To escape or not to escape…is that even a question? It seems on the surface to be no- there is no question here. But when you dig deeper you find two disturbing points on the same compass. Two basic thoughts that divide people who consume any form of media. To escape- to flee from your bitter cold life if only for a moment. To not escape- to read for other pleasures, to consume as a form of experiencing life and not denying it.

On one hand, we have the argument from films like Sullivan’s Travels, where deep thoughts and painful life isn’t good to the common man, to the poor and the downtrodden. No, no, they need escape, they need laughter, they need release. I don’t know about you, but I find that whole idea to be disgusting and patronizing. Is media then like religion and drugs and mysticism- a panacea to their dull and dreary lives? Is it heroin for the soul? And why not? If people’s lives are miserable enough, how would reminding them of their misery help them?

True, true, all valid, a very good point in a way. Yet, at the same time- art is a way of connecting, a way to experience and overcome our personal tragedies. By letting us experience it in a distanced form, we can get closure in a way that doesn’t destroy us from the inside out. It can also provoke, challenge, make us think and make our world more real by broadening our experiences, albeit virtually.

Escape then denies us of these experiences. It denies us the connection to ourselves and our world. It’s like a drug addict who seeks release from our lives, the devout who thinks the next life is better and rushes towards it. It’s throwing a blanket over the whole thing and hoping it just goes away when we stop thinking about it.

This can be dangerous. Escape itself? Nothing intrinsically wrong in it. Nothing in the bone of it. But our approach to escape? There can be danger there. Lying in the wait. Poised in the shadows with a knife.  Denying reality is wrong, but even more wrong at the heart of this argument is much more dangerous. It’s the idea that entertainment (esp. enjoyable, escapist entertainment) is beyond critical reproach. That it’s above our critical centers. That our mind does not need to engage with it. It engages with us.

This is like opening a floodgate of problems into our mental landscape. Our mind consumes narratives, and these narratives take up residence in our thoughts. These thoughts are symbolic soups, wandering around, intermingling. Changing and reprocessing through time. Memories and thoughts and dreams and concepts and language all fluttering around, shaping our coherent sense of self.

By not engaging critically with these works of escapism, we  deny our only defense against intruding moralities and philosophies.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that most forms of escapist media are very troubling philosophically, ethically and morally speaking once you strip it down to it’s bare message. And it seems odd to me that people think it’s wrong- intrinsically wrong- not to engage with the negative aspects of these things. Just because it’s escapism. Just because it’s fun.

They act like you’re ruining something they enjoy by bringing to light these darker pieces. Why is that? You can still enjoy something and critically assess it. Or is our generation that mentally bankrupt? That we either have to enjoy something completely wholly and believe every word of it? Or we hate it completely?  There is no middle ground?

This to me is one of the key dangers to escapism. It’s not just a drug, it’s a drug that changes who we are slowly, slowly. Rotting us from the inside out. Claiming our critical facilities.


8 thoughts on “Escapology

  1. Well done.

    This is something that I’ve been wrestling with for a while. Art is supposed to allow us to connect — with ourselves, with each other, with the world — on some deeper level. It should lift us up, make us better. I’m not saying that escapist media can’t fill that same role, but so much art these days seems geared toward helping us to disconnect. From what? What are we escaping from? What is the abject horror that we’re all afraid of, that we’d rather retreat into media than face reality? I have nothing against escapism but the proliferation of it, to the destruction of everything else — relationships, finances, literature, theater, other forms of entertainment — bothers me. It becomes a replacement for, rather than an enhancement of, living a life.

    • EXACTLY! That is pretty much my own opinion. On one hand, I don’t want to be some literary snob who only liked complicated weird books. I like a lot of fast paced, fun books (like the Dresden files). Yet at the same time- I don’t think of it as escape. I mean, it’s enjoyable, it’s fun, I love it. But is it really escape?

      • Fast paced, fun books, like a popcorn movie or an episode of a sitcom, are a nice pallet cleanser, but when that’s all you consume, well… it’s a free country, obviously, and we can all entertain ourselves however we choose, but we’re missing a lot of richness and texture. We’re missing experiences. We’re actively avoiding real experiences, it seems.

        When I say this I’m thinking more of media as a whole rather than books specifically, including the things that have replaced reading. Movies, radio, television, video games, internet. What are we looking at, and why? Do we learn from it, or is it simply a retreat from reality, avoidance behavior? Do we have no greater ambitions in life any more than to be constantly entertained?

        I could go on and on about how this is an indicator of our society, but I won’t. I’ll just leave you with some lyrics from the late, great folk singer Phil Ochs:

        Look outside the window, there’s a woman being grabbed
        They’ve dragged her to the bushes and now she’s being stabbed
        Maybe we should call the cops and try to stop the pain
        But Monopoly is so much fun, I’d hate to blow the game
        And I’m sure it wouldn’t interest anybody
        Outside of a small circle of friends.

      • Very well said. I agree with everything. And yes, it is all media. Not just books. I specialize in books, so that’s were I’m coming from. But you’re right. Is Kitty Genovese a part of this? A harbinger of what our society has come to? Disconnected from each other, floating in a vacuum?

  2. Quote: “Is Kitty Genovese a part of this? A harbinger of what our society has come to? Disconnected from each other, floating in a vacuum?”

    We have the common culture of talking about fast paced, fun books (sitcoms, movies, video games, YMMV) but very little deeper than that. Even the political discussions I have lately seem like nothing more than regurgitations of (or debate about the validity of) what some radiohead said the day previous. Escapist relationships, escapist politics; flash, no substance.

    • I think you’re right about that- and once the flash wears off, the relationship breaks and then spirals out to find more escapism. It’s about turning your mind off, not engaging…and that’s interesting.

      I mean, even sitcoms can engage, it’s shown to be possible. Same with action thrillers (the Marathon Man- intense, action packed, anything but thoughtless escapism) or anything else.

      I’m wondering also if people have just given up. Stopped trying to make that connection in media or life, just because it’s too hard and takes too much work.

      • One of the hats I wore in the corporate world was Time Management Guru. I found that a lot of people who were stressed about not having enough time weren’t concerned about getting work done or spending time with family. When they listed out what they did during the day, and what they wanted more time for, a lot of it was entertainment-based activity. Getting to watch their TV shows, go to movies, read. We’re conditioned now for more, faster. For as much as escapist publishing loves franchises and series, consumers want books they can sit down and gobble up without too much trouble. A novel that can be consumed in a couple of days becomes preferable to something “hard” that may require more time, thought, and effort to read.

        So, yeah, I think people have given up, because they have skewed expectations.

        Add in my theory that we make connections now based on consumed media, and it becomes even more imperative to keep up with lighter media. You might bond with a handful of people over that lit-fic novel, and most of them will likely be internet friends, but you can bond with millions of people over that popfluff bestseller. Same goes for blockbuster movies, hit TV shows, and so on. It’s not about what’s the best, or what’s most gratifying or “good” for you. It’s about what the common cultural currency is. It’s about cheap and easy connections.

        To resort to metaphor, McDonald’s is not only cheap, easy to acquire, and tasty (YMMV, again), nearly everyone has eaten at McDonald’s. Homecooked meals may be more nutritious, that one little restaurant you love may serve the best food in the universe, but McDonald’s is a common point of reference everyone understands. You may want to be adventurous and explore new food, but after a long hard day you know exactly what McDonald’s is going to give you, each and every time.

        Which goes to another point: consistency. All fast, fun reads are alike in many of the same ways. Each piece of literary fiction I’ve ever loved has been wonderful for its own unique reason. You know what you’re getting with escapist media. Stereotyped characters, stock plot points, essential genre tropes. A lot of bestselling authors gain that status because they write to a formula, and fans get pissed if the formula is broken. Literary fiction (and its equivalents in film, etc) don’t always provide the shorthand; you have to work for it.

        This is a great slow-motion conversation, by the way. Thanks.

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