Aug 3, 2007
Ever wonder why people cry their eyes out at a movie or a television show? Not just children, but men and women, fully grown? Not about a documentary about a slain president or a real-life princess who died too young, but about characters and plots that are purely fiction?
Hey, ever wonder why you have cried during such presentations, and I bet there is nearly no one on this planet who has not?
Samuel Taylor Coleridge had the answer – even though he was writing a good fifty years before the invention of motion pictures.
In his Biographia Literaria, published in 1817, the man who wrote the "Rime of the Ancient Mariner"? talks about "that willing suspension of disbelief, for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith"?. (Interestingly, later in the same paragraph, Coleridge also disparagingly mentions "the film of familiarity and selfish solicitude"? which can get in the way of that willing suspension, but he of course is not talking about our kind of film.)
Let’s substitute "filmic"? for "poetic,"? and see how Coleridge’s observation explains our tears in front of screens.
First, Coleridge recognizes that we approach a movie or television show – as indeed we do a poem, a short story, or a novel – with a healthy degree of skepticism or "disbelief"?. We do not believe for an instant that what is up there on the screen or down there on the page is really happening.
We have to be coaxed or persuaded to pretend that it’s real. The disbelief, in other words, is not only suspended or put aside, but knowingly so. We become, literally, double-minded, one part knowing that what we’re looking at is not really happening, the other part playing along with the illusion that it is.
This point is absolutely crucial, and by the way makes appreciation of fiction very different from propaganda, in which the goal of the communicator is to make us suspend our disbelief and forget that we ever had it in first place.
In contrast, we can cry our eyes out, get frightened at a horror movie, all from the safe vantage point of knowing, just a stone’s throw away in our mind, that there’s nothing really, truly to cry or get scared about.
Now, admittedly, there may be other things that go into this mix – willing suspension of disbelief need not operate in solitude. We might cry at a movie or television show because it reminds us of something sad or tragic that happened in our lives, or our world, and there would be no disbelief making us cry in that. We would be crying because our experience, sadly, made what we saw on the screen all too believable.
Or we might cry because we see something on the screen which relates not to a real experience, but evokes a similar emotion we felt about some other experience – grief, like all human emotions, is easily transferable. If we cried in real life because we were jilted, we might well cry about some other kind of loss we see depicted on the screen.
Willing suspension of disbelief, then, is not only something which does not operate in isolation, it is usually part of complex continuum of experiences we had and did not have, all drawn into the emotional festivities by the poet or filmmaker.
And, if we with agree with Coleridge, it all lasts but a moment. Pretty powerful, high-octane stuff. The spice of life – and art.