Why do we do it? I spend most of my life at work, travelling for absurd lengths of time, sending thousands and thousands of emails (best wishes, regards, all the best, all my best). Does the need to intermittently lose track of my mind say something about me?
For behaviours so associated with discharge and disorder, we (mostly) manage to circumscribe and contain these moments of madness into neatly packaged time frames and spaces. Chaos might be the aesthetic, but we prepare and set up these experiences carefully. This night, this house, that time. How much energy and pre-planning goes into attendance at Burning Man? Where venture capitalists dressed in kaftans go mad on LSD for ten days in the Nevada desert. You get your festival and plane tickets; you trawl forums and purchase appropriate supplies. You arrive, you lose your mind. You find it again, you fly home. Rinse, repeat as needed. In allotting ourselves these finite spaces, we are being very self-controlled. We nurse hangovers as we cc colleagues.
The Purge, an ongoing US film franchise, explores precisely this idea. The films are set in a dystopian near-future in which, for 12 hours every year, all laws are temporarily lifted. During that time, people violently maim and kill one another before the normal rules of society come into effect once again. It’s suggested that these people put up with their deeply flawed society because they are holding out for the one night that they can go all out.
Some would argue that the only way to have a functioning society, where we get up and do our work everyday, is to package our dysfunctional desires into finite spaces. Perhaps steam-powered release from restraint is a fundamental part of the human condition. It certainly seems foundational to our society.
Once again, we have to acknowledge that these activities are hedonistic and anarchic in aesthetic only. Because, practically and politically, (most of) us return to the reasonable boundaries of daily life. In the end we always return. We go hard and then we go home. And then we go to work.
What would the alternative, the desegregation of the work-life balance, look like? We are a generation that tends towards the porous. We break down binaries and open boxes. Will the work-life balance be the next thing to go, in favour of total integration of our inner-alter-other selves? And with that will the drive towards going all out fade?
I tend to believe that the polarised behaviour will remain, unhealthy though it may be. The corporations may be keen to integrate us into ourselves with their nap-pods and yoga sessions. But I think these cycles of escape (and return) make life understandable.
Escapism is often maligned because if we need to escape, there must be something wrong. But going all out involves committing totally to something, exiting the normal. It can apply to almost anything, from bingeing on substances to running a marathon. At its heart, it’s about pushing at our boundaries: our financial, physical and emotional limitations. And doing this in the context of socialising and partying can be wonderful. There is an active joy in the play. When I dress up, take a load of substances and lose track of time in a sticky basement, I am doing more than escaping the banalities of my nine-to-five. I’m searching for a sublime or transcendent moment: spiritual arrival in a secular age. At the same time, I’m flirting with what Freud would have called my ‘death drive’, a yearning for self-destruction, the active pleasure we take in playtime is shadowed by the desperate need we have for release of whatever form. We seem to instinctively understand that this self-imposed scarcity creates value.