I wrote the following critical essay in 2017 and it hasn’t left my thoughts since. As someone who lives in the Caribbean, surrounded by sparkling turquoise waters and lush vegetation, it’s hard to imagine my surroundings as anything other than paradise. Yet paradise has become so banal. Year after year, I witness thousands of tourists – the true worshippers of paradise – flock to the golden beaches and sultry sun of my island. I see them revel in the exotic as if it’s their utopia, their deepest escapist fantasy. We fulfill their every need like vassals of paradise, there to witness and to serve. We walk the streets and go about our jobs, so saturated with the exotic it becomes indiscernible from our daily grind. So how to do we, the citizens of paradise, escape our reality?
This essay marks the departure point for my next body of work How to Escape From Paradise
We have all, at some point in our lives, wanted to run away. Whether we used our feet, our minds, or just had a really good nap, the need to escape has proven to be inherent to whom we are as human beings. Escapism is “the tendency to seek distraction and relief from unpleasant realities, especially by seeking entertainment or engaging in fantasy”, and is at the crux of the discussion to follow. (Oxford University Press) The definition of ‘unpleasant realities’ shifts from society to society and our ways of processing and reacting to strife are similarly influenced. “In material philosophy, the act of escaping into our imagination is at best a temporary retreat from reality into fantasy. But in the idealist view, the same act of imagination can reshape our reality.” (Walter, 4) This perspective marks the difference in how escapism is manifested in global western societies compared to how it exists in post-colonial, developing nations like the countries of the Caribbean, who are marketed as premier destinations for a fantasy escape.
The dominant thought in the western world of today is one of capitalism and materialism. “Materialist philosophy enforces a strikingly rigid and oppressive social hierarchy”. (Walter, 7) The privileged and the powerful reap the labours of the poor, who are exposed to concentrated amounts of the sort of strife that inspires escapism. Like the impoverished people in developed countries, in the global hierarchy, the post-colonial nations in formation reside at the bottom of the food chain. Like whores, our countries are to be enjoyed by the paying, higher-class masses that revel in our fantastic beauty and indulge in our attentions. We are the “places where rules of civility can be suspended” and one can achieve the levels of escapist euphoria only found in “microcosms of earthly Paradise.” (Sheller, 18, 2) Yet, as we work our bodies over in service of the huge egos of the West, we become disillusioned. The reality of living in a carefully maintained paradise, always marketed as an escape, never an aspiration becomes a burden, as we exist in the midst of a fantasy that we can never quite reach.
As stated by Walter, “Society is shaped for those with power”, and while this western, capitalist perspective is mirrored in many countries in the Caribbean and other developing nations, the reaction by the two global regions differ significantly. (Walter, 7) The key words in Walter’s statement are ‘society is shaped’. The difference between a developing and a developed country is where the escapist divide exists. While the oppressed, living in countries marked clearly as global superpowers, like the United States of America, Europe and Great Britain, indulge in idealism in the form of digital technology and fantasy worlds, created by others to temporarily relieve the pressure of their existence, they eventually return to their daily materialist existence with no real hope of ever changing their fantasy into a reality.
However in the context of the Caribbean, while we too, partake in technology and fantasy in an effort to ease our materialist woes, we possess a privilege not bestowed upon our older, more powerful siblings. Existing in the midst of a constant state of definition, growth and societal development, allows the citizens of our nations indulgence in idealist perspectives and a hope that their imaginings of a better reality can be made possible in the future that is manifesting around them daily. For as stated in The Work of Art in the Postcolonial Imagination,“emancipation has to be built and constructed from the bottom up. There is no predictable flow of effects from artistic wish fulfillment, vanguard theory or politics to the fruition of social solidarity and the realization of a new community.” (McCarthy and Dimitriadis, 69)
Furthermore, in the escapist fantasies influenced by our colonial past, “the reclamation and reintegration of the repressed identity of Africa in the Caribbean space” presents another avenue of escapism for people in the region. (McCarthy and Dimitriadis, 69) While personally, my perspectives on solely embracing an African identity as a Caribbean individual are materialist in nature – as my definition of the Caribbean identity is multicultural – through the research conducted for this paper, I have developed a sympathy, or perhaps even empathy with a more idealist perspective. While the Caribbean exists as a base for the amalgamation of a plethora of cultures, African included, it is easy to understand how Africa could call to a citizen of the region. When confronted with an unpleasant reality, the appeal of the past oftentimes becomes provocative.
Prior to modern post-independent times, the most favorable period in the Caribbean imagination existed before the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. While identifying with the white, European, colonial privileged, whose blood also runs through our veins, would seem the logical choice, it is the black face of the African, who stares back at most of us in the mirror, that we long to embody. We cannot, yet, fully escape our physical identities, however, we can embrace them. The longing for a real connection to Africa, to a time when people who look liked us were more than just the oppressed or the lower social classes is one of our particular, idealist forms of escapism.
The reaction to the two ruling institutions – the pre and postcolonial – by the citizens of the Caribbean is fascinating in its relation to the idea of escapism. Double coding, the predisposition “to mobilize two or more plains or fields of idiomatic reference” is the manifestation of this. (McCarthy and Dimitriadis, 65) It “can be traced to the histories, actions and practices of marginalized and oppressed groups” and provides the perfect platform for an everyday, low-key method of escape. (McCarthy and Dimitriadis, 65) By code switching, the postcolonial individual balances the language and practices of past ideals with present or repressed conceptions of the accepted. In doing this they recognize the influence of their colonial history, while also escaping it and embracing the culture of the oppressed. “Hence, the code switching and multiple articulations or revisions of Christian hymns on the part of African slaves were linked to efforts to circulate meaning around and beyond the gaze of plantation owners. Similarly, the Africanesque revision of Catholicism in the Voodoo or Candamble religions of Haiti and Brazil, respectively, represents a popular expression of the double and triple register of the signifying subaltern subject.” (McCarthy and Dimitriadis, 65) This concept of double coding parallels the perspectives posited thus far on escapism. In code switching there seems to always be one foot in reality and one in fantasy, in the accepted and the oppressed.
As previously mentioned, the colonial past of the Caribbean plays a significant role in the methods we use to escape. However, what has become clearer as this paper has progressed is how inherent the concept of escapism is to the Caribbean. While at face value the region is a paradise for much of the world, on a deeper level the escapist ideal permeates our social consciousness. One might argue that this is a direct result of the passion for rebellion and emancipation running through the veins of the descendants of slaves inhabiting the region. Whether that is the case or not, we still build, shed and balance our shifting identities, standing on the divide of future and past, longing for anything more bearable than the taunting ‘perfection’ of our present ‘paradise’.
McCarthy, Cameron, and Greg Dimitriadis. “The Work of Art in the Postcolonial Imagination.” Discourse: studies in the cultural politics of education, 2000: 59-74.
Oxford University Press. Definition of escapism in English. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/escapism (accessed November 24, 2016).
Sheller, Mimi. “Natural Hedonism: The Invention of Caribbean Islands as Tropical Playgrounds.” The Society For Caribbean Studies Annual Conference Papers, July 4, 2001: 20.
Walter, Damien. “The Great Escape.” Does fantasy offer mere escapism or real escape? Aeon Essays. August 28, 2016.