Saturday, 9 December 2017

Reading Experiences – Musings on a Facebook Question

In the Tolkien Society Facebook Group, a poster recently asked:
"We have to deal with it as if it were true", one of my favorite professors once said, and he meant how we should deal with fictional texts. It's now quiet a long time ago, but the professor was definetly not the kind of person who has a whim in his head. With other words, it's not a mere "pipe dream" (no matter one stands to the habit of smoking). As I see things, that's exactly the game every sentient reader plays anyway, and he does it in a most natural way. Now I want to ask you for your individual approach to fantasy. How would you describe the ratio between your reading experience and your everyday experience? Do you merge these realms of human experience, or do you keep them apart? I am genuinely curious to read your answers!


My answer to that question unfortunately had to weave through several layers, and quickly became much too long for any reasonable comment on Facebook.

Firstly, I have always felt that my experience as a reader of fiction is expertly captured by Tolkien in his essay On Fairy-stories, when he writes,
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.
‘On Fairy Stories’, in Tree and Leaf, Kindle edition

I have never been satisfied with the explanation of ‘willing suspension of disbelief’, though I am perhaps a bit more generous than Tolkien himself when it comes to ignoring minor discrepancies and inconsistencies (such as e.g. appear in The Lord of the Rings – see e.g. my old blog post ‘The Lord of the Rings’ as a Transitionary Work from February 2011), but as long as the magic, the enchantment, is ‘good enough’ as it were, I will remain enchanted, and if the enchantment is broken, I can often re-create it by thoroughly analysing the break.

I am not sure what exactly is required for the enchantment to work. The ‘ inner consistency of reality’ of which Tolkien speaks elsewhere in On Fairy-stories is a good starting point, though, as I have hinted above, a perfect consistency is probably neither necessary nor even desirable (and it is certainly not attainable).

Most story-makers (to borrow Tolkien's term) takes the approach of not altering the known reality too much, and I think this is a crucial point. If the reader ends up not being able to relate to the experience of the Secondary World, then Secondary Belief is, I think, not possible, or is only possible in another sense – the enchanted state might be attainable, but it would be another kind of enchantment than the one Tolkien describes, and which I enjoy.

Many people seem to believe that the introduction of magic into a world constitutes a massive violation of the natural laws, but in nearly any fantastic story that I have read, this has not been the case. Actually magic is usually merely a small lemma to the natural laws of our world – a minor addition of a way to harness the energy of the world, and possibly and additional source of energy.  Generally the effects of such magic fit very neatly within the natural laws of our own Primary World, if only we could direct the energy in the right way. Speaking as a physicist here, I have never had any problem seeing magic as simply an addition to our current understanding of nature, rather than a violation of it.

Where I have, however, encountered problems (in fantastical literature as well as in other genres – historical fiction, mysteries, science fiction) is in human behaviour. When an author insists on portraying one race as human, then I expect that race to act according to my experience with humans. Snape's mawkish death in the Harry Potter books was completely inconsistent with his portrayal in the preceding seven (almost) books, and thus did not come as a revelation for me, but rather broke the spell completely.  The seventh of the Harry Potter books remains the only one that I have read only once.

This idea of building on the recognisable, the familiar, when building your sub- creation, is something Tolkien mastered fully, though he doesn't seem to fully acknowledge his own achievement. Instead, in On Fairy-stories, he seems to think that the idea of the ‘inner consistency of reality’ is all there is to it, and if you do it right, you can create a world with a green sun 1 ... 


Another point is what happens when you put away the book.

Some readers appear to become, as it were, stuck in the enchantment, unable to fully escape it. Fairy-stories are full of warning against what happens when humans become stuck in Faërie, and I think that the same warnings ought to apply here. Personally, I find that I have a choice. It is difficult, when reading, to not come under the enchantment (though it can be done), and likewise it is difficult, when not reading, to become enchanted (though, again, it can be done). The Primary World, I prefer to address as the Primary World and with the solutions offered in the Primary World. I have no use for the idea that “everything was better in the old days”, when everything we know clearly shows us that it wasn't (it was , admittedly, simpler, but also much, much worse), and the solutions that applied a hundred years ago, are typically useless today. We cannot feed the world' s population by “going back to the earth” or some such nonsensical foolishness.

This might also be the reason — or, more likely, a part of what is a complex system of rational and emotional reasons — why I have so little patience with the whole idea of a ‘true’, or ‘canonical’, conception of Middle-earth . Such a conception is, for me, representative of the same unhealthy sort of escapism. I agree with Tolkien that the escape is not necessarily a bad thing, but I think his discussion of ‘Escape’ in On Fairy-stories ignores that there are also kinds of escapism that are unhealthy.


Having come this far, I think I had also better touch on some of my thinking (if that is not too large a word for my musings) about the relations between the Secondary and the Primary Worlds. From one perspective, this is of course a highly utilitarian perspective, that I would rather avoid, but from another perspective, it is fun to reflect a bit about it.

Fiction, of any kind, can never represent the full complexity of the Primary World.

If this statement seems puzzlingly obvious to you, it is because it is. The consequences of this, are, however, not necessarily obvious.

When a story-maker sets out to create a new detective mystery, the underlying assumption is that the story takes place in the Primary World, with the full complexity of that world in place. The story-maker doesn't need to say this, nor indeed to explicate the way the world works. This is not the case with fantastic fiction (and in this case I include science fiction), where the story-maker has to make explicit, either by showing or by explication, which of the elements that govern causality (from physical causality to phychological) in the Primary World that also apply in their Secondary World. This is important, because this means that the complexity of causality is up to the choice of the author.

I am, as implied earlier, a physicist. I have some knowledge of theory of science as well as experience with teaching science. One of the strongest features of modern science is the concept of the model. While the philosophical aim of science of course remains to uncover Truth, the practical aim of science is to create sequentially better models for predicting the behaviour of any (scientific) system in the Primary World, and the model is the crucial educational tool used to teach science. We start with very simple models – a mass moving at a given speed without any interactions. Then we begin adding interactions: constant acceleration in the same direction as the velocity (often as a model of gravity), several forces, non-linear systems (first in two dimensions, moving on a surface, then in three dimensions), more particles (point objects with mass, then bodies (extented objects with mass), etc. etc.

The key point here is that, for educational purposes, we always choose a model that is only just complex enough to encompass the elements (typically some sort of interactions) that we wish the students to study, and we choose a model that is designed to focus on the particular aspects of science, that we wish the student to learn about.

I would claim that the same is, to some extent, true for fantastic literature.


Fantastic literature, as I have argued above, is capable of working in a Secondary World of deliberately reduced complexity (as compared to the Primary World), both with respect to the scientific complexity and with respect to psychological complexity. Simply by virtue of this characteristic, the Secondary World of fantastic literature becomes a model, and as any literature worth reading has something to offer with respect to the human condition in the Primary World, it would follow that good fantastic literature offers a Secondary World that functions as a model of the human condition in the Primary World.

If the story-maker has successfully created his Secondary World, then it will allow her ... him ... to use it for a study of precisely those aspects of the human condition in the Primary World that he wishes for the reader to, if not exactly learn about, then at least reflect on and that way become wiser about. This is of course not an easy thing to get right: When we complain that a story is too ‘black and white’, as we often say, in its portrayal of good and evil, then we need to ask ourselves if that is because the story enables – or urges, even – the reader to reflect about the very nature of Good and Evil in a way that makes us wiser on our own perception of what is good and what is evil? Very often the complaint will arise, when this is not the case, and be a result of a model that has been simplified too far for the intended reader, who then feels that the story lacks relevance with respect to the human condition of the Primary World.

This lack of relevance can of course also occur if the reader engages in a story that has a far too complex model for that reader's prior understanding of the aspects implicitly discussed in the story.

Striking this balance of complexity of the Secondary World portrayed in a story is another of the balances that need to be taken into account.


Yet another balance is that of story vs. ‘message’. I put the word in quotation marks because I use it in a rather more broad sense, than is perhaps usual. I say above that the successful Secondary World will urge us to reflect about some aspect(s) of the human condition of the Primary World. It is this urging that I am referring to as the ‘message’. When it becomes unbalanced, and the urging to reflect on the Primary World becomes too strong, it will quickly be perceived as what is, more usually, called a message: that the story-maker wishes the reader to adopt a particular view, or in some other way agree with the story-maker (as this is perceived by the reader). This is the balance that has to be found: between staying relevant to the reader, and not imposing on the reader or the reading. The reflections on the story's relevance to the Primary World should not be forced upon the reader while still in the process of reading, lest they destroy the enchantment. Instead, I think that the ideal is that they come naturally after a while, when the book has been put away and the reader is once more firmly rooted in the Primary World.


I will stop here, though I might some day return to these thoughts with a discussion of why Tolkien is such a master in this. For now, let me just briefly hint that a part of the explanation is that he has successfully created a Secondary World containing within one story a multi-layered model that, as we might say, ‘just keeps giving’...



Footnotes:
1 Actually a green sun isn't all that difficult  – all you have to do is nothing! Human sight would only seem affected for an observer coming suddenly to such a world from a world with, e.g. a sun like our own. return

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