Friday, 2 July 2010

The Willful Supsension of Disbelief (Part II)

Part II

In the previous post I explained why the suspension of disbelief is important to being an ethical person. It allows us to accept characters who are different from us as having valid experiences, even if those experiences don't jive with what we believe is true about the world. This comes from the fact that fictional characters live in worlds that operate under different physics (and metaphysics) from our own. Most books we read do not depart from our world in ways that we find offensive, but some do. This is when we hit complications, and these complications will be the subject of this post.

For me the best example I can give of a fictional world I find repugnant is that in Philip Pulman's His Dark Materials trilogy. [Spoiler alert? I don't reveal actual plot, only backstory...but since revealing this backstory changes the novels as they progress, you might still want to avoid the following if you haven't read the books but plan to.] In this world (more accurately, multiverse), the Authority (God) is a senile fake, a mere angel who claims the status of Creator. "Claimed" might be better, for by now he is so old that he is incapable of rational thought. The power behind the throne is a militant angel--St. Michael?--who seeks to destroy free will and secure the absolute authority of fate. Doing the work of these forces is an inter-universe organization better known as the Church, though it operates as different bands of kidnappers and despots, which uses emergent technology to acheive their ends. Against these forces are rallied the resistance, including rebel angels, gypsies, witches, ex-religious scientists, talking bears, creatures that evolved differently in a parallel universe, and a pair of fated children. The afterlife is a miserable jail created by the Authority, and its denizens would prefer utter annihilation, the dissolving of their particles into the universe. Pulman has been clear in interviews that he created his world such that Paradise Lost's Adam and Eve's choice in the Fall would be the right one. [Spoiler alert ended.] You can see how I might object to this world.* Thus while characters' actions may have one standard in this world, I cannot condone their actions had they been performed in our own. Further, I find that the world Pulman has created is a deliberate insult to my own beliefs. Nonetheless I am called to empathize with the characters according to the situation they are in, not the situation I am in. (It is easier that Pulman is a skillful writer who cares about his characters, making the protagonists easy to like and the prose easy to read.) It is this act, this forced empathy, which has merit when applied in the real world. Empathizing with your psychological clone doesn't require much effort;** empathizing with your psychological opposite does.

But here's the trick about the suspension of disbelief. So far we have only discussed differences between our world and the fictional world in terms of physical and metaphysical things: whether or not there are ghosts, what happens to our soul upon death (and whether there is a soul), what is sufficient motivation for a person to dramatically change character, how people speak, whether or not one can make a sword out of laserbeams. But there is another realm of beliefs which we have hardly touched on, and that is ethics. Of course the ethical course of action changes if the world changes: defying God as Christianity depicts Him is, whatever Pulman says, unethical, but by the same standards it could be the case that defying Blake's God in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell or defying Zeus in Prometheus Unbound would be a good thing, since in Christianity God is a liberator, but in Blake and Shelley God is a tyrant. This sort of thing is not what I mean when I say that suspension of disbelief applies to ethical facts as well as metaphysical ones. In many stories it is ethically fine to beat your wives and deprive them of any right, and yet there isn't much metaphysical difference between women in that fictional world and women in this real one. And while we're talking about Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, consider his proverbs. If we take these as unironic (debatable, I know, but bear with me using this as an example, please), we will notice that this world not only has a different cosmos than ours, but a different set of moral laws. This is possible in fiction. And what this means is that we must also try to understand--and care for--the characters in terms of these new ethics. This becomes even more difficult, and requires not only more effort on our part but also far better mental safeguards--that is, better suspension of disbelief.

But at this point we must concede that other people--not us, no, of course not--are not so good at building these epistemic quarantines, as I've called them. They're not so good at the suspense of disbelief. They find themselves believing the ethics found in these fictions, largely because they are not aware that a book's ethical laws can be just as divergent from our own as its physical laws can be. They are tricked, whether or not the author intended it. This is especially true when much of our culture is carrying the same ethical message; we come to accept it as truth. This is where deconstructivism or resistant reading come in. In Reader Response theory, one school of literary criticism, resistant reading means being skeptical of all of an author's claims. You are almost antagonistic to the reader, applying a strict set of lenses when following the story. Reading is akin to examing the evidence. Deconstructivism is part of the postmodern constellation of literary criticism; this seeks to take apart a text's assumptions to see how it works, with the general goal of pointing out how such a worldview is created, which is to say, not entirely true. Both are important skills for someone who is reading a book whose world they cannot agree with, for dealing with propaganda "hidden" in literature.

Let me give you an example. A woman reads a classic dragon-knight-damsel fairytale and realizes that she doesn't care for the passive role the woman has. She therefore does not take it very seriously, refusing to accept its terms as legitimate. This process is resistant reading. She also analyzes how the story is put together, figuring out the relationships in the story's word choice and presented ideas which have to do with the damsel's distress. She thus exposes it's misogynistic and/or patriarchal structure. This process is deconstructivism. Both are valid and perhaps necessary, especially if people are being duped by this story into thinking that girls are primarily in need of rescue. What I am saying is that, alongside this process, we must understand the knight's behaviour in terms of the world around him. It may be the case that we think this world is unlike our own and that we must determine the ways in which it is dissimilar, but that does not mean that we can write the knight off as a chauvinist, even if he would be one in our world. In his world damsels are primarily in need of saving, and it would be unethical for him not to step up to the plate. In his world dragons are wholly evil and killing them is not wrong. In his world things are a lot different than in our own.

This is why reading--and reading well--is so important. It allows us to exercise our suspension of disbelief, to understand how other people operate from within their own points of view. To empathize without uncritically accepting our neighbour's beliefs. To be better human beings.

But of course not everyone does read well. I shall go over this in a future post.

* If you did not read the bit on His Dark Materials, I suggest you think of Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
** Unless you are rivals in love, which would be quite possible. In this case it could be difficult again.

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