In Scene Seven of Tennessee Williams’ play The Glass Menagerie, tension between overbearing mother Amanda and her lackadaisical son Tom reaches a breaking point. She lashes out at him and screeches, “You live in a dream; you manufacture illusions!”
This line has always struck me more deeply than I would suppose a string of eight words could. It has a careful balance to it wrought by only the most talented playwright, yet it is far more than just a memorable climactic line. It also resonates with poignant veracity.
Illusions are pretty dangerous. Pretty, as the word “illusions” sounds effortlessly breezy; simultaneously, it sounds dangerously slippery. A study in paradox, illusions are enticing and enthralling, insidious and destructive. We, too, must bear the brunt of Amanda’s outcry when we manufacture illusions, which are rooted in often-good ideals, albeit misemployed as idols.
In my case, I am a perfectionist and maximizer who yearns for the best. An idea quietly slips into my mind but then accelerates, seemingly uncontrollably. Illusions aggrandize ideas—for example, of the perfect friend, of the perfect romantic interest, of attaining perfection in oneself and in relationships—into idols.
Perfection does not exist in this life, so when confronted with gritty everyday struggles and annoying logistical quandaries, reality seems crushing. Wonderings plague my mind in the game of overanalysis. Why would my friend do that? Why would he say that? What did that mean?
One example of idolization is particularly enticing and insidious: the love of love itself. Falling in love with love means we are constantly chasing an emotional high, replacing true concern for the other’s good with emotional excitement. Love of love turns inward on itself rather than gazing outward to the other person; it prefers the dreamy idea of love rather than its challenging practice.
This illusion is sterile. We love an idea rather than a particular person. Idolizing romantic love and disdaining other forms of love (filial love or the love between friends, for example) go together. In seeking the mountaintop experience, we throw out our training wheels and the foundations of romantic love. Engaging in this idealization, we shun vulnerability and human brokenness, making us incapable of the genuine intimacy necessary for love. We seek the experience of love rather than the good of the person loved.
This is one of the most dangerous things we can do, and Amanda implicitly delivers the reason in her condemnation, “you manufacture illusions.”
Manufacture. Illusions are synthetic constructs, products of our overwrought imaginations. The powerful illusion of loving love often disguises itself as a good ideal. But illusions’ falsity naturally yields to disillusionment and to despair. It leads us in our minds to harshly judge ourselves and others for not living up to the ideal.
I return to Amanda’s initial accusation: “You live in a dream.” She accuses Tom not of having dreams, but of living in them, as a way to escape the world. Tom, who is introduced in the play while seated not accidentally on the apartment’s fire escape, finds escape through watching movies.
Might it be true that we too find escape in dreamlike states? How do we escape our burdens? Is it in creating and indulging in illusions? Do we long to indulge in the powerful sensations and feelings of love, yet balk at the sacrifice and difficulties that love entails?
Do we try to indulge in this sensation anyway through the “games” of flirting or by pursuing the passionate excitement of love through anonymous or impersonal platforms, such as Yik Yak and Tinder? From cheesy rom-coms to heated celebrity gossip, the media feeds us illusions of love constantly. Perhaps most dangerously artificial are the illusions offered by pornography. Do we recognize this insidious power?
Ideals do not translate into reality, because in an escapist world of ideals, we become most vulnerable to distortions of love. Therein lies the stunning, crushing reality Fyodor Dostoevsky points to in The Brothers Karamazov: “[L]ove in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams.”
It is much prettier to live in a daydream world of illusory, perfect love. Love in dreams does not sweat. It does not feel itself constantly foiled by logistics, burdened by stress. There are no awkward pauses, no miscommunication, no uncertainty, no misplayed emotions, no unsaid or difficult truths. Love in dreams has an alluring veneer.
Just as in the painfully raw concluding line of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, indulging in illusions merits the response, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
Illusions may be pretty, but they are crushingly, devastatingly untrue. Chasing the illusion of love yields frustration and disappointment.
Perhaps reality is more along Dostoevsky’s appraisal of love. Harsh and dreadful compared to our dreams—but real. For this is love: messy, imperfect, and certainly not like a dream, yet seeking the good of the other rather than our own satisfaction. Love can seem messy and difficult, for we are messy and imperfect humans.
Perhaps it is better to live in and embrace our imperfect real world, one that is filled with possibilities for authentic and beautiful love, a love that is sacrificial and, yes, does hurt at times—rather than to seek escape within pretty illusions in our minds.
Stephanie Reuter is a sophomore PLS and theology major. She can attest that being on campus during break is an introvert’s paradise. Contact her at email@example.com.