Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Sensate Focus and the Suspension of Disbelief: Some Tentative Suggestions

Last week I talked a bit about how John Barth's 1972 novella "Dunyzadiad" in his collection Chimera  suggested a relationship between sex and story. This week, I want to call your attention to another novella of that era, William H. Gass's Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife, which appeared in Triquarterly in 1968 and in hardback in 1971. It was reissued this past spring by Dalkey Archive Press.

The extended metaphor that Gass uses throughout the book is that the lonesome wife is the book itself, that very subjective object which we hold in our hands when we read and enter with excitement, pleasure, joy, and yes, even fear. As love/literature, she speaks to the reader as she seduces him with her body, the page:

"how I love you now I have you here…I've got you deep inside of me like they say in the songs, fast as a ship in Antarctic ice, and I won't need to pinion your arms, lover, butt you or knee, you'll stay, you'll want to, you'll beg me not to go and take my myth, my baffling maze, my sex, my veils, my art away…and I shall shave you so close and sand you so sensitive, so scarce and smooth, that when I put you at last up in public in the light of my lights, then anyone—anyone who's paid his buck in—will be easily able, just by looking, to lick the sweet heart out of your heart, the life from your living, and the daylights out of your cage."
At the conclusion of the book, however, when the reader has left her, the lonesome wife complains:

"he did not, in his address, at any time construct me.  He made nothing, I swear—nothing.  Empty I began, and empty I remained…. These words are all I am…. Oh, I'm the girl upon this couch, all right, you needn't fear; the one who's waltzed you through these pages, clothed and bare, who's hated you for your humiliations, sought your love…. Could you love me? Love me then…then love me…. Yes, I know I can't command it. Yet I should love, if ever you would let me, like a laser, burning through all the foolish ceremonial of modesty and custom, cutting pieties of price and parentage, inheritance and privilege, away like stale sweet cake to sick a dog.  My dears, my dears…how I would brood upon you: you the world; and I, the language."
I used Gass's William Masters Lonesome Wife and John Barth's "Dunyazadiad" as an introit to a presentation I made many years ago in Los Angeles at the annual meeting of the California Association of Teachers of English. Both novellas explore a basic relationship between sex and storytelling suggested by the frame story of Thousand Nights and a Night—a relationship between what Coleridge called "Suspension of Disbelief" and sex researchers Masters and Johnson called "sensate focus."
In chapter 14 of Biographia Literaria Coleridge explains the division of responsibilities between Wordsworth and himself in The Lyrical Ballads. Coleridge says that Wordsworth was to focus on the things of everyday life and to excite a feeling analogous to the supernatural "by awakening the mind's attention from the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us," a world that had been covered over by "a film of familiarity and selfish solicitude."
Coleridge says that his own task was to direct attention to persons and actions supernatural "so 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."
Critic Norman Holland in his book The Dynamics of Literary Response devotes a chapter to the relationship between art and sex, citing many artists and critics who use the language of sexuality to describe the aesthetic response. Philosopher Gaston Bachelard, for example, talks about the poem's "possession" of us completely; director Tyrone Gutherie says that a good director does not so much try to create the illusion of reality as he tries to interest the audience so intensely that they are "rapt" and "taken out of themselves"; and aesthetician Bernard Berenson says that the aesthetic experience is a brief, timeless moment when the spectator is "at one" with the work and the two become one entity."
All of this suggests that the reading experience assumes a dual notion of reality that has been noted by many different thinkers. For example, psychiatrist Arthur Deikman has discussed the difference between what he calls "the action mode," which is a state of striving toward achieving personal goals; and "the receptive mode," which is organized around intake of the environment instead of its manipulation.  Because the action mode has been developed for insuring survival, we have been led to assume that it is the only proper adult mode and to think of the receptive mode as being pathological, regressive, or childish. Deikman suggests that love is experienced in the receptive mode.
Deikman uses the terms "automatization" and deautomatization" to suggest this bimodality--terms that echo Coleridge and Wordsworth's purposes in The Lyrical Ballads.  For Deikman says what happens to the notion of reality during these periods of deautomatization when one has suspended disbelief is that stimuli of the inner world become invested with the feeling of reality ordinarily bestowed on objects.  Through what might be termed "reality transfer," thoughts and images become real.
Philosopher Ernst Cassirer notes a basic difference between practical or theoretical thinking and mythical thinking.  He says that in our habit of dividing lie into the two spheres of practical and theoretical activity we are apt to forget that there is a lower substratum that lies beneath them both:
"Primitive man is not liable to such forgetfulness. All his thoughts and feelings are still embedded in this lower original stratum  His view of nature is neither merely theoretical nor merely practical; it is sympathetic…. Primitive man by no means lacks the ability to grasp the empirical differences of things.  But in his conception of nature and life all these differences are obliterated by a stronger feeling: the deep conviction of a fundamental solidarity of life that bridges over the multiplicity and variety of single forms."
When one is under the spell of mythic thinking, says Cassirer, "it is as though the whole world were simply annihilated; the immediate content, whatever it be, that commands his religious interest so completely fills his consciousness that nothing else can exist apart from it." 

This, it seems to me, is the paradigm of the suspension of disbelief and sensate focus.  It takes as its prerequisite, continues Cassirer, the "focusing of all forces on a single point."  In applying this theory to literature, Philip Wheelwright has noted that such experience is "most incontestably evident" in one's relationship "at certain heightened moments" with another person. "To know someone as a presence instead of as a lump of matter or a set of processes, is to meet him with an open, listening, responsive attitude; it is to become a thou in the presence of his i-hood.'  It is, of course, this sense of "presence," Wheelwright says, that poetic language hopes to capture.

It is Norman O. Brown's interpretation of Freud that John Barth's genie has in mind in his analogy of sexuality and literature, for Brown says language itself has its base in infantile erotic play—that all art is actualized play, and that behind every form of play lies a process of the discharge of sexual fantasies. "Original sense in nonsense," says Brown, and "common sense a cover-up job." 

Rollo May in Love and Will notes that creativity is always an intense encounter which involves being absorbed, caught up, for which sexual intercourse is an appropriate metaphor.. Jose Ortega y Gasset in Love: Aspects of a Single Theme says that for the lover, the mystic, the artist, attention is so focused on the object that for the moment attention is withdrawn from everything else and the sense of union is created.  And Denis de Rougemont in Love in the Western World, notes that love is both the best conductor and the best stimulant of expression.

What does all this have to do with my examination of the relationship between sex and storytelling in Alice Munro's stories?  I am not completely sure yet.  I am just following a line of thought and teasing out connections.  I think it has something to do with the distinction between "realist" fiction and "fantasy" fiction.  

Critical response to Munro's first few collections focused on her realism, seeing her stories as relatively transparent depictions of the lives of the people of rural Ontario. However, the more stories Munro pubvlished the more critics began to sense the "artifice" in her work.  My colleague Dorothy Johnston said in a recent comment on this blog that the relationship between the "realist" frame of 1001 Nights and the fantastic stories that Shahrazad tells is of particular interest to her.  It is of particular interest to me also, and is related, I think to the study of Alice Munro's stories I am working on.

My reading of Marina Warner's book on Thousand and One Nights has further emphasized the distinction between the realistic and the fantastic in my mind and has reaffirmed my long-held notion that, at least as far as the short story is concerned, there is no such thing as "realism"—that the short story maintains its allegiance to its ancestry in fantasy and fairytale, that it has always been more aligned to the mythic view of reality as Ernst Cassier and others delineate it, than to the so-called practical world of the everyday.  It has always been more akin, to use Mircea Eliade's terms, to the "sacred view of reality" than to the "profane."

And Alice Munro is, first and foremost, a short-story writer. No matter how ralistic her stories seem, they are always highly patterned artifices that communicate by "storytelling" devices rather than realistic devices.

More about this next time, when I talk about Marina Warner's book Stranger Magic and the issue of that "realistic" frame and the "fantastic" stories interrelated throughout The Arabian Nights.

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