The Great Escape: Feeding the soul when reality bites

I like to spend time in the cemetery because I feel like the dead are the only people who understand me.

My soul belongs to the 1890s, to Parisian parlors where decadent dandies and femmes fatales get stoned on absinthe. In my 20s I hermetically sealed myself in this world, and ingested enough books, period films and paintings for it to run on auto-pilot in my imagination like a steampunk aero-plane soaring on the wings of fancy.

I didn’t choose this world, but rather it chose me. And that’s probably because a recurring theme of the Belle Epoque was the sense of having been born in the wrong era. That rapid changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution catalyzed a reaction from an unexpected coalition of bohemian artists and penniless aristocrats from ancient families whose blood and fortunes had grown thin. Both despised the rising materialist bourgeois class and sought liberation through perverse eroticism, refined pleasures inspired by ancient civilizations, myths of gods and monsters, and what lurked in the dark caverns of the subconscious. Those seeking a more direct escape route from the ordinary availed themselves of opium, hashish and wine. 

It’s amusing to daydream about what the first bohemians—a term popularized by the 1851 novel Scenes of Bohemian Life, which served as the source material for Puccini’s La Boheme—would think about the liberal democracies of today, when the forces of collectivism, monoculture, consumerism and technology form a multi-headed hydra that cannot be slain. Then there’s the pandemic-turned-endemic—which means it’s forever—not to mention the constant dread that one might say the wrong thing, or might have said the wrong thing in the past, which you don’t remember but which somebody else will in order to take you down. And it’s not just fear of being publicly branded with a scarlet letter; today’s paranoid fantasies involve Kafkaesque scenarios in which you’re hauled off to prison without even being told which social media post broke the law.

It’s enough to make you want out, but how? A tiny few with the means have always had the option of living as wealthy eccentrics walled off from the outside world. Ludwig II is remembered as the Fairy Tale Prince for isolating himself in a dreamworld of legend and building flamboyant castles that later served as models for the architects of Disneyland. Michael Jackson created his own hermitage-cum-amusement park called Neverland. Both the king of Bavaria and the king of pop were touched by madness and died before their time, but one can nevertheless admire their ingenuity at building an artificial paradise. Most of us cannot sever ties with a world gone mad, however, and we realize that to keep our sanity we need creative coping strategies for living in it. In fact, given the general topsy-turviness that grows more disorienting each day, we may be at higher risk for going crazy by NOT retreating to our own private dreamworld.

* * *

If you’ve reached the breaking point, there are four paths for walking away from society lined with the footprints of those who’ve hiked these roads before. We’ll skip the tedious category of apocalyptic survivalist, since you’ll probably just end up being abducted by a UFO anyway.

We’ll start with the path of art, whether it’s through creation or simply appreciation. Through the suspension of disbelief, art transports us to other worlds, and allows us to immerse ourselves in aspects of the human experience we would otherwise never know. Art can be so powerful that each of us can probably remember a book that we quite literally could not put down, or a movie so potent that it took us time to readjust to reality. As for creators, art serves as their sanctuary, though not without sacrifice. In the 2004 film Being Julia, Annette Benning plays a stage actress in the 1930s who recalls the wisdom of her acting coach, who told her that her world is the theater and that for her the outer world does not exist. The moment she forgets this is the moment she ceases to be a great artist. And in order for Paul Gaugin to become the master painter he’s remembered as today, he had to leave civilization behind and live among the natives of Tahiti.

An island paradise is an inspiring place for an artist, but it’s also a haven for those whose idea of creation is the world itself. And so the realm of nature provides our next time-tested escape route. If you feel trapped in the world, perhaps you need to clarify what you mean by world. Take a stroll along the Santa Rosa creek system, find a spot beside the warbling waters, and evoke a meditative state. A gestalt shift can take place in which you see through the illusion that equivocates nature and society, for your Mother Nature is a dimension of material reality entirely separate from 21st-century civilization. The sound of passing cars with their mufflers and stereos, the wandering zombie-like people, the garbage and graffitti—all this merely belongs to the realm of the social organization at this particular moment in time, and forms a stark contrast to the other world that lies before you, a world of sunlight and cloud, of tree-roots climbing out from creek beds just as they’ve done for millions of years, of dragonflies and butterflies and flowers swaying in the breeze. Nature was the home of eden ahbez, the pioneering hippie who grew his hair, ate natural foods and lived as the very “Nature Boy” he describes in the song he wrote that became a number-one hit for Nat King Cole in 1948, and became the prototype for the turn-on, tune-in, drop-out movement that swept California 20 years later.

The spiritual path, our third escape route, passes through nature in search of what lies beyond it. This is the hard road of those who renounce the world and retreat to monasteries, or who backpack through the Far East in search of enlightenment. This is the path of Jesus of Nazareth, who provided the world stage with the tragic drama of the spirit-seeking individual against the powers of society. In the confrontation between Jesus and Pontius Pilate, as interpreted by philosopher of history Oswald Spengler, never before had the world of fact—Roman civilization, social order—been shown in such opposition to the world of Truth and the man who dared to say that his kingdom was not of this world. “The unthinkable as a certainty, the supernatural as a fact, a world that is non-actual but true—” writes Spengler, “Jesus never lived one moment in any other world but this.”

Lucius Beebe may have been an urbane bon vivant, but in the scheme of things perhaps he wasn’t so different from spirit seekers, as he, too, sought a personal paradise beyond time and place. Beebe illustrates the fourth means of escape, that of time travel to an age to which the soul feels it more properly belongs, a theme explored in the Woody Allen film Midnight In Paris. Beebe was featured on the cover of Life magazine in 1937 dressed like a gentleman of 40 years earlier with top hat and watch fob, and is considered the first openly gay celebrity. As man-about-town columnist for the San Francisco Examiner, Beebe morphed into a character from the Old West, spending his days sipping cocktails from the comfort of the Virginia City, the private railcar he and partner Charles Clegg purchased in 1954 and rode back and forth through the Rocky Mountains, far from the world of suburban sprawl and Cold War paranoia.

These four paths can be viewed as a kind of alternative medicine one takes as much as needed to maintain their sanity. They can even be combined, for example, by taking a notebook to the woods and writing mystical nature poetry in the style of the Romantics, thereby combining art, nature, spirit and time travel all in one, with opium as a bonus option. All it takes to make your great escape is a certain magic formula.

* * *

The combined force of two cosmic principles—and imagination—is the secret of creation. It’s what brings forth all fortunes, empires, inventions and great works of art. This magic combination also transforms our lives into whatever we want them to be, providing us with the escape hatch leading to our alternate reality.

If you love the TV series Game of Thrones more than anything else, then use that attractor energy that it sparks in you. Navigate the world with cunning diplomacy, then return to your home and live as if that’s your world. If friends mock you and say you’re LARPing—that stands for Live Action Role Play—gently point out that even the most prominent people in the world seem like they’re LARPing Game of Thrones characters, and at this point the social mood is simultaneously both so constricting and in such  freefall in regards to manners and mores that what does it matter?

Imagination and will are the greatest powers we have at our disposal. Against Nature, an 1884 novel by J-K Huysmans, introduced the modern anti-hero who retreats from society to live in a dreamworld. “He believed that the imagination could provide a more-than-adequate substitute for the vulgar reality of actual experience,” Huysmans writes. “In his opinion it was perfectly possible to fulfill those desires commonly supposed to be the most difficult to satisfy under normal conditions, and this by the trifling subterfuge of producing a fair imitation of the object of those desires….. By transferring this ingenious trickery, this clever simulation to the intellectual plane, one can enjoy, just as easily as on the material plane, imaginary pleasures similar in all respects to the pleasures of reality.”

Likewise, the novel Somewhere In Time, which received a popular film adaptation in 1980 starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour, can be read as a metaphor for augmenting reality through the power of auto-suggestion. The protagonist falls in love with the image of a woman who lived 80 years before, so in order to unite with his dream lover he goes into trance-like states until he finally crosses space-time and finds her. Think of it as actively engineering a dream which goes on to play itself out, experienced, just like with a normal dream, as if it were real.

“Dropping out” implies escape by sinking below, since dropping something sends it downward. What we really want is liberation by rising, to be physically in the world but not of it, to be oriented to superior principles of art, nature, spirit or golden age. This is why imagination is so important, because the realm in which imagination operates is actually higher than the world of actuality. According to ancient doctrines, material reality is only the realm of effects, not of causes, which come from a higher reality of principles. Imagination is a mediating faculty between them, and the instrument by which fantasy can be turned into reality, even if that reality operates primarily in one’s mind. Again, think of how foolish it is to say a dream isn’t “real” just because the content of the dream didn’t manifest on the material plane; the experience of the dream was certainly real, and why should it be judged inferior, especially an engineered dream that satisfies the deepest desires of the soul?

* * *

Life in 2021 often feels as if a tidal wave is cresting and we’re caught in its shadow. Whether viewed as progress or decadence, the forces presently in play are cosmic, irreversible and unstoppable. The polarization on social and political issues is irreconcilable, and the battle lines being drawn in the wake of Covid will be with us for the rest of our lives. The Stoic philosophers taught that we cannot control external circumstances, only our reaction to them. Present conditions are not something that can be conquered, but they can be overcome through an internal kind of wrestling move. We feel pinned and powerless and then something inside us ignites and we flip the opponent over. Now we’re on top, where we can breathe and see the sky. This inner act comes from the depths. It is the source of all hero mythology in which the individual slays the dragon that wants to castrate him and put him back in his place among the blob-organization of his collective, the undifferentiated faceless mass.

When I came back to California after a dozen years in New York, I took a four-day trip by rail (see “A Return to the Valley of the Moon,” March 31). My fellow passengers included a group of Amish who had never been outside rural Pennsylvania, let alone on a modern mode of transportation. Their entire clan was traveling to New Mexico because a child needed to see a doctor who used Amish-approved methods. During a half-day layover in the Chicago station, while I replayed scenes from the Scorsese movie The Untouchables—about Al Capone—they wandered about with bemused curiosity, but it was clear that nothing in this alien realm could muddle their inner orientation, for they were guided by—and received protection from—a separate and invisible world they carried with them.

I found myself envying them, remembering when I was young and had my own inner compass that always pointed to the castle of my imagination. I joked that when I got back to Sonoma County I was going to “go Amish.” After all, desperate times call for desperate measures, and it’s likely that the degree of inner counterbalancing necessary to keep our spirits up in these strange times needs to be much more extreme than anything we’ve even conceived of yet. 

This whole topic, incidentally, comes with a built-in defense, for any attack only proves the argument’s validity. If an interior re-orientation in the direction of escape makes the collective brand you a selfish outcast—from the Sanskrit for not having caste, or a place in the social organization—this only proves why escape is necessary. Everyone dragged into debates of this sort will find himself acting out the confrontation between the Man From Galilee and the Roman governor in Judea.

As for me, I’ve decided to set up camp in 1912 and even decorated my apartment to look like a suite on the Titanic. An iceberg may be dead ahead, but there are still beautiful experiences to be had if only we have the will to create them. I still feel like my only real friends are dead authors and fictional characters, but when I imagine telling them that, they just reply, “How lucky you are to have lifelong companions.”

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