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The Literature of Escapism: Part 2

There is nothing more to be said or to be done tonight, so hand me over my violin and let us try to forget for half an hour the miserable weather and the still more miserable ways of our fellowmen.”

The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘escapism’ as “the tendency to seek distraction from reality by engaging in entertainment or fantasy.”  The flight from the drudgery of everyday existence was considered in the first post in this series, which explored the ability of fantasy literature to act as the vehicle for our excursions into the whimsy of the mind.  But this is not, of course, the only way we seek to escape from the monotony of modern life, and the industry that benefits most from our escapist tendencies is not fantasy literature (although if you include film and television this might upset the balance slightly) but tourism.  We get tired of routine – “métro boulot dodo” – so we channel our anxiety into thoughts of removing ourselves physically from our environment, albeit temporarily, and thanks to advances in modern transport and package holiday deals we can do exactly that.  Which is why images such as the one below have taken such a prominent place in the collective subconscious.

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By the mid-1990s mass tourism to South East Asia in particular had become such a well-recognised phenomenon that Alex Garland wrote a book about it.  The Beach is a comment on the human drive to escape from everything and everyone and to find perfection in a real place, with the moral of the story being that for various reasons this real place is just another fantasy, in part because of what is apparently known in the industry as the “double bind” paradox; the fact that a tourist cannot completely escape to an untouched paradise because he must take himself on the trip, thus contaminating whatever he finds with his own tourist presence.  Of course, it doesn’t help if as well as cameras and swimming trunks the tourist also brings with him an addiction to video games (the clear sign of a born fantasist), some unrequited lust and an underlying propensity to murder his fellow man in high-pressure situations.  What Garland manages to convey effectively, however, is the fact that for many people perfection is never good enough: after spending a while in paradise, Richard, the protagonist, becomes listless and starts fantasising in a darker direction:

It was at that point I realized my mistake, because what I registered, whilst entertaining this optimistic thought, was disappointment.  The strange truth was that I didn’t want them to leave.  Neither, as the root of my frustration, did I want them to stay put.  And that left only one possibility: The worst-case scenario was the best-case scenario.  I wanted them to come.”

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Another novel that takes mass tourism to Thailand as one of its central themes is Michel Houellebecq’s Platform.  The protagonist, Michel, is aware of the tourism double bind and is untroubled by it, one passage of the novel even refers to Garland’s novel – “I vaguely remembered the book, which tells the story of a bunch of backpackers in search of an unspoiled island” – Michel is not a fantasist and is comfortable with the reality of his status as a tourist.  For Michel, paradise is sex, and it is a paradise that he shares for much of the novel with his girlfriend Valérie.  Not being an ambitious fantasist like Richard, however, he is content to inhabit his earthly paradise for as long as possible, until it is ultimately shattered by the external forces of religious fanaticism, arguably the most disturbing escapism of all.  Platform is a novel that confronts this and all kinds of escapism and argues for an existentialist approach to life, that is, an approach that makes the most of the here and now without concerning itself too much with moralism or the hereafter.  In fact, it’s obvious that in many ways Michel is a reinterpretation of Camus’ character Meursault from L’Étranger, albeit remodelled for the present day.  Both share an unbridled enthusiasm for sex, a marked disregard for the opinion of others and a profound revulsion for organised religion.  However, noting L’Étranger’s success in shocking a generation of largely Catholic French men and women in the 1940s, Houellebecq adopts the same tactic, but upgraded for the twenty-first century.  As Julian Barnes has noted in an essay from his collection Through the Window, Houellebecq must slap harder, and slap harder he does:

The problem with Muslims, he told me, was that the paradise promised by the prophet already existed here on earth: there were places on earth where young, available, lascivious girls danced for the pleasure of men, where one could become drunk on nectar and listen to celestial music; there were about twenty of them within five hundred metres of our hotel.”

 The Editors

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