For all of his preoccupations with Victoriana, Tim Burton is very much an auteur of our time. This formulation can only be understood if we insist that productions such as 300, Sin City, Chinatown, L.A. Confidential, Marie Antoinette, Sweeney Todd and A Knight’s Tale are more directly illustrative of our desires and inclinations than their more ‘topical’ contemporaries. Whence our inexorable penchant for the rococo noblesse of the belle époque, the savage heroism of the Homeric epic, the murderous menace of the penny dreadful, the chastity of the chivalric romance? Can it be said that, having reached the ‘end of history’, we are condemned to an interminable retrospection of our storied past? Adrift in the swirling nebula of post-modernity, we grasp haphazardly at fragments of lost time.
To endorse such a hypothesis is to affirm that we are an essentially nostalgic age, as well as a tragic one. Movies such as these, then, would be fantasmatic expressions of a disavowed yearning, symptoms of an inexpiable loss. Nothing could be more naïve. We may be orphans of history, but we stake no claim upon our inheritance. The first thing that strikes the eye about such films (and they are eminently visual spectacles) is their profound complicity with fashion. The symbiosis of the two yields a kaleidoscopic array of ephemera, an iridescent patina of forms that yield all manner of surprising conjunctions. The fact that 300 siphoned an ancient narrative through state-of-the-art technology (digital manipulation, blue screens) is not paradoxical in the least. It merely incarnates, in a strange and unprecedented way, a vision that has haunted Eisenstein, Vertov, Godard and Brakhage- an ecstatic cinema, a purely autonomous visuality unfettered from every worldly and referential constraint. The image, when freed from the limitations of corporeality, constitutes a hermetic world unto itself, one subject to endless manipulation. Therein lies the miracle of Photoshop. Of course, things are not quite so simple. As Baudrillard has shown us, the clasps of extra-cinematic ‘reality’ have loosened their despotic grip on the possible. Thus the immaculate, digitally-rendered abdominal muscles of the Spartans in 300 merely exemplify the logic of a world in which bodybuilders wear their musculature as a suit of armor, ‘toning’ (a term weightlifting shares with the aesthetics of photography) and refining sinew with chemical cocktails and training regimens. If contemporary film shows us anything, it is that we live in a world of citation- rippling, Hellenic pectorals, 17th Century beauty moles, the pallid countenance of the Geisha- these are so many symbolic markers, ‘looks’ that can be wrested from their contextual moorings and transposed into our own. This polymorphous plurality, which transfigures the archives of history into a vast beauty pageant, is what gives us pleasure. If anything, we are a civilization of the shopping mall, where destiny is abjured and freedom of choice is esteemed above all else.
In the shadowy recesses of this sprawling food court, the discerning connoisseur can find the confections of Tim Burton. The fare on offer here is admittedly not for the squeamish, but the savor that lingers on the palate is not, in the last reckoning, disagreeable to modern tastes. In short, dear gourmands, you need not fear for your digestion. Let me refer you to his latest creation- through some marvelous process of synthetic transmogrification, Burton has managed to condense one of the heartiest platters in English literature into a bite-size capsule, coated with the saccharine of sentiment. A cursory glance at the ingredients should suffice to sway the surliest cynic- the talismanic Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter, a suitably ghoulish Helena Bonham Carter as the Queen of Hearts. To extract this delectable kernel, this alchemical distillate from Carroll’s unwieldy text is a laborious task- he had to press through layers of opaque flesh, purging it of its putrid pulp. Following this, he proceeded to process the rancid residue, allowing it to ferment in the intestines of middle-class morality. One can be sure that the pill, which satisfies all FDAA guidelines and supplies every nutritional requirement, spares you all the elementary processes of mastication and alimentation.
Of course, this is not to say that it does not simulate all of the delights of a gratifying repast, stimulating all of the requisite faculties. Alice In Wonderland is a sumptuous smorgasbord of forms, from the Friedrich-esque ruins of the climatic clash with the Jabberwocky to the Gothic majesty of the Red Queen’s palace and fire-ravaged plains worthy of Kubin. Many shots have the same crystalline impeccability as a Symbolist painting. One might even say that the concluding battle, an arching shot suspended precariously above a vertiginous drop, is one of the most awesome set-pieces that Burton has yet constructed. Yet this scarcely excuses Burton from eschewing all of Carroll’s formal innovations in lieu of its ‘allegorical’ qualities. One might go so far as to say that this is a thoroughly treasonous treatment of Carroll’s book, transforming its ludic weightlessness and its intellectual gaiety into a ponderous parable of the CS Lewis sort.
One might, of course, argue that fidelity and cinematic adaptation ought to be mutually exclusive. Artaud and Bresson have said as much, pleading for a cinema and a theater that liberates itself from the hegemony of the literary text. Yet, one gets the feeling that even if Burton were to reproduce all of the cosmetic indices of Carroll’s text, exercising a meticulous adherence to its letter, he would remain incapable of grasping the singularity of the Alice books. We need not be reminded that Burton is a devout Dickensian. All of Dickens’ hallmarks- his mordant, malicious humor, his delectation in the excesses of the human physiognomy, his yen for dust, decrepitude and decay, his taste for the macabre, the grotesque and the uncanny, are deployed with abandon throughout Burton’s oeuvre. It is that sense of lurking, insidious menace, the covert transgressions that bubble beneath the antiseptic surface of Victorian respectability, that Burton thrusts to the fore in his remarkable films. Yet Burton fails to grasp the element that distinguishes Dickens from all of his peers, marking his work as the apotheosis of his epoch, his people, in the same way that Balzac’s Comedie Humaine exemplifies his- the senseless, machinic automatism that drives his texts like a dynamo, the architectural structures that give shape to his narratives and circumscribe them. This is not the Dickens of the early picaresques, but the Dickens of Our Mutual Friend, Little Dorrit and Bleak House, the demographer, geographer and sociologist of a burgeoning London, with its zones of exclusion, its rigid partitions, its insoluble contradictions, its traffic of goods, diseases and peoples, its incipient technologies, its ardors, anxieties and aspirations. In regarding Dickens as a caricaturist, we fail to see that Dickens was, above all else, an incomparably keen observer of a world, a microcosm traversed by heterogeneous flows (money, people, languages, germs), exchanges, signs, desires. Beneath and beyond his delightful characterizations are the molecular forces that constitute the social. We must not forget that Dickens, being a contemporary of Saint-Simon, Feuerbach and Auguste Comte, was fascinated by the machine, which he correctly identified as the model of the social as such. This is the secret solidarity between Dickens, Carroll, Butler and Kafka, that devoted reader of Dickens.
What is absolutely inexcusable in Burton’s rendition of Alice, then, is his deplorable humanization of the text, bridging the breach that persists between ourselves and Carroll’s inscrutable universe with a miserable mélange of mawkishness and mythology (in the Barthesian sense). What results is- if you will pardon the invocation of a lamentably unfashionable category- a profoundly ideological work, the value of which lies in its po-faced presentation of the intellectual climate of our age. In its unwitting naïveté, Burton rehearses all the requisite gestures of neo-liberal postmodernity: its confused mixture of moralistic sentiment with millenarian obscurantism and apocalyptic utopianism. In a phrase, Burton’s Alice In Wonderland reinstates, with unprecedented violence, the dominion of the reality principle into Carroll’s intractable universe, abolishing all of its appalling fascination.
To illuminate this point, we need only reference Jan Svankmaijer’s compact interpretation of Alice, which retains all of the naked horror of Carroll’s text. In Svankmaijer’s extraordinary film, the White Rabbit, the Mad Hatter and the March Hare are reduced to automatons that repeat, with an inexorably automatic compulsion, the circumscribed range of movements ascribed to them. In effect, they become caricatures of themselves, clockwork mannequins doomed to reproduce the text scripted by that awful demiurge, Lewis Carroll . What strikes us about Svankmaijer’s unswervingly faithful recreation is his emphasis upon the terrifying anonymity, the consummate banality of Carroll’s world. Wonderland is, like Voltaire’s El Dorado, a hermetic world closed upon itself, a purely insular interior without any point of contact with its outside. In this regard, it is purely self-referential, a perpetual feedback loop that swallows its own tail. As such, it has reached a point of perfect identity with itself, an identity that obviates the very use of the word ‘identity’ as such, since the concept of identity can only be formulated with reference to difference. In this world, alterity, otherness and heterogeneity cannot occur, they are annulled in advance. The syntactical concatenations that Carroll constructs with his poetic portmanteaus should not deceive us. Far from being an anarchic space of pure possibility, Wonderland is a mortuary populated by the undead. For all of their idiosyncracies (which, from Carroll’s essentially Kantian perspectivism, are only idiosyncracies ‘for us’; the madness of the Mad Hatter is not so remarkable to the March Hare, the obscene violence of Wonderland is perfectly reasonable to its citizens), the personages in Wonderland are not so much ‘characters’ as they are personified drives, zombies compelled by some irrepressible force to repeat themselves without possible reprieve. Hence the significance of Alice, who functions in an analogous way to Dante, Christian, Candide, Lemuel Gulliver and K. In effect, these characters are empty ciphers, voyeuristic points of observation which give readers privileged access to these forbidding/forbidden universes. It is interesting to note that these nondescript characters are purely functional catalysts. In effect, though they introduce nothing in the workings of the worlds that they traverse, the narratives would not occur without them.
What complicates matters is the fact that these figures act as the double of the reader, acting as his/her eyes. They effect an identification with the reader because they themselves are always-already in the act of reading and interpreting- it is only through them that the multifarious relationships, codes and exchanges that structure a world can be recognized and constituted as objects as such. It is from this ‘alienating’ cleavage between thinking subject and estranged object that thought and interpretation become possible in the first place: “The real, active relationship of man to himself as a species-being or the manifestation of himself as a real species-being, i.e. as a human being, is only possible if he uses all his species powers to create (which is again only possible through the cooperation of man and as a result of history), if he relates himself to them as objects, which can only be done at first in the form of alienation.” (Marx, 1844 Manuscripts, emphasis mine)
It seems commonsensical enough, but the book is inert without the animating breath of the reader. Each book would be an interminable soliloquy, a monadic, self-identical cell, were it not for the wound that it bore at its very heart- the reader to whom it submits and, in the very flesh of its language, consecrates itself. Incarnated in print, the book necessarily invokes a virtual interlocutor, establishes the premises upon which a dialogue can take place. This Bakhtinian axiom cuts to the very heart of textuality and signification as such. Thus, it is interpretation, with all of its arbitrariness and uncertainty, that sets these worlds into motion- to take worldliness and historicity for granted, as the inhabitants of Wonderland ostensibly do, is to inhabit a world without time, without change. This is the world that Carroll describes, an endless cyclicality that perpetually revolves around its own axis- the White Rabbit is forever late; the tea party held by the March Hare and the Mad Hatter is literally interminable; Unbirthdays are celebrated all year-round; Tweedledee and Tweedledum tirelessly repeat their nonsense lyrics to a non-existent audience; the Queen of Hearts has an inexhaustible supply of heads to sever from their bodily hosts. There are no events in Wonderland as such, only an eternal succession of the Same, a Spinozistic compounding of Far from affecting the invariable outcome of these rigorous formulas, Alice is inserted into them, being but one term, one vector among many in an unfathomable equation; she is entirely subject to their jurisdiction. Of course, it is only through her eyes that we can apprehend the groundless contingency, the transcendent monstrosity of the Law. It is important that we tarry with this specular metaphor: Alice affords us a specific angle of vision that is incompatible with the otherwise uniform surface of Wonderland.
Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty formulated phenomenologies that describe the experience of immersion in an umwelt, an existential embeddedness that ‘forgets’ the objecthood of the object by incorporating it, transforming it into an ‘extension of man’. In their consummate ordinariness, our relationships with objects become purely reflexive, habitual; a sub-reflective understanding renders the cleft between ourselves and our surroundings imperceptible. The inassimilable, inhuman objectivity of the object can only be seen at a tilt; at eye-level, gradations, levels and differences are homogenized, flattened into lateral equivalences. It is precisely from this disjunction between Alice’s world and Wonderland, this collision between substantially irreconcilable (but formally analogous, see below) logics that the sheer strangeness of the narrative emerges. Let us imagine that Alice in Wonderland assumed a different form: instead of being a narrative recounted from the vantage point of Alice, let us hypothesize that it adopted a technique beloved of science fiction, adopting the perspective of an inhabitant of Wonderland (let us say the Mad Hatter). One imagines a prose fragment, culled from a diary perhaps, where all of the wonder of Alice’s fortuitous encounters is replaced by a staid, sober account of the day’s dealings: grocery lists, itemized to-do lists, petty anxieties, records of conversations conducted in gobbledygook, Unbirthday resolutions. The style, one imagines, would be markedly different, it would even border upon tedium, but the effects would be rather similar. What appears utterly insignificant to a fellow Wonderlander would, in its inalienable foreignness, fascinate us.
It is necessary to reiterate this foundational axiom of Derridean doctrine, the force of which has perhaps been dulled by doxa- the reader is the name of the text’s Other, the opening that prevents a textual world from closing in on itself, a locus of radical possibility. There is a reciprocal, intersubjective exchange that occurs between reader and text, a mutual exposure with its own secret dialectic. What happens is something like the Sartrean confrontation between two freedoms or the Levinasian face-to-face: the pure interiority of the subject’s (onanistic) self-relation, represented by the narcissistic mirror image, is disrupted by the disquieting intrusion of the Other. There is a certain violence that is intrinsic to literature, in its power to puncture a hole in the heart of reality, estranging us from any complacent familiarity with the world. In the same way that literature uproots us from the immediacy of lived experience, affording us a space by which we can observe ourselves outside of the regime of rubrics that legislate upon reality, the reader delivers the text from the hell of self-identity. Without Alice, Wonderland would be a concave cavern of mirrors, an echo chamber resonating with refrains. To be sure, her presence does not effect any sort of Lucretian clinamen in Wonderland’s causal circuitry, she is neither an exception nor an interruption. Her purpose is different- she is a point of transmission, an emissary through which these echoes can be audible for us. Troublingly, the acoustics reverberating through these halls are not so different from our own.
Between the insuperable gulf that opens up between two nominal instances, we can glimpse the very nature of worldliness as such, the structural relationships that striate space, the grids that segment time, the codes that legislate upon speech acts. In Kantian terms, Carroll trains us to apprehend and scrutinize transcendentals, trans-worldly variables that constitute the very fabric of reality. This is precisely the ‘looking glass’ that Carroll forges for us, something that becomes much clearer in the second Alice book, where the real subject of the text is not the pieces of the game, but the chess board that coordinates and regulates their possibilities, constraining them to a static set of conditions: “Thus it is in the working over of the objective world that man first really affirms himself as species-being. This production is his active species-life. Through it nature appears as his work and his reality. The object of work is therefore the objectification of the species-life of man; for he duplicates himself not only intellectually, in his mind, but also actively in reality and thus can look at his image in a world he has created.” (Marx, 1844 Manuscripts, emphasis mine)
Here, we should perhaps recall Humbert Humbert’s pithy insights in Lolita, which succinctly formulate the intrinsic inertia of every literary world: no matter how many times we read Madame Bovary, we submit to the command of an imperious prescription- Emma cannot but behave in the fashion that she does. Because it was written, it shall always be so, and the actualization of Emma’s exploits is ultimately fatal- the novel is a cryogenic operation, ‘freezing’ a destiny. It is this dimension of the literary ‘world’ that Lewis Carroll renders explicit in his Alice novels, extrapolating it to describe an axiomatic invariant that structures every world qua world. It is no surprise that Lewis Carroll was a logician and a mathematician. It is essential that we recognize that Alice In Wonderland is directly co-extensive with Carroll’s mathematical bent, that the cleavage between Carroll the geometrician and Carroll the fabulist is a false one. Carroll’s ultimate concern is with the axiomatic logic, the principle of equilibrium that underlies all of Wonderland’s rituals, gestures and transactions, the economy of sense that saturates its spaces with meaning and significance, however tentative.
This is not to say that there is some skeleton key, some master code by means of which we might decrypt all of the puzzles that Carroll devises. It is foolhardy to assume that Carroll himself was in possession of such a key. At any rate, the pursuit of such a solution is of scant interest. The interest of the Alice books lies in their prodigious elaboration of unconscious/pre-conscious procedures, practices, proprieties and protocols, locating the junctions and intersections between them, mapping the coordinates that give shape and consistency to social reality. Why is there something rather than nothing? Why does sense persist beneath the most manifest forms of non-sense? This last question has been probed at great length by one of Carroll’s keenest disciples. JG Ballard has remarked that the Alice books are among his foremost inspirations, and one can certainly see, through the intertextual prism that this series constitutes (Carroll-Melville-Kafka-Huxley-Orwell-Ba
Marvelously, Burton’s film manages to reverse, displace and overturn the tremendous accomplishment of the Alice books. What results is a logical paradox that Carroll himself would have delighted in- while two centuries separate the original and its reproduction, Burton’s film, in its treatment of themes probed by Carroll, is essentially pre-Carrollian. One might liken this to a return to a pre-Copernican universe, a ridiculous atavism. This is not so surprising to Spenglerians or enthusiasts of Vico- our age has witnessed all manner of resurgent barbarities. Huntington’s hypotheses, while devoid of any critical value, indicate the feverish temperature of a hysterical, paranoiac epoch. Let us examine the consequences of Burton’s tremendous involution, which succeeds in transforming one of the most unsettling texts in world literature into a comforting parable, sublimating all of its intransigent impasses and deadlocks.
This, in itself, should be an immediate cause for concern. For many of us, the mildewed pages of Alice in Wonderland are redolent of summer afternoons in bucolic settings, the aroma of teatime pastries, the ambrosia of childhood. Alice in Wonderland’s continued popularity among the young and its nostalgic value for their elders have dulled our receptivity to its finer merits. Like many canonical texts, it has been rendered unreadable by time. The very fact that we are able to feel at home in Burton’s Wonderland corresponds to its canny recognition of this characteristically postmodern desire to revisit one’s childhood, to recover the homeostasis of home. Why should this be so, when Burton’s rendition takes so many liberties with Carroll’s text, eschewing many of its hallmarks in lieu of a landscape that resembles Narnia more than it does Wonderland? I would suggest that Burton’s Wonderland is a fantasmatic space upon which a plethora of contemporary desires are staged and resolved. It is little wonder that Burton has recourse to two hegemonic faiths, two metalanguages that enjoy a disquieting eminence in the collective imagination, the ‘invisible hand’ of neo-liberalism and populist psychiatry/ego psychology.
There are moments in Alice in Wonderland when one feels that one is watching a dramatization of Francis Fukuyama’s End of History, with its rhapsodic annunciation of the culmination of historical time. With the collapse of state socialism, one witnesses the passing of history with all of its antagonisms and antinomies- the labor of the negative sublates itself and the verdict of historical necessity reveals itself. When all historical adversaries to the neo-liberal model have been vanquished, infractions and insurrections are handled by administrative police action. Everywhere else, the necessary conditions must be established so that the miracle of the market can work its magic, fertile land must be ploughed. This is the advent of a ‘peace more terrible than war’, Empire. Seen from this angle, the restitution of the White Queen in Burton’s Wonderland ought to make us tremble. Burton’s Wonderland is a world of immaculate causality, where the incandescent light of Reason dispels all ambiguities, resolves all contradictions, even that of Evil itself. One need only cite two instances to render the psychopathology of Burton’s Wonderland transparent- the ‘madness’ of the Mad Hatter is not intrinsic to Wonderland but individualized, the symptom of a historical trauma that can only be dissolved by the restitution of a lost object. The Red Queen is exposed as a petty despot, yet another megalomaniac whose disavowed repressions and ressentiments erupt into neurotic acts of negation. By inscribing Evil into the Oedipal triangle, Burton posits two incontrovertible laws that preside over Wonderland: that of Plato (Evil as the absence of Good, a contingent impurity that has no Being, no ideal essence of its own) and that of Freud . That we can accept either of these necessities is itself symptomatic of our incapacity to think the autonomy and the inhumanity of Evil, allowing it to proliferate beneath all-too-human disguises (the naked brutality of Silvio Berlusconi, for instance, dissimulating itself behind the mask of a practical joker, disarming critique by lampooning himself).
Beyond the facile, Cold War Manichaeism of its structure, a morality that is nowhere present in Carroll’s universe, one wonders whether the White-Red opposition is as disparate as it seems. Bizarrely, Burton eschews the radical alterity of Carroll’s world, one which, in its obdurate otherworldliness, reveals a structural affinity with our world. In its place, he substitutes a Wonderland that is largely indiscernible from our own ideological constellation.
[It is telling that the force of Good in Burton’s movie is represented by the color White, which is the Platonic color par excellence, the Idea of color that is the pure absence of color. It is a color without any admixture, without contamination. The color, that is, of fascism. If every other color is a composite compounded atop the primordial, elemental base of white, then many of the tropes in Burton’s film become clear, particularly when we evaluate its treatment of right and sovereignty. Effectively, the culmination and termination of history that the White Queen represents coincides with the disappearance of politics as such, insofar as we retain Schmitt’s emphasis upon the conspicuousness of the political arena as a polemical and agonistic space. History being a theatre of tragedy, an antagonism between adversaries that cannot be resolved until there is a victor, awaits the judgment that time will pass upon it. What the White Queen represents is the inauguration of the Hegelian-Kojevean urstaat, the cold monster that stands at both ends of history as its origin and its inner, unconscious telos. With the establishment of her dominion, the White Queen embodies Reason’s return to itself, its glorious homecoming, the inexorable triumph of necessity. It is on the strength of this Idealist-historicist hypothesis that we can construe the Red Queen as a usurper of natural right, which belongs entirely to the White Queen. The vainglorious Prometheanism of the Red Queen, whose romantic defense of human agency is tragic to the extreme, fails to grasp something that the White Queen submits to without reserve, the irrepressible march of Spirit that orders the outcome of events in advance. Thus the trajectory of time in Burton’s Wonderland is a circular one, charting the movement of a History that is not one, a fatal game that is rigged from the start: so it has been, so it shall be forever. The White Queen is the principle of Right, the essence of Good, the loss and recovery of which constitutes the entirety of human history. This is why she is, like every Platonic Idea, essentially immobile, conservative, impermeable to change: she remains outside the permutations of linear time, the static Eternity that every vicissitude, every moment inclines towards. These Hegelian references are not accidental, and I shall discuss Burton’s treatment of history in full later.]
There is much to be said about the very childishness of Burton’s production, its replacement of Carroll’s obscenity and senselessness with an obscenity that is all the more horrifying because of its essential imperceptibility, a hyperreal excess of sense that renders everything transparent. Such a maneuver announces its profoundly manipulative complicity with our own fantasmatic longings for a past that never was, a fantastic time prior to the utter bewilderment of late capitalism, when the promises of liberal democracy and the free market were totally virtual and uncompromised. Herein lies all the power and agony of Flaubert’s L’education Sentimentale: this lost eschatology, this unblemished hope is always hypothetical, always fetishistic, always grasped in a retrospective mode as a compensation for unbearable disappointments. Despite all of our exuberant pronouncements to the contrary, we postmoderns tend to regard ourselves as a civilization of senility, compounded beneath a stultifying excess of history and culture. We have all the jaundice and disaffection of an outworn people, masochistically passing judgment upon the naïveté of our elders, their well-intentioned fruits: the death of philosophy, the death of art, the death of emancipatory politics, the death of innocence. Disinherited by history, we have outlived all its illusions. Old before our time, we despair for a childhood that we have never known, with its unlimited prospects, Promethean dreams and giddying passions. This explains our profound need for Burton’s interpretation of Alice in Wonderland, a need that he acknowledges and exploits to the fullest: “A man cannot become a child again unless he becomes childish. But does he not enjoy the artless ways of the child, and must he not strive to reproduce its truth on a higher plane? Is not the character of every epoch revived, perfectly true to nature, in the child’s nature? Why should the childhood of human society, where it had obtained its most beautiful development, not exert an eternal charm as an age that will never return? There are ill-bred children and precocious children. Many of the ancient nations belong to the latter class. The Greeks were normal children. The charm their art has for us does not conflict with the primitive character of the social order from which it had sprung. It is rather the product of the latter, and is due rather to the fact that the immature social conditions under which the art arose and under which it alone could appear can never return.” (Marx, Grundrisse)
Perhaps, then, all of the dialectical hairsplitting that I have subjected you to has merely obscured the true genius of Burton’s production, the feature that, in its pronounced grasp of historicity, distinguishes it from the period pieces that populate today’s cinematic landscape. I have, up until now, castigated Burton for what I deem to be a betrayal of Carroll’s text, a position that is besmirched by an unfortunate idealism. Perhaps, with the introduction of various psychoanalytic categories that I have withheld until this point, we can illuminate the ways in which Alice in Wonderland is a truly historical film, a sly reflection on contemporary experience that accomplishes, in a way that is quite different from Lewis Carroll, a critical reflexivity that exhorts us to confront our own nostalgia.
Contrary to many period pieces, which are situated in an ahistorical u-topos dissevered from any concrete historical referent, Burton is careful to mark his Victoriana with the stigmata of history. Burton, in pointedly unequivocal fashion, foregrounds the imperialist impulse throughout the movie, an impulse that passes from virtuality to actuality as Alice matures. This trope forms the central hub, the very motor of Burton’s film, which is the arena upon which various discourses compete and clash in a Hegelian struggle to the death. We must remember that time is of inestimable importance in Alice’s world, as well as Wonderland: Alice can only perform her historical task at the appointed time. It is at the conclusion of Burton’s film that this task is made clear, and the profound identity between her role in both worlds is made manifest: the return to Nature and the restoration of natural right in Wonderland coincides with her task in the ‘real world’, the conquest of universal prehistory and the advent of the global market through colonialism. Wonderland and Alice’s world are thus situated on two heterogeneous planes, the former embodying the Being of the latter, which is still ensconced in/impelled by the dialectic of Becoming. Wonderland is capitalism accomplished, the Platonic Idea of its historical process.
The fact that Alice lives her stay in Wonderland as a dream conjures up all manner of Freudian resonances, as does her awakening prior to the final battle with the Jabberwocky, wherein she sees the fundamental homology between two worlds, the eschatological future to which both dimensions are destined. At this very moment, the impossibility of dream passes into the realm of concrete possibility, the virtual becomes actual. Remember that the aspirations of her Father could not be articulated with the tenor of his times; the discord between his vision and the prevailing ideological climate hindered it from according any credence to the discourse that he put forth: situated at the embryonic stages of the bourgeois revolution, his fancies could not be recognized as tenable courses of action. The figure of the enterprising noble/Alice’s prospective father-in-law is of especial importance here- in his person is marked the passage of time and the seachange in opinion that it brings. In him, we see the nobility’s recognition of its own invariable demise, its concession to the nascent rise of the middle classes. One imagines that Alice’s maturation is coextensive with the convergence of all manner of fortuitous conditions (the discovery of gold in America, developing modes of technology and communications, the burgeoning need for new markets for British goods and cheap raw materials, consequences of the French Revolution) that were propitious for bourgeois revolution. Alice does not merely inherit a dream from her father, she inherits a history in which this dream can be realized. The moribundity and oblivion of the nobility, which Burton magnifies to grotesque effect in the opening half an hour of the film, is ironically the most Carrollian portion of the film, with its pallid, effete heirs and heiresses, its outmoded ritual forms, its vacuous functions peopled by Miss Havishams and waltzing clotheshorses. To underline this, Burton has Alice recognize the analogical similarity between two pairs: Tweedledee-Tweedledum and the twins that harangue her at the nobles’ party. Both are démodé types, living caricatures to be consigned to the furnace of history.
To go further. If we assume, as per the strictures of psychoanalysis, that desire is desire for and of the Other, then the very structure of Alice’s symbolic and imaginary axes are inherited from her father, attesting to a profound continuity of vision. This vision must await the ripening of time, the destinal moment allotted to its fulfillment. Alice, like the White Queen, is a vessel for the ‘cunning of reason’, the revenge of her father upon the world that spurned him. This introduces a disquieting determinism of desire that undermines any presentation of Alice in Wonderland as a celebration of childhood and its untrammeled, anarchic imagination: Alice effectively inherits her father’s desire, repeating it with immaculate aplomb. The secret motivation of the film’s conclusion is the perpetuation of the Father’s name, its official inscription into the record of history. Keeping all this in mind, I would venture so far as to say that the real subject of Burton’s film is history, or, to be more specific, a certain representation of history, the writing of a theodicy that the bourgeoisie constructed to affirm its self-appointed legitimacy. Under the cover of a filmic adaptation, Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland is an autobiography of the bourgeoisie, an account of the relationship between its aspirations and the vicissitudes of time. From this concatenation of contingencies, the bourgeoisie manufactures a mythology that commemorates its own victory, concealing arbitrariness beneath a façade of necessity. Effectively, Alice in Wonderland is a chronicle of the bourgeoisie and the evolution of its self-image, the way in which it imagines itself as the bearer of historical necessity, the harbinger of fate.
The sadness of Burton’s film, a melancholy that belies the sanguine spirit of adventure that closes it, lies entirely in the fact that we are intimately familiar with the events that transpire following Alice’s epiphanic liberation, the interminable series of injustices engendered by a messianism of the market. Might we conceive Burton’s film as a canny experiment, a political barometer that gauges our ideological temperature by assessing our reactions to its carefully contrived conjurations? This, at any rate, would constitute a Brechtian gesture on Burton’s part- we overlook the historical dimension of Burton’s picture at our peril.