One practical use I’ve found for the embarrassing character flaw of romanticism is applying that wrongheaded screwiness to being broke. I’m probably more strapped than I need to be (I’m paid very fairly), as I manage money so poorly that I have seen my friends quite literally drop their jaws at my idiocy in that department. Blaming Mom for anything anymore is pathetic at my age, but I am certain I can draw a straight hereditary line from my mother’s neurotic disdain for money to my own. I clearly inherited her dingbat tendency to view whatever inconveniences that life might offer with rose-tinted lenses and/or purple prose.
Case in point: during some of the latter months of what I’ve heard dubbed the Great Recession — after nearly two years of this temporary setback — I, like certain criminals and cranky geezers with their backs to the wall, snapped. Instead of robbing a bank or firing off angry emails to Congress, I steeped my days in various fantasies in which the poor are noble and the rich villainous.
One fantasy, for example, that helped me out a bit and lasted for months was what I’ve come to think of as my “Victorian Era.” A kind of relative to Goth sensibilities (there’s room, of course, for, say, vampires in Victoriana), 19th-century England is a kind of comfort food for the imagination. Never mind the realities of the period; this has as little to do with reality as possible. A few columns were informed with this prolonged kind of fugue state, and some were written in a style imitative of literature from that era (Dickens), so entangled with adjective-riddled syntax that I was hoping it would be seen as the parody I was ready to call it just in case it came under critical fire from readers.
During this season of escapism (around last Christmas through, say, St. Patrick’s Day), I bought, and at full retail price, Dan Simmons’s wonderfully weighty novel Drood, a spin-off of Charles Dickens’s final and unfinished work, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Sinking into Simmons’s tome of madness, ghosts, opium, murder, and pudding-rich language launched me into an orgy of that late 1800s of the mind, minus, of course, the mud and stench and mindless cruelties of the time. In other words, I inhabited a Victorian jolly-old that never existed, that had little to do with history and everything to do with literary, penny-dreadful conceits. I went out to used-book stores and purchased a nice edition of the Dickens title, plus Wilkie Collins’s (the narrator of Drood) The Moonstone; The Last Dickens, by Matthew Pearl; and for good measure, The Poe Shadow, also by Pearl.
A sample of this fantasy might be something like going out of my way on payday to order bangers and mash at the Stout Pub (really more of an Irish joint) and actually drinking tea, all the while entertaining the fuzzy notion that I was a brilliant but obscure gothic-fantasy novelist in 1895 and a friend of H.G. Wells. Never mind that I have written my own novels in reality. There is no romance in reality, even though the real novels themselves are lousy with the stuff. As a kid I would do much this same kind of escape act, only to the Middle Ages — again, not as they were, but reflected through an Arthurian haze of shining armor unspattered with Medieval mud.
Another fantasy, one I haven’t revisited in recent years and one designed to dodge the truth of my deflated wallet, was the hard-boiled, down-at-the-heels private eye working a case pro-bono for a gorgeous damsel in distress (imaginary, usually, or at least the distress part and often the gorgeous part). This was more common in my 30s, again triggered by literature. Pulp literature: Hammett, Chandler — never Spillane (I managed to retain some rear-guard sentinel of taste).
During rainy days recently and living downtown, it was easy enough to lend myself to the pretense of being George Orwell down and out in Paris and London, working on 1984. Once more, forget the real down-and-out aspects of the life of Orwell (or Eric Blair, one of his pseudonyms, or one of his -nyms, anyway) during that period; I was the noble scribbler jotting down impressions of humanity confronting the Industrial Revolution. Oh, yeah, sometimes I was Jack London, too, but not recently.
My flights into imaginary poverty to avoid actual poverty have mostly pivoted on specific novels and novelists, never television (which I suspect may be more common), but sometimes movies. I was Sean Connery as The Man Who Would Be King for about ten years. Oh, yeah, that was a Rudyard Kipling story.