Sunday, 8 November 2009

Escapism and Issues

I am trying to understand the role that literature (which to me simply means verbal or narrative art) plays and what sorts of values it should aspire to, and in the last few days I had some thoughts. I'll try to relate them. [Note: my photo selection is not at all based on the works I discuss in the nearby paragraph but instead based on the general topic, as it relates to Pan's Labyrinth, a movie which I think has a very nuanced view of stories as 'escapism.']

One of the things I like about Battlestar Galactica is how it deals with or presents important philosophical questions without being a 'philosophy story.' That is, the writers create a plot that is 'purely escapist' and develops characters who are believable and who elicit our sympathy or condemnation, and yet with these elements they model important issues which we are asking in modern philosophy. 'Model' is an important word here, for while there are certainly conversations on philosophical subjects (I'm thinking in particular of an interrogation scene) or minor speeches (such as Lee's to Commander Adama and President Roslin on authority's legitimacy), more often the writers express these questions in the characters' decisions, responses, emotions, and conflicts. This is more like philosophy in action, and the conversations and speeches are either short or are also laden with personal, emotional, contextual, or otherwise non-discursive subjects. So the questions about how authority gains legitimacy are enbodied in a society trying to determine that, which is in turn portrayed by characters jockeying for position, characters picking sides (or not), characters obeying or rebelling, characters performing acts of terrorism, and characters delivering or responding to media and propaganda. Legitimacy of authority is a big trend in this, but not the only one: fate, artificial intelligence (and emotion), love, the roles of the police and the military, the role of religion in society, identity, ethics and justice, metaphysics, and theology are all also addressed in this series (or at least the first season of it).

This is something I liked about it, but again what I most valued was how it was embodied by believable characters in exciting situations and emotionally strenuous relationships. It would perhaps be 'pure escapism' if it were not for the fact that the issues it addresses are relevant to our own political and social situation.

Last night my opinion of this was somewhat shaken. I watched Crossing Over, a movie about the experiences of illegal immigrants in the United States. A number of characters are in the US illegally or are seeking citizenship--an Australian actress, a Jewish-atheist musician, two Muslim families, a Chinese family, a Mexican woman, and an African orphan and refugee--and they spin out a number of overlapping mistakes and heroisms. It's a very good movie, and unlike Battlestar Galactica, it highlights and discusses current political-social issues directly. It is not a documentary; it has narrative and characters and a standard Hollywood film style. I'll be honest: I am not a fan of the documentary style. I like good cinematography and I like narrative. But the issues and stories it addresses are not hypothetical or disguised or in any way removed. The writers are discussing these issues as present, real, and pressing issues. Similar movies include Crash, City of God, Hotel Rwanda, and The Soloist. Though fictional to greater or lesser degrees (some are autobiography or biography, but they're nonetheless conveyed in a fictional and not biographic style), they act like documentaries in that they present us not with hypothetical scenarios but with a look at what's going on in the dirty, broken, and hopeless parts of the world. In the end, what makes Crossing Over different from Battlestar Galactica is not that the latter has good characterizations and models its concerns in plot instead of mouthpiece speeches. No, Crossing Over does that just as well as Battlestar Galactica. The difference is that the more realistic dramas do not have an epistemic quarantine.

In Battlestar Galactica (or, if you're tired of or unfamilar with that example, we can say Chronicles of Narnia or Harry Potter), the concerns are emotionally relevant but are easily seperable from the real world. We can develop ideals or what have you that do not impell us to act any differently or think any differently. It is more difficult to do this with Crossing Over or Crash. In these examples, you can't fail to connect the signifier and the signified because it's not even a metaphor. It's explicit. The house-elves in Harry Potter might be the poor servant class in aristocratic England (or plutocratic North America), but it might not be. There's no sure connection and no immediately practical response. Sure, Harry Potter teaches us that we shouldn't be prejudiced and Battlestar Galactica asks us to think about the difference between elected government, military authority, and policing civilians, but it doesn't give us much to go for applying those lessons. But that homeless person who talks to himself in The Soloist might as well be the homeless person who talks to himself on your own street corner. There's no doubt at all about how the movie thinks you should respond to that homeless person. It's harder to separate the realm of ideas from the realm of reality. They're tied up together. There is no ivory tower.

Now, that's not to say that watching Crossing Over will turn you into an immigrants' rights activist. But your own everyday hypocrisy is harder to tolerate when you do watch it. It likely will push more people toward humanity than Battlestar Galactica or Harry Potter will.

So do we throw out escapism, even of the Battlestar Galactica? For a while there, I was thinking that it was less valuable. Dealing with issues in an epistemic quarantine is interesting and all, but is it any good?

Today I finished Madeleine L'Engle's A House Like a Lotus. I started reading it as research for the YA project. It's a coming-of-age sort of thing and the protagonist is a sixteen-year-old girl, so it's not my usual fare. I've had some trouble while reading it, mainly a sense of my own inexperience and inadequacy, which I won't relate here. For what it is it's a good book and it has lots of peripheral benefits, namely ideas and information that are valuable. (All L'Engle's books are packed with ideas and information.) In A House Like a Lotus, I encountered this: "When we are listening to stories, then it s the story center of the brain which is functioning, and the pain center is less active. I go into the children's wards of hospitals, where there are children in great pain. When I am telling them stories they laugh and they cry and in truth their pain is less. Mine, too." Empathy, loving connection to other people, just plain distraction, can heal. I experienced this volunteering with children. Their chaos, their stories, their ample and immediate needs and desires, overwhelmed me so much that my own stress and exhaustion were forgotten. That is not to say I felt no stress or exhaustion or self-consciousness or embarassment or desires of my own, but somehow these were all less important. For two hours a day, these kids were not the most important thing in the world; they were the world. It helped immensely. Escapism is escape, and sometimes we need to escape ourselves. When we are in pain and when we need time to heal, or when we are exhausted and we need time to rest, escapism can provide that. And, I think, the best escapism is that which teaches good, honest, hopeful things, too: that which teaches love and sympathy and hope and courage. Because escapism needn't be mindless. It can be, but it needn't be. It must only take us outside of ourselves; if it can heal in other ways, give us hope and teach us empathy, it is even better.

So things like Battlestar Galactica or Harry Potter, if they do their jobs right (get us outside of ourselves and teach us hope or love), are good. They are not better than things like Crash or The Soloist, but neither are things like Crash or The Soloist better than escapism. They serve different purposes. One stirs to action; they other heals. They both teach (ideally), but they teach different things. One teaches us about specific problems and how to deal with it. The other asks hypothetical questions and provides hypothetical answers.

Of course, as time goes on things like Crossing Over become more like a serious-minded escapism. Take The Grapes of Wrath. It's certainly not 'fun' escapism, but it does take us out of the situation we have now. The Great Depression is long over, and its survivors are mostly dead. But it happened. It sits somewhere between the two. We must take it as metaphor if we are to apply it, but we also know it as history.

And some escapism is tragic. Although I cannot define, understand, or account for catharsis, I have experienced it to be true. Tragedies are cleansing. (I have not experienced satires to be, though. I suspect that they can be wholely toxic if they are not well-designed to be informative. Maybe I'm wrong, though.)

There is a spectrum, then. We have pure, light-hearted, mindless escapism on one end, and sober, realistic, present, almost documentary drama on the other. In between we have tragedies, romances, metaphorical dramas (sci-fi like Battlestar Galactica and fantasy like Harry Potter), historical dramas of the more serious variety (Defiance, for instance), and biographies from other eras that read like fiction (Night, Survival in Auschwitz). Each along this spectrum has a particular function, and is valuable according to how well it performs this function, not according to which function it performs.

But we must also be aware of which ones we need. When we need healing, we need those which heal. Orphaned and injured children need stories that heal, not challenge. Complacent and affluent people do not need that healing as much: we need to learn empathy at the very least. We need some challenge. Of course all of our affluence (and you, dear reader, are more than likely wealthy beyond the average human's wildest dreams; the average human's wildest dreams include adequate nutrition, and I think most people with an Internet connection have that) does not sheild us from hurt, and so we need some escapism of the mindless variety. But most of our escapism should teach us something because we do not need it to do otherwise. This is where Battlestar Galactica comes in. And we also need to know that we must watch Hotel Rwanda or The Soloist, not as escapism but eye-openers. (It is possible that some of my readers are in fact in places of real suffering on a daily basis and have been throughout their lives. They are obviously exceptions to this. Having an existential crisis, though, does not make you an exception.)

This is my conclusion: we need to challenge ourselves, yes. And I mean 'we' as in you the reader, me the writer, and the society we represent. We can handle the challenge. We would be morally abhorent if we failed to challenge ourselves. But we also need escapism for those times when we need escape, when we need healing. And we will need everything in between.

And if a book or movie does not heal, does not provide hope, or does not give direction to some current crisis, but rather fosters only pessimism, despair, hatred, or some other dangerous untruth, than as far as I am concerned it has no value at all and ought not be read (or written).


Jon Wong said...

This is good. On a personal level, I think this will be very helpful when I explain to people why my own writing project is the way it is.

I was talking to Ted about the reason why it was so important to have more than 1 main character in my story. I need a part of it to be a story of hope, healing, and inspiration, but I also want to challenge my readers to think about some things that we're probably not so proud of. And I realized it was too much to put on the shoulders of just one character.

Anonymous said...

Hm there a term that been thrown around called "poverty porn" that i the obsession with viewing movies about people suffering it a kind of First world escapism into the Poor people to give there own life's that are more shallow meaning . Think there is an issue . If you have to suffer to have any sort of meaning then there something wrong with your belief system .There are Inuit culture where a state of happiness as cheesy as that sound was a spiritual place that they truely felt .

Dramatic Western Realism is only effective when it showing the audience something there not aware of , (It shows some actual solution to the problem in the film or some kind of hope. And hopefully some of the money that art makes goes to help the people in the film if it happen in present time ) Other wise yeah it is a kind of Serious minded Western Escapism - poverty porn for the first world looking to make grandiose statement on humanity suffering and a moral ivory tower to look down on people from (Remind me of the Christian church to be honest). Which in my opinion is far more dangerous , Now you just desensitize yourself to any kind of suffering and it just consumable form entertainment.

As an African America who actually lives in a poor area with high crime rate , I don't spend my time watching boys n the hood

. That film didn't fix the area I live in , pretty sure it gotten worse since that film was created (Killing have gotten worse)might of been a good film ,but from my perspective that it . (There a missing element that makes me not care )"Where is the Solution to the problem ? : Or "Hope for a solution ? " Other wise for me it just yeah, poverty porn for intellectuals . Also gotta remember people living in these area are minds form natural defenses against negativity , So we don't dwell on if the world is a bad place. Particular if there little you can do about it

Should try asking what do the immigrant or the People in Rwanda think about these film ? Or the people living in these area. Otherwise for me it just another hollywood film

Christian H said...


I agree with a lot of what you've written; in the time since I originally wrote this post, I've become much more skeptical about the kind of work a movie like /Hotel Rwanda/ or /The Blind Side/ can actually do. I have some quibbles with the term "poverty porn" because I don't think pornography is the right analogy, but it does seem to be exploiting other people's suffering for what is basically entertainment. That is obviously not a good thing.

That being said, I do not know that it is necessarily a bad thing for a movie that primarily appeals to intellectual people; I don't think that any given piece of art needs to be democratic in its appeal, so long as the total available body of art does provide something for everyone. I also don't think providing a solution is the only way to make a good film; finding a new way of thinking about or talking about an issue, one which will (hopefully) be the place from which you can get that solution, might in itself be valuable. But there are still problems with locating that conversation only among the educated elite, and this is not a problem that I've seen a lot of people try to address. Your questions are sharp (and I'm honestly a little bit ashamed) and I will need time to think about it. Thanks.

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