The Definition of Insanity-We’re All Mad: Wonderland as an Archetype for Mental Trauma

Lewis Carrol’s whimsical, arguably hallucinogenic text in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland begs to be interpreted from a diverse array of psychological perspectives. Not surprisingly, the work has been adapted and referenced in other media on numerous occasions, often turning Carrol’s seemingly light-hearted words of playful madness into something probingly psychological and dark. The absurdity, the absence of logic in Wonderland is played upon in a particularly eerie manner in Ubisoft’s 2011 open-world video game Far Cry 3. The narrative periodically opens particular scenes of importance and character growth with quotes from the novel. In doing so, the game’s narrative expands the dimensions of Carrol’s text through placing his Wonderland quotes in the context of a man slowly driven towards insanity, “madness,” due to the violent, sadistic, war-torn world around him. Francis Ford Coppola closely mirrors this exploration of the effects of immersion into violence and war on the human psyche in his 1979 film Apocalypse Now. The dark, psychedelic Vietnam War film closely mirrors Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland from a psychological perspective (down the rabbit hole goes Alice, down the river goes Willard), thus making the film a strong synthesis of Carrol’s original text and Ubisoft’s direct reference to it with Far Cry. The resulting significance of relating these three works is in their similar, yet varied interpretations of the effects of violence, war, and trauma on the human mind, ultimately most uniformly positing that a brewed form of insanity closely associates immersion into war and violence.

Far Cry 3 details the story of 25-year old Hollywood softy Jason Brody’s descent and immersion into a life of sadistic violence after being kidnapped while vacationing on a hostile tropical island. Right from the onset of the game’s narrative, players are teased with references to Alice in Wonderland’s depiction of descent into madness. After Jason is captured and forced to murder his way out of an enemy camp, players are hauntingly teased with Carroll’s line “In another moment down went Alice after it, never once considering how in the world she was to get out again.” This intersection of Alice quotes continues throughout the narrative, highlighting and mirroring Jason Brody’s slow descent into insanity due to the sadism and violence surrounding him. After a scene in which Jason begins questioning the morality of his actions, the narrative alludes further: “‘Oh, you can’t help that,’ said the Cat: ‘we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad. ”How do you know I’m mad?’ said Alice. ‘You must be,’ said the Cat, ‘or you wouldn’t have come here.’”

Alice quote

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Later in the game, after Jason has been yet again taken captive, his sadistic, villainous captor, Vaas, delivers a harrowing, psychologically penetrating tirade, much like the illogical ramblings of a nightmarish Mad Hatter:

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These ramblings are the equivalent of a violent, long-traumatized Mad-Hatter, showing just how a change of scenery and context alters such “playful” ideas as illogical madness. War, witnessing death escaping death; “the nature of such extreme experiences may cause impairment of basic attachment mechanisms through a ‘pathological re-parenting’ paradigm, leading to longer term…difficulties” (Davies). This, taken from the study of War veterans, can only shed light on an entire existence immersed in war and violence, such as the fictional, but representative, Vaas. Even small doses of trauma can be so overwhelming for the victim that they start to break away from their mental foundations when they are unable to retreat back to even their most infantile of comfort zones.  Particularly since the Vietnam War, there has been an influx of study on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but nearly all of this scholarship focuses on the aftermath, the mind’s response to trauma over time, rather than the actual, active mental effects one experiences while enduring such trauma. This is likely due to the difficulty in describing just what exactly causes the disorder, as it varies greatly between individuals, and wasn’t even recognized in the DSM-IV until 1980. A study on war Vietnam war trauma describes the disorder: “It begins with an event in which the individual is threatened with his or her own death or the destruction of a body part, to such humiliation that their personal identity may be lost” (Howell-Koehler). This loss of identity desensitizes the effects of war and violence, distances the victim from it in a knee-jerk psychological protective reaction. In this radical shift to protect however, the mind compromises itself, losing shreds of identity and feeling in all things; numbed to the world around them.

Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now furthers Far Cry’s adaptation of Carrol’s original text directly through the lens of the Vietnam War and somewhat less directly through its use of feverish psychedelic imagery in depicting its protagonist’s psychological descent. Adapted from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Apocalypse Now tracks Army special operations officer Captain Benjamin Willard’s trek down a Vietnamese river in search of the rogue Colonel Kurtz. As he progresses further down the river he is witness to numerous acts of extreme violence and depravity which slowly take a toll on his psychological state. Of equal importance in this story, as well as in Far Cry, is the protagonist’s drifting away from society and civilization as a symptom of their exposure to violence and war. As Willard slowly travels further down his traumatic rabbit hole, he comes to partially understand and identify with Kurtz’s break from order and society, losing himself to the jungle. The famous Do Long bridge scene perfectly captures the hallucinogenic, feverish nightmare that is Coppola’s Vietnam Wonderland:

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A study on the mental response to disaster describes of prolonged trauma: “The psychic distress and behavioral disturbance of an individual cannot be fully understood or managed unless they are analyzed as elements in the disruption of the equilibrium of a social system” (Kinston, Rosser). Along with numbing to violence and war, there is mental alienation, a total distancing from society and order that is perfectly captured through this dream-like interpretation of Vietnam. Who is the commanding officer? Does it matter? Are well all simply mad here together? “Because I am not myself, you see?” (Carrol).

Alices Adventures in Wonderland has been interpreted in a variety of psychological contexts, and really fits the bill for most situations where bits of madness and insanity are involved. There’s something particularly eerie, though, when transferred into this context. The “fun” becomes off-putting, cold, mad, and dark. Whether this reading was here all along is up for debate, but there is little doubt that there is a psychological depth to Carrol’s text that transcends the silly. Its hallucinogenic tale of a child in a world of monsters is rather naturally transitioned into the tale of a soldier in a hallucinogenic world of enemies. Its commentary then becomes like a dark fairy tale of PTSD, simultaneously whimsically and hauntingly describing a slow psychological immersion into violent trauma.

 

Works Cited

Carrol, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. 1865. Project Gutenberg, 2008. Web.

Coppola, Francis Ford, dir. Apocalypse Now. United Artists, 1979. Film.

Davies, S. “The long-term psychological effects of traumatic wartime experiences on older adults.” Aging & Mental Health 5.2 (2001): 99-103. Web. 24 Sept 2014.

Far Cry 3. Ubisoft. 2011. Video Game.

Howell-Koehler, Nancy.  “Vietnam: The Battle comes home.” New Trauma of War: Stress and Recovery in Vietnam Veterans. Washington D.C: American Psychiatric Press, Inc., 1985.147. Web.

Kinston, Warren and Rachel Rosser. “Disaster: Effects on Mental and Physical State.” Journal of Psychosomatic Research 18 (1974): 437-456. Web. 24 Sept 2014.

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