Monday, November 24, 2008

"Poetic faith"

In Chapter 14 of his Biographia Literaria, Coleridge brings up one of his most famous dicta, the "willing suspension of disbelief . . . which constitutes poetic faith." I was watching a movie the other day on DVD. It's not a great movie, but it's entertaining enough in its own way. It's one of those movies that explores a man in freakish and cruel control of a woman - in this case a husband who imprisons his wife on a secluded island in a wilderness somewhere. The movie is Devil's Pond (2003) and it stars Kip Pardue (as the husband) and Tara Reid (as the wife). The blurb on the back of the DVD says this:

"What starts out as a romantic honeymoon getaway soon turns into a nightmare when [the wife] finds out that her new husband has no plans of ever letting her go. Trapped on a deserted island with no communication to the outside world, [the wife] realizes that only one of them will make it off the island alive!"

I don't think I'll spoil the movie for you (if so, sorry about that) when I tell you that, of course, after immense and at times bloody struggles it's the wife who manages to escape - and this is also what we as viewers ardently desire and long for. For most of the movie all we see is the two of them, alone on this deserted island. So where does the "suspension of disbelief" and that famous "poetic faith" come into the picture? Well, as you know (if you have ever had the pleasure of watching a movie on a DVD), these disks have a lot more on them than just the movie itself. Like a behind-the-scenes account of how a given movie was made. It's when I watched that part of this particular DVD that the idea of the "suspension of disbelief" and the "poetic faith" that it constitutes popped into my head. When I watched this part of the DVD, all my "illusions" got busted. The couple was not alone on that island. In fact, there were more people there than I thought that small island could possibly accommodate. No need to list them all. The director was there as well as the whole "motley crew," including stunt doubles.

After I had finished watching this part of the DVD, I had decided to watch the movie itself again. I wanted to see if I could still watch the movie as if by some magic I was merely witnessing events that were actually happening and that only I could see. For isn't this what happens when we watch a movie by ourselves? Even if we watch it in a theater, don't we feel that we are allowed to see something that's actually happening right in front of our eyes? Indeed, we allow ourselves the pleasure of the illusion that is always already created by a whole bunch of people behind the scenes. We see happenings that are made up, that are fictitious, and that are made up slowly by a whole bunch of people. (And, of course, we really know this behind, as it were, our own scenes.)

But doesn't this also happen when we are reading a novel? We don't think about how the story of the novel was made up. We just get into it and "see" what happens in it just by reading the words on the page in front of us. We don't think about the fact that a given writer wrote those words - on paper in the old days, on a computer's keyboard these days. And if we are reading a physical book, we don't stop to reflect on the fact that it had gone through its own "motley crew" before it became a physical book. Like an editor and a copy editor, and then the printer and the binder, etc.

Coleridge was simply giving verbal expression to something that we as human beings are apparently wired for: the capacity to overlook the making of a movie or a book in order to just see the story unfold, and to believe that what we are seeing is really happening right then and there. This is just one of the miracles of the human mind. According to one scientist, Robert A. Burton, M.D., "[e]ach neuron's DNA provides general instructions for how a cell operates and relates to other cells; it does not provide instructions for logic, reason, or poetry. And yet, out of this mess of cells comes Shakespeare and Newton. Consciousness, intentionality, purpose, and meaning all emerge from the interactions between billions of neurons that do not contain these elements." [The quote is from Dr. Burton's On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You Are Not (New York: St. Martin's Press: 2008)]

It doesn't take much reading between the lines to see that the mind is somehow more than the brain, that it's a case where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Yet the mind, according to scientific consensus, is nothing more than what's generated by the brain and its billions of neurons. We can only wonder at what appears to be nothing short of a miracle. Ah, that "willing suspension of disbelief . . . which constitutes poetic faith" is alive and well, as long as we ourselves stay alive and well. And one of the ways in which we may enjoy this miracle of the human mind is by watching movies or reading novels or poems. Isn't this just incredible? Yet don't we believe it anyway?