The New York Times Book Review
Escapismby Yi-Fu Tuan
In prehistoric times, our ancestors began building shelters and planting crops in order to escape from nature's harsh realities. Today, we flee urban dangers for the safer, reconfigured world of suburban lawns and parks. According to geographer Yi-Fu Tuan, people have always sought to escape in one way or another, sometimes foolishly, often creatively and
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In prehistoric times, our ancestors began building shelters and planting crops in order to escape from nature's harsh realities. Today, we flee urban dangers for the safer, reconfigured world of suburban lawns and parks. According to geographer Yi-Fu Tuan, people have always sought to escape in one way or another, sometimes foolishly, often creatively and ingeniously. Glass-tower cities, suburbs, shopping malls, Disneylandall are among the most recent monuments in our efforts to escape the constraints and uncertainties of lifeultimately, those imposed by nature. "What cultural product," Tuan asks, "is not escape?" In his new book, the capstone of a celebrated career, Tuan shows that escapism is an inescapable component of human thought and culture.
The New York Times Book Review
Francis I. Kane
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Nature and Culture
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"Escapism" has a somewhat negative meaning in our society and perhaps in all societies. It suggests an inability to face factsthe real world. We speak of escapist literature, for instance, and we tend to judge as escapist places such as mega-shopping malls, fancy resorts, theme parks, or even picture-perfect suburbs. They all lackin a single wordweight.
Suspicion of escapism has many causes. The most obvious is that no animal can survive unless it perceives its environment as it really is. Daydreaming or wishful thinking would not answer. The hard facts cannot be made to go away by shutting one's eyes. But so far as we know, only humans may withdraw, eyes shut, to ponder the nature of a threat rather than confront it directly, muscles tense, eyes open; only they daydream and engage in wishful thinking. Significantly, only humans have culture. By culture I mean not just certain acquired habits, the manufacture and use of certain tools, but a whole world of thought and belief, habits and customs, skills and artifacts. Culture is more closely linked to the human tendency not to face facts, our ability to escape by one means or another, than we are accustomed to believe. Indeed, I should like to add another definition of what it is to be human to the many that already exist: A human being is an animal who is congenitally indisposed to accept reality as it is. Humans not only submit and adapt, as all animals do; they transform in accordance with a preconceived plan. That is, before transforming, they do something extraordinary, namely, "see" what is not there. Seeing what is not there lies at the foundation of all human culture.
Reality and the Real
What do the words "reality" and "real" mean? Although philosophers do not find it easy to agree on an answer, ordinary thinking people have little difficulty using these words in everyday talk, often in conjunction with their opposites, "fantasy" and "unreal." Such talk, when looked at closely, shows how the meaning of "real" shifts, even radically, as the context changes. A common meaning draws on the model of animal life. The idea is that animals live in the real world, respond as best they can to outside forces and their own nature, free of unsettling images and aspirations. Humans can approach that state of existence by also living close to nature, curbing the imagination and jettisoning excess cultural baggage. Nature itself is real. It is indubitably real to humans when they feel it as a blast of cold wind, a sudden shower, or the skin rash caused by contact with poison ivy. So another meaning of "real" emerges: the real as impact. It is not just nature; it is whatever in nature or in society imposes itself on a human being or group, doing so either suddenly or as a consistently felt pressure. "Reality" in this sense is intractable, and it is indifferent to the needs and desires of particular individuals and groups. Facing reality, then, implies accepting one's essential powerlessness, yielding or adjusting to circumambient forces, taking solace in some local pattern or order that one has created and to which one has become habituated. This "local pattern or order" points to another sense of the real: a small and thoroughly humanized world. Far from being shock or impact, the real is the familiar, the predictable, the nurturing and all-enveloping. Home is the prime example. Home is a place to which one is attached by myriad habits of thought and behaviorculturally acquired, of course, yet in time they become so intimately woven into everyday existence that they seem primordial and the essence of one's being. Moving out of home and the familiar, even when this is voluntary and of short duration, can feel like escapism, sojourn in a fantasy world, less real because less dense and all-encompassing.
Does this conclude the list of commonly accepted meanings of "real"? No. For completion, at least one more sense of the word demands to be added. Disconcertingly, it is the opposite of the one I have just given. In this usage, it is daily life, with its messy details and frustrating lack of definition and completionits many inconclusive moves and projects twisting and turning as in a fitful dreamthat is unreal. Real, by contrast, is the well-told story, the clear image, the well-defined architectural space, the sacred ritual, all of which give a heightened sense of selfa feeling of aliveness.
The earth is our home. Trips to the moon, another planet, a distant star, have haunted the human imagination and may even become a commonplace reality one day. But they nevertheless have an aura of fantasy about them. Real life is life on earth; it is here that we have our roots and our being. Geographers study the earth as human habitat or home. Interestingly, they discover that the earth is never quite the home humans want it to be; hence the dreams of flying and of a paradise located elsewhere that are common to many cultures. Most people, when they think of the earth, think not of the entire planet but of a part of itthe part they live in. Wherever they happen to be, provided they have been settled there for some time, they consider home. Yet this is not quite the case either, if only because if it were, there would be no story, no human story, to tell; people, like other animals, will be "immersed in nature," as G. W. F. Hegel put it. It is the restless activity that produces the story line. Human beings have been and continue to be profoundly restless. For one reason or another, they are not content with being where they are. They move, or if they stay in place, they seek to rearrange that place. Migration and the in situ transformation of the environment are two major themesthe two major themesin human geography. They both reveal a discontent with the status quo, a desire to escape. Geographers have written voluminously on these themes without using "escape" or "escapism" as a guiding concept. What is to be gained by using it now? The gain is that it forces us to reconsider nature and culture, and thereby who we are and what we aspire to, in productive tandem with "real and imagined," "reality and fantasy"ideas that traditionally are at the core of humanist scholarship and thinking.
Migration is clearly a type of escape. Animals move out when their home ground starts to deteriorate. Humans have done so since the earliest times; and it now appears that as they acquired certain critical marks of cultureoutstandingly, language around sixty thousand years agothey became better able to organize themselves in complex ways and meet the challenges of the environment by migrating, sometimes over great distances. To overcome great distance, our remote ancestors must have had not only organizational ability, enormously enhanced by language, but also new technical means at their disposalseaworthy craft, for example. Such people must have been of lively mind and were, I will assume, quite capable of envisaging "greener pastures" elsewhere and making plans as to how best to reach their destination. By the end of the Ice Age, some twelve thousand years ago, human beings had spread into every kind of natural environment, from the Tropics to the Arctic, the major exceptions being ice sheets and the highest mountains.
Much of the human story can be told as one of migration. People move a short distance to a better hunting ground, richer soil, better economic opportunity, greater cultural stimulus. Short-distance movements are likely to be periodic, their paths winding back on themselves with changing circumstance. Over the years such movements become habit, their circuits habitat. Long-distance migrations, by contrast, are likely to be in one direction and permanent. A certain epic grandeur attaches to them, for migrants must be willing to take steps that make life even more difficult than it already is in the hope of future felicity. Before people make a risky move, they must have information about their destination point. What kinds of information are available? To what extent does the need to believe in a better world at the horizon overrule or distort the "hard facts" that people know? Is reality so constraining and unbearable at home that it becomes the seedbed for wild longings and images? And do these images, by virtue of their simplicity and vividness, seem not a dream but more "real" than the familiar world? A great modern epic of migration is the spread of Europeans to the New World. The United States of America proclaims itself a land of immigrants. It would not want to be known as a "land of escapists," yet many did just that: escape from the intolerable conditions of the Old World for the promises of the New.
Nature and Society
Human restlessness finds release in geographical mobility. It also finds release (and relief) in bringing about local change. The circumstance one wishes to changeto escape fromcan be social, political, or economic; it can be a run-down urban neighborhood or a ravaged countryside. And it can be nature. In telling a human story, we may start at any point in time, but if we go back far enough we necessarily have nature, untouched nature, as stage: first the swamp, forest, bush, or desert, then ... then what? Then humans enter, and our story begins.
In the long run, humans everywhere experience, if not forthrightly recognize, nature as home and tomb, Eden and jungle, mother and ogre, a responsive "thou" and an indifferent "it." Our attitude to nature was and is understandably ambivalent. Culture reflects this ambivalence; it compensates for nature's defects yet fears the consequences of overcompensation. A major defect is nature's undependability and violence. The familiar story of people altering nature can thus be understood as their effort to distance themselves from it by establishing a mediating, more constant world of their own making. The story has many versions. Almost all are anguish-ridden, especially early on, when pioneers had to battle nature for a precarious toehold.
A natural environment can itself seem both nourishing and stable to its human habitants. A tropical forest, for example, provides for the modest needs of hunter-gatherers throughout the year, year after year. However, once a people start to change the forest, even if it is only the making of a modest clearing for crops and a village, the forest can seem to turn into a malevolent force that relentlessly threatens to move in and take over the cleared space. Some such experience of harassment is known to villagers all over the world, though perhaps not to the same degree as in the humid Tropics. Villagers are therefore inclined to see nature in a suspicious light. Of course they know that it provides for their needs and are gratefula gratitude expressed by gestures and stories of respect. But they also know from hard experience that nature provides grudgingly, and that from time to time it acts with the utmost indifference to human works and lives.
Carving a space out of nature, then, does not ensure stability and ease. To the contrary, it can make people feel more than ever vulnerable. What to do? Lacking physical power, the most basic step they can take is to rope nature into the human world so that it will be responsiveas difficult people areto social pressures and sanctions. If these don't work, they try placatory ritual, and if this in turn fails, they appeal to the higher authority of heaven or its human regents on earth. By one means or another they seek control, with at best only tenuous success. What appears stable to the visiting ecologist, whose discipline predisposes him to focus on long-range people-environment interactions, may be not stable at all but rather full of uncertainty to the local inhabitants struggling to survive from day to day, week to week, one season to another.
Aztec and Chinese
Now, suppose we turn to a more advanced society, one in which the people, unlike isolated and poorly equipped villagers, have the technical and organizational means to make extensive permanent clearings, raise crops, and build monuments, including cities. Won't the exercising of that power and the looming presence of large human works impress on them a sense of their own efficacy and the world's permanence?
The answer is, Not always. The Aztecs of Mexico are a case in point. Here is a people who continued to feel insecure despite the scope and sophistication of their material attainments. Nature's instabilities, made evident by the ominous presence of volcanoes and experienced repeatedly in the wayward behavior of weather, stream flow, and lake level, more than overruled whatever reassurance human artifacts could give. Moreover, in the Aztec civilization the architectural monuments of temple and altar themselves attested more to fear and anxiety than to confidence, for they were built to conduct human sacrifice, with the end in view of sustaining and regulating the enfeebled forces of the cosmos.
Consider another, more confident civilization, the Chinese. The Chinese struggled to regulate nature through physical intervention and by such institutional means as the establishment of public granaries. In these respects the two civilizations, Aztec and Chinese, had something in common. However, unlike the Aztecs, the Chinese managed to sustain over the course of millennia, and in the teeth of abundant contrary evidence, a magnificent model of cosmic harmony. This ability to overlook evidence may earn the Chinese the label of escapists, but without itwithout their tenacious hold on the dream of harmonythey would have deprived themselves of optimism and fortitude, psychological advantages that helped them to create an enduring culture. To the Chinese architect-engineer, barriers such as swamp, forest, and hillock could be overcome; they did not have to be accepted as embossed in the eternal order of things. And to the Chinese philosopherindeed, to the philosopher in any culturewayward facts and contingencies were not just there to be noted and accepted; rather, they were puzzling pieces of reality that could stimulate one to search for a more comprehensive world-view.
Chinese composure has its source in a number of factors. Tangible architectural and engineering achievements no doubt promoted confidence, as did the memory of extended periods of peace and prosperity during a great dynasty such as the Han, T'ang, or Sung. The Chinese inclination to see the universe as orderly and hence accessible to reason surely also promoted composure. Even more reassuringmore wishful and escapist, from our secularist-modern perspectiveis the idea that the universe is moral and hence responsive to moral suasion. China has had its share of natural disasters; these might well have been more devastating and frequent than those that afflicted the Aztec empire. When disasters visited China and could not be alleviated by ordinary means, the emperor took responsibility, for he considered them to be a consequence of his own moral failing. To reestablish order, he "memorialized heaven," imposing a penance on himself on his own and humankind's behalf. As exemplary man, the emperor was the ultimate mediator between heaven and earth; and for this reason he could by his own conduct and sacrifice right wrong, restore harmony throughout the worlds of nature and of people. The emperor was called Son of Heaven rather than Son of Earth. There is no doubt a heavenward tilt in Chinese high culture, as there is in all high cultures. What high culture offers is escape from bondage to earth.
Premodern and Early Modern Europe
Escape from nature's vagaries and violenceexcept during a blizzard or hurricanemay seem a strange idea to modern Westerners, for whom society rather than nature is unpredictable and violent. How short is their memory! Any full account of life and livelihood in the West from the Middle Ages to the eighteenth century must give a prominent role to weatherthat is, if we are more interested in ordinary people than in potentates and their political high jinks. So much misery had its immediate cause in meteorological freakishness. Too much rain or too little, prolonged cold or withering heat, led to crop failure and, all too oftenat least locallyto famine and starvation.
Records from the early modern period show how frequently people even in the richest parts of Europe suffered and died from lack of food. In 1597 a citizen of Newcastle wrote of "sundry starving and dying in our streets and in the fields for lack of bread." And this despite importation of foreign grain into the port city. In France, rather than the sort of cosmic stability to be expected from a Sun King, wild swings of lean and fat years seemed more the rule. In 1661-62 much of France was afflicted by bad weather, poor harvests, and famine. Beggars from the countryside flocked to the towns, where citizens formed militias to drive them back. Good weather produced good harvests in 1663; there followed a decade of prosperity. From 1674 onward, however, the times were once more "out of joint." A wet summer curtailed the harvests of 1674; those of 1677, 1678, and 1679 were worse. Yields were again poor in 1681 and catastrophic in some regions in 1684. Between 1679 and 1684 the death toll rose throughout much of France. Good weather prevailed from 1684 to 1689; magnificent harvests made for cheap grain, and the people were, for a change, more than adequately fed. Then came the great famine of 1693-94, the culmination of a succession of cold and wet years. A majority of people in France suffered, though in varying degree. Poor folks resorted to eating "such unclean things as cats and the flesh of horses flayed and cast on to dung heaps," and some starved to death.
In premodern and early modern Europe, uncertainty in both nature and society put a heavy burden on the poor. That hardly surprises us. More difficult for us to imagine now is how uncertainty could haunt the well-to-do, even the rich and the powerful. When uncertainty is so much a fact of life, escape into a make-believe world of perfect order may be excused. Make-believe was one wayan important waythat Renaissance princes coped. They produced elaborate masques in which they themselves sometimes played the roles of gods and goddesses reigning in a pastoral heaven of abundance and peace. If ordinary people sought to exclude unruly weather by putting a roof over their heads, Renaissance rulers did that and far more. By means of the art at their command they produced an alternative heaven: the palace itself and, even more overtly, the theatrical stage of floating clouds, flying chariots, pastures and billowing fields of surpassing fertility.
What was the nature of this art? Shakespeare hinted at it in the magic powers of Prospero. A Renaissance prince was a Prosperoa magician. A magician was not the marginal entertainer we now see him to be. Rather, he was considered a person of deep knowledgesomeone who knew how things worked below the surface and so could do wonders. Whereas a prince only purchased such power, a genius like Leonardo da Vinci possessed it in his own person to a remarkable degree. It doesn't seem to me far-fetched to call Leonardo a magician. Indeed, a much later figure, Isaac Newton, has been called a magician, the last one. An important difference, however, separates a Renaissance figure like Leonardo and the outstanding genius of a later time, Newton: Leonardo approached knowledge through art, technique, and technology, skills that would have been necessary to the making of the sort of surrogate heaven that Renaissance princes yearned for. By contrast, Newton showed little interest in the earthbound phenomena such as anatomy and geology that fascinated Leonardo. Nor was he concerned with building a surrogate heaven on earth in the manner of an artist-architect. Rather, his gaze was directed to heaven itself, and his singular contribution to knowledge was through the abstractions of mathematics.
Physical vs. Biological Science:
Heaven vs. Earth
Alfred North Whitehead, an outstanding mathematician-philosopher of our time, famously designated the seventeenth century the Century of Genius. He gave twelve names: Bacon, Harvey, Kepler, Galileo, Descartes, Pascal, Huyghens, Boyle, Newton, Locke, Spinoza, and Leibniz. He apologized for the predominance of Englishmen, then noted without apology that he had only one biologist on the list: Harvey. Genius in that century showed itself in celestial mechanics and physics rather than in biology or organic nature, to which humans belong and upon which they depend. At the threshold of the modern age, human helplessnessthe recurrent famines and starvation I mentioned earliercontinued to exist even in the developed parts of Europe; on the other hand, the laws of celestial nature were being mapped with unprecedented accuracy. On earth, both nature and human affairs often seemed to verge on chaos; heaven, by contrast, exhibited perfect order. Cosmic order gave the natural philosophers of the seventeenth century confidence, as it has given confidence to priest-kings throughout human history. In premodern times, rulers believed that the regularities discernible above could somehow be brought down below. In early modern Europe, natural philosophers had grounds for hoping that the rigorous method that opened the secrets of heaven could work similar wonders on earth. For two centuries, however, there was hardly any link between the splendid theoretical reaches of the new science and applications that catered to ordinary human needs. Agricultural advances during the eighteenth century had more to do with changes in practice (crop rotation, for example), in a more systematic use of knowledge gained through centuries of trial and error, in changes of land tenure and ownership, and suchlike than with the bright discoveries of an abstract, mechanistic, heaven-inspired science.
To this observation a critic may say, "Well, what do you expect? The challenges of agriculture can be met only by close attention to the intricacies and interdependencies of land and life, to what is happening at our feet and before our eyes rather than in a scientist's playpen (the laboratory), or by seeking models of analysis and conceptualization suited to the world of astronomy and physics. In short, to live well, one needs more down-to-earth realism, not escapism."
This sensible answer has its own difficulties. As we now know, what may be deemed escapism turns out to be a circuitous route to unprecedented manipulative power over organic life, and not just predictive power over the stars. One branch of the route took the scientific and entrepreneurial spirits of the West from the study of general chemistry to the study of soil chemistry, and from there to the manufacture of chemical fertilizers, the use of which led to impressively higher crop yields; another branch took them from the study of genetics to the scientific breeding of plants and animals, which became more and more ingenious, reaching a high peak in the Green Revolution, and onward to genetic engineering. While all this was taking place, the same theoretic-analytic bent of mind produced agricultural machines of increasing power and flexibility, and, one might add, the complex organizational and marketing strategies of advanced farming. Countries that embraced these discoveries and inventions prospered. In the second half of the twentieth century, cornucopia no longer seems just a dream, as it has been for the vast majority of people throughout human time. A substantial number of people in the developed parts of the world encounter it day after day. They have learned to take the supermarket's dazzling pyramids of fruits and vegetables, its esplanades of meat, for granted. And yet a doubt lingers as to whether such abundance is real and can last, whether it is not just an effect of Prospero's magic wand. The upward curve of success in the West has not altogether removed the feeling that technological society must, sooner or later, pay for its arrogation of powers that rightly belong only to nature and nature's God.
Escape to Nature
I have given a brief and sweeping account of "escape from nature," which has taken us from uncertain yields in village clearings to supermarket cornucopia. The escape is made possible by different kinds of power: the power of humans working cooperatively and deliberatively together, the power of technology, and, underlying them, the power of images and ideas. The realities thus created do not, however, necessarily produce contentment. They may, on the contrary, generate frustration and restlessness. Again people seek to escapethis time "back to nature."
Escaping or returning to nature is a well-worn theme. I mention it to provide a counterpoint to the story of escaping from nature, but also to draw attention to certain facets of the "back to nature" sentiment that have not yet entered the common lore. One is the antiquity of this sentiment. A yearning for the natural and the wild goes back almost to the beginning of city building in ancient Sumer. A hint of it can already be found in the epic of Gilgamesh, which tells of the natural man Enkidu, who was seduced by gradual steps to embrace the refinements of civilization, only to regret on his deathbed what he had left behind: a free life cavorting with gazelles.
The second point I wish to underline is this: Although a warm sentiment for nature is common among urban sophisticates, as we know from well-documented European and East Asian history, it is not confined to them. The extreme artificiality of a built environment is not itself an essential cause or inducement. Consider the Lele of Kasai in tropical Africa. They do not have cities, yet they know what it is like to yearn for nature. What they wish to escape from is the modestly humanized landscape they have made from the savanna next to the Kasai River, for to keep everything there in good orderfrom social relations to huts and groundnut plotsthey must be constantly vigilant, and that proves burdensome. To find relief, the Lele men periodically leave behind the glare and heat of the savanna, with its interminable chores and obligations, to plunge into the dark, cool, and nurturing rain forest on the other side of the river, which to them is the source of all good things, a gift of God.
The third point is that "back to nature" varies enormously in scale. At one end of the scale are such familiar and minor undertakings as the weekend camping trip to the forest and, more permanently, the return to a rural commune way of life. At the other end of the scale is the European settlement of North America itself. It too might be considered a type of "escape to nature." Old Europe was the city; the New World was nature. True, many settlers came from Europe's rural towns and villages rather than from its large cities. Nevertheless, they were escaping from a reality that seemed too firmly set and densely packed to the spaces and simpler ways of life in the New World.
My final point is this: Back-to-nature movements at all scales, including the epic scale of transatlantic migration, have seldom resulted in the abandonment, or even serious depletion, of populations in the home basesthe major cities and metropolitan fields, which over time have continued to gain inhabitants and to further distance themselves from nature.
This last point serves to remind us that "escape to nature" is dependent on "escape from nature." The latter is primary and inexorable. It is so because pressures of population and social constraint must build up first before the desire to escape from them can arise; and I have already urged that these pressures are themselves a consequence of cultureof our desire and ability to escape from nature. "Escape from nature" is primary for another reason, namely, that the nature one escapes to, because it is the target of desire rather than a vague "out there" to which one is unhappily thrust, must have been culturally delineated and endowed with value. What we wish to escape to is not "nature" but an alluring conception of it, and this conception is necessarily a product of a people's experience and historytheir culture. Paradoxical as it may sound, "escape to nature" is a cultural undertaking, a covered-up attempt to "escape from nature."
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Meet the Author
From 1983 until retiring in 1998, Yi-Fu Tuan was the John K. Wright and Vilas Professor of Geography at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. One of the most important and influential cultural geographers of our time, Tuan has been the recipient of many awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Cullum Medal of the American Geographical Society, and the Lauréat d'Honneur of the International Geographical Union. His previous books include Cosmos and Hearth: A Cosmopolite's Viewpoint; Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes, and Values; Dominance and Affection: The Making of Pets; and Who Am I? An Autobiography of Emotion, Mind, and Spirit.
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