Thursday, April 28, 2005

The Mad Hatter

The Mad Hatter

The Mad Hatter (2000)

From the Complementary Medical Association site:

What is the 'mad hatter syndrome'?

The term "mad as a hatter" has been inextricably linked to the madcap milliner in Lewis Carroll's classic children's book of 1865 Alice in Wonderland.

It actually relates to a disease peculiar to the hat-making industry of the nineteenth century. A mercury solution was commonly used during the process of turning fur into felt, causing the hatters to breathe in the fumes of this highly toxic metal, a situation exacerbated by the poor ventilation of most of the workshops. This led in turn to an accumulation of mercury in the workers bodies, resulting in symptoms such as trembling, loss of co-ordination, slurred speech, loosening of teeth, memory loss, depression, irritability and anxiety - the "mad hatter syndrome"! The phrase is still used today to describe the effects of mercury poisoning, albeit from other sources.

From The Urban Legends Reference Pages:

In the 18th century, mercury salts were used to make felt for fancy hats. The process required copious amounts of the element, a substance then not known to be as dangerous as we now know it to be.

Hat makers who day after day handled mercury-soaked fabric risked mercury poisoning, a condition that affects the nervous systems. Those so exposed would in time develop uncontrollable twitches and trembles, making them appear demented to the casual observer.

Even though there exists a strong tie between mercury poisoning and strange behavior in those long-ago hatters, it's still more than likely the term we now toss about so casually did not spring from this combination. Phrases such as mad as a March hare, mad as a buck, mad as Maybutter, and mad as a wet hen are older than mad as a hatter, leaving open the conclusion that hatter is but a variation of an existing term. (Interestingly, these other phrases pull in different directions, with mad as a March hare signifying odd or eccentric behavior, while mad as a wet hen characterizes anger.)

Whatever the definitive origin of mad as a hatter, we know the term wasn't coined by Lewis Carroll in his 1865 Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. The saying turns up in Thackeray's 1849 Pendennis and Thomas Chandler Haliburton's 1837 The Clockmaker.

Carroll's "hatter" might well have been modeled on Theophilus Carter, an eccentric furniture dealer who characteristically sported a top hat. Moreover, there exists a possibility Carroll was unaware either of the mercury connection to the existing saying or was entirely unaware of the saying itself and believed he had coined it himself.

Carroll's Alice is replete with word play. He loved to twist words this way and that, and encoding double and triple meanings into his work was for him part of the fun. His Mad Hatter could therefore be a caricature of Theophilus Carter, a real person of his acquaintance, while his mad as a hatter could have been a twist on the pre-existing saying, mad as a March hare. Those familiar with Alice will recall that the March Hare was the constant companion of the Mad Hatter.

And from the Straight Dope Staff Report:

The Hatter and the Hare reappear in Alice Through the Looking Glass as the King's messengers, Hatta and Haigha:

"In that direction," the Cat said, waving its right paw round, "lives a Hatter: and in that direction," waving the other paw, "lives a March Hare. Visit either you like: they're both mad."

"But I don't want to go among mad people," Alice remarked.

"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."

This image is highly post-processed and certainly takes liberties twisting the original fractal forms. Hopefully, it conveys a sense of the frenzy and chaos of the Mad Hatter's tea party.

Carroll's satire hasn't lost its bite. On any given day, watching the Republican-led U.S. Congress on C-SPAN is to "go among mad people." Moreover, the Bush Administration's policy allowing "enemy combatants" to be held indefinitely without being charged mirrors the Queen of Hearts' proclamation of "Sentence first -- verdict afterwards."

No, Alice. It's not "stuff and nonsense." It's just business as usual for those politicians holding the correct "moral values" -- like condemning Russia and China for torture while simultaneously claiming the Geneva Convention is "quaint" -- thus justifying torture masked under creepy euphemisms like "extraordinary rendition" and "enhanced interrogation techniques."

Wheeee. More tea? We're all mad here.

2 comments:

erin said...

Sorry this is actually a very random comment, nothing really relating to the blog on mad hatter, but i was wondering where or how i might be able to get in contact with someone regarding terry wright's painting 'the mad hatter' 2000. i have absolutely fallen in love with this painting and would like to know what medium he has used, learn more about the painting itself, his motivation and his process and even find out about the possibility of it being purchased.

cruelanimal said...

Erin,

If you are interested in more information about this image, please email me so I have a way to get in touch with you.

Email: cruelanimal at yahoo dot com.

Put "Mad Hatter" in the subject line, so your email won't be filtered as spam.

Thank you for interest in my work.

Terry

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