Monday, 5 March 2018

Notes on Escapism

Escaping to Valinor... painted by Alan Lee

A couple days ago, I had a very personal discussion with someone very dear to me, in which we touched on the subject of escapism. Life can be difficult, and we can be tempted to desire to escape from it. This desire for escape is pursued in many forms. But I think one of the powerful, and in a way the most fundamental, forms of escapism is an escapism of the imagination. In our discussion, I suddenly realized something about myself - and about very many people, I think; and that is that I am an escapist. I frequently wish I that were somewhere else; that the situations of my life were different; that I did not have to face the problems that might happen to afflict me in the present moment. In my case, this has always involved the act of imagining being in other scenarios. All my life, ever since I was a young child, I have loved to fantasize about being elsewhere, or being someone else, or achieving other things, or having other opportunities. I have always been a dreamer. I have concocted some of the greatest epics, adventures, fairy tales, and romances, all inside my head, and all with a great sense of longing or nostalgia - for even though none of these stories were really memories for me, they have often become so powerfully ingrained in my imagination that I treat them as memories; hence the feelings of nostalgia. But all of this was only a form of escapism, a way of distracting myself from unpleasant or mundane situations; after "waking up" from these idyllic fantasies, I always find myself confronted with the present, and its tasks and obligations.

This habit is something I wish to suppress in myself. It is difficult to suppress it, or even to want to suppress it; in a way, the escapist memory is something I have treasured very deeply. It is something in which I have often taken very great delight, especially when it was something like a relief from present mundanities. But the fact remains that it was always unreal, and almost useless... So I wish to suppress it. In many ways, when I reflect upon myself and my virtues and my vices (something which I can also do quite obsessively), this habit strikes me as weakness, as the fear of duty, the fear of being practical, the fear of making sacrifices, etc.


However... and perhaps this is precisely my weakness speaking... I cannot help but recall and assent entirely to the words of J.R.R. Tolkien about Escape, in his wonderful essay On Fairy Stories. There he very clearly distinguishes true escape from mere desertion, in the context of literary criticism. To cite a wonderful paragraph:
I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which “Escape” is now so often used: a tone for which the uses of the word outside literary criticism give no warrant at all. In what the misusers are fond of calling Real Life, Escape is evidently as a rule very practical, and may even be heroic. In real life it is difficult to blame it, unless it fails; in criticism it would seem to be the worse the better it succeeds. Evidently we are faced by a misuse of words, and also by a confusion of thought. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using escape in this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter. Just so a Party-spokesman might have labelled departure from the misery of the F├╝hrer's or any other Reich and even criticism of it as treachery. In the same way these critics, to make confusion worse, and so to bring into contempt their opponents, stick their label of scorn not only on to Desertion, but on to real Escape, and what are often its companions, Disgust, Anger, Condemnation, and Revolt. Not only do they confound the escape of the prisoner with the flight of the deserter; but they would seem to prefer the acquiescence of the “quisling” to the resistance of the patriot. To such thinking you have only to say “the land you loved is doomed” to excuse any treachery, indeed to glorify it. (Pg. 20 in the linked copy.)
I find this very similar to my own thoughts on nostalgia generally speaking. There is a good and bad nostalgia, just as there is escapism and desertion. To engage in a virtuous escapism - especially through the ordering of one's imagination to the proper enjoyment and production of virtuous fairy stories and works of art in general - one must be able to distinguish the senses in which the present life is both real and unreal - both a haven and a prison. William Desmond (a great philosopher, and one of my teachers) might say, following Diotima, that it is something between. Love itself is something between; it is neither fully immanent, nor fully transcendent, but it is the dynamic that occurs between the here and there, what is close and what is beyond. Diotima teaches Socrates a lesson in true escapism, in the Symposium - just as Socrates likewise teaches to his interlocutors in the allegory of the cave. The soul that finds himself in the between knows both that he does not belong there - hence he is seeking to escape, as from a prison or a cave, into the sunlight of the Other world; and yet he also does belong there - hence he returns into the cave, having been enlightened by the Sun, and continues to involve himself in worldly matters with a new sense of competence. The escapism of the prisoner should not be scorned, indeed it is nothing but perfectly understandable that any man should yearn to return home to "the real world" outside the prison, outside the cave. But this life is not only a prison: it is also the city, the place of duty and offices; hence, the desertion of the citizen and the soldier, and especially the unwillingness of the rulers, may and should indeed be scorned.

Virtuous escapism is, in a sense, even necessary for Christian mindfulness. St. Augustine taught of the City of God - in essence, the heavenly Jerusalem, an idyllic paradise. It is something other than the City of Man on earth, which is its opposite: darkness, sinfulness, suffering, destined for condemnation. A man is right to be an escapist, in this sense; he is right to long for the City of God, and to escape from the prison that is the City of Man. "By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept, as we remembered Sion..." And yet, Augustine teaches, the City of God is itself often found in a confused proximity with the City of Man; they often appear to be mixed with each other. The City of God is also present on earth, in the life of the present, by participation, in the visible form that is the Church (and the State when united to the Church). In this way, the present is not merely a prison; it is also the place where man finds heaven itself. The presence of the City of God in our midst - and the Platonic truth of participation - allows a man to be an escapist without having to be a deserter.

Romano Guardini writes, in The Spirit of the Liturgy, of a sort of liturgical escapism, which is like the escapism of art - both of which he compares to the play of children, who love to pretend they are in a different world:
As life progresses, conflicts ensue, and it appears to grow ugly and discordant. Man sets before himself what he wants to do and what he should do, and tries to realize this in his life. But in the course of these endeavors he learns that many obstacles stand in his way, and he perceives that it is very seldom that he can attain his ideal. 
It is in a different order, in the imaginary sphere of representation, that man tries to reconcile the contradiction between that which he wishes to be and that which he is. In art he tries to harmonize the ideal and actuality, that which he ought to be and that which he is, the soul within and nature without, the body and the soul. Such are the visions of art. It has no didactic aims, then; it is not intended to inculcate certain truths and virtues. A true artist has never had such an end in view. In art, he desires to do nothing but to overcome the discord to which we have referred, and to express in the sphere of representation the higher life of which he stands in need, and to which in actuality he has only approximately attained. The artist merely wants to give life to his being and its longings, to give external form to the inner truth. And people who contemplate a work of art should not expect anything of it but that they should be able to linger before it, moving freely, becoming conscious of their own better nature, and sensing the fulfillment of their most intimate longings. But they should not reason and chop logic, or look for instruction and good advice from it. 
The liturgy offers something higher. In it man, with the aid of grace, is given the opportunity of realizing his fundamental essence, of really becoming that which according to his divine destiny he should be and longs to be, a child of God. In the liturgy he is to go "unto God, Who giveth joy to his youth." All this is, of course, on the supernatural plane, but at the same time it corresponds to the same degree to the inner needs of man's nature. Because the life of the liturgy is higher than that to which customary reality gives both the opportunity and form of expression, it adopts suitable forms and methods from that sphere in which alone they are to be found, that is to say, from art. It speaks measuredly and melodiously; it employs formal, rhythmic gestures; it is clothed in colors and garments foreign to everyday life; it is carried out in places and at hours which have been coordinated and systematized according to sublimer laws than ours. It is in the highest sense the life of a child, in which everything is picture, melody and song. (Chapter 5)
Indeed, the liturgy is the place where the Christian lives out his citizenship of the City of God. The liturgy is where the Christian escapes into eternity, which is where he belongs in the truest sense. The liturgy is heaven made incarnate - or earth itself being brought above its own earthliness, brought into communion with its own eschatological destiny. In liturgical worship, where sacraments and symbols and sublime art - not to mention grace and the Eucharistic presence - transform the visible atmosphere into a living revelation, we enter the House of God, and there partake of His inner life. Entering into the life of God, which is like an eternal ritual of love and self-gift, we enter into a whole new world - quite literally, indeed more than literally. God is more than world; being in God, we are in a Universe which infinitely transcends all universes, and transcends the fantasies that our imaginations might concoct; a universe whose inner motions of loving contemplation far surpass the cosmic motions of our own infinitesimal universe. Ours might seem to be a kingdom of infinite space, but in fact we are merely bounded in a nutshell; a prison. In the liturgy, we glimpse through the pores of our prison-cell-shell the true kingdom, and for a moment we linger there like dreamy escapists. One day our nutshell will crack open - or to employ another ancient image, we will hatch forth as from an egg, being born into Eternity...

There are hosts of poetic symbols one might employ for the escape into Eternity. Cave, grave, tomb, womb, egg/nutshell, prison-cell, earth, birth... These are ancient symbols, found in all the traditional religions, and far from absent in Christianity. They reveal escapism as something fundamental to religion itself. 

It seems, then, that the cultivation of true mindfulness and virtue requires us to cultivate a true escapism - which is not desertion. In an individual soul, especially of the melancholic type, these two attitudes might perhaps be confused and mixed. Mindfulness will distinguish them and separate them. Training for mindfulness might involve the cultivation of an appreciation for art, poetry, mythology, fairy stories, music, and above all, liturgical worship and the sacraments.

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