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.

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