On Genre, Escapism, and Modern Problems

Another old essay. This one’s actually rather important, if not terribly good.

Simon Pegg was recently quoted discussing genre fiction and the infantilization of society (radiotimes). He gave a more nuanced discussion on his own blog which I think is good fodder for discussion (Simonpegg.net).

The original quotes from radiotimes end up making Pegg complaining about adults enjoying what was once exclusively children’s literature – watching movies with superheroes, space ships, and monsters. This is radically different, he says, from the cinema that came before which was caught up in the amoral complexity of the real world, citing movies such as Taxi, The Godfather, and Bonnie and Clyde. Spectacle now takes us away from real world issues.

His own more nuanced blog isn’t nearly so black and white. He posits a couple of basic questions that are important:

1) Is genre a manifestation of extended adolescence? Does it perpetuate it? Is this a problem?

2) Does genre blind us from the real problems of the world? Does it allow these problems to be discussed in a “commercially viable” fashion?

He is not, necessarily, putting these forward as critiques. Rather, they are calls to self-reflection. I get a sense that this whole issue is really Pegg discussing out loud his own thoughts, thoughts which have not yet come to any firm conclusion. On this matter, I find myself in a similar position.

Genre and Escapism

The question of extended adolescence is one that has been attacked from a variety of angles. It pops up in the social commentary every few months. It is especially poignant in the world of masculine identity (Art of Manliness) and discussion of sexual relations are influenced by it (Wall Street Journal). It’s the topic for the majority of our slapstick today (see Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson) and is the catalyst for a slew of television shows (From Friends in the 90s to Entourage today). It’s difficult, I would say impossible, to say that we are not experiencing a unique event in history – the majority of our young men are arrested in their development to some extent.

This situation has a number of negative fallouts – both sociological, with the question of marriage and family, and theoretical. It is the theoretical issue that Pegg is seeking to have us look at. This extended adolescence appears to infantilize one’s ability to deal with important questions of the day.

What does genre have to do with this? In reality, this is not a new question, though its answers are more wide-reaching today. In Tolkien’s “On Fairy Stories”, the author of the Lord of the Rings directly asked whether fairy stories were simply escapist. His answer, summed up rather hastily, is that they were escapist, but that was fine. A prisoner in a vale of tears should be able to dream of freedom. This was contrasted with the escapism of the deserter, who sought to dream only of irresponsibility.

Today, we have to ask if the escapism of the deserter has overtaken the escapism of the prisoner. It’s at this point where Pegg’s second question comes into play – does genre fiction ultimately blind us to the important matters of the day. If our escapism is one of desertion, then yes it does. If it is one of the prisoner, then no it doesn’t.

It’s not a pure either-or. Throughout the culture, we clearly have those who are deserting the problems of the day by their escapism – escapism not only into genre, but into gossip, celebrity worship, sports obsessions, and the like. We also see those who use these as avenues of trying to tear down the prison – celebrity and athletic endorsement of charity, space tales with prophetic warning, and fantasy tales exploring the horrors and hopes of man. Even within an individual, the two forms of escapism war – one day, you may be moved to dwell on thoughts of sacrifice and martyrdom by a vehicular combat film, while the next, you are binge watching Agents of Shield just to pass the time.

I would contend that this is not only the purview of genre. Once can use anything as a form of escapism – philosophy, cooking, history, gardening, art, music, theology… The question is whether this is an escapism which seeks to face and aid in the overcoming of one’s problems (and ultimately transfigure on into one’s own glory) or one which seeks to ignore these problems (and ultimately infantilize and even corrupt oneself).

The Modern Problems and Spectacle

Where I differ some with Pegg is the question of modern problems. He is quick to point out the usual modern bugbears – inequality in its social, sexual, and racial form. These are problems (and don’t go pointing the Marxist or SJW finger at me for saying so, go read the popes), but there are deeper ones. We’ve lived in the throes of post-modernism for so long that we no longer are able to answer basic the basic questions – “Who am I? Where have I come from and where am I going? Why is there evil? What is there after this life?” (Fides et Ratio 1) These did not used to be highfalutin philosophical questions. Their answers used to be easily given if not rigorously understood. Today, they are simply ignored.

This is where I think genre fiction can really aid us. With its emphasis on the archetypical, on the larger than life, and even on spectacle, genre fiction is able to force us to ask these questions. Is it no wonder that religion in all its forms is a major source for fantastic fiction in topic, imagery, and setting? It is religio-mythological texts which first and primarily aids man in forming the questions and grasping their answers – The Pentateuch and the Histories of the Bible, The Bhagavadgita, the Gospels, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, the Romances of Arthur and Charlemagne, the Norse Eddas, the Lives of the Saints. Today’s Comic Books and Science Fiction are simply the modern mythology we have built to ask these questions (that they are divorced from our own history in a way the prior mythologies were not is a point of fascination and concern).

Genre fiction doesn’t always have direct responses to current problems (though far too many say it needs to do so more and more). But it is, at its best, a confrontation with eternal problems, the answers to which are our only guide to a lasting solution.

This is not to say that false answers are absent from genre. One sees in certain extremes of Grimdark Fantasy or Horror an exaltation in nihilism. One also sees Nietzschean qualities to superheroes or transhumanist aspects to Science Fiction. However, it should be pointed out that these are still confronting the question in a fashion that is easily accessible and infectious. That there error is similarly easily accessible and infectious is, I contend, another problem entirely (and one touching on questions of censorship).

In this way, genre is escapism, escapism from the apathy we’ve built into our own system and an effort to bring meaning and beauty crashing back into the world. That far too many use it as a way to just anaesthetize themself, well… Any comments on that can be similarly applied to sports, learning, or really any hobby. It’s far more a human problem than it is a media problem.

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About Tomas

Catholic. Texan. Philistine. Teacher.
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