“Thus is Man that great and true Amphibium, whose nature is disposed to live, not onely like other creatures in divers elements, but in divided and distinguished worlds: for though there be but one to sense, there are two to reason, the one visible, the other invisible.”
(Sir Thomas Browne)
Whilst in the park the other day I encountered my old friend and sparring partner, Sir Gradgrind Strawman, who like me was taking his morning constitutional. It wasn't long before the conversation turned to our habitual point of contention, the worth or otherwise of fantasy fiction.
Sir Gradgrind, to do him justice, differs from his Dickensian namesake in that he doesn’t disdain all fiction. It is fantasy alone to which he takes exception. “Escapist nonsense!” he exclaimed. “Ghosts? Unicorns? How can I be expected to believe in things that aren’t real?”
It isn’t the first time he’s made this complaint. On previous occasions I have pointed out that realist fiction (his preferred reading, after cookery books) isn’t “real” either. It’s all made up – that's why they call it fiction. To this he’ll reply in a harrumphing tone: “Perhaps the things in those books didn’t happen – but they could have. They don’t contradict scientific fact. That makes all the difference.”
Today I decided to take a different tack. “You ask how you can be expected to believe in things that aren’t real? Well, let’s take a look at those words, ‘real’ and ‘believe’…”
You see, I know that when Sir Gradgrind talks about “scientific fact” he has a vague notion of atoms, Newton’s Laws of Motion, evolution and the like. But his knowledge is almost entirely second hand, derived from long-ago school lessons, television documentaries and articles in the weekend supplements. So, when he asserts that the surface temperature of Neptune is -201oC he is really displaying a childlike trust. Not only has he not tested it for himself, he has very little understanding of how real scientists reached this conclusion – any more than he could explain exactly how his mobile phone works, or—
“Not at all – I believe it too. I’m simply pointing out that we both take it on faith. We have outsourced the authority to describe physical reality to scientists, just as our equally intelligent forebears outsourced it to Aristotle and Ptolemy, for reasons that seemed as good to them as ours do to us. But we don’t need to go to outer space in order to—ah, Pooh sticks!”
For we had reached the wooden bridge where it was our custom to indulge in a game of Pooh sticks. On this occasion Sir Gradgrind suggested that we “make it interesting” by laying a small wager, the loser being obliged to buy tea and scones in the park café afterwards – a proposition to which I readily assented.
Sir Gradgrind had the better of me at Pooh sticks, but walking to the café I sought to turn the situation to my advantage. For the placing of a bet, it seemed to me, was just the kind of reality-warping event with which his views were ill-equipped to cope. Making a bet is an example of what philosophers call “performative” language. When you use language performatively, you aren’t using it to describe something that already exists, you are bringing something into existence. Bets, promises, wishes, declarations, invitations, bequests, suggestions – all share this magician’s power, to conjure something into the world that wasn’t there before. They are not private fantasies – on the contrary, their validity is widely recognized and may even have force in law. Had I dismissed our bet as a fiction when it was time to pay for the scones, Sir Gradgrind would have been justifiably irked. But was the bet real in quite the same way that the bridge we stood on while making it was real? Sir Gradgrind had to admit that it wasn’t, quite. Yet much of what constitutes human life is built from this kind of material, neither real in the way Sir Gradgrind would be happy to hail as “scientific fact” nor unreal in the way he would be happy to dismiss as “escapist nonsense.” It seems that the Gradgrindian “real” is an unhelpfully binary term, which fails to capture a large part of our experience.
“Belief” presents itself as stiffly binary too. Either you believe something, or you don’t – right? Perhaps when you’re reading a story you can suspend your disbelief (to use Coleridge’s phrase), but that idea still casts belief as a kind of toggle switch, either On or Off.
Yet in practice reading fiction isn’t like that. For example, when we cry at the death of a favourite character, does that mean we believe in them? If Yes – if we think that Beth March exists in the same way that Louisa Alcott did – then the implications for our view of the world are profound indeed. If No, then why on earth are we crying over an idea? When we read a horror novel and find ourselves compelled to check under the bed before turning out the light, is it because we really believe in ghosts? Neither Yes nor No adequately describes the case. In reading as in the rest of life we travel neither by land nor by sea but along the shifting foreshore, searching stranded rock pools, caught between reality and unreality, belief and unbelief, affected by and affecting both. The best fantasy fiction, taking this ambiguous aspect of human experience as its subject, reflects it back to us in a particularly direct, one might even say realistic, fashion. Or so I told Sir Gradgrind.