Escapism

My Dear Mr. Williams:

You were asking me what I thought about a new term in criticism: the Art of "Escape." Isn’t that phrase tautological? What has art ever been but escape? To be sure, this definition is for the moment used in a derogatory sense, implying an evasion of duty, something like the behavior of a poltroon. When the world is in a bad way, we are told, it is the business of the composer and the poet to devote himself to propaganda and fan the flames of indignation.

But the world has a habit of being in a bad way from time to time, and art has never contributed anything to help matters-except escape. Hundreds of years ago, before European civilization had touched this continent, the Indian women in the old rock-perched pueblos of the Southwest were painting geometrical patterns on the jars in which they carried water up from the streams. Why did they take the trouble? These people lived under the perpetual threat of drought and famine; they often shaped their graceful cooking pots when they had nothing to cook in them. Anyone who looks over a collection of pre-historic Indian pottery dug up from old burial mounds knows at once that the potters experimented with form and color to gratify something that had no concern with food and shelter. The major arts (poetry, painting, architecture, sculpture, music) have a pedigree all their own. They did not come into being as a means of increasing the game supply or promoting tribal security. They sprang from an unaccountable predilection of the one unaccountable thing in man.

At the moment, we hear the same cry which went up during the French Revolution: The one really important thing for every individual is his citizenship, his loyalty to a cause-which, of course, always means his loyalty to a party. The composer should be Citizen Beethoven, the painter Citizen Rembrandt, the poet Citizen Shelley, and they should step into line and speed their pen or brush in helping to solve the economic problems which confront society. There have been generous and bold spirits among the artists: Courbet tried to kick down the Vendôme Column and got himself exiled, Citizen Shelley stepped into line and drove his pen-but he was not very useful to the reforms which fired his imagination. He was "useful," if you like that word, only as all true poets are, because they refresh and recharge the spirit of those who can read their language.

"Face the stern realities, you skulking Escapist!" the Radical editor cries. Yes, but usually the poor Escapist has so little cleverness when he struggles with stern realities. Schubert could easily write a dozen songs a day, but he couldn’t keep himself in shirts. Suppose the Radical editor, or the head of the Works Project, had to write a dozen songs a day? I can’t believe that if Tolstoi and Gœthe and Viollet-le-Duc and Descartes and Sir Isaac Newton were brought together and induced to work with a will, their opinions, voiced in their various special languages and formulae, would materially help Mayor La Guardia to better living conditions in New York City. Nearly all the Escapists in the long past have managed their own budget and their social relations so unsuccessfully that I wouldn’t want them for my landlords, or my bankers, or my neighbors. They were valuable, like powerful stimulants, only when they were left out of the social and industrial routine which goes on every day all over the world. Industrial life has to work out its own problems....

The literary radicals tell us there must be a new kind of poetry. There will be, whenever there is a new poet-a genuine one. The thesis that no one can ever write a noble sonnet on a noble theme without repeating Wordsworth, or a mysteriously lovely lyric without repeating Shelley, is an evasion. As well argue that because so many thumb-prints have already been taken, there must be a new method of identification. No fine poet can ever write like another. His poetry is simply his individuality. And the themes of true poetry, of great poetry, will be the same until all the values of human life have changed and all the strongest emotional responses have become different-which can hardly occur until the physical body itself has fundamentally changed....

Now, my dear Mr. Williams, I have already said much too much about a fleeting fashion which perhaps is not to be taken seriously at all. As Mary Colum remarked in the Yale Review: "The people who talk about the art of escape simply know nothing about art at all." At all, I echo!

Sincerely yours,

Willa Cather

The Commonweal

April 17, 1936

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About the Author

Willa Cather is the author of Death Comes for the Archbishop, Shadows on the Rock, Lucy Gayheart, and other books.

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