Okay, so we can get caught up in a good book (I am thinking especially of a novel) or a good play or movie. Some may get caught up in a video game but that is slightly different from what I am discussing here. In doing so our brains mobilize many systems to engage in processing the information AS IF the characters, events, feelings, and the future waves breaking on the shore of the specious present were actual. Or not, we try the book, play or movie and it does not ring true to us at all and those neural systems do not light up. Aristotle said for drama to be successful, the three unities of time, place, and action were helpful in sustaining the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’. Our reality testing implicitly tells us this is a fiction, yet we still find truth in it.
Aristotle’s predecessor Plato counseled against permitting drama and poetry into the Republic, or at least, the wrong sort of drama and poetry, the kind, you know, that leads to a deterioration of character and morals and civilization. (All I want to say about that specifically is “Oops.”) This deterioration comes as we accept or model from the un-virtuous behaviors being dramatized and they thought this happened even though we willingly suspended our disbelief, and then, once finished, disbelieved once again. Oh, those ancients. Then I read studies that show that people, especially children, are more prone to low frustration tolerance and less empathy, even aggression, after gaming or watching too much violence. I do have friends who seem wonderfully normal but the only fiction they enjoy must yield an adrenalin surge. And recently a study showed that when parents watch more sex and violence, they are more inclined to let their children do so, thus explaining the ratings creep, where the old PG-13 has become a G and the old R has become PG-13 and the new R has become what? Did I mention that before I retired from clinical psychology I specialized in childhood trauma and maltreatment and child/adolescent sexually aggressive behaviors and that business was booming? No? Well, it was (and is, as I hear from old colleagues and see in the news).
This is a subtle manifestation of the interplay, dare I say the dialectic, between the processing of actual events and virtual ones. We are emerging from a long history wherein our social rituals, the recursive behaviors and memes, provided some constraints on our virtual inclinations by channeling them into the more socially circumspect ways and we have not yet developed adequate replacements (to my mind, and no, the compulsion to check your phone does not count as a ritual). Still, art is a constructive force in our lives; we learn from it, not the rote or the discursive, about the vitality of life, the vicissitudes of existence, including the sometimes shadowy boundary between our actual and virtual conceptions and the havoc raised when we mistake one for the other.
Let me refer you to Martha Nussbaum, a philosopher who discussed in an early book, Love’s Knowledge: Essays on philosophy and literature, the learning inherent in reading a novel, learning which she says we can hardly get in other ways about how to live. Novels are important she says, because they help escape “the ethical crudeness of moralities based exclusively on general rules, and to demand for ethics a much finer responsiveness to the concrete”. Life is vital and our efforts to understand this must be open to its richness. She also writes, “It is this idea that human deliberation is constantly an adventure of the personality, undertaken against terrific odds and among frightening mysteries, and that this is, in fact, the source of much of its beauty and richness, that texts written in a traditional philosophical style have the most insuperable difficulty conveying to us. If our mortal lives are ‘stories’ in which mystery and risk play a central and valuable role, then it may be seen that the ‘intelligent report’ of those lives requires the abilities and techniques of the teller of stories”.
This is a very different and a richer perspective from that of the deterioration of movie ratings and the dis-inhibition of aggressive and sexual behaviors by artistic-like adrenalin surge fictions. This is a fine true growth from our roots of empathy and symbolization. Travel on.
“Pancho, I wish my beloved Dulcinea would stop this ruse that she does not know me.”