Damien Walter, columnist for The Guardian, wrote a very interesting article on fantasy and escapism for aeonmagazine.com. Here are a few teasers:
The only people who hate escapism are jailers, said the essayist and Narnia author C S Lewis. A generation later, the fantasy writer Michael Moorcock revised the quip: jailers love escapism — it’s escape they can’t stand. Today, in the early years of the 21st century, escapism — the act of withdrawing from the pressures of the real world into fantasy worlds — has taken on a scale and scope quite beyond anything Lewis might have envisioned. I am a writer and critic of fantasy, and for most of my life I have been an escapist. Born in 1977, the year in which Star Wars brought cinematic escapism to new heights, I have seen TV screens grow from blurry analogue boxes to high-definition wide-screens the size of walls. I played my first video game on a rubber-keyed Sinclair ZX Spectrum and have followed the upgrade path through Mega Drive, PlayStation, Xbox and high-powered gaming PCs that lodged supercomputers inside households across the developed world. I have watched the symbolic language of fantasy — of dragons, androids, magic rings, warp drives, haunted houses, robot uprisings, zombie armageddons and the rest — shift from the guilty pleasure of geeks and outcasts to become the diet of mainstream culture. And I am not alone. I’m emblematic of an entire generation who might, when our history is written, be remembered first and foremost for our exodus into digital fantasy. Is this great escape anything more than idle entertainment — designed to keep us happy in Moorcock’s jail? Or is there, as Lewis believed, a higher purpose to our fantastical flights?
As the technology of escape continues to accelerate, we’ve begun to see an eruption of fantasy into reality. The augmented reality of Google Glass, and the virtual reality of the games headset Oculus Rift (resurrected by the power of crowd-funding) present the very real possibility that our digital fantasy worlds might soon be blended with our physical world, enhancing but also distorting our sense of reality. When we can replace our own reflection in the mirror with an image of digitally perfected beauty, how will we tolerate any return to the real? Perhaps, in the end, we will find ourselves, not desperate to escape into fantasy, but desperate to escape from fantasy. Or simply unable to tell which is which.
There’s a deep irony in the fact that our rational, secular society, driven by science and technology, is emptying out its churches only to reconstruct them as cinemas. Replacing the ‘good book’ with films about Harry Potter and hunger games; reconstructing the inner worlds of our imagination — once the realm of prayer and ascetic meditation — inside the digital domain of computers: it seems that no matter how hard we try to convince ourselves that reality is only material, we continue to reach for the ideal forms that lie beyond. Are we simply recasting age-old delusions for the modern era?
Do our fantasy worlds, then, help us to escape, not from reality, but from our own limitations? Is it possible that we might bring back from our escapist adventures a renewed sense of our own power and creative potential as human beings? In a world that demands ever more of both, this could the highest function of escapism, and the calling that we should demand of it.