The workings of our social environment are so close before our eyes that we often don’t even notice them; but many of them profoundly shape what we perceive as “reality”.
It has proved fruitful to understand this along the lines of an analogy: social interactions share many characteristics with theatrical performances. Thus social interactions are enacted, as if on a stage, and “reality” is of course “where the action is”. And it follows that, if you want to be seen by others as part of their “reality”, you have to play along in the performance.
[T]hat which is accepted at the moment as reality will have some of the characteristics of a celebration. To stay in one’s room away from the place where the party is given […] is to stay away from where reality is performed.
Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, 35-36.
Goffman’s remark has the ring of truth (and the biting lucidity characteristic of its author): when we step out of social conformity, we risk stepping out of reality.
Or that is how we are seen (by others). People who stay away from the party are labeled as “loners” and similarly; and these are not neutral expressions: they carry some mild social stigma with them. In German, there is the wonderful, albeit quaint, term Eigenbrötler (roughly: someone who eats his bread on his own). Wonderful though the expression may be, being labelled thus is usually not taken as a compliment, and may well cause the labellee some discomfort.
1. We know someone who stays away from the party: the protagonist of Hoffmann’s Abenteuer in der Silvester-Nacht. Yet evidently, there would have been no adventure had he not run away from the party — had he not stayed away, in other words, from “where reality is performed”.
That the protagonist runs away has a whiff of the anti-social; and it might be labeled as “escape” from the real world, too. (Generally, the behavior of romantic heroes — and poets — lends itself to being thus seen as escapist.) Even the protagonist himself, initially, buys into this social prejudice:
O Justizrat! hättest du mich gesehen, wie ich aus deinem hellen Teezimmer herabgestiegen war in den dunkeln Bierkeller, du hättest dich mit recht stolzer verächtlicher Miene von mir abgewendet […]
E.T.A. Hoffmann, Die Abenteuer der Silvester-Nacht, 128.
But then, of course, the adventures ensue. And only then (not before), things get interesting.
2. The social prejudice is short-sighted and narrow-minded. There are more “realities” than the currently dominant social setting. And one might well argue that the “reality” in which we end up when we leave the latter is the more interesting variety. For it is not the people at the party with their predictable arrangements and behaviors who grow and develop their souls — though of course they are saved the heartbreak and upheaval which the protagonist suffers; and they can also avoid staring their own shadow in the face. Theirs is the easier and more commonly accepted life. But they will also die bored and having had an unremarkable existence.
3. The protagonist does have a remarkable experience (if not a remarkable existence). He has an “adventure”, as the title of the story suggests. What is the nature of that adventure?
The protagonist encounters the man who has lost his shadow, and the man who had his mirror image stolen from him. And at this point, as we are well aware, what he encounters in them are archetypal figures, part of the unconscious, that is, parts of — if not himself, conceived of as a conscious ego — his own Self (in the Jungian sense of that term). He also, afterwards, gets updated on how these figures of the unconscious appear in his consciousness by a dream.
Is that what the adventure consist in — having this experience? Is it properly called an adventure to leave the “reality” of the social world — symbolized by running away from the party — in order to experience another “reality” where we encounter the figures of the unconscious?
4. Provoking a remarkable experience is not, in itself, much of an achievement. The experience may transport us to another “reality”; but if all we do is just enjoy the ride, “having” the experience, and then do nothing with it, we are merely tourists, not adventurers.
What is more: a real adventure would take us into the unknown, and there is no tourism, by definition, to the unknown. Tourism is an exchange: you pay, and someone else (such as a tourism company) provides you with an experience. In order to do so, the other party must have some way to ensure that you will get what you paid for — otherwise you would claim your money back. So they can only offer experiences where a reliable way to produce them is already known. In other words: they can only let you travel to territories they have already explored. Tourism never gets you into the unknown. At best, it gets you somewhere not previously experienced by you (which is of course sufficient for a typical tourist) — but explored and suffused with well-developed routines by them, potentially a long time ago.
Tourism, in other words, is just another performance in Goffman’s sense: a fabricated reality involving you, the tourist, as the audience. It is not an adventure if you leave the party — the performance of a “reality” where you were one of the actors — merely in order to become part of another performance, only this time as an audience member.
5. What makes it an adventure (not a tourist experience) for Hoffmann’s protagonist is that he really ventures into the unknown by himself, and then brings something back from there: namely, stories which contain and present some insight about the unknown, in narrative form. (‘Story’ is here understood in a broad and unspecific sense, covering the conversation fragments from the second chapter, the dream report from the third chapter, and the embedded novella telling the Spikher story in the fourth chapter.)
Such stories, of course, always shape and interpret the experience of the unknown in ways characteristic for their narrator, and in this way they become themselves performances in Goffman’s sense. For please note that it is the protagonist — not you, dear reader! — who has the experience. There is no way to escape the performance character of any “reality”. But it is no longer a social environment that makes up the frame here: instead, it is a literary frame. Hoffmann’s text displays, then, a way of running away from the party, thus leaving social “reality”; having an adventure in encountering the unknown (figures of the unconscious); and finally shaping and presenting it in the form of a literary “reality”.