On Escapism

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“Dreams are necessary to life,” writes Anaïs Nin in a 1936 letter to her mother. She continues, in a self-professed send-up of a modernist run-on sentence, “and you know not all our dreams are holy, are they, you had some which were not so holy, our dreams are not holy but that does not hurt or change the fundamental soul, maybe some day you will believe so firmly in my fundamental soul you won’t mind my fantasies…” (89). But what is a fantasy? And what is there to mind in it?

I have in mind dreams of flight: escape from the crush of my circumstances and the crushing knowledge of global circumstances. The idea of escapism inspires two follow-up questions:

What am I running from?

Where am I running to?

And, yes, the glib answer to the first question is: away from prescriptive grammarians who wouldn’t approve of ending those questions with prepositions. What am I really running from? At the moment: the buzz of the neighbor’s two stroke engine (the writer’s bane), news of the war in Gaza, my poetry community grappling with how to deal with the systemic problem of sexual assault, my body’s reaction to a new medication. It is almost impossible to escape news of the conflict in Gaza, and I feel guilty for wanting to escape it. I feel the human imperative to work for justice and the reduction of suffering. Even if I can’t effect substantial change, my conscience urges me to bear witness to suffering and injustice. How to contend with the fact that this relentless media exposure to injustice mingles with the negativity from more local crises, accumulating in the body, until it—or I—begin to protest?

I run, and I call it self care. The idea of self care has been an object of debate in activist communities. Proponents advocate for it as a way to avoid burnout, opponents have critiqued it as individualist. I tend to come down more on the pro side, partially because one of the methods of self care I have undertaken is dreaming, which is the only way I know to conjure up new ways of being. I also think that it is good to take a step back to examine the pieties of our political affiliations. Strict adherence to any received code can prevent examination of that code. This is a dry way of summing up what CS Lewis achieved with an image in his essay, On Science Fiction:

If we were all on board ship and there was trouble among the stewards, I can just conceive their chief spokesman looking with disfavor on anyone who stole away from the fierce debates in the saloon or pantry to take a breather on deck. For up there, he would taste the salt, he would see the vastness of the water, he would remember that the ship had a whither and a whence. He would remember things like fog, storms, and ice. What had seemed, in the hot, lighted rooms down below to be merely the scene for a political crisis, would appear once more as a tiny egg-shell moving rapidly through an immense darkness over an element in which man cannot live. It would not necessarily change his convictions about the rights and wrongs of the dispute down below, but it would probably show them in a new light. It could hardly fail to remind him that the stewards were taking for granted hopes more momentous than that of a rise in pay, and the passengers forgetting dangers more serious than that of having to cook and serve their own meals. Stories of the sort I am describing are like that visit to the deck. They cool us.

Black and white photo of several men work behind a bar in a steamship, readying it for use.

“I can just conceive their chief spokesman looking with disfavor on anyone who stole away from the fierce debates in the saloon or pantry to take a breather on deck.”

Genre writing helps me dream: SFF (Science Fiction and Fantasy) and Detective Fiction in particular. Lately I’ve been more in the mood for detection. I have a soft spot for the Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane novels by Dorothy Sayers. I think of myself as a bad radical when I long for the moral simplicity of detective fiction, which was making me blue until reading an interview with Roxane Gay about her recently released book of essays, Bad Feminist. Gay takes apart the idea of inadequacy, the impossible pressure to be an ethical paragon in all aspects of her life. Note that Nin did not think of her (and her mother’s) dreams as not good, simply not holy. Her faith in her “fundamental soul” was intact.

So, thinking to give myself a pass, I pick up Gaudy Night, which, serendipitously turns on the idea of having it all, the struggle for intellectual and professional recognition by women, and the dream of equal marriage (Jo Walton has a great post about these aspects of the book). Detective stories appeal to the dream of resolution in which lurks the dreams of justice and salvation. I’ve been puzzling over the salvation part, because in addition to Sayers, I’ve also been reading GK Chesterton’s Father Brown stories, and it’s disturbing for an ex-Catholic to dive with such glee into the work of two very Catholic writers. A condensed formula for a certain kind of detective story might be: 1. Here is a stable, coherent society. 2. A murder disrupts it. 3. The crime is solved which allows the society to return to its stability or coherence. The truth restores order, and when I replace the truth with the word God, then I feel closer to understanding the theology of detective fiction.

Alternatively, as Olive Blackburn has it in her poetry book Communism is up there and we are down here but it is happening now, “When reading the Bible, every time you see the word/’Jesus,’ cross it out and write ‘communism.’” (14). When the above writers move from storytelling to theology or Marxist eschatology, they are engaging the problem of how to achieve the resolution possible in creative writing, in life. I certainly wouldn’t insist on a principle of substitution between the modes of political or spiritual thought that I’ve invoked here. What I’m interested in is the circumstances in which (and the thinkers for whom) utopia is more than a dream or a rhetorical figure, like theorist José Esteban Muñoz. “Queerness is a structuring and educated mode of desiring that allows us to see and feel beyond the quagmire of the present. The here and now is a prison house. We must strive, in the face of the here and now’s totalizing rendering of reality, to think and feel a then and there” (Muñoz 1). In Cruising Utopia, Muñoz throws a book-length gauntlet down at the feet of queer negativity, in favor of concrete utopias. “Concrete utopias are relational to historically situated struggles, a collectivity that is actualized or potential” (Muñoz 3). Muñoz draws heavily on the arguments of the Frankfurt School thinker Ernst Bloch, who advocated for hope and astonishment as critical and revolutionary tools.

I’m interested in the fact that both Muñoz and CS Lewis, at another moment in On Science Fiction, liken the present to a prison. Lewis attributes it to an exchange with Tolkien, regarding the accusations of escapism leveled at genre fiction: “’What class of men would you expect to be most preoccupied with, and most hostile to, the idea of escape?’ and gave the obvious answer: jailers.” There is something neatly binaristic about this formulation, but it points to the notion that escapist fantasies and political struggles are two aspects of the same slant relationship to the here and now, as Muñoz puts it. Perhaps my escapist moment is part of a larger process that has been artificially divided.

Anarchist propaganda poster from the Spanish Civil War featuring a drawing of a woman in overalls with a tool belt holding a rifle in one hand and pointing to the viewer with the other. In the background troops holding red and black flags march by. The poster reads,

When Nin wrote lines that began this piece, the Spanish Civil War had just begun. She describes elsewhere the challenge it presented to her aesthete’s apoliticality. Awakening to the bloody reality of war, she expressed her longing to “engage her allegiance” to a great revolutionary if she could find one. “But meanwhile I help in a small radius, and I wait” (93). Like Nin, I try to help in my small radius, allowing myself indirect dreams with the hope that they will help delineate the potential of a better existence.

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