The Quest for Utopia
I just finished watching the new Alice in Wonderland by Tim Burton. I really enjoyed it! I usually find Tim Burton’s movies a little dark for my taste but this film was a fresh take on an old theme. One thing about the ending started me thinking, however. *Spoiler Alert* Alice is asked to stay in wonderland where she will no doubt live in a castle and be a nationally acclaimed hero. Instead, she decides to go back to a stuffy world that wants her to marry the biggest pompous ass I have seen since Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice.
Why? Why did she go back? Oh, I know. In this movie she was going back to a life on her own terms…which wouldn’t have been really possible for a woman in the 18th century. But it got me thinking: why do they always go back? I was probably 10 or 11 when I saw the Time Bandits in theaters. I was depressed for a week after that film. The little boy who traveled around with the dwarfs wasn’t allowed to stay with the Egyptian ruler. He was forced to go back to a world in which his parents were killed and he was left all alone. I was about 14 when I saw Labyrinth, in which Jennifer Connelly was invited to stay behind and marry David Bowie, the king of the Trolls (or something like that). But no, she went back to her pathetic life and her pathetic baby brother. I wanted her to let him be turned into a troll and stay behind with the king. Why the hell not? It could only be interesting.
I tried to remember if I had ever seen a film in which the lead character stays behind in their wonderful, alternative universes and I couldn’t think of a one. Dorothy left Oz to return to Kansas (for God knows what reason), C.S. Lewis’s Pevensie children always return to smelly old London, and Wendy left Peter and the Lost Boys to return to the nursery. Is there some deeper meaning in all this that I just can’t quite get? I’m not entirely dense, I know it undoubtedly has something to do with reality being preferable to fantasy. People realizing their hated lives weren’t as bad as they thought they were. Is this the author’s attempt of telling us that flights of fancy are fine, in the short-term, but we all have to come back to reality?
I don’t want to. I always wanted these characters to stay and live amazing lives. Sure they would have their struggles in the new world, but at least it would be new and different from what they were used to. Right after I graduated from massage school I had a dream that I was visiting Scotland and I met a woman who needed a massage therapist for her B&B. I didn’t hesitate for a second. I didn’t even bother returning home to get my things and say a proper goodbye to my family. Does that display a lack of loyalty? Or if not loyalty maybe sentimentality. I have always had an inordinate need to see what is over the next horizon, to taste the forbidden fruit, to see if the grass really is greener. I am usually disappointed to find the fantasy held more appeal than the reality but I have never regretted stepping over. I can see how earlier literature would have portrayed common life as preferable to fantasy, but why do we still make that choice? Isn’t it because there is no Wonderland or Oz or Narnia. This is life. We have to accept it, we have to live in it. Harboring fantasies of alternate realities only creates impotence and depression. Get used to life here, make it as good as you can in case it is all you get.
Which brings me to religion: just about every major belief system in the world imagines a better world awaiting us. Christians believe in heaven, Buddhists in Nirvana, Hindus aspire to Moksha, and the Vikings looked to Valhalla–we could go on and on. But it shows us humanities inherent need for something better than the life we live. Perhaps fantasy and the prospect of something amazing helps us get through the day-to-day struggles in this life. Religion is the ultimate “threat-rescue” appeal which is why it is typically those of the lower socio-economic classes who continue to believe. Without a reason for the injustices on this earth and the prospect of something better, what would be the point. I’ll tell you the point: Life. This life is amazing and we get to share this planet with a lot of amazing things and people. If you find yourself living a humdrum existence it is your own fault. Get out and test the boundaries! Try something new! Make life here and now worth living, and every day filled with wonders. As Joseph Campbell said, “Life is without meaning. You bring the meaning to it. The meaning of life is whatever you ascribe it to be. Being alive is the meaning.”