Escapism? Fleeing Reality to Survive
Many moons ago I had this buddy.
This buddy wrote a book featuring an angsty, Holden Caufield-esque protagonist who railed against all sorts of things, from great injustices to minor nuisances. One of the things that pissed this character off was J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings cycle. He said something like, He writes impossibly escapist bullshit in which good is too good and evil is too evil.
Escapist fantasy has been pissing off writers for a long time now. I recently ran across this old chestnut by Robert Bloch, firing off a missive to the editor of Weird Tales, telling him he’d had enough of Robert E. Howard and his damnable Conan:
“‘I am awfully tired of poor old Conan the Cluck, who for the past fifteen issues has every month slain a new wizard, tackled a new monster, come to a violent sudden end that was averted (incredibly enough!) in just the nick of time, and won a new girlfriend, each of whose penchant for nudism won her a place of honor, either on the cover or on the inner illustration... I cry: ‘Enough of this brute and his iron-thewed sword-thrusts-may he be sent to Valhalla to cut out paper dolls.’”
It's a nice takedown, curmudgeonly enough for the reader to perhaps experience a bit of surprise when they learn the author of said-letter was actually about a decade younger than the man-child he was attacking.
Is it such a bad thing to want to escape when you write, though? And is this evasion of the pain and pathos of “serious fiction” somehow a shirking of the writer’s innate duty?
Writing itself is probably a shirking of one’s duty, especially if that duty is to earn a living and be a productive member of society.
And I have a hard time begrudging anyone their flight from pain, even if the retreat that helps them in the short term hurts them in the long run.
Robert E. Howard, the creator of Conan, obviously had demons, and was tortured enough by the death of his mother to take his own life shortly after she expired. But I don’t think tying a bedspread around his chest with a clothespin and pretending it was cape hurt him all that much. And Conan the Cimmerian won Howard a minor fame during his lifetime, and also paid his bills, which is the sine qua non of adulthood.
There’s a movie about Howard’s abortive relationship with small-town schoolteacher Novalyne Price (played by Renee Zellweger) that addresses his arrested development and flight from the adult world.
The movie’s only a cut or two above the standard made-for-TV fare. Most of it shows us Novalyne and Howard strolling side-by-side (rarely hand-in-hand) discussing themes both weighty and inconsequential as the sere brown expanse of Cross Plains, Texas passes behind them.
The movie (based on the book by Price, One who walked Alone) suggests that Novalyne was unsuccessful in her attempts to wean Howard away from his Oedipal dependence on Mama. Neither could she steer him away from his one-man cosplay adventures through town, or trick him into donning a more appropriate costume, like, say a groom’s black tie.
Not all of the futile efforts were expended by Novalyne, however. Howard tried in vain to wean Ms. Price away from her gig as schoolteacher, toward the Dark Side where she might try her hand at the disreputable but more spiritually rewarding job of writer.
Alas, Ms. Price wrote nothing after giving the world her account of her brief, less-than-torrid encounter with the quixotic, small-town scribe. And she has since died.
I’m frankly not sure here, though, whether Howard needed to be weaned away from Conan, even if it might have saved his life (and I doubt it would have).
Besides which I don’t think that escapism is truly possible, or that a writer can shirk their duty to the truth (assuming they have one) even if they try.
And not everyone who retreats into fantasy eventually puts a bullet in their head.
And who knows? Maybe Bloch was just pissed that Conan kept getting the covers over at Weird Tales.
Everyone is familiar with the writer Leo Tolstoy, and it would be a waste of time to attempt to summarize his achievements in world literature (although there are some who regard him as turgid, a bit of bore). I bring him up now only because a quote attributed to him is relevant to these late night musings, a subject I’ve been turning over in my mind.
The quote goes something like this: “Good versus evil is interesting, but good versus good is more interesting.” That’s a paraphrase (Russian no doubt loses something when tortured to produce English).
Great literature (and movies and wrestling matches) can be made on the storyline of good versus evil. Fairytales don’t require moral ambivalence, or a villain with an origin story to explain what they do. Some queen is evil and therefore decides to put a curse upon the land, and someone who is innately good takes it upon themselves to thwart said-queen.
What about tales of good versus good, though? These may be more interesting than tales of good versus evil because they force the reader (or viewer) to not just cheer someone on, but to decide whom to support in battle. Making things even more complicated is that one’s loyalties can change based on how the two combatants conduct themselves in their war.
Parallel to what Leo Tolstoy said are some words by character actor Joe Don Baker. For those not familiar with him, Joe Don played the lawman in the original Walking Tall, a film about a sheriff (an ex-wrestler, incidentally) who stood up against a townful of bad guys. Joe Don has also played his share of baddies, though, including a sadistic hitman in the fast-paced, underrated crime gem Charley Varrick.
Joe Don’s range as an actor is as wide as the moral spectrum (or his waistline, for that matter). He can scowl and smolder. He can squint and grimace with his flouncy jowls until he resembles the unholy offspring of Winston Churchill and a largemouth bass. He can convincingly play a hayseed sheriff who leers, spits baccy and asks a city boy, You ain’t from around here, are ya? And he can be just as convincing as a wide-eyed everyman who’d be overwhelmed by the wickedness of the world except that he needs his composure, wits, and toughness to put a dent in said-evil.
Someone once asked Joe Don in an interview if he liked playing bad guys more than good guys. His response (perhaps worthy to stand alongside Tolstoy’s) went something like this: “Does any bad guy ever see himself as bad?”
The bad guy is driven by a knack for rationalization. And who knows, maybe their reasoning is in fact solid.
Let’s perform a thought experiment to see if sometimes it’s impossible to tell good from evil.
Say there is a billionaire who owns warehouses across the planet where goods are packaged, sold, shipped, and transshipped for global markets. He is the richest man on Earth. Let us call him Joffrey Tidewater (it’ll work, as it sounds slightly exotic but also slightly villainous). Joffrey treats his workers like crap. He is a megalomaniac perfectionist, obsessed with Taylorism and all of the other pet theories of early twentieth century efficiency crafted by the great robber barons who preceded him. Only unlike those forebears, Joffrey Tidewater has no social conscience. Rather than endow museum galleries with edifying art or university libraries with tomes, he sinks his money into space exploration efforts that smack more of vanity than a pioneering spirit.
In this telling, Joffrey Tidewater will strike the viewer or reader as a real asshole. If the teller of our tale takes us back to Joffrey’s childhood, to reveal Joffrey lived in a tarpaper shack, malnourished and shivering from the cold, then maybe we’ll factor that into our overall assessment of him. Sure, he’s an asshole, we’ll reason, but now he’s an asshole whose assholery has been contextualized.
But let’s make things more difficult, more interesting for the reader (or less elemental, if you prefer the fairytale version of things where evil is evil and good is good and that is that).
Let’s say Joffrey started out as an idealistic, if somewhat nutty and libertarian-leaning businessman, beginning his mail-order business from a basement. By day he worked as a custodian in a building and at night he returned to his cot in that building’s basement where he lighted incense in a sandalwood holder lain before a red resin bust of Ayn Rand. In his free time, he sought escape in musty Golden Age science fiction paperbacks. He’d curl up with these dusty pulps, thumbing their yellow pages while leaning against a warm boiler flush against an exposed brick wall. He’d listen to the hum of the boiler and pretend it was a fusion engine on an interstellar ark traveling between galaxies. He’d read guileless fantasies of a future that never was, where men with fishbowl helmets and zap guns defended utopian colonies (and damsels corseted in bullet bras) from evil green lizardmen.
One day Tidewater’s business takes off, and he begins to reinvest in it, and to expand, and to dream big. He moves out of the basement and now owns his own cedar lodge perched atop a snowy escarpment overlooking some ski slopes. His business has grown large enough now that it’s time to go public. He decides to go the Trader Joe’s route and be a compassionate employer. He’ll offer his workers flexible hours, adequate medical and dental care. He’ll throw in other perks like scholarships and childcare meant to guarantee loyalty and professionalism from the lowest stock boy (a job Tidewater once held as a kid) on up to the public relations staff.
He’s drafting up a moving speech he intends to make about the responsibilities of the rulers to the ruled. He has Carnegie in mind, reasoning that even the robber barons built monumental libraries and public works. While drafting the memo, however, a whirlpool-like tunnel appears before him, a yawning green oculus of light in which radiant funnels circle each other, like coiled strands in a radioactive Fibonacci spiral.
A green man steps out of the incandescent portal. He’s bulb-headed and holds a laser pistol gripped tight to the suctioned radular cups lining the insides of his spatulate fingers. The green man makes it sweet and simple. “You, Tidewater, have an obligation to your species which is greater than your obligation to your employees. We have used our Tachyon Time Jumper to discover that it is imperative you forego this seemingly compassionate plan, and that instead you save as much money as you can. You will then use this capital to build a fleet of spacecraft, ostensibly to be used by the vainer and richer homo sapiens among you keen to travel to Low Earth Orbit as tourists. However, your private space exploration firm, if begun in earnest now, will eventually be responsible for creating a star armada that will one day defend not just homo saps, but all of the sentient beings in the universe. True compassion requires sacrifice. This is yours. Your gift to the universe in the long term must come at the expense of the comfort of your race in the short term. That is all.”
The green man disappears back through his portal. Tidewater sits at his desk, stunned into silence, trying to rearrange the papers that scattered to the four winds when the alien emerged via his Tachyon Time Jumper (wasn’t that what he called it?).
Joffrey Tidewater wants to dismiss what happened as a dream, an apparition, a bit of undigested soy left over from a hearty vegan lunch consumed earlier this afternoon. But there’s that smell, a cloacal musk that’s hard to escape. It emanates from the stream of slime the green man left lingering on the floor. The mucilaginous drip ends at the far wall where he first saw the portal, and the space still faintly glows as if someone had smashed a photophore-rich fish against the plaster.
It was real. It happened.
Then the phone rings, startling Tidewater so that he jumps in his ribbed leather office chair. He reaches for the phone, picks it up off the cradle. “Hello?”
“You said you had a big announcement?”
Tidewater is on the edge of being a billionaire, and the reporter on the other end of the line wants to hear what he has to say.
“Yes.” Tidewater spins in his thronelike seat (which feels even more kingly, now that he understands the power and burden that lie with him). “I previously stated that we were considering modeling our employee benefits’ package on the popular Trader Joe’s grocery chain. Unfortunately, that announcement was based on previous, and ultimately inaccurate calculations. Associates at Tidewater will be paid minimum wage, and are entreated to perform calisthenic exercises before and after work to limit risk of injury while on-shift. Dental hygiene is also not a matter for the company to involve itself in. Although I should add that employees will receive discounts on any Colgate-brand products purchased through the company’s store, or shipped online via Tidewater Unlimited. That is all.”
He hangs up the phone, a chill working its way through his body, followed by a bout of nausea that sends him heading for the toilet to test out the bowl’s motion sensor-activated Smart FlushTM feature. He pukes, discovering the smart toilet works (available $69.99 from Tidewater Unlimited Online).
That’s the good news.
The bad news is that he’s evil.
Or is he?
Hell, I don’t know.
Ask Tolstoy. Or Joe Don.