Coleridges’ Big Idea: Suspension of Disbelief

Winter arrived this weekend with a foot of snow falling overnight. Snow at Halloween is not really expected, though the days have been cold, overcast and foggy for the last few weeks.  Despite the inconvenience, this is actually my favorite time of year. The crisp air is invigorating for me and Jelly Bean as we hike the rural Pennsylvania country side, then settle in to a comfortable chair to read, think and write about the great literature I am studying this year.  Today she is my leg warmer while I read and watch the last hydrangea and  rose blossoms in the snow outside my office window.  A warm, sleepy collie dog is a great companion for a good, long study session.  My study assignment this weekend is to think about the transition from Literature of the Middle Ages to the literary styles of The Enlightenment and The Romantics. Today I am inspired by Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Willing Suspension of Disbelief.’

Coleridge wrote that, given a ‘human interest or semblance of truth’ a reader would suspend judgment about the implausibility of a narrative. It is a really marvelous idea. Suspension of Disbelief is very interesting to me this term; even more so than it usually is. Lately I have noticed how much I enjoy works where acting techniques or literary tropes are obvious. By that I mean how they are underlined for the reader or audience through skill and through the medium of poetry, drama or prose.  For me, it makes comedy funnier, satire sharper, and drama more intimate and personal. When I notice that an actor is ‘acting,’ or tropes are used emphatically, the material is somehow more impressive.

What really impresses me this term is how much I learned in Approaches to Text, and how much time I need to work through an idea. I continue to use my Foundations Units Study Guides as I read new material for the Advanced Units. While reading studying Measure for Measure my critical edition prompted me to think about some favorite old questions: subversion and orthodoxy, the importance of conflict in drama, and how actors’ technique can influence interpretation. For me, few authors ‘infuse human interest and a semblance of truth’ with the fantastic as ably as Shakespeare.  Coleridge and Measure for Measure helped me realize the ‘fantastic’ is needed to tell a story well, and I should settle in and enjoy it.

Right now I am considering that story telling requires something ‘fantastic’ or it cannot be done. I am not a subscriber to the modern interpretation of ‘Suspension of Disbelief’ where a reader ‘over looks limits’ to accept a fictional premise. What appeals to me about Coleridge’s point is the burden is on the writer rather than on the reader. Perhaps it is appealing because right now I am trying to read as if I am a writer; it is part of my effort to understand and appreciate structure and storytelling.

There is something terribly exciting about storytelling that depends upon the ‘fantastic.’ It represents a sea-change for me; when I started studying in this program my reading preferences tended to history and realism, now I reach for the most stylized and embellished works. Reading texts from the fabulous Middle Ages through the Enlightenment and the Romantics has been an eye-opening progression. I am looking forward to a long winter contemplating Coleridge’s idea, partly because it is such a wonderful metaphor for my study experience. And after all, any idea good enough for Coleridge is good enough for me.

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