Don’t Knock My Fictional Feelings!

The old man had been on the sea for days; the marlin pulled his small boat hour after hour. My mouth was dry, nearly salty. I felt the weight of isolation–the weight of being on a vast ocean that is void of another human form. Ernest Hemmingway tossed me into the skiff and sent it to sea.

Fiction has the power to do this—to create experiences that evoke real emotional responses. Story, though understood by its reader to be non-reality, has the power to spark emotions that are otherwise reserved for real events, even though the reader understands they are only real in his imagination. In philosophy of literature, this is called the ‘paradox of fiction’: we react to acknowledged non-reality as through reality.

Why should we care? Well, for one, when an educator or parent must make decisions of censorship or filtering media, this question is pivotal. If ‘fictive experiences’ are derivative from our prior experiences in ‘reality’, then handing A Clockwork Orange to a 10-year-old shouldn’t harm them too much. But if fiction, when experienced as though it is real, has the power to actually create new experiences and understanding, the stakes rise exponentially.

Some philosophers have taken a position somewhere in-between. Kendall Walton, author of Mimesis as Make-Believe, takes a philosophical look into the purpose and effect of representational art, including literary fiction. Walton’s work was recommended to me by a professor, but though it was an intriguing read, I was incredulous concerning Walton’s explanation of fiction.

Response to fiction relies on the reader/viewer’s active participation, he said.  Walton compares fiction to games of make-believe, and concludes that we intentionally suspend judgments of ‘reality’ so that we can fully experience representational art.

But I did not think Walton’s theory was intuitively true. While watching a horror film, I’ve found solace in reminding myself that is it ‘not real’; I did not first enter into the film’s world by actively setting aside its ‘non-reality’.

Not that Walton is wrong, per se. I just don’t think he’s finished answering the question. Make-believe can account for some fiction-inspired experience, but not all. Sure, the imagination is powerful, but an author who can write a subtle, sublime piece of fiction seems able to subsume a reader into the images, rather than vice versa.

Danièle Moyal-Sharrock, in her article “The Fiction of Paradox: Really Feeling for Anna Karenina,” offers a compelling response to Walton’s theory:

Literary characters and situations prompt real, full-fledged emotions that often have prolonged, even life-long, impact. Indeed, so real was the fear that Hitchcock’s The Birds spurred in me when I watched it at the age of nine that I know it to be responsible for my still-existent ornithophobia. And what of the emotions provoked by Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) which caused so many young men at the end of the eighteenth century to commit suicide? Can we call these ‘make-believe’? …our ordinary responses to fictional characters are genuine responses.

We don’t react to fiction in spite of its being fiction, she says, but because it is fiction. For example, Tolstoy’s deliberate and subtle description of Anna Karenina and her demise probably creates a stronger emotional reaction than if we read of a ‘real-life’ suicide in the newspaper.

In other words, fiction sometimes gives us more real experiences than real events. Dr. Moyal-Sharrock, citing Aristotle, argues that fiction is formative and educational. It ‘enhances our understanding’ of the world and what it means to be human. In that, even the darkest tragedy can be pleasurable: humans are designed to seek knowledge and understanding apart from utilitarian usability or two-dimensional rosiness.

I believe most educators are not adequately aware of how powerful fiction is, both in terms of responsibility and possibility. When a piece of literature is assigned, a teacher should think about what experiences the student (or child) is likely to encounter and be ready to discuss them. I did not learn of grief when someone I knew died; I learned of it when Rab stood firm at Lexington, taking a fatal bullet at the end of Johnny Tremain (Esther Forbes).

The nature of fiction inspired experience is an inexplicable mystery. Philosophy of literature, when poorly done, tries to circumvent mystery with ad hoc categories. Done well, as in Moyal-Sharrock’s article, it focuses instead on how experiencing fiction teaches us about being human. In light of that, of course, we should also know what a piece of fiction teaches. As any lover of literature can tell you, fiction may be fictive, but its lessons are real—and sometimes, all-too-real.

Our Turn Inward: Emotionalism

While some economic theorists take notice of class distinctions and their impact on quality of life, few choose to go deeper by asking such questions as “how does capitalism shape our feelings?”

Eva Illouz does just this by bringing abstract economic theory to the realm of the personal. Illouz acknowledges the trendy yet ensconced cultural tendency to observe life through emotional lenses. Her recent book, Saving the Modern Soul: Therapy, Emotions, and the Culture of Self-Help, provides an in-depth articulation of this shift. Transcending academic and professional categories, Illouz spearheads a new kind of study, analyzing psychological and emotional language in its attention to human behavior. Guernica Magazine’s Jesse Tangen-Mills gives Illouz the label “cultural theorist,” as this approach doesn’t fit the typical labels of “historian,” “philosopher,” or “sociologist.”

Illouz’s thesis in “Saving the Modern Soul” reveals—if not pronounces—a change in contemporary discourse. In the early 20th century, “society” understood the world according to relationships. Community was what mattered; less so, the individual. When talking about the family unit, we spoke of it in terms of the greater good. Any defiant individual who caused harm to the community, for example, we “felt” and spoke of as being in direct opposition to the social good. When considered, the individual was most frequently viewed in opposition to, or in support of, the community, rather than the community towards the individual. This view has since been flipped.

Tangen-Mills points out that in shifting towards the emotional and psychological we now “hearken back to childhood memories and recognize emotional needs” when we talk about ourselves. The defiant individual is no longer a mere enemy, but is recognized personally. We begin to view the individual as a victim of the family and/or the greater community. We turn from a discourse that sees only the greater good to recognizing the personal and individual good.

If we doubt this trend, we need only look at the popularity of Oprah Winfrey and Woody Allen—both of whom, Illouz points out, have built their careers by recognizing the deeply emotional and often broken nature of modern day individuals.

The question is not whether such a trend exists, but whether it is in fact good that we have turned from a communal discourse towards an individualistic one. In evangelical Christian circles, the term “individualistic” is often antagonizing because it’s believed that an individualistic society perpetuates “self-focus,” which is in direct opposition to the selflessness directive given in Scripture.

Constantly evaluating the personal impact of one’s environment—for example, how a person was treated by their family—turns our attention furthur towards the “singular,” and away from the family and community. Rather than viewing a poor individual and his affect on the community at large, we fastidiously turn our heads towards the emotions he experiences because of his lack. Illouz comments:

…in literature people focused on interpretation of text and really never bothered to actually pay attention to the fact that texts and movies elicit emotions and draw you in through emotions. Or sociologists who asked themselves why people do what they do could talk about competition, when you consume something, or they could talk about class stratification but never about the envy or the humiliation or the shame that can accompany class stratification.

Prior to the last several decades we analyzed and articulated subjects of study externally. Sociologists who talk about “competition” regarding human behavior, for example, remain just outside of a discourse of feelings and emotions. Competition is a perspective of relationship with others, rather than an emotion that comes out of such a relationship. The development of psychology as a discipline has brought with it a reading of human behavior that regards emotions almost to the exclusion of all else.

People spend an increasing amount of time focused upon the misery of an individual rather than of healing and triumph. Movies, for example, are more likely to show the gradual digression of users defeated by heroin or cocaine, such as Requiem for a Dream, than to show the impact of users upon the greater public or those individuals finding healing in their communities.

We are now inspecting the parts of a picture, instead of the picture. Yet, to ignore the minutia is to ignore what makes up the whole. This turn towards the psychological and emotional experience of the individual may not be such a bad thing.

In fact, by looking inward, we find some of the causes of our social diseases and have the opportunity to solve them. Modern society’s “emotional” approach is in fact liberating in its own right. Examining human experience according to its psychological and emotional impact allows us to understand our environment and community in a much deeper way. We give voice to injustice and pain, and doing so, are given the insight to carefully respond to the social or familial harms that create an experience which negatively influences individuals who become “defiant.”

Despite this psychological and emotional discourse being new to humanity, the emotional and psychological is part of our makeup. Humanity has always been and always will be emotional. Our discourse has changed; we have not.

But the way we speak about ourselves affects how we relate to one another. And so, as we continue in this new way, we should cautiously remember that individuals make up a greater whole. Environment and relationships affect the individual, and though the individual is important, he or she also impacts the whole. ‘