0. The Challenge of Escapism
Like Tim Robbins in The Shawshank Redemption (1994), we live our lives obsessed by thoughts of escape. Escape from our jobs, escape from our relationships, escape from our friends and escape from a life dominated by work, travel and a raging torrent of TV dinners and talent shows that carries us all the way to our graves. Capitalism is the greatest prison of all because its walls are built not of bricks and mortar but of dreams and aspiration. The marketplace is saturated with opportunities to escape the mundane drudgery of our lives: Get a better job! Move to the country! Get plastic surgery! Get a better boyfriend! Get a better body! Dress like Cheryl Cole! We work impossible hours at impossible jobs in the hope that someday we might find a way of being another person in another place.
We want out.
Nowhere is this universal desire for escape more evident than in the culture we consume. Every book, film and game boasts incredibly complex worlds filled with incredibly complex mythologies, histories and characters. These fictions are so elaborate that they come to resemble reality, a reality you can reach out and touch, a reality to which you can escape. So many worlds and all of them are available to you for the low-low price of a book, a comic, a game or a film. All you need to do in order to escape is put your money down and open your mind to worlds more colourful and comprehensible than your own.
Part of what drives the desire to escape is the fact that the real world really does not make much sense. Open a newspaper and you will find it filled with politicians and economists telling you that the economy is now so complex that the only way of avoiding recession is to pump the system full of money and hope that somehow everything will sort itself out. Look beyond the political to more fundamental questions and answers are similarly hard to come by. For example, scientists struggle to make sense of the world using mathematical formulae and concepts that are so complex that it takes years of study to even begin to make sense of something as simple as boiling an egg. The same is true in the human realm as cognitive neuropsychologists tell us that there is no such thing as consciousness and that the only people capable of how humans think and feel are those with PhDs and access to a high-speed MRI scanner. Given how ugly, cruel and incomprehensible the world can be, it really should come as no surprise that millions of humans spend all of their free time trying to escape. And yet, despite its immense popularity, escapism gets a lot of bad press.
The argument dates back to the Enlightenment. In the Middle Ages, Christians understood that the Real World was nothing but a vale of tears, a place where they existed for a few short years while their deity evaluated their moral character. Stray too far from the straight-and-narrow and God would deliver a smack down, flinging you into the burning pit for all eternity. Of course, if you were a good little boy or girl then God would reward you by taking you up and sitting you on his knee where you would spend the rest of eternity celebrating Christmas or cooking breakfast for your wife like the characters in Star Trek: Generations (1994). In this context, the Real World simply did not matter because the pleasures of the flesh counted for nothing when compared to the eternal pleasures you would get as a reward for following the rules.
When the rediscovered Classicism of the Renaissance blossomed into the scientific revolutions of the Enlightenment, the certainties of the Middle Ages started to look a little bit shaky. Suddenly, philosophers started to argue that happiness should be a thing of this world rather than the next. Indeed, given that there is no scientific evidence of an afterlife, is it really all that rational to mortgage the pleasures of today in return for the pleasures of tomorrow? As Karl Marx said:
To abolish religion as the illusory happiness of the people is to demand its real happiness.
If the goal of politics is to create happiness on Earth, then it follows that escapism, much like religion, is a bad thing because people who escape the realities of life are not only failing to improve the world, they are tacitly supporting the status quo. Clearly, all that time we spent levelling up in World of Warcraft should have been spent fighting The Man and films involving giant robots hitting each other are nothing more than a narcotic that Capitalism uses to keep us docile and ignorant. For many critics, the purpose of art is to draw the people’s attention to their plight, this is why ‘realist’ films such as Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948) and Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) are pillars of intellectual respectability while the films of Michael Bay are looked upon as the cultural equivalent of Rohypnol. Never mind that the intricacies of academic theory and cultural discourse are just as much of a distraction from changing the world as giant robots…
One of the best defences of escapism comes, perhaps unsurprisingly, from one of its most brilliant practitioners. In his essay “On Fairy-Stories” (1947), J.R.R. Tolkien points out the real bone of contention between escapism and the cultural watchdogs:
In what the misusers of Escape are calling Real Life, Escape is evidently as a rule very practical, and may even be heroic. In real life, it is difficult to blame it, unless it fails; in criticism it would seem to be worse the better it succeeds. (…) Why should a man be scorned, if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using Escape in this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter.
For Tolkien, escapism is a source of consolation as its happy endings and dramatically appropriate tragedies remind us of a deeper Christian truth, namely that there is a plan for us and that, no matter how bad things may be, they will eventually get better.
As an atheist who has devoted a lot of time to escapist forms, I predictably find Tolkien’s defence somewhat problematic. Despite being over sixty years old, Tolkien’s essay remains peerless in its capacity to shed light on what is rapidly proving to be one of the most important cultural trends of the 21st Century. The links that Tolkien forges between his Fantasy novels and his Catholocism are doubly fascinating as I cannot help but agree that there is something deeply spiritual in the act of immersing oneself in a vast fictional world. As Jo Walton suggests in her somewhat overhyped quasi-memoir Among Others (2011), the rigours of genre can be a source of consolation, its predictable rules and prescribable regimens provide us with a safe harbour in a world that is all too often unjust and all too easily unfriendly. In fact, I might even go so far as to say that the true intellectual force behind religion as an institution may well be escapism. After all, what is The Bible but a hideously bloated Fantasy novel packed with monsters and Mary Sues? Much like traditional myth and religious text, the colours of escapist literature often tint the palette of the Real. Great stories not only entertain, they also teach moral lessons and shed light on the human condition. By claiming to be elves and vampires, simply take the spiritual nature of genre to its logical conclusion, they live the stories that they love the most.
Despite the immense importance of escapism as a cultural force, it is rare to find a work that engages with all of its complexities in a completely satisfactory manner. For example, while Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch (2011) attempts to get to grips with the nature of escapism and the motivations behind a desire to see the world through goggles of genre, the film rapidly becomes bogged down in a flurry of metaphysics and miniskirts. When Snyder’s characters escape the rape and torture of their daily lives by imagining themselves into the lives of strippers and video game characters, he touches on the consolations of escapism but his decision to deal with the substance of escapism rather than the process itself resulted in a film that makes little sense despite its lofty ideals. The language of cinema is not yet sufficiently meta-textual to support a film such as Sucker Punch and so Snyder’s film came across as nothing more than a cowardly and hypocritical refusal to deal with rape in a grown-up manner, which is precisely the issue of legitimacy that Sucker Punch ties to address. Mercifully, some works fare a good deal better. Indeed, if the central question surrounding escapism’s legitimacy is whether or not it can ever be morally justified then You Higuri’s Ludwig II (1998) is a substantial contribution to the discussion. Starring Ludwig II, the so-called Mad King of 19th Century Baravaria, Higuri’s manga recounts the story of a man who simply could not tolerate the real world and asks whether heroism might not be found amidst so much tragedy.
Translated by Junemanga and published in two large volumes, Ludwig II begins by introducing us to the character of the King. Impossibly handsome, intelligent and fashionably dressed, Ludwig II is despised by his country’s political elites because of his ‘madness’. This madness manifests itself as open homosexuality and a love of opera, in particular the myth-inspired operas of Richard Wagner.
Initially, we see the King through the eyes of his underling Richard Horing. Arriving at the palace, Horing discovers a ludicrously self-indulgent monarch who spends his days cavorting with beautiful actors while his countrymen demand his head. Indeed, the King’s absolute self-indulgence and strength of character are driven home immediately when the King takes a fancy to Horing and effectively rapes him. Outraged by his treatment at the King’s hands, Horing allows his twin brother to gain access to the castle where he attempts to kill the King and kick-start a revolution. However, as the King confronts the young anarchist and apologises to the young groom, a deeper truth about his character begins to emerge: This is not some random madman or pampered nobleman with a psychopathic sense of entitlement, this is a man who is utterly devoted to a set of mythical ideals, ideals of beauty, truth and morality that really have no place in 19th Century Bavaria.
When the King confronts the anarchist, he does not merely outwit him or physically over-power him, he erases him from the world. Within minutes of the confrontation, the anarchist is but a memory and the court is returned to the same atmosphere of myth and beauty that it enjoyed before the Real World tried to muscle its way in. Clearly, this is a King who is not only utterly devoted to the ideals he pursues, he is also supremely competent is pursuing them. For Ludwig II, escapism is not an act of surrender or cowardice but of absolute and terrifying will through which the Real World is banished from view. For Ludwig II, escapism demands absolute focus, absolute desire and supreme political and intellectual power. Ludwig II’s escape from reality is nothing short of terrifying.
2. The Politics of Escape
Much of the First Volume of Ludwig II is given over to exploring the ways in which the King keeps the real world at bay. In a plot-line reminiscent of the opening act of Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth (1998), Ludwig finds himself struggling to maintain his independence in the face of increasingly vocal demands that he select a wife. Initially, the King proves quite willing and selects a young cousin who has long been in love with him. However, devoted to maintaining the illusion that he is living in some Wagnerian paradise, the King finds it almost impossible to keep up the illusion that he and his cousin are actually in love. Bored of the charade, Ludwig asks his cousin to be his beard while he continues to dally with beautiful boys but his cousin turns him down. Beautifully executed, this plot-line highlights not only the difficulty involved in living a lie but also the high cost of choosing to do so. Again and again, we are told that Ludwig is a decent man and it clearly pains him to play with his cousin’s emotions but, given the choice between maintaining his escape from reality and surrendering to the romantic fantasies of his cousin, Ludwig chooses his own escape over the reality of his loved ones.
Higuri further unpacks the introspective selfishness of the King in an elegantly drawn plot-line involving the potential annexation of Bavaria by Prussia as Bismarck manipulates the various Germanic principalities into banding together to form a united German empire under Prussian control. The selfishness of the King is made abundantly clear by the way in which his understanding of politics is shown to be far greater than that of any of his ministers. Higuri suggests that Bavaria might have become a major power had Ludwig chosen running the country over escaping into fantasy. In a brilliant move, Higuri presents Bavarian realpolitik as a mirror image of Ludwig’s mental state: many powerful forces would enlist Bavaria to their side but Bavaria wishes to remain isolated and inward-looking. This connection between the fate of the monarch and the fate of the country becomes more and more acute as the story unfolds.
3. The Price of Purity
Reliant upon Hornig’s status as an outsider to the court, Ludwig II initially filters what we see through the lens of ‘common knowledge’. What I mean is that while Ludwig is presented as a self-indulgent madman, our initial impression owes more to front-loaded exposition than it does to the King’s actual behaviour. Even when we see the King confronting the interests of Prussia, his battles are abstract and his opposition faceless. We understand what we see solely because of Hornig’s interpretation and the King’s careful explanation. However, the more the King explains, the less of an outsider Hornig becomes and so Higuri must present Ludwig with a proper adversary.
The adversary in question is Ludwig’s childhood friend Holnstein. Holnstein understand the King at a very basic level. In fact, at one point he even goes so far as to offer the king morphine as he knows his fondness for escape. However, despite understanding the King and being Bavarian, Holnstein’s sympathies lie with the German nationalism of the Prussians. Realising that Ludwig is the only person standing between Bismarck and a united Germany, Holnstein sets about plotting against his king.
Rather than directly confronting the King with the arguments in favour of German unification, Holnstein attempts to manipulate the King into joining with Prussia by making isolation both politically and personally impossible. For example, fully aware that Hornig’s love is one of the few things that anchors Ludwig in the real world, Holnstein organises the rape of the young subaltern in the hope that the King’s desire for vengeance might be used for political ends. While Ludwig initially does a brilliant job of preserving his independence (and, by extension, that of his country) Holnstein’s myriad defeats simply encourage him to return. Each return raises the stakes and the costs inherent in remaining independent. Each return brings Ludwig’s submission to the political elites and Bavaria’s submission to Prussia just that little bit closer. The rising costs of Ludwig’s independence are reflected in the spiralling construction costs of his mountaintop hideaway Neuschwanstein Castle. At the end of the comic, the country’s inability to pay for the construction of the castle mirrors the unsustainable nature of Ludwig’s fantasies. Both things, though beautiful, are simply too expensive to maintain.
4. The Madness of Independence
One of the manga’s most interesting themes is the evolving nature of Ludwig’s madness. At first, the madness is presented as little more than a superstition and an insult. A grenade lobbed by the ignorant at the escapee. As Tolkien puts it:
<Fantasy, of course, starts out with an advantage: arresting strangeness. But that advantage has been turned against it, and has contributed to its disrepute. Many people dislike being ‘arrested’. They dislike any meddling with the Primary World, or such small glimpses of it s are familiar to them. They, therefore, stupidly and even maliciously confound Fantasy with Dreaming, in which there is no Art; and with mental disorders, in which there is not even control: with delusion and hallucination.
The early episodes of Ludwig II make it clearly that Ludwig is neither mad nor dreaming, he is very much in control and the control he exerts is far-reaching and absolute. Indeed, the key difference between Holnstein and the rest of Ludwig’s political adversaries is that Holnstein understands that Ludwig’s ‘madness’ was never anything more than a political tool. However, as the series progresses and the political and personal costs of Ludwig’s independence steadily climb, Ludwig begins to doubt his own sanity.
At the beginning of the manga, we are introduced to the character of Ensign Taxis, an impossibly beautiful and feminine-looking young nobleman who serves as the King’s ‘favourite’ prior to the arrival of Hornig. When Taxis leaves the King’s service to get married, we assume that we have seen the last of him. When a character very closely resembling Taxis suddenly appears, Ludwig appears confused as to whether the person he is seeing is Taxis, an actor who resembles Taxis or the operatic character of Lohengrin.
Titular character in one of Wagner’s operas, Lohengrin is a figure from Germanic Arthurian myth. Known as the Swan Knight, Lohengrin was raised in the resting place of the Holy Grail to embody the very highest ideals of chivalry. Arriving on Earth, Lohengrin falls in love with Elsa and marries her on the understanding that she will never demand his true identity. However, lured into a lack of faith a Pagan witch, Elsa forces Lohengrin to reveal his lineage and so breaks the spell. Clearly animated by a misogynistic distrust of women, Wagner’s Lohengrin also touches upon the fragile nature of fantasy. Lohengrin is a mighty figure from myth and his power rests upon the understanding that myth will never be held to account by facts. By asking Lohengrin for his true identity, Elsa destroys the mythical with the factual, denying everyone the power of escape.
5. The (Ambivalent) Tragedy of Escape
Having shown us Ludwig’s transformation from strong-willed eccentric to unaccountable psychotic, Higuri ends the series on a decidedly ambivalent note. The cost of isolation having been raised and raised again, Ludwig ultimately surrenders and signs his country over to Prussia. However, despite having won, the German nationalists continue to exert pressure on a King who has become too unstable and recalcitrant to be of any political use. Forced onto the sidelines and then into his own head, Ludwig is targeted for assassination by a sinister cabal. Despite having been fired, Hornig somehow manages to get through to the King and raises him from his torpor just long enough to organise a proper defence. Ludwig may well go, but clearly he has no intent to go quietly.
The manga ends with some speculation about the death of the historical Ludwig. At the time of his death, the historical Ludwig was little more than a prisoner. His death is considered to be mysterious as he was found to have drowned in the Starnberger Lake despite being a strong swimmer. Higuri suggests that Ludwig might have died as part of a botched assassination that prompted him to attempt one last escape. The ambiguity of the manga’s ending reflects not only the ambiguities surrounding the death of the historical Ludwig but also the ambiguities in the manga’s attitudes towards a life of escapism.
By highlighting both the heroic nature of a refusal to completely submit to the mundane and the devastating consequences of shifting one’s intellectual focus away from the problems of real life, Higuri speaks to our responsibilities as citizens of the world. Clearly, Ludwig was an intelligent and gifted enough politician that he could have done more to protect his subjects from the harshness of that world. In one particularly heavy-handed moment, Higuri points out that Ludwig’s failure to defend Bavarian independence helped propel the German people along a path leading to the Death Camps. Had Ludwig done more to check Prussian ambition then perhaps Germany might never have united and had Germany never united, then Hitler might never have gained a powerbase sufficiently strong to begin the Second World War.
The ambiguity of the series is also present in its sexual politics. Indeed, though I have not mentioned it thus far, Ludwig II is an example of the yaoi genre of manga. Yaoi manga tend to be written by women for women and usually feature emotionally elaborate love stories featuring impossibly beautiful young men who may or may not be gay. In fact, the refusal of yaoi protagonists to characterise themselves as gay or even bi is actually a source of political discontent among manga readers. As one might expect from an established genre, yaoi possesses its own stock characters and narrative guidelines. The most obvious of these is that yaoi love stories generally feature one protagonist who is older and more dominant while the younger protagonist is generally more feminine and unsure of himself. Ludwig II obeys these principles but also uses them for wider thematic effect. For example, Ludwig’s self-assurance and dominance is generally taken to be a sign of his ‘madness’ or strength of character. When Ludwig decides that he simply has to have Hornig, the rape is presented as a horrific abuse of power and position. The fact that Hornig is kind of into it is neither here nor there. However, as the manga progresses, Higuri returns to this relationship dynamic and uses it as a means of gaging the psychological health of her characters. For example, when Ludwig hooks up with Lohengrin, Lohengrin is presented as being about as close as you can get to a male-to-female transsexual. By having Lohengrin serve as the dominant partner in the relationship with Ludwig, Higuri is transgressing the rules of the genre in such a way as to highlight the ‘unnatural’ character of Ludwig’s obsession: not only is Ludwig’s escapism wrong because it is forcing him to become the bottom, it is wrong because it is placing an exceptionally feminine character on top. Higuri further transgresses the demands of the genre by slowly transferring power and agency from Ludwig towards Hornig. At the beginning of the series, Hornig is indistinguishable from the pretty young blonde things that feature in dozens of yaoi, by the end of the series he is foiling attempted coups while Ludwig languishes in bed. Again, Higuri transgresses the rules of the yaoi genre in order to make a point: Ludwig should be the guy foiling the plot… not Hornig. By failing to take the upper hand, Ludwig is revealing how sick and unhealthy his position really is.
The ambivalence of Ludwig II’s attitude to escapism is also evident in the way in which Higuri presents the sexual act itself. Though always elegant and tasteful, the artwork moves from the highly abstract to the startlingly graphic. For example, when Ludwig has sex with Lohengrin, we see nothing and the abstract nature of the artwork reminds us that we are dealing with something entirely imaginary. Similarly, when Hornig is raped or Ludwig calls upon Hornig to humiliate himself as part of some ill-conceived game, Higuri depicts the action is a startlingly direct manner. Between these two extremes, the bulk of Ludwig’s sexual liaisons take place: the more in touch he is with his real feelings, the more graphic the artwork, the more poetic the liaison, the more abstract the stylised the images become.
The fact that both extremes and every point in between is equally beautifully rendered underlines the suggestion that there is no absolutely ‘correct’ relationship to have with reality. Clearly, Higuri suggests that there are times when one ought to be in there here and now and there are times when escape is a more logical course but the ever-changing degree of realism in Higuri’s artwork suggests that such correctness is more a matter of subjective preference than moral certainty.
While Higuri does work hard to defend the heroic and revolutionary character of escapism, it seems that she still has doubts as to its long-term consequences. Yes, there is something heroic in our decision to devote ourselves utterly to thinking about genre rather than Real World problems, but is this act of escape actively heroic or merely self-destructive? Higuri has no real answers but she asks the question with good deal more clarity and insight than most writers and because of that Ludwig II is a rare and beautiful gem.
Jonathan McCalmont is a critic whose work has been published at Strange Horizons, The SF Site, The New York Review of Science Fiction, Vector and The Escapist. He maintains a film and literary blog entitled Ruthless Culture and he writes a monthly gaming column at Futurismic entitled Blasphemous Geometries.