“Our normal waking consciousness,” William James wrote in his classic treatise on transcendent states, “is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens.” The screen is sometimes a door that swings open into dreams, into psychedelic experiences, into imagined and imaginary versions of ourselves capable of more joy, more courage, more curiosity and open-mindedness than our ordinary selves.
That is what Korean illustrator JiHyeon Lee explores with great subtlety and tenderness in Door (public library) — a minimalist, wordless journey into to a wonderland as wondrous and wild as Alice’s, but one where the improbable becomes not a source of confusion and fright but of pure mirth.
We see a young boy surrounded by the dour grayness of ordinary life, swarmed by unhappy people bustling about their busy, unpresent lives. With key in hand, he follows a bright-red winged being through a mysterious door and into a world populated by strange creatures speaking a strange language — a world that feels like a page out of Codex Seraphininianus, Luigi Serafini’s elaborate encyclopedia of imaginary things written in a code language.
Startled at first and perhaps a bit frightened, the boy shyly accepts the open-handed invitation of a girl-creature and follows her into her world. Gradually, he surrenders to the joyousness that permeates this fanciful foreign land — a festive picnic turns into an enormous playground, which turns into a wedding ceremony.
All along, the boy is instantly embraced and included in the festivities, enveloped in belonging that comes to him warm and unbidden.
When the time comes for him to leave, even the parting is mirthful rather than mournful — we understand that he is to return to his dour, grey, ordinary world, but we also understand that he will return transformed for having known such pure joy and having learned that he possesses the key to it himself.
What emerges is a subtle reminder that even the most beautiful experiences end, but this is reason for celebration rather than lamentation, for we have been made richer, larger, and more alive for having had them at all.
Complement Door with Lee’s debut, the equally delightful Pool, then revisit the best illustrations from 150 years of Alice in Wonderland.
Illustrations courtesy of Chronicle Books; photographs by Maria Popova