort, mental distress, migraines, and more. The import of opium was an economic treasure for the British Empire and led to power struggles and two wars (the Opium Wars) with China before Britain not only won both wars, but also gained the monopoly on opium in India.
Addiction didn’t seem like much of a concern as much as power and economic gain. The death rate was highest amongst women and children. The Pharmacy Act of 1868 (the passing of which seemed as much a struggle as the COVID relief bill of today) should have been a sign of hope and regulation, but new drugs (with opium as its base) were being developed across the globe by pharmaceutical companies and overprescribed by doctors while illegal drugs began to be sold on the streets.
Drugs, class and racial distinctions always existed: In the 1800’s drug use among the upper class was seen more mildly as bad habit versus the lower class as abusive; In the 1980’s the media saw an opportunity for ratings (why is sparking fear the go-to ratings draw?) with the War on Drugs and claimed the dangers of crack were greater than of cocaine leading to stricter laws and sentencing for possession of crack (typically found among the black population and poorer class) over cocaine (typically found among the white population and upper class); in the 2000’s the divide shows between heroin users versus over-prescribed opioid users.
There was an opioid crisis in the 1800’s and we have an opioid crisis today. Addictions show up in different ways: Drugs or alcohol or food or shopping or gambling or video games or work or always needing to be “right”.
“Alice remained looking thoughtfully at the mushroom for a minute, trying to make out which were the two sides of it; and as it was perfectly round, she found this a very difficult question.”
How do we heal our addiction to our mainstream media and corporatist culture of today?
Do you find this to be a difficult question?
Who is responsible? Media, the pharmaceutical industry, law enforcement, the government, schools, parents, the rich, the poor, you, me…or all of us?
“Although we human beings have our own personal life, we are in large measure the representatives, the victims and promoters of a collective spirit whose years are counted in centuries.”Carl Jung (from Memories, Dreams and Reflections)
Kerri is an advocate for the introverted activist. Often at a loss for words in person, she writes to make sense of the world and connect with others. She wishes for more curiosity & kindness in the world.