The wonderful Jay A. Hansen posted a Jack Kerouac quote today, as his Facebook status:
The only people for me are the mad ones. The ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time. The ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars….
This started me thinking about madness. And if I start thinking about madness, I'm going to think of Alice in Wonderland. And if I think of Alice, I'm going to write a blog post....
Alice deals a lot with madness in Alice in Wonderland (Tim Burton, 2010). She overhears Lord Ascot accuse her father, Charles of having lost his senses for wanting to open trade routes to the East. When Alice recounts her recurring dream of falling down a dark hole into a world filled with strange, unexpected creatures, she asks Charles Kingsleigh if he thinks she's "gone round the bend."
Her father felt her forehead, looking just like their family doctor when he was checking a fever. He made the doctor's "bad news" face and said, "I'm afraid so." Alice's eyes widened, but he went on. "You're mad. Bonkers. Off your head. But I'll tell you a secret...all the best people are."
Of course, Alice believes her own self to be mad when she first sees, and then chases after, the watch-checking White Rabbit at the garden party. But even as she falls down the rabbit hole, surrounded by strange and curious things, she doesn't question her own madness; she simply assumes it's another dream. Having dreamed of Wonderland/Underland for so long, much of what she perceives as being a dream state seems perfectly acceptable, almost reasonable, to Alice. She comments only that it is "curiouser and curiouser", and not quite as familiar as she had imagined.
The concept of madness, as such, doesn't come back into the story until the Cheshire Cat takes Alice to the home of the March Hare, for the tea party with the Dormouse and the Mad Hatter. The latter character, of course, is presumed to be "mad as a hatter" because of mercury poisoning common to his profession. While he's off-kilter, certainly, he is predominantly lucid in his actions and his interpretations of Alice and Underland.
When Stayne, the Knave of Hearts, intrudes on the tea party in search of Alice (conveniently shrunken and hidden on a teapot), he calls the Hare, the Dormouse, and the Hatter is favorite trio of lunatics. In an effort to protect the possibly-right-Alice, the threesome do their best to oblige the Knave's misconceptions, throwing teapots and singing ridiculous songs. The Knave growls at them that they're all mad and leaves. Alice is safe thanks to the feigned lunacy of her new friends. The Mad Hatter agrees to take tiny, apprehensive Alice to the White Queen, transporting her by way of his hat:
She couldn't help thinking the Knave was right about these three. They were all quite mad.
And yet...she had no one else. Mad or not, it seemed she was stuck with them.
The Mad Hatter is inadvertently captured by the Red Queen's minions, and Alice infiltrates the castle of Iracebeth to rescue her friend. Twice we see the Hatter maniacal and in a tizzy of self-recrimination at the thought of creating chapeaux for the horrid woman whose Jabberwocky wiped out his entire Hightopp clan of milliners. When he's at his seemingly maddest, it is inevitably Alice who recognizes it and pulls him back from the brink, usually to save him from a terrible fate.
Alice escapes, but the Hatter is once again imprisoned by the Red Queen, sentenced to beheading at dawn. The Hatter sits in his cell, unresponsive and staring "blindly into space." When the Knave and his guards taunt the Hatter and his accomplices, the Hatter is described as having madness in his eyes as he seizes Stayne, doing his best to choke the life out of him. The Cheshire Cat and the Mad Hatter hatch a plan to fake the beheading and escape to join Alice at the White Queen's castle.
Alice finally chooses to accept the role of the White Queen's champion and slay the Jabberwocky.
The Hatter looked bemused. "You still believe this is a dream? Do you?"
"Of course. This has all come from my own mind."
The Hatter thought about that for a moment. "Which would mean that I'm not real."
"I'm afraid so," said Alice, shaking her head. "You're just a figment of my imagination. I would dream up someone who's half mad."
"Yes, yes. But you would have to be half mad to dream me up," the Hatter observed.
"I must be, then," Alice said.
The maddest of characters in Alice in Wonderland are the ones who are most in touch with what really matters, while the truly foolish are the ones who make and enforce the rules. The Hatter is mad because of the horrible injustices perpetrated against himself and all of Underland. He often seems lost in lunacy when he's actually most rational, faking madness to save an ally from certain doom.
And if they are each half mad, does that make them whole?
In the end, Alice finds a way to mesh her dreams with her own, beautiful madness. She recognizes that there is wonder in being mad, in finding the driving force that ultimately fuels her dreams.
Maybe Kerouac had some of the same madness in mind when he wrote On the Road. The people he loves are the uninhibited, thoughtful risk-takers, who sublimate their own madness to create their own dreams. Kind of like Alice.
There's a thin line between creativity and madness, and it might just be found down the rabbit hole.