It was only a matter of time before yet another version of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty made it on to the big screen. I haven’t seen the movie with Ben Stiller, but I don’t need to. Walter Mitty has entered the realm of mythology, and his story is as universal as a love story. Everybody knows it, and everybody lives it.
Walter Mitty was an invention of the great humorist James Thurber. He first appeared in a short story in The New Yorker seventy-five years ago, and instantly became an American hero. Walter was a mild-mannered man apparently living a boring life in suburban Connecticut, but his real life was all in his daydreams. While doing the family shopping, Walter imagined that he was a famous surgeon, a fighter pilot, even a killer. His imaginary life was infinitely richer and more exciting than anything the suburbs had to offer.
There’s no mystery about why this short story became so popular, and has been reprinted and filmed so many times. Walter is all of us - apart from the tiny percentage of people who really do live exciting and important lives. What do you dream about when you are at the shopping mall? Probably you dream about being somebody else and somewhere else much more interesting.
It’s sad but true that everyday life is pretty dull most of the time, and we spend a lot of energy trying to escape from ordinariness. This is why most dramas and soap operas focus on the extraordinary moments – the illnesses, accidents, love affairs, crimes and disasters that rarely come crashing in to disturb our real routines. It’s hard to make entertainment out of the quiet bits in between, when nothing much happens. As novelist, John Barth, commented: "Realty is a nice place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there."
So we are very good at planning escape attempts, and we need them. Some researchers have suggested that in fact a large proportion of all our mental activity is just that – an attempt to get away from reality. We may daydream about grand adventures, like Walter Mitty, or simply about travel to come exotic place, or a new house, or a better job. Some unlucky people find their escapes in in drugs, or madness.
Others escape by immersing themselves in hobbies, or the tribal comforts of sports or politics, special interest groups, or esoteric beliefs, or dreams of wealth and power. They’re all alternatives to everyday reality, and it’s not necessary to actually do anything to enjoy them. In the old days people read books for escape. Now electronic escapes are readily available on a billion screens. Just about everybody has a secret life. If you don’t have one, you should probably get one.
These secret lives tend to stay secret, because they are embarrassing. If you really want to be a NASCAR driver or a fashion model or a vampire, it’s probably best not to mention it to anybody. Fantasies, like vampires, tend to evaporate as soon as they are exposed to the cold light of day, and the more extreme fantasies may get you locked up. Yet how much more we would understand about other people if we knew the landscapes of their secret lives.
Of course I have a secret life too, but I’m not going to be the first one to tell. It’s my secret.
Copyright: David Bouchier