Juvenal referred to it as ‘bread and circuses’, George Orwell characterised its worst excesses as prolefeed, and Victorians despaired of the corrupting influence of the penny dreadfuls. It’s plain to see, then, that our love affair with escapism through entertainment is almost as old as society itself.
Marxists, echoing Juvenal’s and Orwell’s sentiments, fear that focusing on the narratives of fiction – be it classic literature, blockbuster films, or soap operas – would distract the proletariat from their struggle towards revolution. In many ways they’re correct; even now, the politically aware cringe as the country invests more attention in TV talent shows than in the comings and goings of our politicians. But perhaps we overlook a significant point – perhaps these distractions are important precisely because they allow us to escape from our reality.
Times are hard, and they’re hard for almost everyone. Perhaps what we really need is to escape into someone else’s life for a while; to try out a different set of burdens like a different suit of clothes, to look out on the world from behind another pair of eyes, to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.
The shoes may take us across Dartmoor pursuing a gigantic hound, or to Stonehenge with our doomed love, or to the shores of Innsmouth fleeing unthinkable horrors. They may stand on the green grass of the Shire, the cobbles of Edinburgh, the grey earth of Winterfell or the dusty concrete of London Below. But they bear us away from our own lives, our own problems, and permit us to lose ourselves in impossible and fantastic worlds.
We submit to almighty terrors, to wrenching losses, to every twist and machination of vindictive fate, because we know we can close the book and walk away. We can explore our own strength and character without having to experience what Shakespeare called “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to”. Here we test our emotional fortitude, pitching ourselves against blow after blow to examine how well we weather the storm.
We solve mysteries, protect the innocent, play the hero or the villain. Often we don’t decide which we are until the end. We meet soldiers, lovers, wizards, murderers, queens, poets, tyrants, heroes, angels, vampires, monks, prostitutes, revolutionaries, scholars, searchers and seekers, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, children. And in time, inexorably, we begin to care.
We dedicate precious time and space in our minds to these characters. We despair that the word ‘character’ makes them sound so flat, so trivial; to us, they are people. We give them sequels, films, TV shows. We make them real in our heads and then we try to make them real in the world. We share them with our friends, discuss incarnations and iterations – are Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, and John Rebus really so different? Whose face does each of those names conjure up?
We need stories. Like dreams, we use them to explore and make sense of the world. They speak to us about human nature, the subtle dance of interaction and disclosure that takes a lifetime to master. Stories are how we investigate and memorialise our humanity. Stories are what make us human.