For my final dissertation in A-level English, I wrote about disillusionment. (Specifically in The Bell Jar, as Plath is, in my opinion, the queen of this theme) My argument was as follows: love, happiness, and multiple good feelings are associated with naivete, innocence, and childish bliss, and protagonists eventually realise this and come crashing down into a sobering sense of reality. They wake up more aware and correctly perceive the world for what it really is: meaningless, mundane, and dull. The language of science proceeds, and emotion seeps out of the pages. The fictional worlds become uglier, and, more importantly, much more like our own.
This narrative is not unfamiliar. It’s why Peter Pan never wanted to grow up. Further still, it’s in everyday life in our belief that escapism and romanticism can’t align with fact. The antithesis of idealistic art is naturalistic or, worse still, realistic.
Whenever we speak of illusions, we tend to mean something happy: falling in love, feeling high, feeling drunk, believing in a dream. Illusion seems to be the precursor to an inevitable disappointment, at which point we return to reality, which is defined as a much more constant state without excitement or hope.
Joy is always the illusion, and sadness always the fact. Momentary happiness is often too good to be true or a temporary bewilderment before revisiting reality, the land of taxes, deadlines, and rent.
I believe it’s this that endorses escapism, which, in our culture at least, seems incredibly popular. I wonder if this is the real appeal of travel and what number of fantasy fiction sales it accounts for. Caffeine addiction is mainstream and alcohol is a widely accepted (albeit often controversially) source of fun.
This view is dangerous and scary in so many ways. Nothing frightens me more than the thought that my happiness consists of alcohol, caffeine, and basically downright lying to myself, and as soon as I stop I’ll fall down. I suppose that’s the classic fear of false hope.
Obviously, the harmfulness of this ideology comes on a sliding scale. I like to hope that most people sit somewhere between Game of Thrones fandom and alcoholism, but for some this is a real cause for concern. People who genuinely do have these feelings to an extreme extent should, of course, seek help, but what’s so worrying about that is being able to recognise the belief as unhealthy and yet somehow perfectly common. Though enjoying escapism to a shallow degree can be harmless, the ideas behind it are still dangerous if normalised too much.
In my opinion, at least, good feelings and bad feelings are equally real–– they are both scientific and concrete. It’s not that our permanent, realistic state is boredom/sadness whilst happiness comes and goes. If happiness is inconstant, so is pain. They are the counters of each other, and we move continually between the two, often without any questionable aid.
Arguably, the really good feelings feel unreal because they’re rarer. Euphoria may be uncommon, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. I think the reason most fiction seems like fantasy is not that the events recounted are impossible, but they simply don’t occur in the abundance with which they’re presented. That comes down to artistic license – authors obliterate the mundane because they need their books to sell, so their narratives have an unrealistic ratio of exciting, romantic stuff and everyday happenings that no one wants to read about or, it seems, live.
Most of life is unromantic, spent in offices or libraries and crying over deadlines more often than broken hearts. Sometimes, though, the romantic does happen, and when it does it is often dismissed as a dream. We seem to think that in cynicism we find self-protection, but I think this is just as damaging a belief. All we seem to protect ourselves from are highs because we fear the lows that come with them.
We are all studying in one of the most beautiful towns in the world, after all. I find it hard to deny romanticism when writing articles whilst onlooking the sea. Yes, there is also the dilemma of “do I pay eight hundred pounds per month for this caravan in Coupar” and writing essays in the library if you can ever find that one empty seat. But neither is more real than the other.
I’m not saying that we should all believe in fairies or take everything JK Rowling says as fact. But I think we should trust happiness when we find it, be brave enough to believe in it, and enjoy it whilst it lasts before we return, not to reality, but to a simply more frequent, less exciting state of mind. Reality is not something we have to escape, but embrace both when it is good and bad. We should accept it when it’s dull, which it most often is, but believe it when it isn’t, too.