Popular Fiction and the
Quest for Freedom

by Ken Sanes

Movies and TV programs begin (more or less) when people use their thoughts and fantasies to craft stories that are intended to bring a fictional world to life. But many of those thoughts and fantasies appear in these stories only in disguised form, since the creators are not themselves conscious of what they are expressing. Then, as audiences, we perceive what they put into the work, also mostly outside of awareness. Finally, through criticism -- discussion, writing, etc. -- we become aware of what we were responding to in the work and how it fits in with our own personalities and minds. 

 The meanings that the creators put into these stories include representations of any or all of the following: mind, family, birth, society and culture, politics, myth and religion, and they also contain ideas on the course and purpose of life. But all of these domains of meaning are usually used to tell the same kind of story in which characters are depicted as growing into something or as breaking free from some kind of bondage. What the characters achieve through these experiences is maturity, authenticity, the ability to experience the richness and importance of life, fairness, or some other desired goal.

 An example is the movie Logan’s Run, which is about a future humanity trapped by a computer in an enclosed city. Inside, the inhabitants experience a life of endless sensual delights. They believe they are in a paradise, but they are really a prison in which they are infantilized and their lives are controlled. In the end, humanity escapes and creates a new civilization based on work and responsibility. As I discuss in a long essay on Logan’s Run, the movie simultaneously offers disguised depictions of a mind being freed from neurosis; of a baby being born; of children growing to adulthood and leaving home; of rebels overthrowing a dictatorship; of humanity escaping from an underworld back to the surface of the earth; of Pagan Rome becoming Christian; of Adam and Eve leaving the garden; and of contemporary society going through a transformation toward a more authentic culture. The movie tells many different stories at the same time, but all of them are about the growth of the individual and society to a new level of existence.         

 Eventually, after we've analyzed a great many stories like this, we can create a map of the domains of meaning that are part of popular culture. We will discover that all the stories of popular culture -- in movies, TV, news, political speeches, advertisements, and so on -- are based on the same set of ideas. All include the same themes that center around our desire to evolve into whole selves and good societies, in the face of fears and desires, and obstacles that block our path. At that point, we will have achieved a kind of psychoanalysis of culture, as a disguised and undisguised expression of what is on our minds. Culture and our selves will then become more transparent.      

 What we discover after we have done this kind of analysis is that works of popular fiction and nonfiction allow us to vicariously experience the kind of selves and societies we know should exist. Most notably, they offer us happy endings that are the sigh of the oppressed creature, giving us a moment -- but only a moment -- to experience the life and society we desire. But the experience is only temporary and only via the invented world of the story.               

Nevertheless, through the magic of empathy and identification, these same stories do at least temporarily transform us, giving us a vision of other ways of being and making us more open and receptive to their ideas. As we begin to recognize that this is what they are doing, we begin to face a task. If what is on our minds is a desire to lead a fuller and more authentic life and to do so in a good society, than clearly this is an essential element of what our lives are about. Works of fiction aren't only efforts to experience this vicariously; they are also "symbolic" models and guides for how we might approach our own lives. They are a "game plan" for life and social action, which we create in disguised form, and perceive largely outside of awareness.             

Our task then is to take what we experience vicariously and in fantasy, through fiction, and find ways to make it actual. We then go from being audiences who experience the story, to being critics who understand the story, to being people who act on what we know. The stories of fiction and nonfiction thus contain within them the potential to be catalysts for human freedom. In the end, they tell us that we face a choice: we can endlessly pretend to change the world and ourselves in our stories, or we can genuinely change the world and ourselves. If we choose the latter path, we will then have new stories to tell and to learn from, and, although it may sound a little maudlin, our lives will then become more like the happy endings of popular culture.

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  1996-2012 Ken Sanes