A Life Outside Your Own

  • By Greg Cohan '14
  • gcohan14@amherst.edu

Volume XXXVI, November 1, 2013


After a long day of classes, I like to relax. Often this means watching TV or a movie, or even reading a book once in a while. Sometimes these books/shows/movies are sophisticated or intellectual or artistic, but usually they are not. And for better or for worse, this makes me feel a bit guilty.

When I think about that guilt, though, I struggle a little to justify it. I know we’ve coined the term “guilty pleasure” to describe this exact situation, but that just kicks the can down the road—what makes for the “guilty” part? The most immediate answer that comes to mind is that such pleasures are “escapist.” And to a certain degree, this seems fair. When I’m watching these movies or reading these books, I’m definitely transporting myself, whether that’s to a different time, place, or life. But is it still escaping if I’m opting into a world of more hardship, misery, or loneliness? Seems like I could have at least chosen a slightly nicer destination.

Of course, that’s missing the point a bit. Part of escaping might be about finding a world filled with rainbows and sunshine and Oreo ice cream. But it’s also about finding a world filled with meaning and connection and, hopefully, Oreo ice cream. So, yes, when I’m immersed in these stories, I’m definitely escaping something. But when I frame escapism this way, it also feels eminently reasonable. Here I am, back in my room at the end of the day, feeling disconnected and bored and tired. So I try to be more connected and engaged and alive. Makes sense to me.

Now you might say that books and movies and TV shows are somehow inadequate means of pursuing the feelings I just described. And if I pressed you to say more about these inadequacies, you might say something about the difference between a world that is both artificial and mediated (through a book, movie, etc.) and a world that is real and directly experienced. I don’t disagree—there are certainly differences there. I’m just not convinced these differences are important when it comes to being connected and engaged and alive.

I guess I don’t have any super-compelling evidence for this claim. What I do have is the fact that I, and I think many of you, turn to simulated/mediated/represented reality not to escape but rather to get exactly the things that real life seems to have promised us. And the fact that the compassion (or bravery, or passion) I read about is often more poignant than the compassion I may or may not see in real life. Perhaps a cynic would say that what I’m reading about isn’t true compassion—it’s a romanticized/stylized/idealized/Hollywood-ized/bastardized version. But I’m not sure what grounds we have for saying that. At the point where this written compassion is resonating with me as much as if not more than its real-life counterpart, I’m not sure where the written version falls short. These ideas and experiences are supposed to get to the core of the human condition, and if it takes The Hunger Games to expose them then…c’est la vie.

So where does this leave us? I can see two broad possibilities: 1) We start ‘escaping’ real life to the extent that we can/it’s desirable, or 2) We fight the impulse in (1) on account of there being something fundamentally lacking in any of these simulated forms of experience. I think the easy answer is to take some of the lessons learned from fiction/media and introduce them into real life where appropriate. But that feels a bit unsatisfying, as it doesn’t address the fundamental tension—real life is assumed to be the truer form of living, but we’re still willing to learn deep truths about it from its simulated forms.

I don’t really know what to do about this. It seems to get to a deeper discomfort that extends well beyond the realm of fiction and media. Sports, video games, etc.—these artificial worlds all seem to be evocative in a way that ‘real life’ so often isn’t. We build these stories/worlds seemingly in response to some deep-seated part of our humanity. Then all the sudden, the tables turn and it’s our constructions that are creating us in their image, making us want that next hit of excitement, passion, or sacrifice. This, perhaps justifiably, seems to scare us—we don’t want to become addicts and lose control over our own lives. So we retaliate and label them variously as unproductive, unrealistic and brain-rotting (not all fiction/media, of course, but the escapist/guilty pleasure kind). 

Here, then, is the crux of the issue: fiction/media/simulations can be powerful forms of experience, but we constrain that power for fear of it fucking up our experience of the real world. The closest I can get to reconciling this tension is to just accept that the real world and our simulated representations of it both have valid claims to our attention. Though we label some books and movies and TV shows as escapist, they do have part of us in them—it’s just wrapped up in a different perspective and a different form of experience. And that’s kind of cool in its own way: we build these structures and every once in a while they hold us up, maybe when we need it most. Of course there are dangers of becoming too immersed or addicted. But isn’t that true of real life, too?

I don’t mean to be an apologist for lying on your bed and being lazy. I just want to suggest that what we think of as ‘escapism’ isn’t only a sedative for the masses. Instead, I think there’s a real place for escapism as a stimulant, exposing us to feelings and experiences that become inextricably linked with how we move through the rest of life.

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