On Escapsim (Again)

Posted: October 7, 2009 in Braak, poetics
Tags: ,

A couple days ago, Charlie Jane Anders at io9 wrote an article positing that escapism was the highest form of art.  Since the spectre of escapism is inextricable from any serious or even casual study of entertainment-based artistry, and since my own thoughts on the subject were kind of disordered and all over the place, I want to revisit the issue in light of CJA’s article.

Just to be clear, I want to say that I disagree completely with almost everything that Charlie says, but this is because I primarily disagree with a fundamental set of definitions.  The question that Charlie asks in the beginning, “Are stories that let us escape reality always inconsequential fluff?” creates a false enemy–as though people are suggesting that because a story deviates from the strictly real, it must necessarily be inconsequential fluff.  Actually, hardly anyone says that–certainly not Thomas Disch and Ursula LeGuin (whom CJA quotes later in the piece), as evidenced by the fact that they both write science fiction and they both deride escapism.  Clearly, these guys don’t think these two things are mutually exclusive.

And they’re not. Disch and LeGuin are deriding fantasy and science fiction that let us escape reality BY being inconsequential fluff.  They are deriding the act of purposefully creating a work of art that is intended to be nothing more the inconsequential fluff, and then enabling the use of that work as a tool for allowing the audience to do nothing more while reading it than to escape their mundane lives.

The confusion is compounded by Charlie’s insistence that art about “escaping” are a subset of “escapist” literature.  She includes Brazil as a specific example, and I still don’t think that’s quite right.  It’s true that Brazil shares many elements in common with what we usually look for as hallmarks of “escapism,” but at the same time the ability to actually escape–and thus enable the audience to vicariously enjoy that escape on Sam Lowry’s behalf.  The problem with this is that because Sam Lowry doesn’t escape, our own dreams of escaping our mundane lives, instead of being vicariously fulfilled, are actually vicariously crushed.

If the intention of Terry Gilliam, in creating Brazil, was to create a movie that served no purpose other than the entertainment of the reader, then we have to accept that Brazil was a colossal failure.  On the other hand, if we accept that Brazil was a work of psycho-social criticism that takes escape as its subject, we can address it as a success.  I can’t read Terry Gilliam’s mind, but I’m willing to call Brazil successful.  The fact is that, by first giving the audience the dream of escape and then crushing it, Gilliam is not permitting them to escape the real world, but actually reminding them that the real world is inescapable.

The fundamental example that she uses–that of the “coming-of-age” tale–I think is also misleading.  She posits this kind of story as both being mythic and essential to the human condition, and also fundamentally “escapist”–“escapist” because it’s about a character trying to escape something.  I just think that this is a not-very-strong line of reasoning, since the only thing about it that makes it “escapist” is that you can describe the events that take place in an iconic “coming of age” tale as being kinds of “escape.”

Well, in the first place, you could also describe those events in another way.  We could call the “coming-of-age” narrative a narrative about accepting the demands of the inner self, about accepting the loss of childhood, about accepting the world in lieu of the fantasy we created for it.  Wouldn’t that make the coming-of-age narrative the quintessential acceptancist story?

In the second place, I don’t think her characterization of the coming-of-age narrative is true at all, because by and large the narrative describes a situation in which you CAN NOT hold on to childhood.  You are not, as Charlie says, “bursting out of childhood’s gravity well”  by reaching “escape velocity.”  Except, in these narratives, the bittersweet truth is that childhood is not some black hole that will hold us in forever, but an imagined, fluid reality that slips away from us despite our best efforts to hold on.  Coming-of-age narrative are precisely the opposite of narratives who take escape as their subject–because “escape” implies fleeing from something, and coming-of-age narratives are about realizing the fact that you’re moving towards something.

What Charlie really means by escapism, I think, is expressionism–the style that represents the non-tangible or the non-material as being real.  This is apparent with her argument that even a metaphor is a kind of escapism because it lets you “escape” the reality of the thing you’re describing.  I think this is purely incorrect, as a descriptive metaphor–whose purpose is not to flee the world in favor of fantasy, but rather to create clarity for the world–necessarily implies the existence of the reality being described.  Using a metaphor to describe a thing, on the contrary, makes its reality inescapable.  The same, in fact, is true with expressionism, and any good expressionist will acknowledge it–the intangible is represented onstage (or screen or book) not because it enables the audience to ignore reality, but because it makes that reality impossible to ignore.

Expressionism also exists on a kind of continuum with realism (something which CJA posits for escapism; though, in point of fact, realism does not “aim to be purely representational”–that’s naturalism.  Realism enables an amount of artistic license to portray reality fictitious but still more fully).  And expressionism is the style in which, according to crazy old Rudy Rucker’s standards, things mean more than just what they look like.  LeGuin isn’t mistaken in implicitly equating “escapism” with “bad storytelling”; Charlie Jane is mistaken in equating “escapism” with “expressionism.”

Which wouldn’t be so bad, except for the fact that, actually, most people agree on what escapism is:  art that has no purpose other than to amuse.  When people suggest that Star Trek is really escapsim because it has spaceships, this is not because escapism necessarily implies the unreal, but because they mistakenly believe that anything that is unreal cannot comment on the real.  That is, we can all agree that escapism is bad (well, pointless, maybe, or empty calories)–the argument is whether or not Star Trek counts as escapism.

Because if we accept CJA’s definition of escapism, we’re left with two problems:  1) what do we do with the word “expressionism”?  It’s now given redundant duty, assigned to describe the same things that “escapism” is.  And 2) what word do we use to describe art that serves no purpose except to titillate?  “Escapism” was fine for that.

Oh, man, I was going to do a big thing about style, domain, subject issues, but this is already long.  I’ll save that for another post.

  1. V.I.P. Referee says:

    Very interesting. In those situations where the style is ambiguous, I wonder how establishing such boundaries before viewing a piece, influences an audience? Maybe labeling something as “escapist” while the work is in development–even if it would better be classified as “expressionistic” based on the elements you’ve touched on, above–sets a different tone and eases any panic an audience might associate with having to reflect upon the piece with more gravity? Hmm…

  2. braak says:

    Probably somewhat, but doesn’t it also depend on the audience? An audience of SF geeks are hyper-sensitive may be hyper-sensitive to the idea that things they like are “escapist”–labeling a thing “escapist” beforehand might cause them to work extra hard at finding cultural or political or psychological ramifications.

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