Practicing the Ecstatic: On the Value of Escapist Fiction in the Internet Age
By Tim Weed •
Ours is an age of online media. We imbibe great doses of it through our laptops and smartphones and large-screen TVs. With the help of algorithmically informed techniques that are addictive and sometimes close to irresistible, it has insinuated itself into the lives of nearly everyone on the planet, where it threatens to homogenize diverse human societies into a single mega-culture of generic pop commercialism. This was the case before the pandemic forced us all to isolate ourselves for extended periods of time. No doubt it’s even more so now.
The internet has its uses—social, political, and economic—but at best it provides only a watered-down version of the lived human experience. This is an issue for us all, but especially for novelists, whose job it is to alchemize that experience into narratives that invite readers on journeys into deeper and altogether more original worlds of meaning. How can we alchemize lived experience when so much of it seems to be unfolding online? How can we create original worlds of meaning with such uniformity of thinking—memes, headlines, whatever topics of conversation happen to be trending right now—continually blasted into our consciousnesses and that of millions of our fellow humans around the globe?
Jung wrote in Symbols of Transformation: “Individual consciousness is only the flower and the fruit of a season, sprung from the perennial rhizome beneath the earth.” As a novelist, what I take from this metaphor is that the threads that connect us are a great deal more profound than is commonly assumed. If you want something you’ve written to resonate with other human beings, in other words, the truest inspiration may be found not out in the wider culture, but deep within ourselves.
As part of a parallel career in international education I have for more than two decades been traveling regularly to Cuba. My most recent trip was in January, 2020, which feels like a hundred years ago now. In a sense, the whole island has been trapped within a singular historical moment since January, 1959. Through no fault of their own that moment has been difficult for many Cubans to transcend, and yet they manage it, often in ways that are both instructive and deeply inspiring.
In Havana, a visitor naturally takes in a great deal of live music and dance. The thing that I’ve always found striking about it, besides how across-the-board accomplished it is, is the look of pure transportation on the faces of the artists once the rehearsal or performance gets underway. The word that comes to mind to describe this temporary state of being is “ecstasy,” rooted in the ancient Greek ek-stasis, meaning “to be or stand outside of oneself, a removal to elsewhere,” as in a dream or a trance. The phenomenon of ecstatic transport isn’t limited to Cuba, of course, although that is where I’ve noticed it most, in part because it is a culture that prioritizes artistic mastery. Many Cuban artists practice with particular intensity, often in extended sessions six or seven days a week.
Still, you can observe the same thing animating people all over the world, not only humanity’s legions of hardworking performance artists but anyone who takes pride in their work, from carpenters to athletes to chefs. Ecstasy is that feeling of losing yourself in something; of being “in the zone.” And for the millions of human beings who now find themselves trapped indoors—and/or inside the narrow headspace that is a byproduct of our immersion in online media—ecstasy may well be a life-saving concept.
Novel-writing is another kind of work that demands a sustained and often grueling daily practice. While scribbling or typing is less explicitly physical than dance or carpentry, ecstatic transportation is a defining characteristic of fiction as an art form. After all, one of the central challenges of the novelist is to deploy well-chosen details to “stun” the mind of the willing reader into a complete immersion in the fictional trance or dream. While this applies in some degree to all successful fiction, it is especially crucial in escapist fiction, regardless of its designated publishing genre, where the goal is to launch the reader as far out of their daily headspace as possible.
J.R.R. Tolkien, for example, used ecstatic writing to dislodge his readers from the grip of their own cultural moment and into the vivid story-world of Middle Earth over the course of his two magnificent escapist quest narratives, The Hobbit (1937), and Lord of the Rings (1954). Tolkien was as good as any novelist who ever lived at painting views and prospects. His place descriptions, however, from the pastoral Shire to the depths of Mirkwood Forest and the barren cliffs and winding stone staircases of Mordor, are not pretty postcards copied from a travel journal. They are ecstatic living landscapes. The same can be said of more recent escapist novels as well, such as Madeline Miller’s masterful novel of ancient Greek mythology, Circe (2018):
“Before us, the huge limestone stairs wavered in the heat. Men streamed past us, servants and nobles alike, their shoulders sun-darkened and bare. Above, the palace of mighty Knossos glowed on its hill like a hive.”
Or this scene, from Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black (2018):
“At the water’s edge a small rowboat lay tilted deep in the sand, and I watched from a distance as two figures lumbered awkwardly with it, the woman attempting to guide the oars with a bandaged hand while the other . . . pushed against its side, trying to right it. Behind them the sea heaved in bright waves, the foam white and radiant.”
Reading Edugyan and Miller and Tolkien, we see that it’s not just the vividly described setting but the psychologically slanted experience of that setting that facilitates the ecstatic leap. Fiction’s unique strength as a narrative art form—and one major reason it will never be entirely supplanted by film or virtual reality—is that it allows a reader the unique vantage point of dwelling deep within an alien consciousness. In escapist fiction, the setting itself is also alien, or at least defamiliarized to the point where a reader feels they have been transported not only into a consciousness not their own, but into a new and altogether strange world.
The term “escapist” is often meant pejoratively, as a synonym for “slight” or “non-serious,” but that’s not at all the sense in which I intend to use it here. The central quality of the best escapist fiction in any genre is to provide a trance-like reading experience that is deeper, more timeless, and more myth-like than quotidian experience. In my opinion this immersive quality is tied to escapist fiction’s power in addressing some of the thorniest contemporary moral problems. Tolkien, who was a lieutenant in World War I and crafted most of his fiction in the period spanning the rise of Nazism and the first use of the atomic bomb, gave readers an unforgettable story of a world in danger of being overcome by the banality of evil and a harrowing illustration of the way even the well-intentioned can be fatally corrupted by power. Miller’s Circe is an immersive feminist revision of a myth that is one of the cornerstones of patriarchal western culture. And Edugyan’s Washington Black, a thrilling adventure story, explores the indelible stain of slavery and the ways in which well-meaning whites have often been racism’s most effective enablers.
The best escapist fiction offers us the chance to transcend the received wisdom and stale debates of online media culture. Escapist novels are ecstatic novels, which is another way of saying that they are novels that tap directly into Jung’s mycelial network of the collective unconscious. In effect, they are the threads of a contemporary mythology, part of a fabric of significance freshly woven for a species badly in need of it.
A daily practice of writing is for me a psychological necessity. On good days, I lose myself in the creative act. It feels like ecstatic transportation, though attenuated, with frequent stops to check a word, fix a sentence, or jot down some notes about where the story is telling me it wants to go next. What novel-writing lacks in intensity, however, it more than makes up for in duration. Every day for months or even years at a time, a novel-in-progress constitutes a private world that I have a daily pass to revisit. Novel reading, on the other hand, doesn’t take nearly as long, and if the author has done well, it has the potential to be a great deal more immersive.
No matter how many people we surround ourselves with, we are always in some very real sense alone. But as anyone who’s ever lost themselves in a good story knows, fiction can be a powerful antidote to loneliness, connecting human spirits across otherwise insurmountable gaps in time, space, and cultural background. This special quality of made-up stories strikes me as more crucial than ever just now, when the tribalism and narrow-bandwidth consciousness encouraged by online living can feel like a trap. Freeing ourselves is difficult—at times it may seem nearly impossible—yet it is a goal at least vaguely shared by millions at this juncture in human history. In the end, the battle is not external but internal. It must be fought not on the societal level, but one human at a time. And some of the best weapons we have are ecstatic practices, such as finding work and play that fully absorb us, and giving ourselves permission, at least once in a while, to get lost in the distant world of an escapist novel.
TIM WEED’s short fiction collection, A Field Guide to Murder & Fly Fishing, made the 2018 Eric Hoffer Book Award Grand Prize Shortlist. His novel, Will Poole’s Island, was named to Bank Street College of Education’s list of the Best Books of the Year, and has new paperback and audio editions coming in September 2020. Tim is the winner of a Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Award and his writing has appeared in Literary Hub, The Millions, CRAFT, The Writer’s Chronicle, Fiction Writers Review, and many others. He’s on the core faculty of the Newport MFA in Creative Writing and is the co-founder of the Cuba Writers Program.