Escape-from, Escape-to, and Escape-into

The following article is one of many published  in a series on “escape.” You can find out more about the project and articles similar to this one here.

By Andy Xu

The word “escape” exists in its negative sense, its reactive form: escape-from – from prison, from tyranny, from violence. It is a reaction because it is the second step. No tyranny, no perception of tyrannical institutions, and there’s nothing to escape from and thus, no escape. Maybe it is a great second step, the ultimate revenge, a very long middle finger to the tyrant in the widest sense of the word.

The problem with escape as the second step is that it derives its impetus from the first step. Maybe this is not a problem at all: Naturally, if the oppressor does not exist, then the oppressed does not exist; if there is nothing to escape from, then everyone can be perfectly happy where they are. But is the imperative that escape be triggered, that it be a second step, not in itself a prison? Even if there is nothing evil to escape from, even if we find ourselves in a state of perfect happiness, can’t we still decide to escape – to escape to –? To escape to a state of meaningful existence – in contrast to a state of perfect happiness, if this distinction can be established – or even to escape to somewhere just for a change. Escape-to becomes action, it becomes affirmation, it becomes a first step that generates its own impetus.

Perhaps the dichotomy between escape-from and escape-to is not so stark. Maybe -from and -to are just the two faces of Janus because escape from Alcatraz sounds at times not so different from escape to freedom or happiness. This pair of false oppositions is generated by a more dispersive array of false oppositions, oppositions between freedom and unfreedom, happiness and unhappiness, inside prison and outside prison. At which point can we say that we have escaped from unhappiness and to happiness? Where does the core of happiness lie? Does unfreedom only exist in institutionalized and consequently concentrated forms? These questions point to the pervasiveness and elusiveness of freedom, unfreedom, happiness, unhappiness, meaning, meaninglessness, if I am still allowed to use these terms. None of these terms has its self-enclosed territory, and none of them stays docile-ly behind bars.

We might be prompted to say, “the fact that perfection is unreachable should not discourage us from approaching it indefinitely, the fact that happiness is elusive should not discourage us from forever striving for it.” We might be prompted to think that a lifetime of escape-from/-to is just human, a lifetime of never-ending escape from the worst to the bad, from the bad to the good, from the good to the better. But maybe this escape-from/-to is not human at all – non-human, canine, the twin of dogs’ chasing their own tails. If we do not need a third option, then I do. I need, besides escape-from and escape-to, an escape-into.

If escape-from is a going beyond and escape-to a reaching for, then escape-into is a diving into, a digging downward, then it is vertical rather than horizontal. Compared to -from and -to, -into is both escaping and not escaping because it more or less holds its position, because it both goes somewhere and nowhere, because it knows that this one breath will not last very long, that very soon it has to come back up. In this sense, -into lies closest to escapism; and if one plans to find its non-human twin, the ostrich might be a good candidate.

Escape-into postulates happiness’s dark, damp, lowly and sporadic habitats – an underground happiness – rather than some sunny, warm, fertile land that yields honey and milk. It consequently has no interest in escaping from the prison of unhappiness to the land of happiness. It does not pursue happiness, but indulge it, escape into it. It smirks at the desperate search for some calling because it sees meaning only as existing in the moment and for the moment.

Escape-into sides against the intellect with the rest of the body. If the politics of the body consists in the rule of the few, i.e., the intellect, the silence of the majority and the dissatisfaction of the rest, then -into gives voice to the silent majority and joins forces with the dissatisfied rest. And if democracy sets as its principle the rule of the majority, then -into is necessarily antidemocratic; it spits on this rule, if not attempting to demolish it. Escape-into sides with minority, with resistance. It is a joke, a clown, a buffoon: Barging into those trivial confrontations, it ridicules the winner and raises the hand of the loser. And if you see a text as a boxing ring, then escape-into leaves its traces in those sentences, those words that sabotage the entire text, that flee from “the central argument.” – “Central argument”… How pedantic! Why can’t a piece of writing be a performance, like a song or a dance? Why can’t it just shock, impress, touch and inspire at unexpected moments, in unexpected ways?

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