S.T. Coleridge, his own self.
The Willed Suspension
by Douglas Milburn
Over the centuries, our consciousness waxes and wanes, has periods when
its fallow and periods when its fertile.
The end of the 18th century marks the beginning
of the long, modern fertile period. Between 1750 and 1800 ideas flowered in a
spring so rich that it has many names: Enlightenment, Sturm und Drang,
Some of the ideas (liberty, fraternity, equality, for example) spilled over into the
world of action and changed history. Others (irony, for one) were subtler but no less
powerful and would have a long-range effect right up to the present.
It fell to that bane of high school English students, Samuel Taylor Coleridge,
to give perfect voice to one of these ideas:
willing suspension of disbelief."
The idea was very much in the air of Europe at the time but
Coleridge figured out how to say it in five words, words so well chosen that nobody needed
to say it again or differently.
His original turn of the phrase was in reference to the reader's response to poetry,
but everyone immediately realized he had summarized most of the human experience
of art generally. So the phraseand the ideaentered world culture.
Where it still resides as one of those handy terms. Whether youre talking about a
Spielberg movie, a Stephen King novel, a twitch-em-up video game, a multi-decibel rave, or
a simple TV sitcom, they all require the same thing of spectators/ participants: a
willing suspension of disbelief. That is if the spectator/participant wants to
enjoy the experience.
Its why were so happy to pay for such experiences, why we seek them out.
They can take us away from ourselves for a while. Escape. We forget our life and become
contented, immersed observers of another world.
The world we enter may be great (Hamlet) or small (South Park), grandiose (Wagner) or
trivial (Goldilocks). No matter. Our minds are for a while set free and we enjoy a dream
created by others for our pleasure.
Two centuries have passed since Coleridge nailed the idea. He got it as surely and
neatly as Michael Jordan got a slam-dunk.
But the times, they are achanging.
That world of art and entertainment which Coleridge was talking about is still very
much with us, vaster than ever.
But what are these shadows, now lengthening, which if you look carefully have been
there all the time? Shadows of doubt which if examined more closely seem
to conceal abysses of ignorance and despair.
Consider, please, the pickle that quantum
physics has now got itself into: dividing the measured world into such tiny portions
that now the portions are beyond measuring, formulating constructs to describe heads of
pins on which wholly imaginary angels may dance just so that the numbers come out right.
Or observe the quandary of cosmologists: quasars belching energies that can only be
described using impossibly large orders of magnitude, red shifts that dont shift the
way theyre supposed to, which throws off all kinds of previously tidy calculations
(the "age" of the universe, among others).
Closer to Coleridges old home base, theres the problem of lit crit/ art
crit and philosophy generally. As one prominent figure wading through the bog recently put
if: If objectivity is dead, then theres no longer any question of whos right; all
that matters is whos interesting.
A fine kettle of Fish, isnt it?
Not surprising, really.
Wittgenstein saw it coming
decades ago, this miasma of meretricious moaning that now passes for theories of science
and art. He used the metaphor of a fly-bottle, that is a specimen jar in which a zoologist
might keep an insect.
Wittgenstein concluded that were flies trapped in the fly-bottle of
language. As long as we keep restricting ourselves to interacting with the world
and experience through the symbols of language (including of course numbers), theres
no way out. We define the bottle and the bottle defines us.
The world we inhabit, the world we believe, is the world of our sensesand
of our languages.
But look what happens if we turn Coleridge upside down.
We say, sure, Sam, youre right, but youre right only inside the bottle.
And Sam, along with everybody else, comes back with: but theres no way out of the
Ah, Sam, Sam. What a provincial you are, in spite of all your wit and erudition. Let me
adjust your little dictum, please, so that it reads:
suspension of belief.
There, now. What do you make of that, Sam?
And Sam would say, its nonsense.
And I say, au contraire, my compulsively talkative friend. It is your very immersion, your
complete immersion in language that makes it impossible for you to
see that other forms of human experience, perception, and consideration surround us
constantly. All you have to do is stop believing that language is the only way to be. Just
drop the alphanumerics, and youre home free.
In other words:
Suspend belief in belief.
Or, as a certain Chinese person said 1500 years ago: Dont search for the
truth, just cease to cherish opinions.
Do that, Sam, my boy, and the bottle vanishes and worlds undreamt of in your tidy
philosophy open up to you.
The only thing is, you have to decide to do it. It aint gonna happen by itself.
So, to be more accurate in our reformulation of your marvelous old idea, we should begin
to speak of the creative life as:
suspension of belief.
After that, is silence*, except of course for the singing of birds,
the roar of volcanoes, and the ineffable music of the spheres.
*Persons wishing to investigate in their own lives a
possible practical application of these ideas may wish to check out Saltlick elsewhere in these pages.
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