Monday, July 1, 2019

Escapism and Pleasure

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?

What do we mean by “escape”? Escape from what? The critics mean, of course, escape from "real" life: responsibility, order, duty, piety. Underlying this notion is the assumption that life should be serious (serious = grim, humorless, unpleasant, joyless). You should work hard and deny yourself pleasure "for your own good." You should accept the way things are ("be realistic"). If you find reality oppressive and intolerable, it's because there's something wrong with you. You're weak-willed, inadequate, ineffectual, immature, lazy, stupid . . . you've heard the litany. I've exaggerated a bit here to make a point, which is that this attitude ("life sucks, get used to it") arises from a pernicious blend of Puritanical abhorrence of pleasure and the need for conformity in an industrialized society. Under such a system, the two greatest sins are to seek delight and to follow one's own preferences. In other words, to not only be open to change but to create it, to challenge the established order, to question and to dream.  To value joy above productive capacity and meaningfulness above popularity. To be an individual, not a cog in an assembly line, to sometimes be productive but other times contemplative -- in other words, to be unpredictable and unique.

When we speak of pleasure, we cannot avoid the issue of sensory pleasure and sexual ecstasy. Sexuality is a powerful, primal source of energy. No wonder industrialists are afraid of it, except when they can use it to sell things. They want us to be consumers, not originators. This brings me to a second way in which escapism is considered bad, and that is as a force of appeasement, of sedation, a means to drain off rebellious energy and maintain the status quo. I think genre literature, especially fantasy and science fiction, works exactly in the opposite way. The dichotomy and mutual exclusivity between body and mind or spirit is not a universal belief, nor is the insistence on negating or minimizing the importance of the full range of physical sensations. They are, however, tools of a hierarchical society. People are, after all, easier to control when they can be convinced to invalidate their direct experiences of themselves and the world, to distrust themselves and instead trust an external authority. Pleasure must be sinful when it seduces people from abject obedience. And yet, in every age and circumstance, people consistently seek it out, whether through sex or music or drugs or listening to a whopping good tale.

It can be argued that if we're reading, we're "in our heads," ignoring bodily sensations. Yet our bodies respond to a gripping tale, a tear-jerker, an erotic scene. Good writing involves all the senses, and enlarges our notions of what is possible. It allows us to explore novelty and discover preferences. Even in the dreariest surroundings, our internal world can be saturated with vivid sensual details.

In this way, "escapist" literature is deeply subversive. It creates personal, private, internal worlds that are beyond the control of government, religion, or any other repressive institution. We seek out the books that please us, and each of us has a different experience of the same story, different aspects that we connect to. We find different flavors of wonder and delight. While it may not be true that all of us put down a "guilty pleasure" book and immediately go out and foment rebellion in the streets, I believe that in reading what we choose, we are committing a profoundly revolutionary act. We are practicing being imaginative, defiant, adventurous, alien, romantic, dangerous . . . uncontrollable.

 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?

No comments:

Post a Comment