Wednesday, April 25, 2007

A Willing Suspension of Disbelief

Leave it to that persistently pompous but nevertheless well-meaning Samuel Taylor Coleridge to have circled the wagons around the critical concept of willing suspension of disbelief.

He did so nearly two hundred years ago in Biographia Literaria, the Gordian knot inflicted on English majors by their instructors, accepted at first by said English majors as some kind of hazing ritual, then grudgingly recognized as vast in wisdom but in great need of pruning shears. The fact that people talked and thought that way in the early 1800s boggles the modern mind, but we modernists are afforded revenge at the picture of what such contemporary ventures as rap, ska, and hip-hop would have had on them.

Willing suspension of disbelief was supposed to be the deliberate setting aside of cynicism toward any fanciful leap of imagination inherent in a work of art by the viewer/reader.

A splendid example of an author, asking the viewer to suspend disbelief and, indeed, to contribute imagination to the venture, is seen in the Prolog to Henry V, where, in the original performances, there was not only disbelief to overcome but considerable effort needed to participate because there was no scenery. None. 

You wanted moonlight, you had some kid holding a pole with a lantern at its end, and one of the characters in the play could point to it and say, “Ah, yon moon riseth.”
“O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention,” the prolog begins:
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act, And monarchs to behold the swelling scene! Then should the warlike Harry, like himself, Assume the port of Mars; and at his heels, Leash'd in like hounds, should famine, sword, and fire Crouch for employment. But pardon, gentles all, The flat unraised spirits that hath dar'd On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth So great an object. Can this cockpit hold The vasty fields of France? Or may we cram Within this wooden O the very casques That did affright the air at Agincourt? O, pardon! since a crooked figure may Attest in little place a million; And let us, ciphers to this great accompt, On your imaginary forces work. Suppose within the girdle of these walls Are now confin'd two mighty monarchies, Whose high upreared and abutting fronts The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder; Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts: Into a thousand parts divide one man, And make imaginary puissance; Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them Printing their proud hoofs i' the receiving earth. For 'tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings, Carry them here and there, jumping o'er times, Turning the accomplishment of many years Into an hour-glass: for the which supply, Admit me Chorus to this history; Who, prologue-like, your humble patience pray, Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play.
Thus does Mr. Big invite us to join the conspiracy against reality by thinking, when he talks of horses, “that you see them, printing their proud hoofs I’ the receiving earth…” It does not hurt that his use of imagery invites suspension of disbelief.
Fast forward four hundred plus years to radio drama. Instead of invitations from a chorus to “Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts,” you get a sound-effects man, an individual who made you hear horse hooves (coconut shells) on The Lone Ranger, and the unthinkable disarray of the interior of Fibber McGee’s closet.

We have become so used to suspending artistic disbelief that the distortions of a Modigliani portrait are not only acceptable, they expand our sense of beauty. We know there is no such place as Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, but we read the work of William Faulkner with the absolute conviction that it exists and so do the families and individuals who populate it.

We are so used to suspending artistic disbelief that we criticize as implausible a work that does not allow us to suspend reflexively, to enjoy the photograph or painting or drama or story as we properly should.

In a real sense, artists of the past and present have given us a passport with which to suspend or alter time, space, and causation. We aren’t positive, but we have some basis to speculate on the intention of those early artists who incised or drew illustrations on cave walls and rocks, making their work even more of a creative shimmer.

But alas: We have also become so used to suspending disbelief that we have in rapid succession elected to office a man who is so stunningly effective in his own chaos theory that he has brought a country to the same disarray as Fibber McGee’s closet, then not only blamed us for the mess, but has authorized Halilburton to clean it up for us.

We live in a world where our suspension of disbelief has collided with the awful reality of a madness so severe that it brings to question our own sense of reality being twisted into a mobius strip.

In my early love affair with California history and the magnetic lure of things San Franciscan, I became aware of Joshua A. Norton (1819-80), a man who made a nice living for himself as a commodities dealer before losing first his business and them his mind, eventually declaring himself Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.

A frequent composer of letters of advice to Queen Victoria, Norton was regarded with affection by San Franciscans, who celebrated his eccentricities. Perhaps this is our way with this more contemporary emperor. I would think Texas more to his liking than San Francisco. Perhaps Dallas or Houston, possibly even Waco or Amarillo. But not Austin. A horse. By all means, give the man a horse. And now that I think of it, a companion, a servant or overseer. Perhaps a former vice president.

Close your eyes and think of it. The two of them, moving about Texas, rescuing Texans from—from themselves. Possibly retiring from time to time to an unused FEMA trailer, but only to sit out hot or cold spells.

Go ahead, suspend your disbelief. Close your eyes and think of it.

1 comment:

Pod said...

thank you for your wonderful comment! it cheered me very much. same to you of course!