How We Escape It: An Essay

Chartres, France. Known for its famous Chartres Cathedral and it's Labyrinth which were built in the 13th century.This is the Labyrinth outside in the Bishop's Garden, just behind the church.
Labyrinth at Bishop's Garden in Chartres, France

What we mean by accusations of escapism, what escapism is, what it flees and seeks, how it operates, what modes it finds besides the literary—such issues could justify a treatise.” –Robert B. Heilman, “Escape and Escapism: Varieties of Literary Experience

The ‘labyrinth of…consciousness,’ as James called it, becomes the labyrinth of language itself. All labyrinths embody the principle of delay. Joyce suggested three hundred years for the penetration of Finnegans Wake.” –Martin L. Pops, “In Labyrinths

When I was a child, the sort of book I always chose to occupy myself with, wedged between my two older brothers on long trips in the back seat of the car, weren’t word puzzles or coloring books, neither number games nor connect the dots, but books whose every page contained a maze that one was invited to solve. I was poised on a threshold of contradiction in that play because, when it comes down to it, what I was doing was escaping into a maze. Sometimes the mazes would have clear starts and finishes—a mouse on one end, the cheese on the other. These, I learned many years later from a graduate school mentor, Martin L. Pops, were unicursal: “There is just one path to the goal and there are no false turnings.” Marty gives the example of the labyrinth at Chartres in which heaven is at the center and there is only one right path: “Tessellated into the pavement of many cathedrals during the early Middle Ages, the labyrinth was regarded ‘as a symbol of the perplexities and intricacies which beset the Christian’s path [or of the] entangling nature of sin or of any deviation from the rectilinear path of Christian duty…and it is quite possible that, at a time when the soul had passed out of the crusades and the Church’s authority was on the ebb, a journey on the knees around the labyrinth’s sinuosities was prescribed as an alternative to these pilgrimages.’” Multicursal labyrinths, on the other hand, much like great literary texts, are “full of false turnings,” and being inside one might require one to identify with Spenser’s Red Cross Knight who, “beguiled by delight” ends in “Errours Den.”

The point of such multicursal twists and turns isn’t to take us out but to take us further in—it’s the difference between inscape and escape.

Writing is one thing, living is another—or maybe not.

In a recent conversation with a friend of mine who is also an essayist, he said that he thinks of essay-writing as a chasm we fall into and have to find our way out of. His image made me realize that I don’t find myself trying to get out of chasms when I write; I think I’m trying to invent a new way of being inside of the chasm, I said. I’m not sure I ever get out; writing is just a different way of moving around à la Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes: “Writing is that play by which I turn around as well as I can in a narrow place: I am wedged in, I struggle between the hysteria necessary to write and the image-repertoire, which oversees, controls, purifies, banalizes, codifies, corrects, imposes the focus (and the vision) of a social communication.” I guess I’ve always been more interested in constraints than restraints, the lifting of which I never really trust to set me free. Constraints—and isn’t language itself the ripest example?—offer a happier prospect: defining limits without which no meaning can be summoned or shared, productive and enabling architectures that we cannot do without.

Writing is one thing, living is another—or maybe not. In this, our life-as-maze, we can either spend our days wishing the maze weren’t so difficult or accept the challenge and be a-mazed in turn. “There are, after all,” as Pops is quick to note, “certain labyrinths without goals…your only reward the pleasure of your play.”

When I wasn’t deep inside the pleasures of the mazes on the page, I had other ways of escaping the back seat of the familial car (there were many reasons, as in any family, for a desire to get away, but it was also the case that my father was a severely anxious driver). If I didn’t have my book of mazes with me, I would stare out the window until I was no longer in the car but on a sled, no matter the weather. The magic carpet that I pictured was capable of traversing all terrains now transmuted into undulating ribbons of hills and valleys. I would get wherever we were going to this way, steering and veering this way and that, via the inscape of some luminous counterpart to thinking—we used to call it “the mind’s eye”—access to which may now be blocked by so many in-your-face chimeras.

Escape is an ancient word, escapism, a modern one.

In an essay dating as far back as 1975, Robert B. Heilman asks, “Has the Age of Anxiety been undergoing a metamorphosis into the Age of Claustrophobia or the Age of Paranoia?” and he uses the question as the basis for a full-blown exegesis of the history of our word “escape” and its often denigrated companionate ideology, “escapism.” Heilman discovers that escape is an ancient word, escapism, a modern one, and the designation of a genre—“escape literature”—dates to the 1930s: “The word escapism was born in the 1930s, grew rapidly, and in the 1940s and 1950s became a staple of all kinds of criticism—historical, social, and political as well as literary and artistic.” Following a deep mining of an array of English dictionaries, Heilman details how escape moves in the history of human consciousness from physical and literal, i.e., as a “departure from tangible sources of distress and disaster,” to metaphorical and metaphysical, to a trend, a mode or an ideology. The 1960s and 1970s show the emergence of escape understood as a “flight from reality” (emphasis mine) leading Heilman to conclude that “we have a more embracing view of escape than did our ancestors; we readily think of escape as a mode of dealing with imperfect existence; but we do not always clearly distinguish between the escapable and the inescapable, or between that which at all costs ought to be escaped…and that which, painful though it may be, cannot be escaped.” (Heilman also seems to think that Americans generally are more drawn to escape than their English-speaking counterparts in Great Britain, but his essay was conceived long before Brexit.)

When it comes to escape and literature, high or low, Heilman and Pops are more or less on the same page, resounding the alternatives of, on one hand, the escapist mode where literature gives us access to a world that is easier to manage than the one we bear in real life, or, on the other hand, art as an intensifier of life that “pushes readers deeper into human actuality” (Heilman). Literature either creates a spell that trails you, or serves as a restorative that consoles you; it either unsettles and frustrates you, refusing closure, or works like an opiate that massages and sates you. It’s not hard to see where the escapist blow would fall. If you ask my students, they will tell you with the conviction of all they’ve learned in school that great literature is that which is a) “transcendent” and b) “universal.” In other words, they would supply us with their own theory of literature as implicitly escapist—great literature, according to this model, is that which erases difference and frees us of both the intricacies and responsibilities of historical specificity. They carry this assumption like a faith, and why wouldn’t they? Such escapist valuations remain the staples of our greatest book reviewers and public radio talk show hosts.

What is the nature of our entrapments now?

I wonder if what bounds us nowadays is less locatable than ever, and thus the linguistic move from physical entrapment to life itself as the thing we wish to escape from, not even life itself but a vaguely conceived-of reality reduced to an untranslatable two-letter word: the inimitable “it.” What exactly is the “it” a person is said to be “out of” in one incarnation of escape, and is it the same as the “it” we wish to leave behind when we express a desire to “get away from it all.” I guess “it all” is shorthand for “all of it,” over and against part of it, a fragment of it, or piece of it. If given a pencil and paper, I’d be hard-pressed to picture “it,” even though, if pressed, I might confess that the two great traps of our contemporary age are the Internet and the personality (the latter idea being T.S. Eliot’s, not mine, and he had already claimed this for an earlier period in time). I sometimes wonder if the Internet isn’t so much an all-pervasive prison as it is a mechanism that gets me to talk about a feeling of inescapability more and more. And to what end? I complain about it so much, I come to think of it as a whinery.

What governs the urge to get out, to bust loose (such lyrics often occur to me at the most inopportune moments), more simply, to enjoy that American ideal of non-community—the “right to be left alone,” and are such questions more likely to be asked in the first place by those less bound by impossible situations? Imagine turning to mathematicians to solve our current entrapments—political, social, psychological: reading about the first woman to ever win mathematics’ most coveted prize, Maryam Mirzakhani, leads me to think in these ways. What she said of herself and what others say of her is that her genius depended on her ability to stay inside a problem for inordinately long periods of time, to have a high tolerance for uncertainty over and against, I might add, the desperation of the authoritarian narcissistic personality types who, according to one canny historian, sold their souls to the devil last November in exchange for the feeling of a fleeting release.

Where the personality is a trap, I think you know what I’m talking about, though it can come as a surprise to many to propose that writing at its best is not about “self-expression.” Enter my favorite quotation from Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent”: “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.” Here is writing as an alternative to, a re-creation and transformation of the most impossible trap of all: the personality, though the tack that our particular personalities take to escape is bound to influence the pathways of our manufactured worlds. Either you are the sort to paint yourself into a corner or the one who looks for an exit the minute you come in; either you’re an artful dodger or the type to go through rather than around the thing. Do all of us resemble the sad and sorry squirrel that one year got trapped in my cabin? Either intelligence or memory fails us, no matter what sort of personality we bear, we can only see through the panes to the outside but not how the hell we got here; we never know quite where we are, the who or how that got us here, the means by which we entered in.

Consider a type of person who dares local authority figures “to lock him in their most secure restraints” then wait while he devises a plan to get free of them by invisible means. “Through a combination of physical dexterity and hidden lock picks, Houdini opened most restraints without much difficulty.…He spoke to audiences directly, rolled up his sleeves, smiled, and dared volunteers to take him prisoner.” In 1920, his name was added to the Funk & Wagnalls Dictionary as a synonym for the word “escape.” The magic of the escape artist leaves all other forms of escape in the dust because he manages to elude capture without needing in the first place anywhere to hide; he is always exposed, in the open and undisclosed. If escapism always assumes some form of vicariousness—into a TV serial, a ball game, a drug—displaced identification doesn’t seem possible with the escape artist. In some essential way, Houdini misses me. I can’t be him; I’m lost inside the missed place of his illusion. I’m enticed into its gaps, seduced, and exquisitely duped. The escape he allows me is this: an invitation to be astonished rather than, as life would have it, traumatized or shocked.

At one point in his career, Houdini attracted a crowd of 80,000 to watch him disentangle himself from a straitjacket. Historians surmise that “liberation from seemingly impossible situations often appealed to audiences living in cities with problems of overcrowding, ethnic tension, crime, and poverty, a result of late nineteenth-century urbanization and industrialization.” What is the nature of our entrapments now, and is there anything that can release us from a century that appears to have nominated itself the most existential of ages? I mean this in the popular sense of the word—that our digital environing admits no exit, and we apparently embrace and accept that, or have been coerced into accepting it as a source of joy. Either that or we endlessly adaptable humans have adjusted to our chains once more. I cannot recall in my own lifetime such a mass-produced feeling of a narrowing of space, of tones of voice, of modes of address, of repetition compulsions, and compulsory formations, of sound turned noise, all in the name of a liberating expansiveness. How quickly an entity wide, endlessly variable, and seemingly infinite can become stultifying, monotone, and conventional. All of us must know by now that Google does not avail the searcher of variegation and scope, to say nothing of not giving us access to “all that’s out there,” but is set to spew what’s popular. It is a mega-monster whose settings secure not just a national but also a global status quo. What our computers “search” most doggedly is ourselves (call it digital frisking), certain to locate us wherever we are and survey us.

As a contemporary Existenz, am I paranoid or just claustrophobic?

My least favorite of Internet snares is the thing I call “anticipatory algorithms.” It goes beyond Amazon and Netflix’s persistent recommendations based on what it presumes you or I to “like.” It’s worse than that: It finishes my sentences before I’ve even begun them; it ends my “search”; it aborts my course; detours and all, it will not admit of labyrinths. It believes in ends, like the place where my eyes rest, about a quarter inch past my toes when I look down beyond the rim of my iPhone raft, trapped on dry land.

On one recent occasion, no sooner had I begun to type in the words, “When will…” as in, “When will the Senate vote on the health care reform bill,” when Google proposed a different question in advance. The machine gave me, “When will I die?” Now, while it may be true that these questions are related—my access to health care having some major bearing on my lifespan—Google (unlike Siri) wasn’t trying to be wry. If it thought that I would propose such a question to a computer, then it doesn’t know me. For one thing, I don’t formulate questions relative to my life in such bald terms. I’m an essayist, remember? If it thinks that “it” can “answer” such a question, it is dead wrong (excuse the pun). Google isn’t God…though it might have the capacities of an actuary and the question, its attempt to prompt me to buy life insurance. I have to say I took the question personally. I felt personally affronted by an artificial intelligence—a brain sans mind—sideswiping my search for information with a reminder of the brute fact of my death. I nearly experienced it as a threat (see paranoia above). And I worried for my fellow men that the occurrence of the question on my computer screen—“when will I die?”—might mean that it is a popular entry, thus suggesting that people are confusing a search engine with a crystal ball.

To escape is essentially to be out of view: sometimes we just want to disappear without having to die in the process.

The problem with our contemporary moment isn’t that there is no escape (from reminders and push notifications, dire news and being seen), but that any chance of inscape is fast fading away. (I realize I’ve already said this and that we might be arriving at the place where we began.)

I don’t know where I would be without the endless opportunity that language affords. It’s there that something like play begins that knows no end. Language is the constraint that allows us to formulate the questions that we pose, but we so rarely accept its invitation thereafter to follow it into its multiform rooms. Neither answers nor escape, pure and simple, will find us there, but new forms for old imaginings, suggestions, hints, and openings, to be sure. The word “escape,” if I allow it, hints of escargot (shells and hideouts) and escarpments, escapades and esplanades, which gives forth, to this ear, a recombinant form, a little bit of splendor and a touch of promenade. It reminds me that the “inescapable” as a defining feature is a pleasure. The etymology of escape tells me more about escape than however many treatises, for “e” is out of, and “scape,” is view: To escape is essentially to be out of view, thus instructing me in this fundamental truth: that sometimes we just want to disappear without having to die in the process.

For my own part, I can’t recall the last time I went on an escapade—is this an obsolete term, an outmoded concept, an archaism? Its synonyms have a mid-century feel—caper, spree, shenanigans, high jinks—but I like to think of it as a fool’s errand one agrees to wholeheartedly. And I love the image the language leaves me with, hailing from excappare, to get out of one’s cape, to leave one’s pursuer, as if by magic, left holding your cape.

Recently I found myself doing something I never thought I’d ever do. Neither an escapade nor a dalliance, it was an escape that I did not intend, and could not predict or foresee. It was the occasion of a visit from our niece and nephew, my partner, Jean’s, brother and sister-in-law to a small cabin we keep in Downeast, Maine. Sam is six this year, and Sophie is 10, and I happened to recall on our last visit to Vancouver, where they live, that Sam’s most recent favorite form of play was puzzles. In a thrift store in Bangor, I struck upon it: There was no way to tell from the abstract bands of gold crisscrossed with red what the box might contain, but a small white tag someone had affixed to a corner identified the item as a puzzle. Not just any old puzzles for Sam, but puzzles that the proprietor said dated to the 1930s. There were no pictures to go by to see what the puzzle might produce; nor could the manager vouch that all of the pieces were there.

When Sophie and Sam arrived, we presented them with small gifts from our favorite secondhand stores—matchbox cars and books, including a miniature blank book for Sophie’s transitional object since birth, a bear named “Higgins,” to write a novel in. In between nature journeys and swims, we “renovated” a ramshackle dollhouse. At some point in the mix, we presented Sam with the “mystery puzzle,” but he was attracted by other things and suspected the puzzle might be too hard for him so he never started it.

Absentmindedly at first, my brother-in-law and I opened the box between cooking and cleaning dishes, or discussing the mayhem of our 2017 world. What sort of life allows for the assembling of puzzles? Ones with vacations in them, and especially, children? I’m sure I’d associated puzzles with the lame of mind, with old folks homes, and middle-class boredom, with unproductive productivity, with golf and dens and bifocaled men—never the sort of thing I would think to do or imagine giving time to.

Cappello jigsaw puzzle

Puzzle sales peaked in 1933, reaching 10 million per week at the height of the Great Depression.

In low light heading into late night, the four adults morphed into a collocation of energies, mere points of even-hovering attention arrayed around a table. We hunched over the puzzle as over a map at sea with the kids half-asleep nearby, post-hysterical, and we, too, needing to sleep but pulled instead into the problem of the puzzle. Before we knew it, we were in, we were happily snared, hovering like bees before the sweet prospect of so many locks and their matching keys, we were whispering and pouring ourselves into a feeling of finding and placing and watching an image bit by bit come into view the way ancientness reveals itself to archaeologists. On Puzzle Warehouse’s site, economist Anne D. Williams explains how puzzle sales peaked in 1933, reaching 10 million per week at the height of the Great Depression, as if to say not only that people needed something to escape into but that puzzling gave them “an opportunity to succeed in a modest way.” Nothing about the achievement of our puzzle felt modest. It felt sublime in the way of a spiritual orgasm and especially when the pieces did not interlock but only shared what one might call a vaguely matching party wall.

When Jean moved to post a picture of our puzzle on Facebook, I experienced the gesture with a start. Hadn’t she felt how private this escapade had been? Couldn’t she know this would break our puzzle’s spell? And how irresponsible must it make us seem to be building a puzzle amid bloodshed and hate crimes?

How rarely escape arrives by accident at our door. The sounds of crickets intermingled with collective squeals and nudges around a table of adults, playing past midnight to discover that all the pieces, in fact, were there. Except for one! And an edge piece at that. A piece of sky. Escape hatch for our exhales and for the spirits of those who’d played the puzzle once before.

JSTOR Citations

Escape and Escapism Varieties of Literary Experience

By: Robert B. Heilman

The Sewanee Review, Vol. 83, No. 3 (Summer, 1975), pp. 439-458

The Johns Hopkins University Press

In Labyrinths


Salmagundi, No. 27 (Summer-Fall 1974), pp. 94-111

Skidmore College

Tradition and the Individual Talent

By: T.S. Eliot

Perspecta, Vol. 19 (1982), pp. 36-42

The MIT Press on behalf of Perspecta

The Bonds He Did Not Break: Harry Houdin and Wisconsin

By: Kimberly Louagie

The Wisconsin Magazine of History, Vol. 85, No. 3 (Spring, 2002), pp. 2-17

Wisconsin Historical Society

Mary Cappello

A regular contributor to the world of literary nonfiction and experimental prose, Mary Cappello is the author of five books, including Awkward: A Detour (a Los Angeles Times bestseller); Swallow, based on the Chevalier Jackson Foreign Body Collection in Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum; and, most recently, the mood fantasia, Life Breaks In: A Mood Almanack. A Guggenheim and Berlin Prize Fellow, a recipient of the Dorothea Lange/Paul Taylor Prize from Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies, and the Bechtel Prize for Educating the Imagination from Teachers and Writers Collaborative, Cappello is a former Fulbright lecturer at the Gorky Literary Institute (Moscow, Russia) and currently Professor of English and creative writing at the University of Rhode Island. She lives in Providence, Rhode Island, and Lucerne-in-Maine, Maine. For more information:

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