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Peter T Chattaway

suspending disbelief? (i create, you create, we all create!)

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I've been familiarizing myself with J.R.R. Tolkien's essay 'On Fairy Stories' in the Tolkien Reader, lately, and I was struck by this paragraph on pages 36-37 of the Tree and Leaf section:

Children are capable, of course, of
literary belief
, when the story-maker's art is good enough to produce it. That state of mind has been called "willing suspension of disbelief." But this does not seem to me a good description of what happens. What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful "sub-creator." He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is "true": it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed. You are then out in the Primary World again, looking at the little abortive Secondary World from outside. If you are obliged, by kindliness or circumstance, to stay, then disbelief must be suspended (or stifled), otherwise listening and looking would become intolerable. But this suspension of disbelief is a substitute for the genuine thing, a subterfuge we use when condescending to games or make-believe, or when trying (more or less willingly) to find what virtue we can in the work of an art that has for us failed.

I was reminded of the following excerpts from pages 184-187 of Sarah E. Worth's 'The Paradox of Real Response to Neo-Fiction' in The Matrix and Philosophy, as much for the differences as for the similarities:

When we enter into a fictional world, or let the fictional world enter into our imaginations, we do not "willingly suspend our disbelief." Coleridge aside, we cannot willingly decide to believe or disbelieve anything, any more than we can willingly believe it is snowing outside if all visual or sensory cues tell us otherwise. When engaging with fiction we do not
suspend a critical faculty
, but rather
exercise a creative faculty
. We do not actively suspend disbelief -- we
actively create belief
. As we learn to enter into fictional spaces (and I do believe this is something that we have to learn and that requires skills we must practice and develop) we desire more and more to experience the new space more fully. We want to immerse ourselves in the new world, just as Neo begins to immerse himself in the real world outside the Matrix. To do this we can focus our attention on the enveloping world and use our creative faculties to reinforce the reality of the experience, rather than to question it. . . .

In "reality," we make judgments about people and situations without having full information all the time -- we must do this just to be practical, since the time it would take to gather all the information we assume would be prohibitive to living our lives. We fill in the gaps with guesses and prejudices of our own. Thus, reality may not be as "real" as we tend to think of it, since we do a fair amount of the construction on our own. We do the same with fiction, as we assume those we read about have had relevantly similar human lives, that they function as flesh and blood humans unless otherwise noted, and we assume that they live in a world that works physically in the same way as ours does. In both cases, in reality and with fiction, we are given a skeleton structure of what is happening, and we use our imaginations to fill in the details. With fictions, the structure is carefully constructed so we are given nearly all the relevant information. In reality, on the other hand, the information we use as a basis to construct a coherent understanding of a situation is not given to us in a carefully constructed way. Rather, we pick up certain details and make a comprehensible story of our own, using our own prejudices and biases, working necessarily from our own perspective, which is determined largely by our culture. If this is the case and we do have to create and fill in significant parts of our own realities, we are in a sense, making up our own stories -- and these stories are our lives. Roger Schank explains in his book on narrative and intelligence that
We need to tell someone else a story that describes our experience because the process of creating the story also creates the memory structure that will contain the gist of the story for the rest of our lives. Talking is remembering ... But telling a story isn't rehearsal, it is creation. The act of creating is a memorable experience in itself.

We create meaning and memory through the hearing and telling of stories. Thus reality is more like fiction in terms of story creation than we originally thought, and the question of whether or not we must have a belief requirement in order to have a justified emotion seems now to be misguided. . . .

I am not suggesting that fiction and reality are the same or even that they are at times indistinguishable. There is a clear distinction between the epistemological (knowing what is real) and the ontological (the existence of things as they are) that will forever differentiate those for us. But what I am suggesting is a much stronger emphasis on how we make sense of both -- that is, through narrative and story-telling. The way the story is told, or how it is that we create the story and make sense of it is similar for both fiction and reality. If it is the narrative that we are ultimately responding to, then it does not matter how we construe the emotions to work in response to real experiences and fictional ones -- this is a false dichotomy that will continue to leave us in a paradox.So one emphasizes the creative faculties of the person who tells the story, and the other emphasizes the creative faculties of the one who hears the story. Interesting.

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Very interesting. Even more so that one is a learned writer and one is a learned reader. I am going to stick with Barthes and Eco on this one because they were both.

"I am not suggesting that fiction and reality are the same or even that they are at times indistinguishable. There is a clear distinction between the epistemological (knowing what is real) and the ontological (the existence of things as they are) that will forever differentiate those for us."

This I can't agree with. The fact is that we order our experience of reality in narrative sequences, orders that arise from the fictions of cultural patterns. Her split between the epistemic and ontic seems unwarranted. (Her obligatory Schank quote says precisely this.)

She says this:

"Thus reality is more like fiction in terms of story creation than we originally thought, and the question of whether or not we must have a belief requirement in order to have a justified emotion seems now to be misguided."

Which is great, that is spot on. But then she feels like she has to backpeddle in the final paragraph because she doesn't want to be classed with post-modern literary theory. It just seems like she covers all the readerly aspects of this issue pretty well, but suffers from not having factored in what it means to have your hands in the clay of simulacra.

Man, Tolkien was way ahead of his time.

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Well, I don't want to say anything bad about Lewis here at risk of being stoned. But his work was destined to be dated. Tolkien's literary theory is timeless. Some of Lewis' stuff certainly is as well, don't get me wrong.

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(M)Leary wrote:

: Well, I don't want to say anything bad about Lewis here at risk of being

: stoned. But his work was destined to be dated.

I am officially intrigued. (No stones here.)

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Well, his stuff was so influential because it was so current. It really struck home in academic circles for his day. The Abolition of Man is a wonderful piece of work, but it really has nothing to say to today. We are way past the Romanticism he was combatting then for the most part. This is true for Muggeridge as well. They had the perfect things to say to thier contemporaries. But for anyone other than some pockets of Evangelicalism, we are in a much different place from that. We need new heroes like that to speak to our environment.

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Much of Lewis' writing is dated because, as was said, he was dealing with current issues. But it's important to remember that, although academics (and subsequently, pop culture) move on to the next trend, we're still living in a world that is a conglomeration of all sorts of ideas, including bits of modernism and even romanticism. This point was nailed home the other day as I finished the third in Lewis' Speace Trilogy: That Hideous Strength. The story is couched in terms of modern thought, but the issues address hit far too close to home, especially for one who works in a very scientific/academic enviroment. On the other hand, Tolkien was creating (or sub-creating) and the archetypal forms and ideas found in his faerie stories are not nearly so subject to current trends.

But by now this now has absolutely nothing to do with film, so I'll stop...

Oh, one interesting fact: The Space Trilogy and a primitive form of 'Rings" actually came out of an agreement between Lewis and Tolkien. Lewis was to write a story about space travel (hence the Space Trilogy), and Tolkien was to write a story of time travel. Tolkien's tale immediately became bound up in his already-created world of Numenor. He then brought together Numenor and the world of the Hobbit and left us with Frodo and Co. Interesting...

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But for anyone other than some pockets of Evangelicalism, we are in a much different place from that. We need new heroes like that to speak to our environment.

I am speculating to some extent, but I am tempted to suggest "wide expanses of evangelicalism", not "some pockets". I had a conversation the other day with a long lost acquaintance and the conversation went to film. The poor guy wielded terms like "post-modernism" rather awkwardly, but confidently. His whole approach reeked of one of those classic Wednesday night seminar series at church, purporting to give an introduction to cutting edge "wordly" thought. All I know about post-modernism at the moment is what some of you all have been hashing through on these boards, but even I can sniff out a tattered description. I pleeded with him to read up on contemporary thought before he expressed such opinions again.

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...The Space Trilogy and a primitive form of 'Rings\" actually came out of an agreement between Lewis and Tolkien. Lewis was to write a story about space travel (hence the Space Trilogy), and Tolkien was to write a story of time travel. Tolkien's tale immediately became bound up in his already-created world of Numenor. He then brought together Numenor and the world of the Hobbit and left us with Frodo and Co. Interesting...

Very. I had thought LOTR to have been much earlier than the space trilogy (which I vaguely thought to be from the fifties), but a quick scan of the bookshelves reveals that Out of the Silent Planet is dated 1938, and in his foreword to LOTR Tolkien writes "...the composition of The Lord Of The Rings went on at intervals during theyears 1936 to 1949..." Intriguing. Do you know where you read about this agreement? I'd love to read more.

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Do you know where you read about this agreement? I'd love to read more.  

The Letters of J.R.R.Tolkien.

Please don't get me started here. It's only the most influential and emotionally provocative book I've read in the past year (personally speaking, of course). But for the purposes of this thread, here's a very brief timeline. The seeds of the Middle Earth stories were the Atlantis myth of Numenor and the epic poem of Earendil, both concieved in Tolkien's childhood. The Hobbit was written as an entirely seperate 'children's story', an appelation Tolkien would later regret. Much later came the aformentioned 'deal' with Lewis, in which Tolkien combined the tale of Bilbo with his Middle Earth backdrop. But the explicit connection between the stories of the Third Age (Hobbit, LOTR) and the rest of the history of M.E. was not published until after his death, as The Silmarillion.

It is interesting to watch the development and implementation through his life of those themes(sub-creation, faerie tale, eucatastrophe) that Peter mentioned. Tolkien was a surprisingly forceful writer and expressed his strong feeling very...well, strongly. Incidentally, he became very frustrated by what he called Lewis' tendancy to be easily swayed by others opinions.

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WhyFjord wrote:

: The seeds of the Middle Earth stories were the Atlantis myth of Numenor

: and the epic poem of Earendil, both concieved in Tolkien's childhood. The

: Hobbit was written as an entirely seperate 'children's story', an

: appelation Tolkien would later regret. Much later came the aformentioned

: 'deal' with Lewis, in which Tolkien combined the tale of Bilbo with his

: Middle Earth backdrop. But the explicit connection between the stories of

: the Third Age (Hobbit, LOTR) and the rest of the history of M.E. was not

: published until after his death, as The Silmarillion.

Hmmm ... the magic rings in The Magician's Nephew came from Atlantis too, did they not? And does not Lewis refer to Numenor in one of his Narnia stories? (Or was it in one of his 'Space Trilogy' books?)

: Incidentally, he became very frustrated by what he called Lewis'

: tendancy to be easily swayed by others opinions.

Ironic, since Lewis became a Christian partly because Tolkien's opinions swayed him. smile.gif

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...the magic rings in The Magician's Nephew came from Atlantis too, did they not? And does not Lewis refer to Numenor in one of his Narnia stories? (Or was it in one of his 'Space Trilogy' books?)  

Good pointh hadn't ever made the connection. The Numenor reference is in the The Space Trilogy...Hideous Strength, I believe. Lewis was (understandably) rather taken with the idea of an 'Island of the West', and he particularly liked Tolkien's Numenor-ian embodiment. And he continually irked Tolkien by spelling it Numinor. It turns out that Old J.R.R. could be quite a hard-ass...endearingly so, of course.

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