The West Australian – 29 April 1939
By ROBERT LYND
I have heard one or two people grumbling lately when they saw newspaper posters announcing the latest score in a Test match or the classified results of football matches.
They seemed to think that the only hope of saving the world was for everybody to cease to take any interest in sport or, indeed, in any other subject except the European situation.
There, I think, they were wrong. I agree that most of us ought to devote a good deal more hard thinking to Europe and its politics than we do; but I doubt whether it would be good for ourselves or for anybody else if we could think of nothing else.
Human beings, however serious they are, need an occasional break from their seriousness. They get such a break, if they are wise, when they sit down to dinner. They get an even more complete break—a break, not only from serious thinking, but from consciousness—when they fall asleep at night.
And it seems to me that the break that is provided by football or films or detective stories is just as necessary to hundreds of thousands of people as the break provided by meals or sleep.
Modern psychologists have invented the word “escapism” and speak contemptuously of games and films and a great deal of literature as “escapist.” I have never been able to understand the objections to escape.
There are, of course, both noble and ignoble forms of escape. There is nothing very creditable about “escaping from one’s responsibilities” or “escaping with a fine.”
On the other hand, escape is the theme of some of the most heroic literature in all languages. What is the “Odyssey” but the story of a series of escapes? And “The Pilgrim’s Progress” is equally so.
How often has one’s pulse quickened on reading the stories of escaping prisoners in war-time! Mr. Winston Churchill in his day was a good escaper, and we all think the better of him for it.
THOSE who dislike football and films and “escapist” literature would probably reply that they object to escape only when it means an escape from seriousness into frivolity or from reality into fantasy.
But who is going to tell us what reality is? Is the child reading “Jack the Giant-Killer” or “Cinderella,” escaping into a world less real than its own nursery, or is it escaping into a larger world equally real—a world in which the reality of courage and goodness and beauty come enchantingly to life? I think the latter.
Probably nearly everything would be called “escapist” by somebody. I have heard a man who does not believe in religion describe religion as “escapist.” The Christian would probably reply that the Christian religion had always been professedly “escapist,” the escape here being an escape from a lower reality into a higher, from a lesser self Into a larger self.
In the same way, it seems to me, all the arts could be either attacked or defended as “escapist,” according to whether we believe that they provide an escape from reality or an escape into reality. Listening to Schnabel playing a Beethoven sonata would provide many people, I imagine, with both forms of escape.
It is, however, the cheapest kinds of music and literature—dance music and sentimental love stories and detective stories—that are condemned in the main by the enemies of escape. And it must be admitted that it would be hard to prove that one is escaping into reality while reading a detective story, especially a detective story that is purely sensational—the kind that I happen to like best.
Reading a book of this kind is sheer self-indulgence, like drinking a glass of wine or smoking a cigarette. It enables us to escape chiefly from serious thought and the routine of the day.
We cannot defend it on the same ground on which we could defend the reading of Shakespeare and Dickens. The sensational story is no more touched with the holy spirit of imagination—that revealer of reality—than a crossword puzzle is. If we read nothing else our lives would be as frivolous as an all-time Bridge-player’s—if you can call an all-time Bridge-player’s life frivolous.
Even so, I think that the sensational story may, like Bridge, be useful in giving us that occasional break from the day’s work and the day’s serious thinking which is as refreshing as a holiday.
WE need not only summer holidays and week-end holidays; we need holiday hours every day of our lives—those periods of relaxation in which we talk to our friends and play cards or backgammon or some still less serious game.
After all, Milton was the most serious poet in the English language and yet it was he who most nobly glorified the spirit of relaxation. The Puritan realised the essential part relaxation plays in man’s life as clearly as any Cavalier, as we see in his sonnet to Cyriack Skinner, in which he summons his friend to merrymaking:
Today deep thoughts resolve with me
In mirth, that after no repenting
Let Euclid rest and Archimedes
And what the Swede intend and
what the French.
And the sonnet, never too hackneyed for quotation, ends with a statement of the need for relaxation as well as for the pursuit of wisdom:—
To measure life, learn thou betimes,
Toward solid good what leads the
For other things mild Heav’n a time
And disapproves that care, though
wise in show,
That with superfluous burden loads
And when God sends a cheerful hour,
With Milton to support them, then, the football-fans, the film-fans, and the detective-story-fans can go on with their amusements with an easy conscience. The old proverb about “all work and no play” is as true today as when it was first invented.
There are only two sorts of escape that are to be condemned—escape into wholetime self-indulgence and escape into blinkers. The objection to the first of these is obvious and has been stated by all moralists.
The second sort of escape—escape into blinkers—is more dangerous, because many well-meaning people innocently practise it. They blind themselves to facts with assurances that “all is well,” and “prosperity is round the corner,” and so forth. It was blindness like this that prevented statesmen from grappling with the unemployment problem and helped to destroy the collective security of the free nations.
Apart from these two sorts of escape, however, I hold that escapism makes for sanity. If Herr Hitler and Signor Mussolini could escape from politics more often into the relaxations of the ordinary man, who can doubt that we should soon have a happier Europe?
Fortunately, the world is full of escapists, and it is to them, not to Herr Hitler and Signor Mussolini, that the future will belong.