Escapism and Art For Lonely People

“…but it seemed to Joe that none of these—Faustian hubris least of all—were among the true reasons that impelled men, time and time again, to hazard the making of Golems. The shaping of a Golem, to him, was a gesture of hope, offered against hope, in a time of desperation. It was the expression of a yearning that a few magic words and an artful hand might produce something—one poor, dumb, powerful thing—exempt from the crushing strictures, from the ills, cruelties, and inevitable failures of the greater Creation. It was the voicing of a vain wish, when you got down to it, to escape. To slip, like The Escapist, free of the entangling chain of reality and the straitjacket of physical laws. Harry Houdini had roamed the Hippodromes and Palladiums of the world encumbered by an entire cargo-hold of crates and boxes, stuffed with chains, iron hardware, brightly painted flats and hokum, animated all the while only by this same desire, never fulfilled; truly to escape, if only for one instant; to poke his head through the borders of this world, with its harsh physics, into the mysterious spirit world that lay beyond. The newspaper articles Joe had read about the upcoming Senate investigation into comic books always cited ‘escapism’ among the litany of injurious consequences of their reading, and dwelled on the pernicious effect, on young minds, of satisfying their desire to escape. As if there could be any more noble or necessary service in life.”

—Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

‘Escapism’ sounds immediately frivolous. We talk about escapism when we talk about useless and destructive behaviors—escaping into drugs or shopping or drinking, into reckless, pointless consumption. It’s the addict, the overeater, the misanthrope with television-glazed eyes. It’s the last drink when everything you’ve ever done seems perfectly right and good and then you can’t remember how to stand up and walk home. However, according Chabon’s vaulting figuration, it’s the most ‘noble and neccessary service’ of art.

In this paragraph the Golem, comic books, and Houdini become a metaphor for every kind of art, a thesis on the most essential reason we make things. Mythologizing the issue in a way rooted in his particular heritage, Chabon figures all art as a Golem. He then relates art to comic books by positing the Golem as the first comic book superhero. We construct superheroes; we attempt to transform ourselves into them. The basic action of art, the ‘noble and necessary purpose’ is to in some measure fulfill the yearning of the kid who reads about superheroes and longs for magical powers that would allow him vengeance against the classmates who beat him up each day.

Escapism is about loneliness, and loneliness is always somehow about childhood, which is why Chabon roots this thesis in childish mediums. We begin our relationships to literature or art, if we begin them in childhood, with escapism. A little kid stares at a bookshelf, a teenager goes to the library instead of the cafeteria. These choices are not so different, in their goal, from those of the drunk, the drug addict or the compulsive spender. Nor are they different from those of the kid who still believes in superheroes and magic. All of these choices share the same hope of merciful removal, by way of fantasy, from present circumstance.

On some level, probably the first and most immediate level, all art is fantasy. No matter how dry or academic, all art serves a function exemplified best in pornography, in which fantasy is offered, bought, and sold. Any depiction of over there rather than right here is a fantasy, and even the most mimetic work always takes place over there. Art is transportation. Writing, even argumentative criticism, picks us up and carries us away to elsewhere.

Escapism is adult because it is childish. When we escape into booze or drugs or spending money, what we are actually trying to do is to get back to childhood, or more accurately the idea of a childhood most of us never had. Childhood, understood as a longing imaginary, is a time when there were no consequences to drinking, eating, or spending money. There were no consequences to decisions because someone made decisions for you. There was no regret because there had as yet been no past. Being a kid is being able to look out back window of a car without feeling sad.

We can’t get back there; it didn’t exist anyway. But we can attempt something so engaging, so transportatively correct (a paragraph, for instance, as brilliantly constructed Chabon’s excerpted above), that it lifts us briefly out of the awareness of what we’ve lost, what we regret, what we have to do tomorrow, and where we’ve ended up in relation to where we were going to be. Art compels us elsewhere, as merciful and as useful as drugs. It permits us to step out of “the borders of this world, with its harsh psychics.” Escape into a cleaner and more perfect elsewhere (or even an equally sullied but less actual next-door world) renews hope. If we do not or cannot go to imaginary places, we are far less likely to go to new real places, or in fact to go anywhere at all. Without escapism we rot, static and unsatisfied, ambitionless.