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Monday, September 15, 2008

On being consolatory

"Jailers love escapism. What they hate is escape" -- Michael Moorcock (as quoted by China Mieville)

The problem with consolatory, or escapist, fiction is that by allowing people to experience an imagined, vicarious escape from the problems of the real world, it dulls their need for more permanent solutions to those problems.

This is also true of massage therapy. By not addressing the root social causes of lower back pain -- stress caused ultimately by injustice, an economic system which inevitably produces bad office chairs, etc. -- massage merely postpones fundamental answers to these issues. Clearly, people with sore backs would be more motivated to changes to society, and more able to think clearly about them.


Posted by benrosen at September 15, 2008 10:05 AM | Up to blog

Well, I teach an essay by Richard Wright, I think it is, that talks about religion and blacks in America, basically making this point. He writes as someone who used to be a preacher, and who became disgusted by the corruption behind the scenes, as well as more aware of the consolatory function of religion. My students at Roosevelt -- mostly black, mostly religious -- liked the essay a lot.

Posted by: Mary Anne Mohanraj at September 15, 2008 01:51 PM

Wait--I'm reading this as Ben taking the piss out of China and Sir Grumpsalot a little bit.

Posted by: Christopher at September 15, 2008 02:10 PM

I read Mary Anne's comment as getting that I'm taking the piss, and taking Moorcock & Mieville's side of the argument, using Wright as an example.

Mary Anne, so do you think it applies to massage as well? If not, what puts preachin' and writing in one category, and backrubs in another?

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at September 15, 2008 02:57 PM

I don't think these two are particularly comparable. Ask "why did you do that?" to the people in your examples who spent time reading 'escapist fiction' vs. getting a massage.

The first person will answer the question with something like "because it's fun" and the second with something like "because my back hurt". Massages are seen as designed to solve a problem, and fiction isn't seen that way, at least not primarily.

You can argue about whether massage is the best, or longest-term, cure, but at least it grapples with problems. I don't think readers consider their reading as an attempt to cure any problems. [Anticipatory addendum: I don't think "it solves the problem of boredom" is an acceptable counter to this, because 'the problem of boredom' could be the motivation for pretty much anything we do.] Mieville's beef with escapism isn't that it doesn't *get to the real problem*, but that it doesn't tackle *any* problem at all. So instead of your massage analogy, I'd suggest something like, "This is also true of watching professional football. By providing a distraction from the major social problems around us, it allows them to go unprotested."

Finally (sorry for the wordiness!), re Mary Anne's point, I'll just say that some religions are closer to the opium end of the spectrum, and others to the community-organizing end.

Posted by: Jim Moskowitz at September 15, 2008 05:24 PM

Interesting distinction, Jim. However I think I disagree with your reading of Mieville. Mieville is all for fun (his books are fun). Insofar as reading is pure pleasure, I think he's all for it. In the article I linked to he praises the Peter Jackson movies on the grounds that they provide pleasure. He loves playing D&D (and I doubt he finds D&D all that revolutionary). I find it quite hard to believe he would censure an activity for being purely leisure.

On the contrary, I think what he objects to is the illusion that problems are being solved -- or even that a real response to them is being envisioned. If, confronted with the brutality of capitalism in 1950s England, your response to it -- the thing that allows you to banish your unhappiness about it -- is closing your eyes and reveling in the dream, via Tolkein, of a feudalism-lite, morally simple, precapitalist utopia -- then I think what Mieville would say is wrong with that is not that you are having fun per se, but that you are alleviating the specific pain of social malaise by an imagined -- rather than a real -- response; and indeed by a falsely imagined one.

The reader may not be conscious that immersing themselves in a High Fantasy world in which social prejudices have objective reality and Good triumphs over Evil is a palliative response to social problems (Mieville would say: to the social problems of capitalism). But that doesn't mean that it isn't one.

So I think Mieville's claim is more sophisticated than "anything fun is a distraction from social progress, quit clowning around and get to work."

You are a wage slave disrespected by the Man and get depressed: you read Tolkein and feel better. You have a backache from the same sources of stress: you get a massage and you feel better. My response to Mieville: is the former really illusory in a way that the latter is not? And if it isn't, where does this logic lead us?

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at September 15, 2008 05:50 PM

After the revolution we won't have to sit in bad office chairs.

(And I think Mr. Moskowitz has a point.)

Posted by: David Moles at September 15, 2008 06:00 PM

After the revolution we won't have to sit in bad office chairs.

Of course not. That is why massage therapists are standing in the way... right?

And I think Mr. Moskowitz has a point.

What I'm asking is, why are football and reading in one category and massage in another? You're saying you agree that the phenomenological experience of the user feeling like something is "for fun" vs "to fix" is decisive?

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at September 15, 2008 06:16 PM

Although a good massage therapist would probably say that you shouldn't rely solely on massage; you should replace your office chair, adjust your work habits, get more exercise, etc. Perhaps what China is saying (in the terms of this metaphor) is, as a massage therapist, Tolkien never gives any of that other advice.

Posted by: Ted at September 15, 2008 09:52 PM

as a massage therapist, Tolkien never gives any of that other advice.

Relvant to this discussion, Tolkien's friend Lewis did give quite a bit of therapeutic, preventative, and transformative advice to go along with his massages, often delivered in a soothing voice whilst soothing the sufferer's immediate pains. Is this mere escapism or Moorcock-Mieville-ian incitement to escape? (...to be purposefully obtuse.)

I seem to recall that the first three of Le Guin's Earthsea books drew particular fire from Mieville on the consolatory charge. True, the underpinning crisis of the three books is the absence of an anointed king -- and yet, reading them at a young age inclined me less towards blind adulation of neo-fudalism and more towards Le Guin's own flavor of anarchic responsibility and a distinctly constraining attitude towards power.

Posted by: Dan Percival at September 15, 2008 10:36 PM

Ben, you're aware --

-- before I go any further, let me note that I assume that your purpose in asking these rhetorical questions is to make the case against either Moorcock's indictment of escapism or Miéville's argument that Tolkien's fiction is not emancipatory, via reductio ad absurdum.If your purpose was in fact to get advice on what to do about your scoliosis, I apologize in advance --

-- aware that you're writing from a position of considerable privilege here, as someone who

  • has lived for many years with chronic but non-debilitating back pain, and
  • has for many years done quite well out of late capitalism? :)

I think a good socialist would say that by comparing the latter condition to the former you're trivializing the burden of capitalism. (If the first analogy that had occurred to you was, say, Excedrin for the headache associated with diabetic hyperglycemia, or morphine for penetrating abdominal trauma, would you even have made this post?)

I think the parallel you've constructed is flawed, for reasons which I will now enumerate. (And when I say "enumerate," I mean enumerate.). In mind-numbing detail. (And when I say "mind-numbing," I mean mind-numbing.)

You seem to be arguing, in your original post, that following Moorcock's logic one must conclude that either:

  1. the massage and the escapism are both palliative treatments for surface symptoms of a serious deeper condition that calls for more serious treatment, or
  2. the massage and the escapism are both distractions that focus us on epiphenomena rather than underlying causes.

In asking whether the user's phenomenological experience is decisive (or rather, asserting that it isn't, in the form of a rhetorical question) you seem to be arguing that there's no difference between (1) and (2).

I would say there may be no difference between (1) and (2), as far as that goes, but

  1. If we look at the actual operation of massage in relation to lower back pain, in my experience (which admittedly may be more limited than yours), we generally find
    1. that the underlying cause is unknown, and massage is believed by practitioner and patient alike to be as good a treatment as any; or
    2. that the underlying cause is known, and massage is either:
      1. again believed to be as good a treatment as any,
      2. used in conjunction with other treatments, or
      3. used with the goal of putting off the necessity for other treatments as long as possible.
  2. In that none of these -- as far as the participants are concerned -- involves ignoring a deeper condition to focus on surface symptoms, this actual situation corresponds to neither (1) nor (2). (To the extent that, for some patients, the last -- putting off other treatment -- does, one could fairly argue that it is, in fact, harmful.)
  3. By comparison, escapist fiction, pretty much by definition, requires both practitioner and patient to ignore underlying causes. This refusal may range from simple failure to inquire whether such causes exist, to deliberate refusal to look into what they might be.
  4. This is the distinction between treatment and distraction -- in "treatment," all participants are making a good-faith effort to solve the problem as they know it. In "distraction," some participants are making an effort to ignore the problem, while others -- at least in some cases -- may even be making a bad-faith effort to obscure the problem.
  5. To claim that this -- "distraction," that is -- is what is actually going on in the massage case, one has to take the point of view of an omniscient narrator who knows that what the participants believe is wrongheaded. (Perhaps they're suffering from false consciousness.)
  6. However, you do not in fact know this; you've merely made a rhetorical leap from lower back pain to economic injustice. This is not logically justified, except as a parody of revolutionary leftist thinking. (I would be quite surprised if you were to claim that you actually believed it. As parody, it falls flat for me, being as I'm quite sure the thinking of Messrs. Moorcock and Miéville on the subject is not that unsophisticated.)
  7. By contrast, Miéville has no such rhetorical leap to make. He is not arguing that escapists are incorrect (or dishonest) in their assessment of the causes of real-world problems, or in their assessment of how to address those causes. He is calling them on their failure to make any such assessment. This can be done perfectly well in third person limited.
Posted by: David Moles at September 16, 2008 11:16 AM

Nice, Ben, attack both my fields of endeavor at once. What did I ever to do you?

Posted by: Karen at September 16, 2008 02:24 PM

An excellent enumeration, Mr. Moles.

Your assumption is correct that I was indeed critiquing critiques of escapism -- or at least trying to pose provocative questions about them? -- rather than seeking advice on back pain. I will say however that, despite using them as examples, I didn't mean to limit "consolatory fiction" to "Tolkein", nor "problems of society" to "late capitalism". In answer to Dan, I think it's clear Lewis is not, on his own terms, consolatory, at least if you read his fiction (despite his protestations) as missionary; Only the "omniscient narrator who knows he's right" that you address, can know that it is Lewis's extratextual solution which is consolatory fantasy while Mieville's is practical wisdom. The question I wanted to address isn't whether the "out of the book" solution an author might advise is "find Jesus", "man the barricades", or "make iterative, cautious moves in what seems to be the correct direction"... it's what the value of the "in-book solution", the value of the experience of the book itself, can be.

Massage analogy: I think the case I was thinking of is 1 -> 2 -> 3, i.e. "used with the goal of putting off the necessity for other treatments as long as possible." That is, I was considering a case where massage is palliative; it is not going to correct underlying problems.

And the question is whether, if this is a good, escapist -- or even consolatory -- fiction cannot provide the same good.

The analogies "excedrin for diabetic diabetic hyperglycemia, or morphine for penetrating abdominal trauma" change the analogy in two directions: 1) they make the suffering more severe, which I accept is accurate for most people's experience of the world we live in today; and 2) they make the radical cure required a no-brainer which it is criminal to delay or distract from. Probably Mieville considers revolution an obviously necessary radical treatment for an easily diagnosable condition. Does Moorcock?

I think lots of people make the argument against escapism without such certainties; I think there's a case for an analogy to some back pain situation in which the alternative to palliative treatment is risky surgery driven by guesswork.

I think the treatment/distraction line is nowhere near as binary as you are making it. If the symptom is pain, and you have something which relieves the pain, is that treatment or distraction?

I also wonder whether, in both massage and entertainment fiction, there is a nonpalliative effect, in that simply interrupting pain and stress now reduces future pain and stress: people feeling better make better decisions.

You combine into one category "making an effort to ignore the problem" and "making a bad-faith effort to obscure the problem". For me this is, however, a crucial distinction. I actually agree with a lot of Mieville's critique of Tolkein, because I agree that much of Tolkein is a bad-faith lie. And a bad-faith lie -- telling someone aspirin will cure their appendicitis -- cannot be justified. While helping someone ignore their pain can, in and of itself. It might be better if you also addressed underlying problems and gave them fundamental solutions; but failing that, just helping feel better helps.

What I'm criticizing, I guess, is not the whole of Mieville's argument, but the snappy quote "jailers love escapism." That's a different thing than saying "jailers love lies that confuse prisoners". I believe the latter; I don't believe the former. Whether jailers love escapism has entirely to do with what prisoners do with their good mood after they put the book down; but more importantly, prisoners deserve escapism, in addition to escape, and it seems to me in general one should assume that sating the former need will not dull their thirst for the latter.

In fact escapist, or even consolatory, fiction seems to me simply like massage or omelettes or sudoku books or buckets of green paint -- a tool, a useful product, capable like anything else of abuse and no solution to many of life's miseries, but in the right context, a salvation.

What Emma Goldman says about dance, put me down as saying about the distractions and entertainments of literature.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at September 16, 2008 03:33 PM

I was thinking of you, Karen!

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at September 16, 2008 03:35 PM

Yeah Karen, Ben's trying to help you! Only by burning your village down can he save it. Anything less would be a mere palliative.

Posted by: Ted at September 16, 2008 09:12 PM

If I can't engage your parasympathetic autonomic nervous system, I don't want to be part of your revolution.

Posted by: Karen at September 16, 2008 10:55 PM

I think there's a case for an analogy to some back pain situation in which the alternative to palliative treatment is risky surgery driven by guesswork.

Possibly, but it seems like a straw-man argument. Escapism is not being offered (except by you) as the remedy with the best ratio of short-term effectiveness to risk; it is merely the only remedy offered. If you want to make a pro-escapism case you can do so, but don't set up Moorcock and Miéville in false opposition to an argument that's not the one they were opposing.

[P]risoners deserve escapism, in addition to escape...

Neither of these strikes me as a given, but if we go too deeply into that we may have to rehash all of Discipline and Punish.

...and it seems to me in general one should assume that sating the former need will not dull their thirst for the latter.

It doesn't seem so to me, but perhaps you're defining "escapism" and "escape" such that they are not actually related to one another?

Posted by: David Moles at September 17, 2008 05:39 PM

At least with the religious argument, there was in fact a direct correlation in Wright's argument -- that blacks of his time were told that since they would get joy unending in heaven, that what happened on this earth essentially didn't matter -- that they should bow their heads, submit, and wait patiently for their heavenly reward. And he saw many many people, himself included for quite a while, seduced into quiet endurance of all manner of ills by that promise.

So yes, escapism did make it much less likely that they would work towards actual escape.

Posted by: Mary Anne Mohanraj at September 17, 2008 10:59 PM

As for massage -- I think sometimes, in skilled hands, massage can actually directly fix the problem.

And sometimes it provides temporary relief which may or may not allow the sufferer to avoid seeking further treatment. So, you know, it depends. I suppose it can have a consolatory function at times, which may contribute to continued damage. I'm not sure how often that comes up. But then, I rarely get professional massages, because I tend to feel really ill afterwards.

Posted by: Mary Anne Mohanraj at September 17, 2008 11:02 PM

If you can't fix the world so it fits better, or at least, you can't tell if anything you're doing is helping, then what else is there but escapist fiction and massages? It isn't an illusion to feel that one has "done something" by easing the pain of existence for a short while. By doing something pleasant, you have refilled the cup of vitality, you have given yourself a little more oomph to draw from, so that should you happen upon a moment where you actually do have the power to solve some hideous problem, you will be well equipped to act.
Furthermore, escapist fiction may supply you with an insight or great idea. A massage can do likewise. If you're all knotted up, your thoughts are bound to be knotted up.
Religion is not equivalent to escapist fiction or massages. When people had no chance of winning, religion made the situation bearable, but so did art, sex, love, and other artifacts. The problem with religion is that it is far too likely that it will devolve from transcendence to dishonesty. Fiction merely explores possibilities. Massages relax. Religion of the kind that Wright abhorred requires that you stop using your powers of perception and thought.
It's true that we have invented lots of ways to feel as if we're doing something when we really aren't. That's because we're puny, and our effects are mostly unknowable, or at least unfathomable, and very often pitifully inadequate. So all we have, really, is consolations. Everything else is provisional.

Posted by: Donna Munro at March 21, 2009 01:35 AM

2014-me thinks David was right in this argument.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at October 20, 2014 03:23 PM
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