The Escapist Imperative

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2022-09-18 12:00:00 No comments

Sarah Ruhl, in an interview: "During the pandemic, I was drawn to nonfiction because fictional universes seemed almost an amoral escape." I empathized with that statement, while at the same time feeling compelled to disagree with it.

First, the empathy. In dire times, some people (me included) feel uneasy about seeking escape from the moment they're in, as if to make some mental space for yourself in the middle of the madness would mean missing out. Who knows what life-changing news will come the second you turn your back!

But sometimes, yes, we do need to unplug and turn everything off for the sake of our own psychic health. Escape itself is not a bad thing. It's a question of where it fits into the whole of our lives and to what end. If our whole lives are constructed around waiting impatiently for the next big escape, that's either a sign we don't know how to value our own lives, or a sign that the lives we do have are so insufferable, who could blame us?

There is now more, and blunter, talk than ever about how ghastly our lives are, and how the powers that be are responsible for trapping us in a horrid circus of money and labor. I have to tread lightly when I come near such discussion, because I know while there are germs of truth scattered through it, the whole of the discussion comes uncomfortably close to the tenor of what Sir Karl Popper outlined:

What I want to say to the [cultural] pessimists is that in my long life, I have seen not only retrogression but also very clear evidence of progress. The cultural pessimists who do not want to admit that there is anything good about our age and our society are blind to this, and they make others blind. I believe that it is harmful when leading and admired intellectuals continually tell people that they are in fact living in hell. In this way they make people not only dissatisfied - that would not be so very bad - but they make them also unhappy. Their joy in living is taken away from them.

I talked about this quote at greater length before. But here I want to focus on the problem Popper raises — the tension between a) identifying the very real, systematic problems in our society, and b) the urge to let that act of identification overwhelm everything else. The former, when managed well, leads to constructive action. The latter leads to sullen, puritanical utopianism, where nothing that exists is good enough, and no path can be defined between where we are now and where we want to be.

Healthy escapes often get talked about using terms like "recharging" or "recentering". I have a radically different experience with a movie when I go into a theater versus when I watch it at home on my TV — not just that it's bigger, but that I have little choice except to surrender to the experience in real time. It helps clear the head in the best sense of the term: it makes you feel like you are returning anew to the world around you. The best escape is like that: it gives you perspective you can bring back with you.

It is not a crime against reality to fantasize. No, not even in troubled times — and I would argue that our troubled times would benefit from vigorous fantasizing, the better to give us more to enjoy and the better to provide us with ways to speculate about what can be different and how. And I don't even mean in the sense of dreaming up utopian alternate scenarios, but in the sense that, say, Akira Kurosawa gave us with Ikiru: sometimes all we need is an example of someone doing the right thing, even if only in fiction, to be better inspired to do the right things ourselves. Escape is not escape when it's really transcendence. And who is to say from where our transcendencies will come?

Tags: Karl Popper Sarah Ruhl escapism fiction