Thursday, April 16, 2020

Escaping the Inescapable

Escapism is unavoidable. In every form of entertainment, and even in every form of non-fiction you consume. There is always a hole to fill.

Every bit of this modern obsession with consumption is the consumer looking to devour something that will make them just a bit more full on the inside. However, we are temporary creatures, which means no matter what we light up will sparkle and fade eventually. Nothing is permanent in our world, and one day everything will be scorched out with the sun. Nonetheless, we seek out a sort of permanence that will grip our souls forever. It is inescapable.

We're all trying to escape something and find a way out of where we are. It can't be denied, or ignored. Still, we consume, consume, and consume. Some of us even make said consumption their entire identity. They wear their lack of personality on their sleeve, smirking at the faces of those who look at them with deserved pity. It's a broken state of mind, but one that can only exist in modernity. We have thrown away any search for higher meaning.

Consumerism isn't the problem--it exists because we need to feel whole. We as human beings are always going to be seekers. However, it is the way we do it that has changed. Dopamine hits are the easiest way to achieve a feeling of completeness, and that is what we revel in. And who can blame them? It feels good.

At least, for a while.

Escapism is no different from consumption. They both exist for the same reason. We all need to get away from the drudgery of modern life. It's built into us.

The question then becomes: what are you escaping, and why are you escaping it?

I've only ever read one writer that philosophizes over this question, and it is one from an author that has been buried over time. That is a constant theme here at Wasteland & Sky, to be sure, and I doubt that will cease over time. Nonetheless, Walker Percy is the only writer that I'm aware of to ask these questions of the modern man. Why are we so lost in the cosmos? Why is the modern world so empty?  Why can't we be satisfied? His writings center entirely around those questions. Perhaps that is why he isn't well known today. Those are uncomfortable questions, and he offers very uncomfortable answers.

Walker Percy was born over 100 years ago in 1916. He went into training to be a physician as a young adult. During a bout of tuberculosis that almost killed him, he began reflecting on his life and the world around him. What was he to do in this crazing, unsatisfying existence? Mr. Percy refocused his efforts on becoming a writer, focused on existentialism, Southern humor, and Catholicism. This odd combination gave him a strange insight that reflects in all his writing from the prophetic novel of the collapse of modernism Love in the Ruins to the non-fiction masterclass Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book. He died of prostate cancer in 1990, but his works still remain rather relevant, even if ignored by the mainstream.

His most accessible work, the one that really nailed down what he was aiming to do, was the above Lost in the Cosmos. Mind and Spirit sums up the book as such:

"From Percy’s view, our bookstores are mostly filled with two kinds of books—self-help books and diverting or entertaining books about scandal-ridden law firms or extraterrestrials or VAMPIRES or a bunch of sexually obsessive shades of grey. Diversions, of course, get your mind off yourself, relieve your stress, help out in alleviating your fears, your anxieties, your boredom. According to Blaise Pascal, most of our lives are diversions, escapes from what we really know, evidence of our misery without God. According to Percy, most of our lives these days are diversions that become progressively more disappointing. The pursuit of happiness has become the pursuit of diversion in the midst of prosperity. And one problem among many about living in our highly self-conscious time is that diversions we know are merely diversions are boring or only very weak and evaporating antidotes to despair. That’s why Percy knew people visiting museums are mostly ineffectively fending off despondency. That’s also why highly educated bourgeois Americans today try so hard and fail so miserably in being bohemians too."

Certainly that could have been written at any time over the past century. That's how it was back than when he wrote it and how it still is. We all know we read fiction to escape. That's inarguable. Reality is only one shade of existence, our imagination filling in the gaps to something higher and more exciting. It's a piece of a bigger picture we can't even begin to see.

However, no one can deny that the one problem of art in the 20th century is one of endless escalation. We need more! more! more! Keep it coming, and don't worry about the tab. In this secular age, what we have is never good enough.

For instance, adventure fiction from the early 20th century started in the vein of Burroughs: big, bold, exciting, with elements of the fantastical and scientific, and romance to glue it together. However, this wasn't enough to certain folks.

Adventure soon became split off into different camps by those worshiping different aspects of the genre, tearing parts away from the foundation, and leaving what was once a clear-headed and obvious genre into a mishmash of pornography, gore, and emptiness. Subversion is now considered stock and normal, and the normal is considered subversive. We have designated lanes for subgenres to stay in designed by people who can't sell books and who actively hate their roots. We have effectively gone 180 degrees from where we started in a mere century.

It wasn't enough. We needed more! Now, we have less.

This happened not because of escapism, but because of a disorder in the mind and soul. It's never enough, and it's never going to be enough.

We are fractured here in the West because of the me-first idea of taking what we want and jettisoning the rest. We have no more shared meaning and direction to go in, so instead we turn inward to look at our Gollum-like selves and pretend our emptiness is the fault of the world and not our own decisions or being. We had a perfectly decent playground, until those without any meaning in their lives decided to refashion it out of their obsessions without asking anybody.

But Mr. Percy wasn't just talking about fiction when he spoke of this sickness. He was also, and mainly taking aim at, the non-fiction we consume. Non-fiction is also a form of escapism, but for a different reason. He asks the questions as to why that is.

Mainly, why do self-help books exist, at all?

"Percy adds that the self-help books are diversions too. They claim to use the latest studies to tell us who we are and what we’re supposed to do. They tell us that we need, say, seven habits to be highly effective, to be productive, to satisfy our basically material needs. We are, like the other animals, organisms in environments, and we can be happy if we’re think for ourselves, listen to the experts, stay safe or avoid all the risk factors, are rich, and have effective interpersonal dynamics. But lots of us, Percy observes, faithfully follow the self-help advice and end up feeling more disoriented or displaced or more empty than ever. All the self-help experts can add is to stay busy (but with stress-relieving periods of recreation) and positive so eventually things will turn around for you.
"So the self-help books work well for a while but eventually fail, as all diversions do. They claim to but do not really tell us who we are and what we’re supposed to do. They can’t extinguish the experiences of self-consciousness or the self or soul by denying that what’s distinctively human about each of us really exists. They can’t take out what the existentialists, such as the philosopher Heidegger, truthfully describe. We’re not organisms in an environment, and so we can’t really lose ourselves—our personal identities—in some environment, in some COSMOS in which each of us is merely a part. We can’t lose BEING LOST. That’s why the master psychologist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn heard just beneath the surface of all our happy-talk pragmatism the howl of existentialism."

This is very heady stuff, but it goes a long way into describing the human condition of the modern man. As every ancient religion teaches, this world isn't quite it, chief. Our longing for more than we are is a natural thing, and one that our ancestors understood perfectly well. We will never be totally satisfied here, and that's okay. This is why they didn't need to subsist off of prescription pills and New Age idiocy just to get through the day.

We feel lost, because we are lost. Escapism is natural, because we are build to want escape where we are. Humanity's entire predicament in existence is in choosing to be somewhere we don't belong, and living with the consequences of that choice. We aren't like the other animals on Earth, we can't find aliens to share our plight with, and our neighbors are just as lost as we are. It's a tornado of confused existence, swirling forever, with only seconds of clarity when we reach the center. And nobody is there to help make sense of it.

But is any of this actually a bad thing? Is it something we need to stress ourselves over, and rage about, in our urban castles away from the greater world? Should we find a way to bend reality away from what it is to make everyone happy? Maybe if we vote for the Good Guy Party they can refashion reality and fix everything for us. This is, after all, not reality, if I don't want it to be. That s the modern man, in a nutshell.

That is wrong, though.

Mr. Percy's advice, is to accept being lost. It is key to what being human is. That odd alienation you feel deep in your soul is natural. You can live with it, and learn its purpose.

As he says:

"For Percy, the resulting ANXIETY—the experience of being an inexplicable or absurd leftover in the world the EXPERTS describe—ought to be a prelude to WONDER about how strange the human self or soul is."

That's right, the answer is in accepting Wonder. Wonder is the one thing we've been running away from the entire previous century, and it is now the reason everything is crashing down around us. We're scared of it.

Once you accept that everything around you is bizarre and off-kilter because that is what you are, things can be put in its proper place. The correct answer to anxiety, is to seek wonder. Wonder is the window of the soul into better things.

The penny dreadfuls were successful because they offered a strange glimpse into a world that reflected a higher reality than what we see around us. Weird is normal, because reality is weird. Fairy tales, the pulps, and early comic books, did this, too. The art audiences flock to is the one that shows them something beyond their personal anxieties.

Whereas high literature is more blatant about the wonder they espouse (Such as how The Idiot shows the difference between man and the divine by using the setting of the time), low art is meant to be more visceral about it. There you can touch, see, taste, hear, sense, and feel, the divine in front of you. Art connects the artist with the customer to bring them both to this higher place. This is what art serves the patron best as: a reminder.

A reminder, however, isn't an answer. It is just a piece of a bigger puzzle. It points to the same thing that your anxiety with reality does.

That anxiety, that confusion in your soul, is what might lead you to True Happiness. The art itself isn't what is going to do that, but it will remind you of the things you are missing. It can help you along the way, but it is you who need to figure it out for yourself.

This is why mindless consumerism misses the point. You can collect all the bobblepops and funkplates you want, but you're only doing that to fill a hole inside that will never be filled. Art can't do that for you, and neither can trinkets painted with the faded colors of said art. You are attempting to light a tunnel with flashlight batteries. You will never see the whole picture without the flashlight. But art can help you, for a moment.

The solution, as always, is to put things where they belong. Art and escapism are not end goals, they are parts of a map to help on the journey. For them to return to their former glory they must be put back to where they were.

Mr. Percy was right. The Cosmos as per Sagan, isn't real wonder. Especially not as how he described it. We can't look at a pile of broken rocks floating in the void of space and call that wonder. It's simply a cope. Wonder is beyond you, me, and the natural world. It is something we will always strive to see. It will outlive the death of modernity.

Unfortunately, Walker Percy isn't well known today for anything other than discovering John Kennedy Toole, the writer of A Confederacy of Dunces. This is a shame, because his thoughtful analysis of the anxiety of existence is one that the world can use right now. He understood our spiritual disorder long before the atomized age of social justice thuggery and nihilistic hermitage. Perhaps that is why he has been passed aside. There is, after all, an entire cottage industry of experts trying to sell you the secret to being happy and being successful.

Unlike them, however, he was right. There is no man that has the secret to happiness, because we all suffer from the same ailment.

"And, in our irrational pride and our love, we don’t really want to surrender our personal identities. We want to be able to manage our self-consciousness the way we can techno-control everything else. But our experts don’t really know what engineered mood or judicious mixture of moods would really make us happy or at home. It turns out that our moods—the moods we’ve been given by nature—are indispensable clues to the truth about who we are and what we’re supposed to do. That’s why Percy says, against the cheomotherapists, that he has a right to his anxiety. It’s his right to liberty that might lead to real truth and real happiness."

Wonder is all art can aspire to. It cannot give meaning to that which you already know deep inside. It is a tool to reach it. Wonder is not the stars, it is the telescopic that allows you to see them. You are meant for much more than this, and artists exist to remind you of that.

You can't escape reality, but you can accept that there is more than what you see before you. That is all escapism can do for you.

And maybe that's enough.


  1. JD

    Great post
    I once remarked to a fellow blogger self help booksxate modern man's devotionals.

    Art the good stuff reminds us to go beyond who we are but we forget that too much.


  2. The risen Lord Jesus came to JD and asked, "And what about you, Mr. Cowan? What have you done, and what have you failed to do? Have you loved your brothers and sisters as I have loved you?"

    And JD replied to Him, "Barely. I knew of my great commission to consecrate the world to You, but the world was so boring, and it kept me in drudgery. I couldn't even look my consumerist neighbors in the eye--they loathed me and they hated me more than I hated them--so how did You expect me to confront them instead of escaping from them?

    "And though Your Father was infinite and was unbound by human language, I also knew that the Scriptures, the catechisms, and the commentaries would help me better understand Him with my mind before I approached Him with my heart. But as the majesty of Your Father would cause me to tremble, I much enjoyed that trembling, and I preferred to remain anxious about His mystery than to still myself and know that He was God."

    And what the Lord did with his servant JD, we may never come to know. For as Almighty God is also the God of time, and as our God looks with pity upon those who approach Him humbly, perhaps the account that Christ hears will be different. Because of JD's tales of the unusual and the mysterious, perhaps his patrons in the present and the future will aspire to theosis instead of mere escape.

    1. I've definitely still got a ways to go.

    2. We all do. No hard feelings here!

    3. lol I can only say that I come off much harsher online than I actually am in real life.

      But your point was taken.

  3. Now I want to get my hands on some Walker Percy!

    In a timely coincidence, I was just watching a program that dealt with this exact theme on YouTube. Don't know if you've ever checked out Insight, a.k.a. the Catholic Twilight Zone. I'd recommend you do, but with the same caveats applicable to everything dating to the Vatican II era. A punchy little reflection on a teen suicide: