Something I have been struggling to pin down is a clear expression of my thoughts on the oft-quoted dictum of Coleridge, shown in its original context here:
‘it was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.’
This strikes me as a curious instance of something that has become a commonplace – you can almost guarantee to come across it in critical discussion of certain things, chiefly film and theatre – despite the fact that it completely fails to stand up to any rigorous scrutiny. It is, in a word, nonsense.
But there is another strand here, which may be part of my difficulty. This dictum, and its popularity, strike me as a further instance of something I have grown increasingly aware of in my recent thinking, namely the subjugation of Art to Reason. By this I mean the insistence that Art is not only capable of, but requires rational explanation – that its meaning can and should be clarified by writing and talking about it in a certain way (and note the crucial assumption that involves, namely that art has meaning).
This seems to me much like insisting that everyone say what they have to say in English, rather than accepting that there are languages other than our own which are different but equally good.
But back to Coleridge. If the ‘willing suspension of disbelief for the moment’ is what ‘constitutes poetic faith,’ then all I can say is that it must be an odd sort of faith that consists not in believing something – or indeed anything – but rather in putting aside one’s incredulity on a temporary basis: ‘when I say I believe in poetry, what I mean is that I actually find it incredible, but I am willing to pretend I don’t in order to read it.’
That is the pernicious link – that this suspension of disbelief is a necessary prerequisite of engaging with poetry, fiction or indeed Art as a whole; we see it repeated (as gospel) in these quotations, culled at random from the internet:
‘Any creative endeavor, certainly any written creative endeavor, is only successful to the extent that the audience offers this willing suspension as they read, listen, or watch. It’s part of an unspoken contract: The writer provides the reader/viewer/player with a good story, and in return, they accept the reality of the story as presented, and accept that characters in the fictional universe act on their own accord.’
(‘Any creative endeavour’ ? ‘is only successful’ ? Come on!)
‘In the world of fiction you are often required to believe a premise which you would never accept in the real world. Especially in genres such as fantasy and science fiction, things happen in the story which you would not believe if they were presented in a newspaper as fact. Even in more real-world genres such as action movies, the action routinely goes beyond the boundaries of what you think could really happen.
In order to enjoy such stories, the audience engages in a phenomenon known as “suspension of disbelief”. This is a semi-conscious decision in which you put aside your disbelief and accept the premise as being real for the duration of the story.’
(‘required to believe’ ? ‘in order to enjoy’? Really?)
The implication is that we spend our waking lives in some sort of active scepticism, measuring everything we encounter against certain criteria before giving it our consideration; and when we come on any work of art – or at least one that deals with ‘persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic’ – we immediately find it wanting, measured against reality, and so must give ourselves a temporary special dispensation to look at it at all.
This is rather as if, on entering a theatre, we said to ourselves ‘these fellows are trying to convince me that I’m in Denmark, but actually it’s just a stage set and they are actors in costumes pretending to be other people – Hamlet, Claudius, Horatio, Gertrude; of course it doesn’t help that instead of Danish they speak a strange sort of English that is quite unlike the way people really talk.’
The roots of this confusion go back what seems a long way, to classical Greece (about twenty-five centuries) though in saying that we should remember that artistic expression is a great deal older (four hundred centuries at least; probably much, much more). I have quoted the contest between Zeuxis and Parrhasius before:
…when they had produced their respective pieces, the birds came to pick with the greatest avidity the grapes which Zeuxis had painted. Immediately Parrhasius exhibited his piece, and Zeuxis said, ‘Remove your curtain that we may see the painting.’ The painting was the curtain, and Zeuxis acknowledged himself conquered, by exclaiming ‘Zeuxis has deceived birds, but Parrhasius has deceived Zeuxis himself.’
– Lempriere’s Classical Dictionary
This is the epitome of the pernicious notion that art is a lie, at its most successful where it is most deceptive: thus Plato banishes it from his ideal state, because in his world it is at two removes from Reality. Plato’s Reality (which he also identifies with Truth) is the World of Forms or Ideas, apprehended by the intellect; the world apprehended by the senses is Appearance, and consists of inferior copies of Ideas; so that Art, which imitates Appearance, is but a copy of a copy, and so doubly inferior and untrustworthy.
Aristotle takes a different line on Appearance and Reality (he is willing to accept the world of the sense as Reality) but continues the same error with his theory of Mimesis, that all art is imitation – which, to use Aristotle’s own terminology, is to mistake the accident for the substance, the contingent for the necessary.
To be sure, some art does offer a representation of reality, and often with great technical skill; and indeed there are works in the tradition of Parrhasius that are expressly intended to deceive – trompe l’oeil paintings, which in the modern era can achieve astonishing effects
but far from being the pinnacle of art (though they are demonstrations of great technical skill) these are a specialist subset of it, and in truth a rather minor one, a sort of visual joke.
Insofar as any work of art resembles reality there will always be the temptation to measure it against reality and judge it accordingly, and this is particularly so of the visual arts, especially cinema, though people will apply the same criterion to fiction and poetry.
They are unlikely to do so in the case of music, however, and this exception is instructive. Even where music sets out to be specifically representative (technically what is termed ‘program(me) music’, I believe) and depict some scene or action – for instance Britten’s ‘Sea Interludes’ –it still does not look like the thing it depicts (for the simple reason that it has no visual element). Music is so far removed in character from what it depicts that we do not know where to start in making a comparison – we see at once that it is a different language, if you like.
The Sea Interludes are extraordinarily evocative, yet we would not call them ‘realistic’, something we might be tempted to say of a photo-realistic depiction of a seascape compared to one by Turner, say:
(original source here) Tom Nielsen – ‘First light surf’
(JMW Turner, ‘Seascape with storm coming on’ 1840)
Of all the different forms of Art, it is cinema that has gone furthest down this erroneous path – with the rise of CGI, almost anything can be ‘realised’ in the sense of presenting it in fully rounded, fully detailed form, and the revival of 3D imagery in its latest version and various other tricks are all geared to the same end of making it seem as if you were actually there in the action, as if that were the ultimate goal.
Yet even with the addition of scent and taste – the only senses yet to be catered for in film – the illusion is only temporary and never complete: we are always aware at some level that it is an illusion, and indeed the more it strives to be a perfect illusion the more aware we are of its illusory nature (we catch ourselves thinking ‘these special effects are amazing!’).
On the other hand, a black and white film from decades ago can so enrapture us that we are completely engaged with it to the exclusion of all else – we grip the arms of our seat and bite our lip when the hero is in peril, we shed tears at the denouement, we feel hugely uplifted at the joyous conclusion – but none of this is because we mistake what we are seeing for reality; it has to do with the engagement of our feelings.
In marked contrast to the cinema, the theatre now rarely aims at a realistic presentation; on the contrary, the wit with which a minimum of props can be used for a variety of purposes (as the excellent Blue Raincoat production of The Poor Mouth did with four chairs and some pig masks) can be part of the pleasure we experience, just as the different voices and facial expressions used by a storyteller can. It is not the main pleasure, of course, but it helps clarify the nature of the error that Coleridge makes.
How a story is told – the technique with which it is presented, whether it be on stage, screen or page – is a separate thing from the story itself. Take, for instance, these two fine books by Jackie Morris
‘East of the Sun, West of the Moon‘ and ‘The Wild Swans‘ are traditional tales; in retelling them, Jackie Morris puts her own stamp on them, not only with her own words and beautiful illustrations, but also with some changes of detail and action (for more about the writing of East of the Sun, see here).
The nature of these changes is interesting. It is like retuning a musical instrument: certain notes that jarred before now ring true; the tales are refreshed – their spirit is not altered but enhanced.
This ‘ringing true’ is an important concept in storytelling and in Art generally (I have discussed it before, in this fable). On the face of it, both these tales are prime candidates for Coleridge’s pusillanimous ‘suspension of disbelief’: in one, a talking bear makes a pact with a girl which she violates, thus failing to free him from the enchantment laid on him (he is actually a handsome prince); in consequence, the girl must find her way to the castle East of the Sun, West of the Moon, an enterprise in which she is aided by several wise women and the four winds; there she must outwit a troll-maiden. In the other, a sister finds her eleven brothers enchanted into swans by the malice of their stepmother, and can only free them by taking a vow of silence and knitting each of them shirts of stinging nettles.
After all, it will be said, you don’t meet with talking bears, any more than you do with boys enchanted into swans, in the Real World, do you?
Hm. I have to say that I view the expression ‘Real World’ and those who use it with deep suspicion: it is invariably employed to exclude from consideration something which the speaker does not like and fears to confront. As might be shown in a Venn diagram, what people mean by the ‘Real World’ is actually a subset of the World, one that is expressly defined to rule out the possibility of whatever its proponents wish to exclude:
In other words, all they are saying is ‘you will not find talking bears or enchanted swans if you look in a place where you don’t find such things.’
Cue howls of protest: ‘you don’t meet talking bears walking down the street, do you?’ Well, it depends where you look: if you look at the start of East of the Sun, you will meet a talking bear walking through the streets of a city. Further howls: ‘But that’s just a story!’
(Some people met this bear on the London underground but I don’t think it spoke )
Well, no – it isn’t just a story; it’s a story – and stories and what is in them are as much part of the world as belisha beacons, horse-blankets and the Retail Price Index. The World, after all, must include the totality of human experience. The fact that we do not meet with talking bears in the greengrocer’s (and has anyone ever said we might?) does not preclude the possibility of meeting them in stories, which is just where you’d expect to find them (for a similar point, see Paxman and the Angels).