Meena Kaushik
May 15, 2020

Down the COVID hole: Inspired by Alice In Wonderland

What can a famous book from 1865 tell us about our COVID-ravaged world today? A whole lot, according to a social anthropologist and semiotician.

Down the COVID hole: Inspired by Alice In Wonderland

Alice in Wonderland was published by Lewis Carroll in 1865. It is a tale of a bored young girl who falls down a rabbit hole into a fantasy world that is inhabited by strange animals and strange occurrences. 

A century and a half later the symbolic and mythic value of the tale persists, and more so during these ‘Covid Times’ when our world no longer makes sense and notions of reality, time and space are all getting re-defined.

I have taken the liberty of using the mythic structure of the tale to understand the re-definition of reality as we experience it as we fall down the ‘Covid Hole’. The various events and happenings in Alice’s journey in this new world become insights for what we are experiencing when our notion of what is real and stable is challenged by an external threat: a threat that makes nonsense of our known ways of being and behaving.

I’m late.

The story begins with a warp in time where Alice notices a rabbit with a pocket watch exclaiming, “he is late”. This is reminiscent of what the world is experiencing ever since the Covid threat has spread from country to country. Suddenly, the enormity of the devastation that the human race has wreaked on this planet has come into sharp focus and we are questioning ourselves and asking if we are too late to save ourselves and our world.

Scientists estimate that the total weight of the virus across the world does not measure up to more than one gram! That a miniscule bit of virus has the power to lock down nations, people and businesses while making a mockery of our lifestyle, our greedy consumption, and our ways of being, is laughable. The Covid threat makes one realize that what we thought was real and sane may not be so and that this threat may indeed open up a portal to another way of living and being.

I wonder how far I will fall and whether I will fall through the earth. 

This thought goes through Alice’s mind as she falls down the rabbit hole. The frenzy of writing and analysis that is predicting what will happen to the world and to life as we know it post the Covid threat boggles the mind. It reflects our fear that our fall can be endless and can turn our world upside down. That niceties in economic and political behaviour may not be possible if there is such a fall. That a borderless world that globalization brought about will change into a hyper-local one. That discrimination and nativism will colour our world view and result in a new way of interacting and sharing the resources of this universe. That social distancing could actually strengthen the inherent need for social stratification and racial discrimination which humans have always had but have had to suppress under the veneer of appearing civilized and liberal.

We are seeing political demagogues across countries rallying forces against open borders and immigration, and this will only get strengthened with the Covid threat.

After her fall Alice faces the challenge of entering the garden because she cannot fit into the door. Her angst about the size she needs to be is a thread throughout the story.

Similarly, post Covid the new reality and our place in this new reality will remain an unknown. Re-fitting ourselves into a new reality always poses a challenge. What form, shape, size and imagination should one adopt to be in synch with this new reality? What should the new meaning system be, and what are the new codes of behaviour that one needs to create for the new world order? Our angst is no less than Alice’s as we blunder through these times with an old imagination trying to make sense of a new reality.

As we struggle to find solutions and entry into a post-Covid world we become increasingly unsure of the knowledge and behaviour we have used thus far to dominate and capture a place of primacy over other species. Is what we know and how we think suitable for this new reality? Does it help us remain dominant, relevant, viable, and safe? The fear that we may not be able to fit in, and that we may face mass annihilation, that we may need to change our ways of living, consuming and aspiring could result in an existential crisis about who we are.

Do we continue to be the rapacious species that destroys the habitat for all other creatures by cornering all the resources for our wellbeing and pleasure or we need a new perspective and vision about how the human race can co-exist with other species in a sustainable way?

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Will this threat make us re-evaluate how we have lived so far, or will it raise our paranoia and desire to be the supreme species that must capture and garner all the world’s resources no matter how diminished these may be to ensure my own survival? Will a higher purpose steer us to a better way of living or will greed result in greater political and economic insecurity, competitiveness for the fast diminishing natural resources of the world?

Alice faces the same existential crisis when she remarks:

Dear, dear! How queer everything is to-day! And yesterday things went on just as usual. I wonder if I’ve been changed in the night? Let me think: was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different. But if I’m not the same, the next question is, Who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle!

The human rat race.

In Wonderland, Alice is faced with a weird race between various animals where the race course is set as a circle and the animals run in circles with no winners in the end. The absurdity of this race is a striking parody of our lives and our rat race. What did we really achieve? And who won in the end? Both remain dubious, unanswerable questions. What can humanity say was its greatest achievement and contribution to this universe? Have we truly led meaningful and fulfilling lives? Will history remember us as a benevolent species that created a better world for ourselves and other living things?

Sizing ourselves to be in harmony with others.

Alice sizes and resizes herself to fit in with the multiple realities with which she is challenged. Whether we will resize to be in harmony with other species and other countries in the new reality, rather than the predator that we are, is a moral question that we need to debate and contemplate. 

Change is inevitable.

We are not the same person we were yesterday, yet we live either in the past or in the yet to emerge future—not in the present. We are married to status quo because it makes us feel safe and comforted. Our existing world and our habits keep us chained to an imagination of life as usual, work and business as usual. The biggest change, I believe we need to see, is in the way time and progress should get redefined in the post-Covid reality. From a linear view of time, human effort and “progress”, we need to move to a more systemic, sustainable and holistic notion of “progress”. A conscious choice of how we use effort and time to create sustainable progress for the greater good of all living things.

We have lost our way and our purpose in life because we have focussed too much on the destination and the end goal overlooking the value of the journey and the right way to get somewhere. Alice also asks this very critical question to the Cheshire cat:

'Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?'

'That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,' said the Cat.

'I don’t much care where,' said Alice.

'Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,' said the Cat.

'So long as I get somewhere,' Alice added as an explanation.

We need to redefine the purpose of our lives and also the way we will journey through life in the future.

What we have thus far thought of as sane and real needs serious re-examination. Surely the devastation of our climate, our forests, our habitat, and the rapid extinction of species cannot be sane and a good way to live. Surely we need to develop a more sustainable way of living, doing business, and relating to other races and species that share our world and its resources. Developing an attitude of reciprocity that gives more than what we take.

As we jostle for a position in the universe we may not always get into a position that is beneficial.

This is the big insight Alice gets when she observes the Mad- Hatter’s tea party and the way the animals shift positions, but only the Mad Hatter seems to benefit from the jostling around.

'I want a clean cup,' interrupted the Hatter. 'Let’s all move one place on.' He moved on as he spoke, and the Dormouse followed him: the March Hare moved into the Dormouse’s place, and Alice rather unwillingly took the place of the March Hare. The Hatter was the only one who got any advantage from the change: and Alice was a good deal worse off than before, as the March Hare had just upset the milk-jug into his plate.

Are we seeking to behead a bodiless cat?

As humans we need to understand, respect and play by the rules and laws of nature to be in a winning position. When we defy these natural laws we have only created chaos and destruction akin to the game of croquet that Alice plays with the Queen of Hearts. There is chaos and mayhem, and the Queen asks that the Cheshire cat be beheaded. But this is not possible as the cat has a head but no body and therefore execution is not feasible.

Is the Covid our only real threat? This is a poignant reminder of the fact that the problems that the world is focussing on today may perhaps not be the real ones that will save the human race and the universe.

Living in an alternate universe

In conclusion, I wish to suggest that the world has been given an opportunity to experience a parallel reality. Can politicians, businesses and consumers learn from this experience and collectively re-examine their vision of the post-Covid future? These are some key questions:

1. How do we collaborate to share and protect the resources of our universe so that we do not go against nature and against other species? They are critical for our very survival.

2. How do we guard against divisive and discriminatory thinking that this threat has only strengthened and is likely to fan? How can the world remain an inclusive fraternity and guard against nativism?

3. What guard rails do we need to put into place for businesses and brands so that they work with a higher purpose for the greater good of mankind and do not feed greed but real needs?

4. What behaviour changes do we need to make as consumers to ensure that our consumption is sustainable and protective of the resources of our universe?

5. What shifts do we need to make in our educational system so that it does not lessen wisdom but helps us enjoy the journey in a relaxed and meaningful manner. Is the mindless, frenzied and exhausting rat race the only way to create progress and success?

Dr Meena Kaushik is a social anthropologist and a semiotician, as well as chairperson of Quantum Consumer Solutions.

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