In her latest letter my pen-pal Donna Ladkin asked me if I have read the classic children’s book by Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland. This question came about because I had sent her a postcard from Beverley (East Yorkshire) where I saw the “Pilgrim Rabbit”: an intriguing carving dated around the 1330s in the interior of St Mary’s Church. It is said that this image may have inspired Lewis Carroll in his tale of a curious girl chasing a white rabbit. This question took me to my own journey in wonderland…
My answer to her question was not straightforward: Although I know the story I must confess that my interest for Lewis Carroll’s tale is related with my previous life researching about the use of psychoactive substances and their representation in culture and legislation. As with Alice and the White Rabbit, what apparently seemed to be an innocent question, took me on a trip through memory lane, on warm day in Oxford in 2003… where an old book in the Bodleian Library confirmed the influences of substances into literature, and imagination.
In fact, the link between Lewis Carroll’s ideas and the use of substances in the Victorian era, was first raised by Michael Carmichael in an paper called “Wonderland Revisited” included in a book edited by Antonio Melecchi called Psychedelia Britannica. In this text, Carmichael argues that the Reverend Charles Dodgson (the real name of Lewis Carroll) would have taken inspiration from the use and expanded knowledge about substances discovered in the far lands of the British Empire. He reminds us about Dodgson’s friendship with the Liddell’s family, especially with the three little daughters: Alice, Ina and Edith.
In the story we know that Alice, who seems to be a very spoiled child demanding attention and entertainment, gets intrigued by the vision of a White Rabbit sporting a waistcoat rushing through the warm afternoon and claiming “Oh dear, Oh Dear, I shall be late”. Alice follows him and finds herself in a world of extraordinary situations. Those events and adventures are signaled by a number of decisions’ cross-roads. For example, she finds a bottle with a little message: Drink Me, or some other food labelled: Eat Me. After finding many of those cross-roads, she realises that ” I know something interesting is sure to happen whenever I eat or drink anything”… Carmichael affirms that this “eat” or “drink” refers to the potential effects of mushrooms, beverages and other preparations based on psychoactive plants and he counted at least six ingestions of substances during Alice’s adventures in Wonderland.
Carmichael also suggests that Dodgson, was familiar with substances, including the “multi-purpose” laudanum (based on opium) and cannabis (used for treating migraines). But Carmichael goes further arguing that Dodgson took direct inspiration from a book published in 1860 by Mordecai Cooke, called The Seven Sisters of Sleep, a treaty about seven type of psychoactive substances that were available on apothecaries and pharmacies: opium, coca, cannabis, belladonna, datura, digitalis and amanita muscaria (a type of mushroom). Carmichael’s hypothesis is that the book would have attracted Dodgson’s attention: he had seven sisters and suffered an insomnia. The famous mycologist (and former banker) Gordon Wasson (1986) suggested that Dodgson drew upon the “shamanic trance” associated to the amanita muscaria (and described in Mordecai Cook’s book) for his imaginative descriptions of Alice in Wonderland. It is possible to associate the journey of Alice with the many substances: In the Tea Party, Alice meets The Madhatter and the March White Hare (which drawn by Tenniel is similar to the Pilgrim Rabbitt of Beverley). Albeit the story mentions that it is a perpetual tea party, explained in the tale because of the Madhatter’s assassination of “time”; but also, it may be possible that it refers to the time boost created by caffeine and perhaps a reference to the mental health effects of using mercury in hat-making (hence, the phrase “mad as a hatter“).
Later, Alice has her fascinating encounter with the Smoking Caterpillar, a strange creature who sat on a mushroom adorned by tobacco flowers (as in the original John Tenniel‘s illustrations, here reproduced by me).
Sketchbook Oxford 2003. Beatriz Acevedo (C)Copyright
This is an odd encounter questioning the notions of identity and self, and I included it in my sketchbook Oxford, 2003:
“The caterpillar and Alice looked at each other for some time in silence: at last the Caterpillar took the hookah out of its mouth, and addressed her in a languid, sleepy voice. “Who are you?” said the Caterpillar. This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly” “I-I hardly know, Sir, just at present -at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have changed several times since then.”
The encounter of Alice and the Caterpillar struck me as central in my own life, how many times have I wondered “who I am”, “what do I do”, or “where I am going”! Indeed, during 1998-2008 I became an expert in the issue of drugs policy and the blurred line between a substance perceived as a “poison” or a “remedy”. Growing up in a drug-war ridden country, I was intrigued by the fact that certain plants were the key of a violent yet millionaire business. My question was: how the difference between a “good” plant used as a potential remedy, and an “evil” drug is created? This question took me to Amsterdam and joining the team of Martin Jelsma and Tom Blickman’s in the Program Drugs and Democracy (Transnational Institute, NL), and the encounter with Peter Cohen and Eric Fromberg, two leading thinkers, pioneers in the understanding of drugs in this liberal country. To learn more about drugs policy was the reason for me to come to England, where I was welcome to do my research… I was granted an scholarship to do my PhD on the issue of cannabis reclassification in the United Kingdom at University of Hull, and my research aimed at understanding the different “discourses” about cannabis policy as expressed by policy makers, users, police, parents, scientists, etc.
While studying for my PhD, I visited Oxford in the summer of 2003 in order to attend a workshop on research methodologies (with Peter Checkland, hence the rich picture). On my free time I decided to follow the white rabbit inserted in my head by Carmichael’s paper: I wanted to find out whether or not the Seven Sisters of Sleep book was really influential in Lewis Carroll’s imagination. I knew that the first edition of the book in 1860 was in Oxford, perhaps at the exact time of Charles Dodgson frequent visits to the library!
Anyone who has visited the magnificent Bodleian Library knows that the access is given through a mixture of ritual and bureaucracy. At my arrival I had to take a solemn oath (in my mother tongue Spanish) promising to look after the books and not to damage or harm them in anyway. I was given a “card” and was allowed to look at rooms and check the library system. In the Low Reading Room I requested the mentioned book and it took me to a more recent edition by Park Street Press of 1997. I was interested rather in the original edition of 1860 but my request was blocked. The book is classified as ARCH, which means archaeological material with restricted access. I tried then to talk to the woman in charge, who advised me to come back in a couple of hours. Biding my time, I walked through the sleepy streets in the midday sun, and almost missed my appointment trying to find the Old Library in the labyrinth of cobbled streets and treacherous alleys!
The atmosphere in the Old Library was quiet and ancient, oak panels darkened by time and smoke surround the small reading room and I felt transported to another time. The old lady in spectacles inquired about my reasons to see the book, I explained: I just want to confirm the hypothesis of Carmichael about the influence of the book in Lewis Carroll’s creative process. She studied my face suspiciously but finally agreed to let me see the book. Hesitantly and almost still keeping her hands on the book she let me handle it (with gloves of course!). The book is kept safe in a grey box, it is bound in blue leather with silver letters. The mode for printing books in the XIX century was based on folding sheets of paper, thus, the reader had to “tear off” the pages. The interesting thing is that the book is mostly unopened except for the 339-343 pages. There, Mordecai Cook described the effects of Amanita Muscaria: used by East Asian shamans and subsequent effects, including visions of a jumping monkey and other extravagances!
So, does this mean that Carmichael is right and this is the very book that Dodgson had in his own hands? The mere thought made me excited and nervous at the same time! It may be the case that Lewis Carroll, in a similar warm summer afternoon, perhaps before visiting her darling little friends, had come across to the book?
Time is running and the old lady waited (impatiently) for me to finish reading… I tried to smell the book, to take the spirit of its contents, to trace back the imagination of the writer, the line connecting the knowledge of the substances to the stories near the river, to the current knowledge, appreciation and deprecation of substances!
This encounter would support my own hypothesis about the changing perceptions of “drugs” in our current societies. Indeed, drug use consumer sub-cultures normally justify their habits based on this type of associations, as something “normal” or as part of a “creative” process. I am not very sure of that, but for me, this was one of those stellar moments in which chasing an idea, connected me with the pleasures of historical research and archives. Indeed, perhaps the answer to the question is that like Alice I’ve experienced a magic adventure too: I feel very fortunate in being able to follow my “white rabbits”, not knowing where they will take me, but trusting that there is always an amazing adventure waiting to be lived! Likewise my questions about drugs took me to England and my PhD and my academic life, today, different questions about my art and my passion for sustainability seem to be taking me to another interesting path… what would happen? We don’t know, but I will follow that rabbit!
Carroll, L. (1993 (orig. 1864)) Alice in Wonderland, Wordsworth Classics, Ware, Hertfordshire.
Cooke, M. (1997 (orig. 1860)) The Seven Sisters of Sleep, Park Street Press, Rochester.
Goodman, J., Lovejoy, P. and Sheratt, A. (1995) Consuming Habits: Drugs in HIstory and Anthropology, Routledge, London.
Jay, M. (2002) Emperors of Dreams: Drugs in the Nineteenth century, Dedalus, London.
McKeena, T. (1992) Food of Gods: the search for the original tree of knowledge, Random House Ltd., London.
Melechi, A. (Ed.) (1997) Psychodelia Britannica: Hallucinogenic drug in Britain, Turnaround, London.
Wasson, G., Kramrisch, S., Puck, C. and Ott, J. (1992) La búsqueda de Perséfone: Los enteógenos y los orígenes de la religión, Fondo de Cultura Económica, Mexico.