Tuesday, 6 December 2011

The willing suspension of disbelief

The willing suspension of disbelief is a central element of all narrative fiction and has been since time immemorial. It worried Aristotle, who believed there must be strict limits to how far an audience could suspend its disbelief, so came up with the notion of the unities of time, place and action. So long as these unities were maintained in a tragedy, he argued, it ought to be possible for the audience to suspend its disbelief and “go along”with the story. On the face of it, the movement of narrative fiction since then has been to test the limits of audience’s abilities in this respect: certainly the three unities were abandoned long ago (though curiously the unity of time re-emerges in projects such as High Noon and 24 and all three in Twelve Angry Men and The Phone Box).

However on closer examination it seems clear that, in film at least, we are actually getting more and more tentative and conservative in requiring audiences to suspend their disbelief. Producers spend millions in set and costume design and hundreds of hours in post-production to eliminate any tiny detail that might disrupt the suspension of disbelief and undermine the“authenticity” of the experience of watching the film. Anal-retentive bloggers pore minutely over every frame of new releases, apparently incredulous at the notion that anyone could accept this portrayal of wartime Europe as authentic when an actor can be CLEARLY SEEN wearing a wristwatch that was FIRST MANUFACTURED IN 1946!!!!

Of course in comedy the disruption of our suspension of disbelief is allowed, for comic effect. Lazy comedies (and some very good ones) get their laughs by parodying scenes from recent blockbusters and Mel Brooks’ High Anxiety contained some marvellous moments, including one where, as the camera pulls back from the unconscious body in the shower (following the Psycho shower scene parody) there is a crash, accompanied by a muttered “Carry on, carry on. No one will notice”. The camera pulls back further to reveal a ragged hole in the bathroom wall.

Serious films do have their moments of intertextuality too, but they are called “hommages” and are knowing asides between film bores. They are intended to be too subtle for the general audience to notice consciously, so the willing suspension of disbelief is safe. It is not just in the details of what is seen that film makers assist the suspension of disbelief either, but in how it is seen. The Blair Witch Project exemplified a vogue for a “cinéma verité” style that allows viewers to pretend that this has all been filmed without the benefit of a crew of thousands (though the end credits often remind us of that reality) and the rise of 3D is all about creating an even more immersive, convincingly “real” experience. Pretty soon, it seems, we won’t have to suspend our disbelief at all: what we watch will be indistinguishable from reality itself.

Of course it hasn’t always been like that. In the 17th Century equivalent of modern blockbusters (the Histories and Tragedies) Shakespeare had no qualms in reminding his audience that this was a play. The prologue to Henry V refers to the theatre itself as “this wooden O” and concludes
“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.”

In Hamlet he revels in reminding us throughout the play, and even at the tensest and most profound moments, that this is indeed just a play: that we are suspending our disbelief. I have touched on this in a previous post and the references to the theatre and to acting are throughout the play. As well as those though, think of the times when characters become the audience for other characters- reminding us of our own role. It is often forgotten that Hamlet’s most famous apparent soliloquy (“To be or not to be…”) is actually performed in front of an audience, of Claudius and Polonius.

Novels have always been a little more equivocal over the question of suspension of disbelief. Early novels veered widely between the absolute insistence on verisimilitude of the epistolary novel (such as Clarissa) and the playfully self-referential demolition of verisimilitude in Tom Jones. Perhaps the most radical and accomplished example of the latter form is Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. It is full of asides to the reader such as “Imagine to yourself;—but this had better begin a new chapter” that constantly remind us of the interaction between the reader and the text. He even includes a blank page to allow us to contribute our own description of Widow Wadman, with the words “To conceive this right,—call for pen and ink—here's paper ready to your hand.—Sit down, Sir, paint her to your own mind—as like your mistress as you can—as unlike your wife as your conscience will let you—'tis all one to me—please but your own fancy in it.”

This sort of playfulness is very unusual today. I can only think of Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, although Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story is a fascinating exploration for children of the relationship between the reader and the text. It is as though, as with films, we no longer want to be reminded that what we are reading is fiction. The novelists’ habit of directly addressing their “Dear reader” is now seen as hopelessly old-fashioned.

For me though, the most fascinating exploration ever of the notion of the willing suspension of disbelief is that disregarded classic of Scottish Gothic The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. On the face of it this is in the Clarissa tradition of verisimilitude, apparently consisting of a series of “found” texts. The first section is an account by“the Editor” of events in the life of a paranoid, delusional religious fanatic (the “Justified Sinner”) of the title. This account seeks to establish its authenticity by repeated reference to “tradition”. This, we are led to believe, is the unvarnished history of what actually happened.

The second section consists of the “Memoirs” of the “Justified Sinner” himself. This recounts the same events but in the language of religious fanaticism (“she was married to one of the wicked; a man all over spotted with the leprosy of sin”) and from the point of view of someone who is clearly descending rapidly into a state of extreme paranoid schizophrenia.

The novel then concludes with an account of how this “memoir” came into the hands of the “editor”, who then comments on the text directly, as follows:
“With regard to the work itself, I dare not venture a judgment, for I do not understand it. I believe no person, man or woman, will ever peruse it with the same attention that I have done, and yet I confess that I do not comprehend the writer's drift. It is certainly impossible that these scenes could ever have occurred that he describes as having himself transacted. I think it may be possible that he had some hand in the death of his brother, and yet I am disposed greatly to doubt it; and the numerous traditions, etc. which remain of that event may be attributable to the work having been printed and burnt, and of course the story known to all the printers, with their families and gossips.”

Of course, when you strip away his sanctimonious, judgmental tone what he is saying is that the "memoir" is total nonsense and not worth reading and that the “tradition” on which he has based his entire account is no more than the utterly unreliable memoir itself, distorted by the Chinese whispers of oral transmission by generations of “gossips.” At which point you want to scream at him “Stop! Wait a minute! So is none of it true then? What am I supposed to believe?” but you can’t, because the novel ends.

After all, it is only a novel. We knew all along we were suspending our disbelief, didn’t we?
Didn’t we?

No comments:

Post a Comment