Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Escapism and Pleasure

Today's blog, thoughts on escapism as a good thing and a revolutionary act, appeared on Book View Cafe:

Here's the opening: One of the criticisms of genre fiction that amuses me most is that it’s escapism, as if that’s a bad thing. I think just the opposite. Nobody, except the unbelievably incompetent, escapes to jail. (I’m not talking about the chronically incarcerated who, unable to function in normal society, deliberately choose actions that will return them to imprisonment, although that’s an interesting image when it comes to preferred reading material.) No, the direction of escape is toward freedom, imagination, innovation, pleasure. In other words, we move toward becoming bigger, richer lives. So what is “escapism” an accusation of? Why is it bad to want something better?

If that tickles your fancy, I'll wait here quietly while you go off and read the whole thing.

Done? Good! One of the streams that got me thinking about escapism = pleasure = not only good, but necessary, sits on my nightstand: The Compass of Pleasure: How Our Brains Make Fatty Foods, Orgasm, Exercise, Marijuana, Generosity, Vodka, Learning, and Gambling Feel So Good, by David J. Linden. Linden teaches neuroscience at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and he's got the skinny on how our brains are wired. I especially love the research that helping others and learning new things causes the same feel-good chemicals in our pleasure centers as great sex. It turns out that strongly-addictive drugs blunt the pleasure response to everything else (yummy food, sex, generosity, you name it) and cause long-term changes in the neurons of the brain's pleasure centers; they basically hijack the circuits that normally get lit up by food and other things necessary to survival. You can read this and other cool stuff in the article -- and the book itself, I hope.

What got me thinking was the undercurrent of anti-pleasure in the larger world. If it feels that good, goes the unspoken assumption, it must be (bad/sinful/immoral/illegal...and definitely fattening). But when you look at all the things we're designed by evolution to respond to with pleasure -- eating, mating, exploring, creating, being active, behaving cooperatively -- these are crucial for our survival. They should feel good!

Curling up with a good book, getting lost in a story, having the cares of the world fade away, these are richly rewarding experiences. We may be forced to read dreary "realistic" fiction in school, but we run home and stick our noses in "whopping good tales," space opera and love stories, horse stories and mysteries, bodice rippers and dragonflight. Could it possibly be that these things, too, serve some vital function? Or are they, like junk food, heroin, and compulsive gambling, instances of the normal neural circuitry being diverted?

I decided to explore the argument that "escapist" reading is beneficial and found, perhaps to no one's surprise, that it is at its heart far more than simply and temporarily pleasurable. Ray Bradbury wrote about the power and dangerousness of books in Fahrenheit 451. And he didn't mean just the syllabus of freshman Humanities.

What do you think?

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