Perhaps you are on your way to the gym, listening to some hip-pop anthem to get the blood going. You think: yeah, that sounds good. "We are gonna run this town tonight." "I do want that cake cake cake cake."
There is a slight slippage of ego as you meld with the persona in the song—staring into the mirror to find you are mouthing out a rogue, “Westside!,” or whispering with a little too much conviction: "I am a god." A glittery EDM beat comes in, lifting you up, rollercoaster style, to the bridge of the track, where, adrenaline spiking, you become your true self—which is to say, a fantasy self. And, for just a moment, crown chakras raining serotonin all over the joint, all is right in the world. You feel aligned with the you that you want to be: The uninhibited you, the fully realized you, the you with perfect teeth and perfect credit, or the you who had perfect parents, a perfect upbringing, or the you who is a badass, who overcame the lack of all those things. This is the you who lives that life in the music, the life in the magazines, and supermodels' Instagrams. This is who you are.
Then the track fades out and you have a brief interlude of city noise and your own footfalls to bring you back home, back to reality. You can almost see the fantasy self as it leaves you, floating away like a cartoon ghost, ascending to the heavens where the G650's fly.
So you must make plans. You think: When my life miraculously comes together and I get rapper-rich, I'm staying in custom clothes. But those fair-trade, made-in-America clothes—because I've got principles. When I win the lottery, sell that script, close that deal, whatever, when I get my fuck-you-money, I'll be cool about it. Clooney-style. Discreet. Classy, philanthropist, out of the tabloids wealth. Lake-Como-Ocean's-Twelve-Night-Fox wealth. Maybe I'll even get a plane. But a small one. And an island. I mean, I'll take care of my parents too, but—an image of Jourdan Dunn in something flowy, waving her arms on the prow of a yacht, pops into your head.
Does this not happen to you? It happens to me every day. Every day, because I'm on that 300 workout plan, apparently, and make that same pop-soaked promenade to the gym each afternoon. Not that I am in any way preparing for some sort of modern Thermopylae situation—no—nor is fighting-fitness totally necessary for someone whose hunting and gathering is covered by an iPhone app. I stay in the gym because my fantasy life has lots of pools (and, sure, boats), and I want to be ready for my close up when it comes. I've got to look fly for Jourdan. I'm got to look like one of those sepia-toned Vitruvian men in Bruce Weber pictures. They look happy.
It is pure fantasy, the life I am looking forward to, the characteristics and even behaviors to which I aspire. It's Walter Mitty gone ultracapitalist. Instead of entering Life magazine photographs, as well-toned Ben Stiller does in his adaptation of Thurber's story, I just insinuate myself into Rihanna videos, private planes and private islands. I want the song to be about me, don't I, because I'm so vain.
Mitty was the first short story I read, or, at any rate, the first I remember reading, the first that caught me in its tractor beam. It was in a pile of similarly Xeroxed and stapled short stories handed out to my (fifth grade?) class. And, curiously, it turns out that bored, dreamy kids stuck in the boring regimens of school, practice and daycare, are super susceptible to tales of fantasy and daydream. Because their lives are circumscribed and utterly determined, it can seem, by everyone else but them, they can relate to the escapism of Mitty, to projecting oneself into a heroic milieux, to a yearning for worth, for meaning, accomplishment.
I was bowled over by it—bowled over in the sense that, all these years later, I still remember reading it. It turned me on to what it was I was up to, idly counting the perforations in the asbestos tiles of my classroom ceiling, while really saving the princess from a medieval castle keep. It was Mitty that pointed me to the process, underscored the flights of fancy I was taking. But, for me the actual fantasy life began, as I imagine it did for a lot of guys in my generation, with Bond. I grew up watching From Russia With Love, Goldfinger, Thunderball, and, anachronistically, Never Say Never Again—the very first movies I remember seeing; probably even then running on a loop every Sunday on TBS—with crazy, childish intensity. I was overwhelmed by Bond's breadth and depth of knowledge: One moment sniffing at a 30-year-old brandy as "indifferently blended, with an overdose of bombois," the next skiing down a mountain under gunfire. I remember my dad telling me to look away during the steamier bits, but I only marveled at Bond's cartoonish powers of seduction, of panache and worldliness, the same way I did his suits or driving skill. And what toys! What delightful companions to accompany him on his journeys. Though it was his private smirk, just for me, a bond with Bond, that convinced me I was engaged in some kind of tutelage, that I was being instructed in life.
Of course I was yet to read the books on which the movies were based and learn that Bond himself was a Mitty-ish creation of a bureaucrat on holiday—and that Bond was a creation of "Bond," orphaned and sent down from Eton as he was—as well. I was too young to recognize that smirk as Connery's own ironic twist, or to understand the movies themselves as satires of male wish-fulfillment. Instead, I simply processed them as ideals. I may have unconsciously ironized my wants, for Bond's charisma, for his suits, for his prowess in all that he attempts, as mere wishes—wishes, that is, until they one day come true, of course. Nevertheless of course I wanted them. I once altered a friend's bracelet to read "WWJBD?"
That desire—worse, that expectation—is still there, somewhere. Buried, perhaps, beneath a mille feuille of irony and humility (genuine, and otherwise), sublimated for years in athletic endeavors, artistic pursuits, and occasional debauchery. It has always been there, safely cordoned off from my real self, relegated to a kind of id-haven of daydreams, a DeepArcher of the subconscious—waiting, prepping, for the day it all happens.
It is a full on Sim City of the soul down there, a Utopia of selfhood. Down there I can be any—indeed, all—of my imagined selves, unbeholden to anything so mundane as consistency or taxes. In my fantasy life I believe I could fly, sail the globe or reform campaign finance. But really I just delight in the near-miss fantasy, the life that could have been, if only I'd made a couple of rights where I made lefts, where my playing career goes a bit better and I become Tom Brady, where my novel gets Great and American put in front of it, where this piece goes viral—all of it unto ye olde yacht party and Bond girls. Down there things can get real unfit for publication.
But, if I am a sort of non-violent Caligula in my imaginings, it is only because I am afforded the opportunity to do so, being free from actual tyrannies in my real, i.e., political, life. This dilemma of the fantasy life encroaching on the real, if it merits a term as dire even as dilemma, is surely relatively new in human history and by no means a rule even within those with the same, great socio-economic good fortune as I have had. For the first time in history, really, to repurpose a bit of Bertrand Russell, it is now possible, owing to the technological revolution and its byproducts, to create a world where everybody shall have a reasonable chance of FOMO. This is a disease of privilege, a gout of the conscience, and so packed with not an insignificant amount of doubt and disbelief, with guilt—another reason it remains restrained, restricted from my real life.
Or had been. Lately the balance of my lives has switched. My fantasy life so dominates my waking I only spend enough time in the real world to be disappointed by its lack of verisimilitude. What shabby ghost of Christmas never has spirited me here, I wonder, squinting at my mirror. Who lives like this, grumbling at the measly-thread-count of my sheets, at their patent lack of Russian double agents. At this point I'm not even living the life that supposedly happens while I'm making other plans. I'm only making plans for a life that will never come to pass.
It's not as if the fantasy life has bearing on the real—as if I am working things out, Jung-style, in the realm of archetypes, before returning to this plane healed and ready. Like Neo down his rabbit hole I hardly ever pick up my head to look at the world around me. Instead I live within the Matrix of my social media feeds. And if I am in a fairy tale, it is one without Morpheus, without struggle, or moral. It's a romanticist's fantasy, purely. These princesses I see in my feed, in their castles by the seas, are in no need of saving. There are no dragons to slay in my world, outside of that old demon, love handles. This isn't life. It is mere escape.
"Tragedies are stories about people not getting what they want," Adam Phillips wrote, in Missing Out. And: "Tragic heroes are failed pragmatists. Their ends are unrealistic and their means are impractical."
I spend my nights and weekends writing novels, which is to say playing make believe. I spend my days commenting on and writing about others' fictitious creations—books, movies—and about the beautiful people, or the beautiful objects they make. Like just about everyone else I am in constant contemplation of our ideals of beauty, of quality, of life, judging, weighing, critiquing, contextualizing. If one happens to believe, as I do, that old thing about being one's own greatest work of art, and engage in any form of criticism, it is difficult not to fall into a dangerous loop of self-reflection. Neuroses, is what I mean.
Our standards for living, vacationing, eating, looking, loving, cooking, partying and everything else have become so high, and our seeming proximity to the very best incarnations so very close—it's just right there, in the palm of our hands!—that we can lose track of what is real, realistic, after entering those tragic waters. It is very easy, really, to get caught up like this in an ideal of perfection. Like prehistoric man, feeling his own limitations in a footrace with a big cat, say, we become aware of scale by our lack. In that wanting we imagine plentitude—terrific foot speed, say, quicker problem solving, more profound imagination. Picturing each of these character attributes as a scale, from lowest to highest, as in a role playing (or "fantasy") game, we can imagine a creature with perfect 9s in dexterity, intelligence, charisma. A picture of perfection, then, leads us to imagine the concept of higher beings, of gods, and scales we cannot even fathom.
All that before we are saturated in imagery of and invitation to participate in the good life. Don't we deserve it, don't we owe it to ourselves, haven't we worked hard enough, suffered long enough, as the ads tell us we have, to just treat ourselves? Look, they're doing it. This guy and this guy are living this life, why shouldn't you?
We know that comparing ourselves to the lives of those we look up to (or even resolutely down on) is not at all flattering. At least it isn't for me. Grading ourselves against the timelines of others: never a good idea. A recipe for disaster, really—he says aloud to himself even as he sulks about the people he does not resemble, the ones he is not courting. But nor do we hold up well against even our private expectations. Even our successes and good fortune cannot help but tumble short, like Daisy does Gatsby, "not through fault of her own, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion." My own illusions are, I realize, about as rational as Lee Corso making a pick on College GameDay, but like Lear I'd rather mutilate the world than give them up. And the constant tumbling short, the constant failings, to make the world fit my fantasies, are the seeds of tragedy—I'm about this far from wandering into a Cassavetes plot. Or at least Spring Breakers.
But what would happen if we got what we thought we wanted? What if, as porn addicts, we simply want the wanting, rather than the real thing? In Tarkovsky's film Stalker, the eponymous hero takes two men on a journey to a magical Zone in which there is an even more magical Room where their deepest wishes will come true. At long last, after much struggle, when the expedition reaches this ultimate pot of gold, this sum of human desire, neither of the pilgrims can enter. Would fulfillment and contentment fill my soul if I reached that room and received my believed deepest wish, of a certain BMI, a certain net worth, a certain familiarity with a certain so-and-so? Or would I too be so fearful of the true wish I harbored that I wouldn't set foot in the room?
To ask it another way around: Is what we want even what we want? We aren't hopeful for the day that a windfall shall arrive and confer upon us some special election, are we? We expect it. The lottery ticket, the dream life, the jackpot—that's the beginning of our story, the prerequisite for the life we will lead. Savile Row suits and an island and Jourdan Dunn are preamble. Those are our just desserts. What we actually hope for, what we think of as our hope, is well beyond the reach of our fantasies. All that I would wish for in the room is simply everything.
"Greed," Phillips writes, "is despair about pleasure." Do even the most scrumptious, bacon-iest bites still delight us? Is there any magic, movie- or otherwise, that moves us? Have love and contentment, even, become pleasures that we are now inured to? Or, in fact, are we actually enjoying this bit? Do we savor our own jadedness, our inability to receive said pleasures, because we are so elegant and worldly? Are we packeted into a kind of snob's suit that prevents us from feeling, but keeps in all those delicious disapproving juices we savor?
Maybe greed is despair about pleasure, and maybe, then, my fantasist's escapism too is despair about meaning. Maybe my dreams of plenty are a failure of imagination, settling for the felted comforts of comfort, when what I need is a reason, as in a raison. What I want isn't actually the toothsome beauty and decadence we crave (though, Jourdan, call me?), but instead some act of becoming to give me purpose, meaning. What I need is a bloody grail quest, a Bond villain to best. Let me just check Instagram first.
Chris Wallace is Senior Editor at Interview Magazine. He writes regularly for The New York Times, The Paris Review Daily, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and others.