It begins the time we are born, the time we emerge into the bright light of this world; fear becomes our puppet masters, forcing us to recede into an illusionary world to protect ourselves. It controls us, constantly manipulating the strings of our lives preventing us from truly ever coming to terms with an understanding of our surroundings. It is the fear of the harshness of reality that forces us to constantly wear a mask, to create an illusionary world of our own construct as we try to deny the existence of this fear. Whilst in the short term this may be harmless and even beneficial at times, but there are numerous examples in literature that warn us of the dire repercussions of maintaining this distorted reality. We see this warning constantly paralleled in society as the fear of accepting the truth grips the community as a whole, shielding them from a perpetuating problem but at the same times allowing this problem to grow such heights that eventually it overrides and overwhelms us.
To some extent, we need to recede into illusions as a short term way of ameliorating some of the brutality that reality throws at us. The strings of our masters: fear, can at times lend a helping hand to put on a mask and guide us through harsh times. The world around us can be cruel and punishing, and the pain of the sudden loss of someone can overwhelm us and fill us with loneliness and despair. Creating illusions may be a necessary way of dealing with tragic circumstances. This idea is explored in Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman through the character Linda Loman and Charley, who at the end of the play are attending Willy Loman’s funeral, receding temporarily into an illusionary world to deal with the sudden loss of someone close to them. Charley speaks of Willy Loman in a manner unseen before in the play, that nobody should “blame” Willy a man out there “riding on a smile and a shoeshine”, trying to achieve a dream that consumed him. This contrasts to the way Charley speaks directly to Willy reminding him to “grow up” and come to terms that with the fact he isn’t going to achieve the success that he so desired. Similarly Linda Loman deals with the loss of Willy by speaking to him as if he is still present, sharing that they are finally “free” making the last repayment on the house, a symbol of achieving the American Dream that Willy so desired. Within certain parameters, literature shows that illusions as a form of escapism are a necessary tool to protect and suspend ourselves from the cruelty of reality momentarily, to deal with the repercussion of facing the truth.
However this release from reality is only temporary as the consequences of sustaining illusions to such an extent that it governs our life is often devastating. Instead of coping with reality, allowing fear of reality to manifest itself into an illusion or delusion and only seeks to delay and worsen the inevitable. Arthur Miller exemplifies this in Death of a Salesman through the character of Willy Loman who is stuck in a dangerous world of prestige and grandeur imposed by the American Dream. Willy Loman’s interpretation of the American Dream is that success will naturally come to you if you’re “well liked”, that this quality is held in higher regard than being “honest” or making an “effort”. Living in such a distorted world due does not ultimately make him a person who is content with the life he lived. The fabrication of his own mind of being “vital” and having “friends” whilst at the beginning may have at the start helped him cope with the harshness of his life, but eventually became a symbol and reminder of his own failure leading to his eventual downfall as he is unable to “walk away”. His situation is exacerbated through his overly supportive wife, Linda, who seems to also maintain her own illusion to help deal with the desperation and fear of Willy’s situation. She is constantly playing the supportive role, under the impression that Willy Loman is only a “little boat looking for a harbour”, giving him a soothing “pill” to help his stress which adds to Willy’s eventual demise. The danger of trying living in illusions is also depicted by Scott Fitzgerald in his novel The Great Gatsby. Jay Gatsby, a fabulously wealthy young man, and the embodiment of the American Dream is infatuated with “[repeating] the past” and “[fixing] everything just the way it was before”. His blind pursuit of Daisy, the girls he fell in love at first sight, causes him to lose sight of reality, lost in a world of decadent fantasy construct, which ultimately leads to be downfall. As such, one can only evade the fear of facing reality for a short period of time, as the eventually the power of reality crushes the paltry barriers we try to build.
The most frightening form of illusion is when it grips society as a whole where the strings of control attach onto each and every individual and blind them to the encroaching problems of world. As society, we often help each other to evade reality through the construction of societal misconceptions which can have a lasting impact for the wider community and future generations. Despite criticisms by Arthur Miller and fellow writer Scott Fitzgerald in their works Death of a Salesman and The Great Gatsby, drawing attention to the impact of a national ethos comprised of a materialistic drive to acquire more and more, the rest of us chose to turn a blind eye and continue on our pursuit of wealth to shattering consequences. This was most recently illustrated in the 2006-2007 Global Financial Crisis, an upheaval that put hundreds of millions of people across the globe out of jobs. Governments and the financial institutions repeatedly chose to ignore the warning signs that they received, of an imminent catastrophe, instead fixated on continued “higher profits and higher shareholder returns”, gambling with money that were the life savings of pensioners, families and naïve investors. The refusal by government regulators and financial institutions to believe that the “sound” world economic system could fail is captured in the docudrama “Inside Job”. Instead of responding to the signs impending GFC catastrophe, the film explores how the government around the world continue to relax laws, allowing banks to issue an unprecedented amount of debt, unwilling to accept that this would eventually collapse. Riding the waves of this boom, society was under the impression that this couldn’t come to an end, an illusion that only sought to seek and intensify the inevitable.
Illusions which are a product of fear may initially help us come to terms with our reality, but sustaining it for long periods of time only seeks to delay what is unavoidable as when illusion and reality do eventually collide, only reality will emerge unscathed. By this time, the harsh reality that we are faced is likely to have mutated into a more grotesque form. Thus, the right course of action is to relinquish the strings of fear that we are so often bound by and become the masters of our own life, accepting reality for what it is. By taking control, we are able to utilise something far more powerful than illusion to cope with reality, which imagination, a conjuration of the mind not controlled by fear, allowing us not only to deal but to solve and see the light in many of the harsh reality that both individuals and society are faced with.