I follow the fairy tales of the heroes from my sofaFootnote 3. And just as Benjamin is writing, I can see how this viewing, this escapism into the TV series, does not require anything of me. Even though I am attentive, escapism is pleasant, requires no intelligence or action. During the pandemic of Covid-19, I have seen Atticus Freeman and Letitia fight monsters and racism in Lovecraft Country on Netflix. The program is about a young black man who travels across the segregated United States during the 1950s in search of his father and encounters all sorts of dark secrets, which plague the city. The show is inspired by the famous horror writer H.P. Lovecraft's fictional stories. But my, and others', viewing of this program has hardly led to anything more than a moment's relaxation. On the couch I can dream away from my own world into another reality and let Atticus and Letitia—the heroes in Lovecraft Country—do the work that I myself do not have the energy to. As stated before, escapism is therefore to be regarded as a failure, in a political sense. It does not lead to action. Rather, it makes us passive, as Benjamin mentioned.
Ernst Bloch, the Jewish Marxist philosopher, offers further perspectives on escapism and—not TV series, of course, since it is after his time—but the forerunner, of colportage literature in his work The Principle of Hope, which was published in three volumes in 1954, 1955, and 1959. Bloch writes in volume one that the: “The sweeping fairy tale is the adventure story, it best lives on today as colportage” (Bloch 1986, p. 367). Colportage and colportage literature was a special form of literature, filled with intrigue, violence and drama and has been given the status of "inferior literature" or as “bad novels” for its simple personal descriptions and deficient language (Hedman 2017; Svenska akademiens ordlista över svenska språket 2006). In order to make this idea of colportage understandable and why it is relevant in relation to the pedagogical possibility of escapism, I will make a detour around these forms of novels, as well as function of giving hope to the people, and then come back to Bloch’s understanding.
The word Colportage refers to the way how these novels, and books and religious tracts where distributed, by carriers on horses called “colporteurs” or “colporters” during the nineteenth century. The word col is derived from the Latin collum, "neck", and thus refers to the horse's neck; the horse that the colporteurs rode in the rural area where they then knocked on the doors and sold the books.
That the colportage literature was considered as inferior came only later, writes Dag Hedman in an essay on the early Swedish crime story (Hedman 2017). In the early nineteenth century, it was simply in the way that novels could be printed, as a periodic division of publications of larger works, sheet by sheet. The distribution consisted of small booklets, the scope consisted of 16, or 24 and 36 pages that were distributed every week for a cheap price (often 10 öre each). The authors of the colporter literature thus had their novels printed for a long time, sometimes several years, and in order to keep interest up and lead to a continued subscription, the novels contained strong intrigue and were real page turners (Hedman 2017). Through this way of distributing and printing literature, the poor and working class were given the opportunity, through the low price and the long-term subscription, to obtain extensive novels. Those who managed to keep up until the end of that publication could tear off the pages that did not include the novel and get a free publishing cover to bind the entire novel with (Hedman 2017).
Today we could see how the Netflix series have replaced this need for entertainment and stories filled with intrigue that colportage literature had before. The streaming series are full of intrigues, accessible and cheap with its monthly subscriptions that we can also share between different households and screens.
The colporters did not only spread serial novels, but they were also religious speakers/preachers who spread Christian writings. They appeared at a time when there were few opportunities to spread different messages. In Sweden the Conventical act (Konventikelplakatet) prevented other religious groups than the Church of Sweden from spreading their message. Therefore, it is conceivable that the colporters, the impermissible preachers within the free churches, spread constructive literature, moral teaching, together with Christian messages to the masses. A spread that also seemed educational: The purpose of the preachers was to give hope (despite all the toil and misery of earthly life, there will be a reward in heaven), and to improve the living conditions there and then.
After the end of the Conventicle Act in 1858, the colporteurs instead became the title of a traveling preacher. A colporter's letter was issued, giving the right to preach. These colporters preached, among other things, about abstinence from alcohol and extramarital sex—something we today perceive as problematic but was then a social revolution. The revival movement is one of those movements that, side by side with others (the sobriety, labor and women's movement) paved the way for a more democratic society in Sweden. Today we could see these colporters, both before and after the end of the Conventical act, as peddlers, as disseminators of revolutionary ideas that instilled hope and courage in the people.
Coming back to Ernst Bloch: colportage is a figure in his understanding of hope and social justice: Bloch writes: “The dream of colportage is: never again the everyday; and at the end stands: happiness, love, victory” (Bloch 1986, p. 367, my emphasis). The colportage carries the dreams, it tells the stories of a different world. Something that is not merely a fairy tale, but something more. According to the Marxist Bloch, social justice cannot materialize without regarding things differently. Something that is merely “daydreaming” or “escapism” might be a seed for a new and more humane social order. It can become the happiness, the love, and as he writes, victory. The colportage, and the fairy tales, become this; they, both the carrier and the stories, bring the freedom: “Here there is immature, but honest substitute for revolution, and where else did it express itself but in colportage?” (Bloch 1986, p. 368).
Notice that Bloch mentions escapism as both immature and as a substitution. It is not yet, it is not real, in that sense. It is a substitution. But it is, at the same time, honest. Here escapism in the form of fairy tales stands in relation to both hope and utopia (Bloch 1986). We cannot think of a different world if we have not imagined it. The fairy tales bring those different worlds to us.
The Colportage literature—or today, the series—can take us to different worlds, even when these are not completely perfect, according to Ernst Bloch: “Even in the fairy tale not everything immediately runs smoothly. There are giants and witches, they block off, make us spin all night, lead us astray” (Bloch 1986, p. 367). In the series, the heroes have their problems—it is shown not least in Lovecraft Country where Atticus and Letitia face all kinds of violence and mishaps. They die, and resurrect, meet fascists and racists next to giant monsters and enchanted girls. It is ambivalent, as Bloch writes:
It is ambivalent, can point to Ku Kluxers and fascists, even be a special stimulant for them; but the foul stench also in fact points to the cosy bourgeoisie’s justified mistrust of too much of the poor devil and his campfire. (Bloch 1986, p. 368)
The heroes of the Colporter literature do not wait for happiness to fall into their laps, rather the opposite. There is courage in the heroes who, like their readers, have nothing to lose. They ally with the poor, against control and power. This can also be said in relation to Lovecraft Country. The heroes of the series are led astray, spin, commit mischief, but there is a direction and resistance to racism and violence that cannot be misinterpreted. The heroes Atticus and Letita experience fear and are coping with terror, but despite the risk of losing both love and life, they rushes straight into the danger.
The point by Bloch is, that struggles in the stories—like in Lovecraft Country—do not make a difference to their capacity to make us dream away. Instead, they make us more intrigued: “There is a courage about the hero of colportage which, usually like its reader, has nothing to lose” (Bloch 1986, p. 367). Bloch follows:
Every adventure story breaks the moral commandment ‘‘Pray and work’; instead of the first cursing prevails, instead of the second the pirate ship appears, the rifleman not in the King’s pay. (Bloch 1986, p. 368)
Today, in late capitalist society, the moral commandment is perhaps not “pray and work”, but perhaps rather “consume and work”. The Netflix series, perhaps, can stand as a different movement in response to this commandment? Or am I hoping too much? I do not want to make a naïve parallel, first of all because Netflix series and binge watching do not cover one story but several. And second, it is not difficult to highlight the differences between the former pedlar on horseback, and the commercialised Netflix productions in terms of accessibility and distribution. Netflix is not driven by revolutionary ideas in the same way as the pedlars. One cannot say that a Netflix series is like colportage; but still, they do both carry fairy tales all the same. Third, it could also easily be argued how the series make us more passive, or how the Netflix series are too commercialized so that we are just drawn into the idea, their representation of “consume and work”, as Benjamin suggested when he wrote that mass culture “kindles no light in the heart and awakens no hope other than the ridiculous one of someday becoming a ‘star’ in Los Angeles” (Benjamin 1969, p. 239).
However, the colporter’s operated at a time when free meeting places were limited, and although the prevailing state of the pandemic differs in the digital age, we are also limited by the pandemic. The series can be an arena to go to, for bildung and for conversation. And, as I want to argue in this article by drawing on Bloch, consuming such mass culture can also be understood as a seed of a way dealing with the world and, therefore, also as a possibility. Remember Bloch’s words on how the fairy tale and the daydreaming, the colportage, can be immature, but nevertheless a real substitute for hope and revolution.
To understand how escapism is understood in Bloch’s magnum opus The Principle of Hope (Bloch 1986) one also needs to relate it to hope and utopian thinking. In the following I will therefore discuss the relation between escapism and utopia/hope in order to articulate the pedagogical possibility of escapism. First and foremost, Bloch argues, one must distinguish between different hopes, which I will now expand on.