Down the rabbit hole
What does Alice know?
I’ve long associated White Rabbit, the song by Jefferson Airplane, with Go Ask Alice, an anonymous diary published in 1971 that turned out to be written by Mormon housewife Beatrice Sparks who would later “edit” Jay’s Journal, a “real diary” about a youth who gets involved with witchcraft. According to Wikipedia the name of the book was taken from this song and it provides part of the soundtrack to the movie that came out in 1973. I’d forgotten about the book until we watched 1899. I heard the song and immediately thought of Go Ask Alice, a strange association that Chelsea Vowell also shared. I found the movie on Youtube and as we continued watching 1899 I thought that combining the two through this song might make for some interesting thoughts.
There isn’t much in the way of spoilers, so you should be safe to continue if you haven’t seen it yet.
White Rabbit has been in a lot of soundtracks including American Hustle, Matrix Resurrections, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, episodes of Supernatural, Daria, Quantum Leap, Miami Vice, and so many more. But it’s the connection between Go Ask Alice and 1899 that I’m looking for. The link formed by White Rabbit between Alice’s drug use and Maura’s experience on the Kerberos, a steamship on it’s way to New York that experiences a number of anomalies suggesting that things are not what they appear.
These narratives (book, song, and series) are about a journey into the unknown. A tumble, a step. It’s dangerous business setting foot outside your door as Bilbo would say to Frodo. But what lessons are we meant to draw from Alice? Is her journey a warning or an invitation?
One pill makes you larger And one pill makes you small And the ones that mother gives you Don't do anything at all Go ask Alice When she's ten feet tall
According to Grace Slick the song is about curiosity and opening your mind. Counter culture types presented drug use as a way to access other realities and ways of thinking. To suburbanites, invested in maintaining their postwar upward mobility, open minds and drug use in the 60s were scary. A conservative population already destabilized by the Civil Rights Movement and subsequent legislation was now being confronted with more change. How much counter culture was white America supposed to tolerate? So Sparks took this anthem of drug-fueled mind expansion and made it dark. Oh you think drug use is so mind expanding? Go Ask Alice.
Meanwhile in 1899 the key to understanding isn’t drugs, it appears to be an inexplicable tech, a black pyramid that seems to control something eventually revealed as The Construct. The passengers on the steamship along with Maura are together navigating an increasingly unstable world where the boundaries between realities become blurry. Grace Slick had to take LSD to do what Maura does by following the boy off the ship, the boy who was able to manipulate the black pyramid.
And if you go chasing rabbits And you know you're going to fall Tell 'em a hookah-smoking caterpillar Has given you the call Call Alice When she was just small
Who are you? That is the question that the hookah smoking caterpillar poses to Alice and one that she has difficulty answering. Who is the unnamed diarist? Who is Maura? Although the movie calls her Alice, in the diary she is not named. She is an anonymous girl in an anonymous suburb, she could be anyone. She could be you.
Neither the diarist nor Maura can answer that question any better than Alice. The diarist doesn’t even have a name and her entries often focus on finding herself, trying to figure out who she is and how she fits in with her family, at school. She rejects the identity offered by her parents and classmates, she doesn’t fit in with the popular ones anyway which makes her vulnerable to the drug crowd. That’s a line I heard often in junior high and highschool, that drug users were looking for social castoffs so that they could remake them in their image. In the end Alice longs to return to the identity she had rejected but remains an addict. Chasing rabbits in search of identity turns out to be dangerous.
Initially Maura thinks she knows who she is, but this becomes increasinly shaky. Her name is found on the passenger list for the Prometheus, a ghost ship encountered by the Kerberos, a clue that things on the Kerberos are not what they seem. As the series progresses we become less sure about who Maura is, about who or what any of this is.
Who are you?
When the men on the chessboard Get up and tell you where to go And you've just had some kind of mushroom And your mind is moving low Go ask Alice I think she'll know
In Through the Looking Glass, Alice is the white pawn who eventually becomes a Queen after she crosses the chessboard. Early on she can only see in a limited way, the pawn can only move forward one space at a time, but once she crosses the board she’ll be the Queen and able to see in all directions. What does Alice know? That depends on whether or not she has crossed the board. Both Maura and the diarist are picking their way across the chessboard, seeing only one step ahead of where they are. What happens elsewhere on the board impacts them, but there isn’t anything they can do about it but doggedly move forward. The diarist’s vision is limited by her drug use, a limitation that persists even past her sobriety. She tells a friend that she is only one pill away from her addiction. This Alice dies before she crosses the board and is unable to realize her full potential, another warning to teens who would dabble in drugs. Even if you get clean and rejoin the game, you will still be in danger. The diarist is never be free from the limitations of being a pawn. Maura, on the other hand, follows her path one square at a time, eventually waking and seeing the entire board clearly.
When logic and proportion Have fallen sloppy dead And the White Knight is talking backwards And the Red Queen's off with her head Remember what the dormouse said Feed your head Feed your head
Feed your head. Be curious. Ask questions. Wake up wake up wake up wake up. That’s an interesting connection to me. Throughout 1899 Maura encounters the phrase “wake up” which is something the dormouse struggles to do. He’s a sleepy little guy who says a bunch of things, none of which is “feed your head.” But he does try to wake up.
The diarist and Maura both wake up. But the diarist wakes up to the realization that the identity and life she had rejected was the only safe space. That is not the message of White Rabbit, but it is the message of Go Ask Alice. Drug use is not expansive or even recreational, it is dangerous and remains dangerous even if you stop using it. People who use drugs are dangerous and preying on the vulnerable. To a great extent we retain these beliefs about addiciton and drug use. The diarist takes her mother’s pills which is an interesting inclusion. For the diarist these pills are part of her overall drug use, but there is no criticism of the mother for having them. If an authority figure has said they’re ok I guess, and the only other authority figure the diarist encounters is the priest who sends her home where she belongs. The reality that the diarist awakens to is a new understanding of the reality she had previously rejected.
Meanwhile Maura wakes up to the world as it is. There have been indications all along that life isn’t what it appears. Strange sounds and behaviours, boundaries between waking and sleep that get increasingly blurry. For Maura, chasing the white rabbit and waking up has the potential of liberation and moving through the world as it really is. Feed your head, stay curious, wake up.
It’s interesting to me that this song got wielded in different ways by the two narratives. For Sparks it is a warning, you want to use drugs? Go ask Alice how that worked out for her. For 1899 it is an invitation. Does your world seen precarious, unsteady? Can we imagine better? Ask Alice, she has travelled this way as well. Leaving behind the familiar, the status quo. It can be scary and unsettling. It can mean danger and reworking of relationship. But it can also be liberating, which is what Slick is seeking. A way out of the oppressive normal so staunchly defended by Sparks and others like her.
Now I want to read Jay’s Journal.