Wednesday, 30 June 2010

The Willful Suspension of Disbelief (Part I)

Why It's Important

In Anatomy of Criticism, Northrop Frye says, "A reader who quarrels with postulates, who dislikes Hamlet because he does not believe that there are ghosts or that people speak in pentameters, clearly has no business in literature. He cannot distinguish fiction from fact, and belongs to the same category as the people who send cheques to radio stations for the relief of suffering heroines in soap operas" (76). Most of us know that what happens in stories is not real, so that judging reality by what happens in a novel is silly. Most of us are also familiar with the term the willful suspension of disbelief, or at least with the idea of it. This is something they commonly teach in high school. The idea goes something like this: when we read a book, we do not judge its action by the rules that dictate our own society. We instead judge it based on the rules the story itself sets up. Sometimes this understanding that we judge a book by its internal logic is refered to as the contract between the author and the reader. One way or another, it is an act of the imagination and it is extraordinarily important to the act of reading.

As in the example Frye gives, there are people who refuse to read ghost stories or science fiction stories or fantasy stories on the grounds that such things are impossible and therefore, presumably, either "silly" or irrelevant.* Others refuse to watch romantic comedies on the grounds that they are too improbable. This later has some historical weight: Aristotle said that a play could be impossible, dealing with things that could never happen, but not that it could be improbable, dealing with things that are possible but highly unlikely, requiring for instance unforeseen changes of character or statistically enormous coincidences. I have to disagree with Aristotle on this one, however. We must take a story on its own terms. If it is the kind of story (possibly a "naive" comedy, such as a romantic comedy or a Dickens novel, or equally possibly a semi-parodic action movie) which allows by its conventions sudden changes of character, then we must take those in stride when they appear to us in the story. We cannot and should not expect fiction to adhere to the laws of our own experience. Not only would that be limiting, taking with it some of the best fiction written, but it would also be boring, if even possible.**

I hope then that we can agree that fiction ought to be read according to its own rules, not the rules of our experienced universe. If a play has ghosts and characters speaking in meter, then that is what we go with. If a television series includes intelligent machines, pagan prophets, and ambassadors from God, then that is what we go with. If a novel ends with a literal deus ex machina, then that is what we go with. We can make the parenthetical exception that a sudden change in these rules is unfair. If a starkly realist play then suddenly ends with the entrance of a divine figure who resolves all problems by magical decree (Hymen, god of marriage, would be a good example from Renaissance literature), we could call foul. But if the play is light, whimsical, and uninterested with probability from the outset, then the entrance of a jolly god could pass unnoticed (I'm thinking of As You Like It).

So far I hope that this has just been a refresher. Again, this was covered in my grade nine English class, so it seems reasonable to except most people to be familiar with this idea. Is it that important, beyond allowing us to enjoy soap operas and fairy tales and space sagas? In fact, I think it is. This is because fiction helps us practice certain ethical faculties, and suspension of disbelief is integral to this practicing.

I have quoted this passage elsewhere, but it is related to my argument, so I will quote it again here. In Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi says that a novel is not an allegory; rather, "it is the sensual experience of another world. If you don't enter that world, hold your breath with the characters and become involved in their destiny, you won't be able to empathize, and empathy is at the heart of the novel. This is how you read a novel: you inhale the experience. So start breathing." As pertains to this discussion, the key part of this passage is, "empathy is at the heart of the novel." Nafisi believes that the novel is the most democratic of literary forms, allowing many voices to speak without censure. Perhaps this is true, perhaps it is not; regardless, all art gives us the possibility of empathy, in that it gives us a viewpoint not our own from which we can temporarily see. Literature allows us to empathize with at least one character (the speaker), if not many more. That is, literature gives us practice seeing things from other people's points of view.

Think about it. How often have you had an argument in which you tried--you really tried--to understand where the other person was coming from, but you couldn't. You tried to see it from their point of view, but something just didn't line up. Either their ability to communicate or your ability to listen was impaired. When left to our own imaginations, putting ourselves in another's shoes can be difficult, because we don't always know where to start. Art bridges this by making articulate another viewpoint, and efficiently placing you in that perspective. Most people do this willingly, even when they are not terribly good at empathizing in real life. Literature gives them practice by making it easier--sometimes. Other times it is more difficult, and I'll get to that later in this post.

The trouble with this is that in order to do this properly, you must provisionally accept not only the validity of the other person's feelings, desires, needs, fears, etc., but also the validity of their beliefs. This is not to say that you must accept that their ideas about the world are true; that would be epistemological chaos. You must rather, without being a relativist, accept that their beliefs are true according to them; they make their decisions based to some extent on these beliefs, and in order to understand what they are feeling, you must understand what they believe. But in order to protect your own belief's integrity, you must put some sort of parentheses around their beliefs. You say, "These ideas are hypothetical. In Frye's terms, they are postulates. We say, 'Let's assume that in this world x is true.'" Another word for this is that you put these ideas in epistemic quarantine.

Perhaps at this point you can see how this relates to the suspension of disbelief. In order to experience a novel properly,*** we must allow that the characters in this world follow a different set of physics, as it were. We cannot appreciate Tolkien's elves if we do not accept their immortality. (If you prefer, you can think of the Cylon's immortality in Battlestar Galactica or the Pevensie's immortality in The Chronicles of Narnia--for in the Narnian universe heaven is an empirical fact just as much as downloading is in Battlestar). We cannot appreciate the situation of Tinkerbell if we do not accept that she can only feel a single emotion at a time, and we cannot appreciate the characters in Dickens if we do not accept that half of them are cardboard cut-outs. Empathy is only possible if we accept their own world as true. This does not mean we have to think that their world is the one we live in; it simply means that we understand in this fictional construct, such-and-such is the case, and we must try to understand its characters in that light. Similarly, we do not have to think our roommate's beliefs are true, but we do have to understand their behaviour in light of those beliefs if we are to empathize with them.

Besides empathy, Frye argues, this also allows us to become a little more broad-minded. He writes in The Educated Imagination, "...what is the use of studying a world of imagination where anything is possible and anything can be assumed, where there are no rights or wrongs and all arguments are equally good? One of the most obvious uses, I think, is its encouragement of tolerance. In the imagination our own beliefs are only possibilities, but we can also see the possibilities in the beliefs of others" (45-46). I am not now arguing, nor will I ever argue, for a total willingness to accept other people's beliefs. But it doesn't hurt, I think, for an intelligent, fair, and grounded person to examine other beliefs as possibilities, provisional upon passing certain tests. Again, this only works if we allow fiction to operate under whatever laws it decides to decree, and not necessarily those that govern our own lives.

So, to recap: the suspension of disbelief allows us to empathize with characters unlike us in experience, temperment, and belief, without having to become these characters. This is an important facet of empathy, which is in turn important to functioning in society as a decent human being. Thus reading literature, and exercising the suspension of disbelief as we do so, helps us practice being good people.

The trouble comes when we read a book that supposes a world that we find entirely repugnant. I will deal with this in a second post.

*Actually, come to think of it, I have no idea whatsoever how they justify this bias. Perhaps they don't try to.
** I doubt it would be possible for technical reasons to do with detail selection, among other things. And if you doubt that it would be boring, listen to people speaking, ums, uhs, false starts and all, and then imagine if all dialogue in novels were written verbatim.
*** To be clear, I certainly think that there are right and wrong ways to read.

Friday, 25 June 2010

7 Quick Takes (XLVII)

1. I worked this weekend. I had certain things I planned to do, and did none of them. Instead I did lots of yard-type work and also prepared for our Monday event. What was I expecting, planning to get specific work done? That isn't how work ever goes.

2. One interesting task this weekend was catching an escaping pony. On Sunday a petting zoo was setting up in the Park and, while they were putting up a shelter, a pony and a donkey made a break for it. I saw them headed to the gate, and just managed to catch the pony's lead as he was headed out. Then I gathered up the donkey and led them back to their people. They were actually fairly obedient once I had their leads, minus the odd sudden stop to graze or a yearning for the flowerbeds. Good thing, too, because that donkey was way stronger than me.

3. Monday, then, was National Aboriginal Day. Hence the petting zoo. I was flipping burgers at our concession stand, which made me a little nervous. That was the second time in my life that I'd barbequed, and I was terrified that I'd burn them or undercook them and give someone food poisoning. Anyway, it went well. It turns out that barbequing isn't all that complicated.
4. Due to the fact that I worked the weekend and Monday, I got Tuesday off. I went to the library, where I picked up some books (more on that later) and went to the bank. By the time I got back, the day was getting on and I was tired, and so I ate frozen alfredo penne with broccoli and watched a movie (1408), and then I did the dishes, and then Mom got home from work, so we had supper, and then it was already evening. I still can't figure out how that happened. I rediscovered that having two single days off spread over a week is just not the same as a two-day weekend.
5. Books. Right. You know that moratorium on book buying? Yeah. About that. There was this book sale at the Haxton Centre on Sunday, so we swung by there before work, right? And books were a dollar apiece. These are books, ok? For a dollar. So I leave with three. That seems reasonable, right?
Except at work the receptionist, who's moving soon, left me a bag with, oh, about nine books. Hardcovers, most of them. Modern fiction and historical non-fiction. And she says there are more coming if I want them. I do want them (they are after all books, an essential property of which is that I want them), but I don't know if I want to wrestle my current bookshelf to BC with me, let alone a dozen more hardcovers.
But then, see, the library, which I visited on Tuesday, has a bookcase downstairs on which they shelve used books for sale. Paperbacks are 50¢ apiece. It cost me more to ride the bus on Tuesday than it did purchase three books, and Fort McMurray's bus fare is the cheapest I've ever seen. By the way, I did buy three books. And borrow three.
At some point it becomes clear that it is possible to be addicted to books. I think most of us knew this anyway. Not that, you know, I am addicted, or you, for instance, are addicted, but this is something we know. If only we could get crack addicts to transfer their addiction to literacy. That would get them off the streets, improve their education, and quite possibly save the floundering public library.
6. More specifically, Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics. The possibility more than exists that I lost some of my Tuesday reading (all of) this book. Graphic novel? Graphic non-fiction? Graphic culture-criticism? Book.
I am a genre nerd. We knew this. So when I listen to a TED talk and realize that this guy has written a book about the structure of the comic strip (what he calls Sequential Art), identifying in the process four distinct schools of comics which can be located roughly on a Cartesian plane, I get excited. I also think I remember seeing this at the public library and, my narrative folding yet again upon itself, I look for it while at the library on Tuesday and pick it up.


It is great, though I disagree with him whenever he starts talking about literature. He has taught me a lot about the medium of comics. Notice that he spends much of his time talking about the medium. This isn't about Superman or Batman or the Incredible Hulk; he talks about Maus and Egyptian heiroglyphs and sequential 18th century woodcuts about as or more often as he does superheroes. This is about the form's structure and its literary/artistic possibilities, not pop culture, except when that pop culture provides a good example of his point.
In other bookish news, I am currently reading Reading Lolita in Tehran. It is excellent.

7. I've started househunting. It's getting close, but there are lots of listings up, so I'm not too worried. Yet.
I am sorry about the poor white-space management. I put spaces between all of my paragraphs when in draft, but somehow the publishing removes half of them. Again, apologies.
Jen Fulwiller of Conversion Diary hosts the 7 Quick Takes carnival. Be sure to check it out!

Monday, 21 June 2010

A novel is not an allegory...

"A novel is not an allegory, I said as the period was about to come to an end. It is the sensual experience of another world. If you don't enter that world, hold your breath with the characters and become involved in their destiny, you won't be able to empathize, and empathy is at the heart of the novel. This is how you read a novel: you inhale the experience. So start breathing. I just want you to remember this. That is all; class dismissed."

from Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran; A Memoir in Books.

Friday, 18 June 2010

7 Quick Takes (XLVI)

1. I almost didn't write this today. I've had the day off, and yet I forgot about this entirely. Because of my haste, this will be disjointed.

2. On Wednesday I awoke at 3:10 to prepare for work. My shift started at about 4:00. We were moving a house and were working so early so that we would be on the roads when they were abandoned. It was not broad daylight at 4:00, but it was certainly light enough that it felt more like day than night. Solstice is soon, and the light just keeps coming.
Anyway, that was quite a day. It was also pretty cool to see the house coming down the street on a truck.

3. On Saturday (I think it was Saturday) my mother and I went for a walk down in the Conn Creek Greenspace again, this time walking along the length of the South Conn Creek until we reached the road again. We've never walked that far before. Once you get down there, you see a number of old (and not-too-old, perhaps) beaver dams which terrace the creek. It's a fascinating, beautiful, tumbled and jumbled sight down there. There's no way to capture the whole of it in photographs; it's too long and stretched out. Maybe I'll go down there with a camera again, though, and see what I can do.

4. This week we started at the Marine Park again.

5. In the craziness of Wednesday, I somehow missed out on my course registration for university. I didn't remember until Thursday (yesterday), and when I went to apply I found that the only Renaissance course, which was important to my program, as that's my intended specialty, was full. I wound up registering for a number of courses I hadn't planned on taking, and being rather disappointed. Today, however, I got myself on a waiting list and was assured that, one way or another, I would likely get in that course. And even though I wound up in a number of courses I hadn't planned on, I'll likely still learn and enjoy myself. I might even learn more than I would have going into the courses I had planned on taking.

6. Also in the university-bad-news department, I didn't get into residence. The house-hunt is on.

7. Yesterday and today I read Dan Brown's Digital Fortress. I have a few notes on Dan Brown. First, he isn't really much of a writer. Second, the time-frame of his novels tends to be within one or two days. Third, his novels are so fast-paced that I think they can be best described as reaching their climaxes in the thirtieth chapter and finishing their climaxes in the one hundred twentieth. It's just all continuous climax, with no break or building of tension (because it hits crescendo so early and just holds it). Fourth, they are very formulaic, and so once you've read a few, you can predict many of the sudden twists in the rest. Fifth, those sudden twists you can't predict are, in fact, clever. When he's not cliche or outright counterfactual (see The Da Vinci Code), he can actually pull off some clever twists. Admirably clever twists. That combined with his ability to make that continuous climax gripping, means that his books are in the end a fun if meaningless way to spend an afternoon. Longer if you space reading between other tasks.
But then, I tend to appreciate the good in books while many many other people cannot do that in the presence of a whole lot of bad. If a book has one redeeming feature, I might enjoy it for that feature. Harry Potter, for instance, is poorly written, but I can appreciate its moral value. His Dark Materials may be anti-Christian and closed-minded, but I can appreciate its conviction and its beauty in writing and storytelling. The Chronicles of Narnia may be bigoted, but I can appreciate their smart narrative, their moral character, and their archetypal power. Recognizing the bad does not prevent me from enjoying the good, and enjoying the good does not prevent me from recognizing the bad.

I'm not perfect; some things really do turn my stomach too much for me to read the book. Other things bore me too much, such that the good doesn't seem worth the time. But I try to be willing to appreciate a work for its strengths and not its weaknesses. Funny how much easier it is to do this with books than with people.
See Jennifer Fullwiler, the host of this meme.

Friday, 11 June 2010

7 Quick Takes (XLV)

1. Last Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, I was in Canmore with my folks. From there we visited Banff National Park and Yoho National Park, doing an assortment of interesting things involving wild animals and mountain tops. There are obviously pictures of such activities scattered throughout this post.

2. A few more birthday presents came rolling in. They were all in the form of DVDs. My folks had ordered Clint, and it finally came in. It's a collection of 35 of Clint Eastwood's films, along with a documentary called The Eastwood Factor and a small book based on a biography of the man. I am pumped.
There were also DVDs from Friend in Windsor, namely Hollywood Homicide, The Bank Job, and 1408.
Also, I had order the album Epicon by Globus with an gift certificate my brother gave me, and it just came in today....

3. I am liking this Epicon CD. I had heard a number of their songs already through Grooveshark. Well, to begin with, I saw some time ago a Youtube video which compiled bits of a number of "epic songs," and one of them was Diem Ex Dei, which I thought sounded good. Then Jon introduced me to Grooveshark, and I thought the whole song was pretty good. This led to finding more songs by Globus, and, eventually, my buying the disc.
I listened to the album straight through; Jon has said something to the effect that the order the songs are presented is part of the album as a discrete musical composition, and that they are meant to be listened to in that order. At least, while each song does and must stand alone, there is an overall structure to the album itself.
It is the same, I assume, as reading a book of poetry or short stories in the order they are presented.
I am trying to learn music.
Also, Jon, I think you know what reprecussion all of this has for you and your forthcoming travels.

4. Soon summer students and I will be headed to the Marine Park again. If you have been following me only lately, you can learn more about the Marine Park by clicking the "marine park" label and skimming through the entries.

5. I read Water for Elephants on the way to Canmore. I highly recommend this book. I cannot stress this enough. It's about an old man in a senior's home remembering his years as a young vet for a run-down circus in the Great Depression. If circuses, the Depression, veterinary practices, love triangles, or well-developed characters appeal to you, read this book. Otherwise, read this book.

6. I also recently watched Lions for Lambs. I enjoyed this movie; in case you haven't seen it yet, it contemplates the American presense in Afghanistan from a number of points of view, some of which obliquely but importantly related. Furthermore, the structure of the film itself is interesting, in that it revolves primarily around two interviews (an idealistic professor with a faltering student, an old-school liberal reporter with a young Republican senator) and two injured American soldiers stranded in the Afghanistan mountains. The action of the film covers just over an hour, less time than the actual movie itself (the difference being made in overlap between scenes and some reminiscing). It's about courage, idealism, activism, hypocrisy, looking forward, looking back, and making a difference. (And it has Maryl Streep, Tom Cruise, and Robert Redford, if that makes any difference to you.)

7. I am spending more time with Frye's Anatomy of Criticism. I think my forays into postmodernism have resulted in a more fervent return to metanarratives. (This may be simply reactionary, but nonetheless I do have reasons for this return.) I think Frye's ideas will be useful for my upcoming graduate thesis, provided I wind up doing what I think I'll wind up doing, which is why I'm saying I'm re-reading his book.
But I'm also just so impressed with Frye's vision. Whether he succeeded or not, you have to give the man credit.
For those who don't know, Frye put together a diagrammatic structure of all literature. He created axises and categories; he scanned the breadth of world literature, looking for patterns and teasing out structures. He looked at words in fiction and discerned how many layers of meaning they possessed. Frye took many of the theories of criticism of his day and synthesized their observations. What he came up with was a vast structure into which, he believed, all literature could be fit, from lullaby lyrics to political satires to Victorian novels to Ethopian oral literature to Hindi scripture to hagiographies to free verse to horror films. It's pretty impressive, and freakishly accurate. (Though there's that quotation about being surprised about finding something where you hid it...)

I guess that's seven.

Visit the host, Jennifer Fulwiler.

Note: apologies for the weird formatting with the photos. I had tried to make them smaller, but Blogger wouldn't have it.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

On Cooperation

Check out this sonnet.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

A Momentary Update and a Mountain Range

For your information:

Jon has noticed that I missed a 7 Quick Takes. This is because I went cavorting southward to visit places like Canmore, Banff, Lake Louise, and Feild. I will do a 7 Quick Takes this coming Friday covering both weeks. I may also post some select photographs from my adventures.

Sorry for the inconvenience.
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