Part of a series on defining terms.
I occasionally enjoy the offerings on Longform, a site that collects longer pieces of journalism which the editors find particularly interesting, and for the most part, I agree. But recently, they featured a piece by Joe Queenan about being an avid reader which opened with this statement:
“If you have read 6,000 books in your lifetime, or even 600, it’s probably because at some level you find “reality” a bit of a disappointment.”As an assertion, I find it both absurd and insulting. Yet it's something I have heard before, particularly in reference to genre works like sci fi or fantasy, where the term 'escapism' is likely to rear its head. It's a loaded word, to be certain--which makes it important to define precisely what we mean by it, and why it has nothing to do with why I read.
Now, if we break down the structure, 'escapism' must mean 'the way of escape': an avoidant habit of moving away from something. As Mr. Queenan points out, in the case of books, the reader seeks to escape reality itself. So, the first and most important point is that 'escapist' is not the same as 'pleasurable'--it doesn't simply mean something we might find interesting. After all, there are plenty of fascinating, enjoyable activities that do not necessarily lead us away from real life. Studying mathematics, the sciences, the human mind, or history can all enrich our understanding of the world, not drawing us away from life, but leading us toward it. They increase our knowledge and our understanding so that, when our studies end and we return to the world, we see it in a new way.
Certainly it is possible to do as Kant did, to take the study of a subject like mathematics and make from it something so insular, so divorced from any actual life experience that it becomes an escape from the world, but fundamentally, the reason we developed math and philosophy in the first place was due to our curiosity, our sense of wonder--not to avoid the world, but to come closer to it.
|No, not that kind of 'time killer'|
To me, the most pure definition of an escapist activity is one which you come away from no different than when you started it, except that you are a few hours older. It does not give you a sense of wonder or a newfound respect for the world around you, it does not make you question yourself, nor does it surprise you (though it might startle). In short, it is nothing more than a trusty method by which to waste away the hours of life.
I often hear people try to defend a book or show by saying 'You don't understand, when I get home at night, I'm so miserable and exhausted that this is all I can do to get by. I can't think or be critical or take in new information, I just want something that takes me away from all that.' But of course, that's not saying how good the book is, it's just saying how bad their life is. We all have difficult times, when we feel low and don't know what to do, and there are many responses we might make to that, but not all of them are good: some people cut themselves, some head to the internet to make death threats at strangers, some get blackout drunk.
|What do you put in your head?|
What makes a piece of entertainment fundamentally escapist is that it confirms the viewer's biases, it panders to them, it provides them with bland comforts, it does not force them to think or to experience something new. It's an isolating experience, reinforcing what a person already thinks about the world, and cutting them off from others. One can even do this with opinions one despises, as long as that opinion is expressed in a stupid enough way that it makes you feel justified for rejecting it. A liberal can easily get this kind of self-assurance by listening to Rush Limbaugh.
But avoiding escapism doesn't mean giving up on fiction and only reading math and science. After all, the grand purpose of art throughout the ages has been to help us better understand the world and humanity. It also doesn't mean abandoning 'fun books' and reading only 'serious literature'--because there are plenty of adventure stories that are surprisingly insightful, and plenty of serious novels that are disappointingly flat and simplistic. Even in the cases of science fiction or fantasy, the purpose is rarely to while away the time--instead, we are asked to look at and question reality, to use thought experiments to dissect our own assumptions, and not to take for granted the apparent nature of things around us. 1984 may be a book of fiction about a future world (now passed) of the imagination, but it is still fundamentally a book about history, morality, politics, and the very human experience. It does not let us escape the world, but forces us to confront it.
|'Not to be Reproduced' by Rene Magritte|
Now, you might say that no matter what art we make, no matter what subject it takes, it is always, in some way, talking about the world--which would mean that an 'escapist work' (as I define it) could not even exist. But it is possible to make a piece of art which so closely accords with our assumptions and current cultural values that it tells you nothing you don't already know, and hence serves only to comfort and to justify prejudice. It's also possible to make a work that is so twisted up in propaganda, ideals, and easy answers that while it may seem profound to the uninitiated, its really nothing more than tautology and thought-terminating cliche. Many people enjoy works like these, because as human beings, we like to be told we're right, we like to read things that agree with us, we like to imagine that we are thinking deep thoughts, especially when we are not--as Harlan Ellison said:
"If you make people think they're thinking, they'll love you; but if you really make them think, they'll hate you."
Such constant confirmation can even become addicting--it's appealing precisely because it is naive and narcissistic--but any person who would rather make excuses for their own ignorance rather than learn how to overcome it is a wretch. Such people make the world a worse place for themselves, and for everyone around them--and when I hear Queenan say that, at some level, he finds reality to be a bit of a disappointment, what I hear is that he is the sort of person who makes reality a little worse for all of us.
Sure, the world is full of horrible things: death and torture and disaster, tragedy and loss of purpose and an endless search for meaning that will never be complete--but it's also full of joy and wonder, of staggering works of art, natural formations sublime to behold, kind people, and loving people, and laughter, and dancing. Taken all together, the world is neither good nor bad, it's a wonderful mess, and in the end, it's nothing more than what you decide to make of it.
|What a totally sucky, disappointing world.|
It's just so misanthropic, so hateful to your fellow man to say "reality doesn't cater to me enough, so I read books that let me pretend that things revolve around me". Yet it's also spiteful to the self, because to love yourself means to grow, to learn and understand and make life better--and subsisting on escapism just means maintaining yourself in the same comfortable ignorance because change is scary (which certainly, it can be).
Anyone who thinks ignorance is bliss has never worked in retail, because once you do, it's immediately clear that being ignorant makes everything around you confusing and threatening. I can't tell you how many times I've seen a customer say "No, I don't want your discount card, stop trying to cheat me!" or "I don't care if it's buy-one-get-one, I'm not buying another one, so stop trying to steal my money" or "Just get one from the back, I know you keep more back there". For these people, the world is clearly a place of paranoia, where everyone is trying to cheat them, and since they are too stupid to be able to figure out the actual cheats, their only option is to constantly treat everything with suspicion and contempt.
Meanwhile I'll be out there with joy and the passion for knowledge, seeking my way in a beautiful, mixed-up world that is always proving me wrong, making me laugh, and love, and sing, and now and again, giving me reason to contemplate the deep-seated mental malfunctions that cause people to deliberately avoid living their own life. Certainly, we all run up against difficult times, we all grow tired, and frustrated--I'm hardly a stranger to depression, anxiety, and fear--but it's what we decided to do at those lowest points that makes all the difference. So, when you reach that nadir, it's up to you: will you choose something pleasurable and intriguing, that pulls you up out of the doldrums and helps you look at the world in a new way? Or will you choose to wallow in something avoidant, that feeds into those same insecurities and short-sighted prejudices that made you miserable and hopeless in the first place? The choice is yours to make.