Norman N. Holland
Department of English
University of Florida
P. O. Box 117310
Gainesville FL 32611-7310


Chapter 3?

Why Do We Believe?

I. Psychodynamics

The Puzzle

    I'm sitting in a horror movie. The pretty little blonde teen-ager is just opening the creaking door behind which waits the maniac wearing a hockey mask and clutching a chain saw, and I'm afraid. Why? Why am I afraid? I'm sitting in a movie theater, eating popcorn, surrounded by dozens of other people, none of whom is wearing a hockey mask or brandishing a chain saw. But I am still afraid, and when he jumps out at her, I will utter a ittle cry of fear and jump in my seat, and then I will laughingly bring myself back to reality.

    Why? In the well-worn phrase, "It's only a movie." But I was afraid, reallly afraid, to a degree that I rarely feel in real life. Surely this is one of the most puzzing things there is in our responses to movies, plays, books, or camp counsellors telling ghost stories to kids, and it is what I would like to explain in these two chapters.

    Coleridge named it decisively in 1817. He was explaining a novel collection of poems by Wordsworth and himself. Wordsworth's poems were about common life, but his own dealt with "persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic." Nevertheless, he said, they should be such "as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith" (Coleridge).

    In less grand terms, I chose--I willed--to go to the movies, and, once there, I chose somehow to shut off my normal reality testing and get scared or teary or sad or thrilled--at a fiction!. I believed in what was on the screen in front of me, or, more precisely, as Coleridge points out, I did not disbelieve. Why?

    Decades ago, in an article of 1967 (Holland, "Willing Suspension") and a book, The Dynamics of Literary Response, published in 1968 (Holland, The Dynamics of Literary Response), I thought I had solved the problem of (in Coleridge's classic phrase) the "willing suspension of disbelief." The question then was, and, I thnk, still is, Why do we suspend disbelief?

    Back then, I believed that I had the answer to the question. Now, I believe I had one kind of answer, a psychoanalytic answer, which is valid as a description, perhaps even an explanation, of the psychology of our willing suspension of disbelief. Now I would hope to add another kind of answer, a neurological one. As a starter for that second search, let me paraphrase the earlier writing.

    A psychodynamic answer

    Somehow, even before the curtain rises, even before our eyes have run over the screen credits or the first line of a poem or story, we have made a special gesture of "as if." We adopt some odd mental stance or "set" in which we are willing to accept all kinds of unrealities and improbabilities, those in "The Ancient Mariner," for example, science fiction, romance, ghost stories, the absurdities that Hollywood foists on us, or even a joke. We will believe that a Frenchman, a German, and an Irishman all walked into a bar. We will believe it, as we say, "for the sake of the joke." Somehow, what we would not believe in reality, we will believe, even in a work of sub-literature. A mere joke can tempt us into ignoring (or, in psychological terms, denying) the unreality of what we know is unreal.

    Many critics still write of our suspension of disbelief as though it were really a belief; they still speak of a theatrical "illusion" in which we fancy that we see real people walking and talking before us. But legendary director Tyrone Guthrie was probably right when he said, "I do not believe that audiences past the mental age of eight are apt to accept this." A director, he says, should not try to create "illusion" but rather,

to interest the members of an audience so intensely that they are rapt, taken "out" of themselves. You may say that if they are taken "out" of themselves, then they must be taken "into" something else, and, logically, that "something else" is the imaginary world of the play. Agreed. But is this absorption the same thing as illusion? I do not believe so. You can be absorbed listening to music, quite without illusion; you can be absorbed by a great painting without supposing that what it depicts is real; you can be absorbed by a novel without the illusion that you are yourself David Copperfield or Huck Finn; you can even be absorbed in a philosophical argument without any illusion that you are someone, or somewhere else. How, in the theater, is the absorption of the audience induced? What takes an audience "out" of itself and "into" the fiction (Guthrie)?

That, aptly stated by Mr. Guthrie, is precisely the problem these chapters try to solve.

    Equally apt are the metaphors he uses to describe the state of an audience involved with a play: "taken 'out' of themselves," "taken 'into' something else," "absorbed," "rapt," with its older meaning of being seized up. Bernard Berenson uses similar language to describe "the aesthetic moment" in the visual arts: Spectator and work of art "become one entity; time and space are abolished and the spectator is possessed by one awareness" (Berenson 84).

    This experience of merger is not confined to professionals with the sensitivity of Guthrie or Berenson. My daughter, when she was eight years old, told me, "When I read a book, I sort of feel like I'm invisible and walking around unseen with the things or people in the book (a Hobbit is just a thing). When I read it, just word by word, then it's just like reading a book. But when I get into a stage of reading, sort of, then it feels like a dream." A movie fan told Siegfried Kracauer, "In the theater I am always I, but in the cinema I dissolve into all things and beings" (Kracauer 159), a curious echo of Kafka's comment on movies: "Sight does not master the pictures, it is the pictures which master one's sight. They flood the consciousness" (Janouch 89).

    Something of the same sort seems to happen in the act of artistic creation: "The process," wrote psychoanalyst Marion Milner of her painting, "always seemed to be accompanied by a feeling that the ordinary sense of self had temporarily disappeared, there had been a kind of blanking out of ordinary consciousness; even the awareness of the blanking out had gone, so that it was only afterwards, when I returned to ordinary self-consciousness, that I remembered that there had been this phase of complete lack of self-consciousness" (Milner [pseud forJoanna Field] 154).

    I have asked a number of subjects to describe their feelings when they are engrossed in an "entertainment," a detective story, a murder mystery, science fiction, television, or a simple old-fashioned fun movie. They speak of "escapism, a feeling of joyful unreality, lack of any worry" or "involvement--at its best a motion with the work." "I am gathered up, carried along, and unaware of being a reader, viewer, etc." "I lose track of time." "I am attentive and absorbed, unaware of surroundings except those in the book or show; for example, when I am watching good T.V., I don't see the knobs or floor or anything else."

    They are talking about entertainments rather than great works of art. But, to judge from the statistics for best-sellers, moviegoing, and television watching, this experience of total absorption is far more typical of entertainments than of masterpieces. And this reaction to entertainments is not confined to naive subjects. A group of university professors of literature reported their reactions to me: "Total anesthesia," "Absorption," "A sort of drugged or fascinated absorption in the events as they unfold." "The continuum goes from totally absorbed (cinema) to fairly distanced, self-conscious hunting for something (non-fiction). Fiction can go either way (rarely a blend though)." "Varies but usually I'm completely absorbed--even by crude stuff--in fact, apt to be more critical, aware and less absorbed by `high art.'"

    Since, then, the "willing suspension of disbelief" seems to take place more with "entertainments" than with "high art," let us, for the time being, confine our attention to entertainments rather than significant literary works. If we do, we can say that people begin to lose track of the boundaries between themselves and the work of art. They get "into' it. They get "gathered up, carried along," "absorbed," "taken `out' of themselves."

    We have already seen, in chapter ??, how we perceive the text as "out there," beyond the sense organs, the only place where our sensations of the text are. Automatic brain processes set the physical thing we are watching in a three-dimensional world. Now, we are seeing a still further step. We see the book or the play or the movie "out there," but we feel (sometimes) what is portrayed out there as though they were "in here." The boundaries between us and the work of art and us disintegrate in two ways: from us to work of art; from work of art to us. What is "out there" in the literary work feels as though it is "in here," in your mind or mine. Partly, this feeling must come about because we are busy filling in the gaps in the story, putting physical appearances to the characters and events in a novel or inferring from the physical appearances in a movie or play the inner thoughts of the characters or the parts of the enviroment we do not see because of the frame of the stage or screen INSERT REF TO RHAWN JOSEPH cLIN PSYCHOL 1986A 42 HERE AND LATER ON IN NOT TESTING UNREALITY.

    Psychoanalyst Roy Schafer has described daydreaming this way:

There is no generalized regression of ego function. There is not even a total suspension of reflective self representations. There is only suspension of the 101 101 101 reflective self representation that pertains to the act in question--in this instance, daydreaming. This is the essential mechanism of the turning away from reality, and it is found alike in daydreams, dreams, and the distortions of neurosis, perversion, and psychosis. It is found, too, in the distortions scattered throughout the functioning of normal persons, but there its operation is likely to be unsystematized, temporary, and reversible (Schafer 100-01).

I think what he says applies to our "absorption" in literature, and I think he describes the phenomenon quite precisely. That is, when we willingly suspend disbelief, we suspend the "reflective self representation that pertains to the act in question," namely, the act of enjoying a story or play or poem. We no longer think of ourselves as relaxed in an armchair reading or sitting in a theater watching.

Suspending Disbelief Four Ways

    I think we can divide the "willing suspension of disbelief" into four, particularly if we follow out Roy Schafer's precise way of putting it. We suspend the "self representation that pertains to the act in question," namely, enjoying a story or drama or poem.

1) We lose track of our own bodies. We become unaware that we are sitting in an armchair with the light coming over our left shoulder. Or we become unaware that we are sitting in a movie theater, the popcorn redolent around us. And we resist being interrrupted, being called on to pay attention to these peripheral details.

2) We also forget that the book or play forms an object "out there." in the space beyond our own bodies. We think of it as happening neither "in here" nor "out there," but in some indeterminate space that we really just don't think about.

3) We stop troubling ourselves as to the probability of the events we are watching or reading about. We accept wizards with magical powers and the airborne field hockey called quidditch. The Terminator or his opposite number turns into a titanium skull or a pool of mercury--and we believe. We even believe that Arnold Schwarzenegger can act.

4) And I am most perplexed because we feel toward these unreal events as though they were real. We fear or lust or love or hate or are disgusted as though the things we are watching or reading about were really happening. This is, to me, the most paradoxical part of Coleridge's definition in his phrase, "poetic faith." We not only do not disbelieve, we believe, at least emotionally (Baars 102-08).

    Even this more accurate phrasing, however, simply describes the phenomenon. How does this fusion or merger of self and book take place? To what degree? If it breaks down, how does it break down? Most intriguingly, why does this fusion or merger take place at all?

A Feeling for the Fictional

    We can approach these questions by considering the way we react to non-fiction, to something where we don't willingly suspend our disbelief, a history, for example, or biography or autobiography. Here is a passage from a somewhat whimsical history of the Middle Ages:

    The high and puissant Prince, Philip "the Good"--Duke of Burgundy, Luxemburg, and Brabant--was versatile.

     He could fight as well as any king going; and he could lie as well as any, except the King of France. He was a mighty hunter, and could read and write. His tastes were wide and ardent. He loved jewels like a woman, and gorgeous apparel. He dearly loved maids of honor, and indeed paintings generally . . . He had also a rage for giants, dwarfs, and Turks.

    Now what is going on in your mind as you read that little historical sketch? I suspect that you are wondering as you read it, "Did the King of France actually lie?" "Did the Duke of Burgundy in fact carry on with his maids of honor?" "Did he really collect giants, dwarfs, and Turks?" "Is all this really so, really an accurate picture?" These, at least, are questions students have asked when they thought it was from a history book. And they are the questions I would ask.

    The passage is not from a history book, though, but from a novel, specifically, Charles Reade's The Cloister and the Hearth. My deception was to permit a thought-experiment. How do you feel when you read the passage over, knowing that this is not history but fiction? Please do reread it.


    As for myself, I feel the earlier questions drop out of mind. I feel playful. I no longer care whether Philip the Good really was as Reade describes him. Instead, I have an almost palpable feeling of relaxation. I can feel myself accepting the passage in a far more passive way than when I imagine it is historical. YOU HAVE EXPERIMENTAL ON THIS SOMEWHERE.

    Usually, one cannot tell from an isolated paragraph whether a work is fiction or non-fiction. Yet our responses to the two genres differ sharply. Therefore, it must not be the paragraph alone that shapes our response. Rather--or so the experiment was designed to show--it is the expectation we bring to the paragraph that determines the degree to which we will test it against our everyday experience. If we think the paragraph speaks truth, we will check it for truth. If we think it speaks fiction, we will not.

    Experiment aside, I suspect most of us have felt in everyday life that special relaxation into the mental set appropriate to fiction. Sometimes one picks up a short story that is not so labeled. The moment some incident cues us to realize it is a fiction, we relax and accept it as such. Sometimes, it is a wildly unlikely statement such as a statement like, "A man brought his horse into a bar . . . " that cues us into acceptance. Think, for example, of an American tall tale like Mark Twain's "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County." It begins as an apparently factual account of a story told to Twain, but as improbability piles on improbability, we finally realize that he--and therefore we--are being told fiction, not fact, and we relax to the point of laughing. The joke is on us. The story builds on our conscious knowledge that we are dealing with unreality that makes it possible for us to relax, to suspend our disbelief, and in a way to respond to the unreality as though it were real. Conversely, during the time we think a fiction is not a fiction but truth, we can be tense, sometimes even to the point of displeasure.

    In effect, I am simply trying to state from the point of view of reader response what many critics, especially in the Renaissance, have pointed out. As Sir Philip Sidney quaintly put it,

    What child is there that, coming to a play and seeing Thebes written in great letters upon an old door, doth believe that it is Thebes? If then a man can arrive to the child's age, to know that the poet's persons and doing are but pictures what should be, and not stories what have been, they . . . shall use the narration but as an imaginative groundplat of a profitable invention. (Sidney 617).

It is, in other words, precisely our knowledge that we are dealing with a fiction that enables us to experience it fully, imaginatively, as a "profitable invention.". Guthrie is quite right: it is not belief in an illusion that draws us into a play or story--just the opposite. It is a conscious disbelief that becomes suspension of disbelief. But why should this be?

The Key Convention

    Some critics, as we have seen, confuse this "undisbelief" with belief (in an illusion), and we can see why by another appeal to experience. I was privileged to see an early play by A. R. Gurney, Jr., The Rape of Bunny Stuntz. Mr. Gumey gave his play the format of an occasion like a P-T.A. meeting, though part of his point was that the subject of the meeting never became explicit. It was just another meeting of the kind middle-aged suburbanites seem to get drawn into. When you walked into the theater, the houselights are half on and the stage contains simply a speaker's table, a cashbox (evidently for receipts or something), a few papers, a chair. The heroine, Bunny, entered, came to the table, and addresses the audience exactly as though she were presiding over the assembled P-T.A. (or whatever) that had come to one of its regular business meetings.

    As soon as this situation became clear, I sensed all through the audience a tightening and edginess. Gradually, this wore off, but at the outset the atmosphere of tension was almost palpable. I talked to people in the audience after the play, and I found that others had felt as I did: they were afraid they would be called on to do something, to speak or second a motion or vote in response to the events onstage. And the tension relaxed only when it became clear that, because of Bunny's continual distractions, the meeting was not going to be a meeting, but a play. We were not going to have to do anything ourselves.

    Mr. Gurney was artfully toying with perhaps the most basic of artistic conventions. Literary or artistic experience comes to us marked off from the rest of our experiences in reality. We frame the picture, house it in a museum, and surround it with "Do Not Touch" signs. Poems and cartoons are printed in such a way that we immediately recognize them as different and separate. Plays happen in special places--I remember one theater where you had to cross water (a moat) to enter that half-magic world. Short stories and novels are usually labeled as such. Even if not, a sentence or two usually tips us off that we are dealing with fiction, not truth.

    Behind the "frame," however, there is a still more basic convention, the one that came into play with Bunny's audience: We do not expect to act as a result of literary or artistic experience. On the contrary, the work of art, indeed the whole artistic situation, presents itself as divorced from usefulness, calling for no action on our part. The altarpiece becomes art when it hangs in a museum rather than a church. The rain dance becomes art when it no longer serves to bring rain, only tourists. Sometimes the presenters present the work of art as divorced from utility; sometimes we do the divorcing ourselves,

    This deeper convention has a profound bearing on another question often asked, What is Art (with a capital A)? Theorist Northrop Frye answered that question this way:

    The question of whether a thing "is" a work of art or not is one which cannot be settled by appealing to something in the nature of the thing itself . . . . .It may have been originally made for use rather than pleasure . . . but if it now exists for our pleasure it is what we call art (Frye 345).

In other words it is the convention we bring to a work of art that makes it art. It is our agreement to treat the thing as art, not "literality" or "fictionality" or "textuality" or any other postmodern attribute. What makes art art is that we agree to regard it as unrelated to immediate actions on the world.

    Some arts, of course, cannot be wholly divorced from a call for judgmental action, advertising, for example, or propaganda. I suppose this is why we can experience advertising and propaganda aesthetically only by ignoring the message and attending only to "the art of the thing."

    In the literary situation, we are almost always put into an inactive position.. We sit in a theater seat or an armchair. We may laugh, squirm, bite our nails, cry--but we usually do not act nor do we expect to act on the world external to ourselves. And a mere expectation that we might have to act on the external world, even an innocuous action, like seconding a motion, creates a considerable amount of anxiety, as in A. R. Gurney's P-T.A. format for a play or in various theatrical productions of the '60s in which the actors would draw the audience in--rather, in my experience, to the annoyance and exasperation of said audience. "The ego will not stand idly by," notes the psychoanalytic critic Simon Lesser, "while decisions affecting conduct are being reached" (Lesser 194) . Otherwise, we will defend against the literary experience and "snap out of" our absorption in it.

And So, We Regress

    It is, I suppose, not difficult to see that a divorce between enjoying a book and doing things to the world outside the book makes the experience of literature as literature possible. What is harder to see, I think, is how deeply this conventional separation of action from story or drama or verse reaches into our mental life. One would not expect so much from mere convention, but the do-nothing in our willing suspension of disbelief returns us to our very earliest modes of thought.

    When Freud was developing the meta-theory behind his theory of dreams, he defined a wish (that the dream fulfills in our imagination). In a key move, he defined a wish as a wish to re-create the perception originally associated with a satisfying experience. In a dream, we hallucinate that perception. In the real world, we act to achieve a situation that re-creates or nearly re-creates that perception (Freud 5:565-66; Rapaport).

    As to infancy, Freud theorized that, in the first stage of life, when about all we did was wait for mother to feed us, we simply imagined satisfactions. Older--and sadder--we learned to resort to complicated actions in the real world in order to achieve satisfaction. We developed bodily skills. We learned to use tools. We learned to think complicated thoughts, like this book. We learned also to use other people to re-establish perceptual memories of satisfaction. But at night, when we dream, we no longer act. And when we enjoy movies, books, plays, or poems?

    As adults, we come to works of art having experienced a long sequence of developmental stages. We bring, therefore, to a novel, memories of similar pleasures we have had. At an adult level we bring memories of recent aesthetic pleasures or like those the writer puts into words. At a somewhat earlier level, we bring the memory of the intense fantasies and reading of latency. Still earlier, we may recall being read to by our parents, perhaps being held on their laps and cuddled at the same time. Still earlier, at a time prior to conscious memory, we had our first experience of pleasure, being held by a nurturing mother and being fed. All these experiences make up a kind of matrix in us ready to receive a literary or artistic work (Dissanayake, "Becoming Homo Aestheticus").

    That matrix is what D. W. Winnicott called a "potential space." It is where, he says, the baby has maximally intense experiences. It is a space between the subjective object and the object objectively perceived. That is, in the relation between mother and infant, it is the space between the mother, perceived as an other who comes and goes, and the infant's intense experience experience of mother as food and love. It is here, according to Winnicott, that play begins and, ultimately, all human activity that we call "creative" (Winnicott). It is here, Murray Schwartz has argued, that literature takes place: in the space between our sensuous and emotional experience of literature and our assessment of it aesthetically (Schwartz).

    In short, our ability to enjoy imaginative writings and our ability to act on the external world seem deeply involved with our regressing or not regressing into the fantasies and experiences of earliest childhood. To act on the world, we should be as grown-up as we can and at least try to put aside childish things.. To enjoy the fantasies of literature, however, we should be able to draw on the whole range of our experience, from that matrix in infancy to our present selves. To some extent, activity in the world of fantasy and activity in the outer world seem mutually exclusive. To some extent. As we shall see, we use imagination--activity in the inner world--to plan actions in the outer, real world. But for enjoying utterly the expereience of story or play in our inner worlds, we must be passive toward the outer world. Action outward binds us to reality. Inaction lets us lapse into our most primitive mode of gratification, imagining, as in dreams.

    At the same time, we surely must approach literature as we approach just about everything else in life, with a wish to enjoy it. This is Freud's pleasure principle. If it is the inhibition of action that licenses our lapse into literary fantasies, it is the promise of gratification that lures us into them. By convention, by our own past experience, by someone's telling us--somehow we come to works of literature and art expecting them to give us pleasure. No doubt we expect other things as well: information, sophistication, status, pity and fear, or satisfaction of curiosity. For our purposes, though, understanding the most primitive level of response to fairly primitive artistic experiences, "entertainments," we need posit only a wish for pleasurable experience.

    Psychodynamic study of readers' responses tells us how we adults do that. On the basis of psychoanalytic interviews with readers about their feelings and associations to stories, I was able to sketch out the nature of their pleasurable (and unpleasurable) experiences. I have detailed the four psychodynamic elements in our literary pleasure in Appendix C?, and you should read it now if you wish to explore further the psychodynamic account of the willing suspension of disbelief.

    In a nutshell, we come to literature with two expectations: that we will enjoy it; that we will not have to act on it. If we fulfill these, we begin to project into the work our characteristic kinds of wishes and fantasies. To project successfully, we have to make from the literary form defenses that allay any anxiety or guilt or shame that our fantasies our projections might stimulate. We use the work's omissions, its parallelisms, its happy ending, and its artful language (or camera work or editing or staging) to make those defenses. Having successfully defended against unpleasurable emotions, enjoying the fantasies we have been able to embody in the work, we mask these less conscious processes by transforming the work toward a conscious satisfaction. We give it a "point." We understand it as making political, literary, aesthetic, or intellectual "sense." In effect, we sublimate our less presentable fantasies and defensive maneuverings into a respectable "understanding."

    In a psychodynamic sense, all these processes, prompted by the literary work, take place in us. Naturally we believe in them--they are us. And that is a psychodynamic answer to the question, What is "the willing suspension of disbelief"? While I think that psychodynamic explanation is correct, that kind of explanation lacks the solid observables and causality I, at least, would like to have. I have to admit that that kind of explanation does not--cannot--even remotely suggest the operations within the brain that lead us willingly to suspend disbelief. If you are truly and relentlessly curious, as I am, we need to ask the further question, How does your brain believe a fiction?

Works Cited

Baars, Bernard J. In the Theater of Consciousness: The Workspace of the Mind. New York: Oxford UP, 1996.

Berenson, Bernard. Aesthetics and History in the Visual Arts. New York: Pantheon, 1948.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Biographia Literaria. 2 vols. Ed. J. Shawcross. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1907.

Dissanayake, Ellen. "Becoming Homo Aestheticus: Sources of Aesthetic Imagination in Mother-Infant Interaction." SubStance 94/95 (2001): 85-103.

Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams. Vol. 4-5 of Std. Edn. 1-627.

Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1971.

Guthrie, Tyrone. "Is Lady Macbeth Really Walking in Her Sleep?" New York Times 28 Aug. 1966 1966: sect. 2, pp. 1-8.

Holland, Norman N. The Dynamics of Literary Response. 1st ed. New York: Oxford UP, 1968.

---. "The `Willing Suspension of Disbelief' Revisited." Centennial Review 11 (1967): 1-23.

Janouch, Gustav. Conversations with Kafka. Trans. Goronwy Rees. London: Derek Verschoyle, 1933.

Kracauer, Siegfried. Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality. New York: Oxford UP, 1960.

Lesser, Simon O. Fiction and the Unconscious. Pref. by Ernest Jones. Boston: Beacon Press, 1957.

Milner, Marion [Joanna Field]. On not Being Able to Paint. 2d ed. New York: International UP, 1957.

Rapaport, David. "The Conceptual Model of Psychoanalysis." Journal of Personality 20 (1951): 56-81.

Schafer, Roy. Aspects of Internalization. New York: International UP, 1968.

Schwartz, Murray M. "Where is Literature?" College English 36 (1975): 756-65.

Sidney, Sir Philip. "The Defense of Poesy." The Renaissance in England. Eds. Hyder E. Rollins and Herschel Baker. Boston: Waveland Press, 1992. 1593.

Winnicott, Donald W. "The Location of Cultural Experience." Rev. Playing and Reality. London: Tavistock, 1971. 95-103. 1966.