Stephen Baker

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Overcoming my fear of "Alice in Wonderland"

October 11, 2012General

As a kid, I never liked Alice in Wonderland. I think the head-chopping queen scared me. And fact is, with the exception of the Phillies winning the World Series, I wasn't into fantasy or fairy tales. Horrible things happened to people. They turned into animals. Plus, most of them occurred in this never-never land that felt like the Middle Ages: no TV, no baseball, no United States. Everything that made me feel at home in the world, including my parents and sisters, was absent. I didn't want any part of it.

The Coursera course I recently took forced me to overcome that lifelong aversion to fantasy. And naturally, I found Alice in Wonderland beautiful and smart and funny. It was probably the best book we read. Here's the essay I wrote the following week:

Characters in traditional fairy tales inhabit magical worlds. In Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by contrast, the little girl lives an everyday existence, but is transported through dream into a universe in which the laws of time and space bend like putty. Her experiences, strange as they seemed, reflected new scientific theories in the 19th century that brought into question much of what had appeared fixed and certain.

In traditional Western thinking, humans were as ancient as the universe itself (within a day or two), immutable, and formed in the image of God. However, during Carroll’s life, Charles Darwin postulated that humans, like other animals, changed as they adapted to their environments. In Alice’s adventures, the little girl undergoes so much change that she struggles to answer who she is: “At least I know who I was when I got up this morning,” she says. “But I think I must have changed several times since then.”

In Carroll's time, the place of humans increasingly hinged on context. Amid microbes, for example, humans were clumsy giants, and functionally blind. In astronomy, they were tiny specks, virtually invisible. Like Alice, it could be argued that all humans grew and shrank.

This new perspective changed art. Impressionist painters saw that the visual world was not just one reality, but many. The Cathedral at Rouen, as Claude Monet painted it, was a different building in mid-day light than at dusk or dawn.

Carroll’s magical world even points ahead to important scientific advances. Within decades, Sigmund Freud and his followers would be analysing the subconscious, an alternate reality in dreams. For them, Alice’s adventures could be a case study. And Albert Einstein would soon demonstrate that time and space themselves were mutable. By these measures, Lewis Carroll’s stories are not magical, but simply an affirmation of the mysteries unveiled by modern science.

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