The Paradox
of Fiction:
Power of

Valeria Sokolova

Except for admiration, inspiration and an attempt to while away the time, arts are a great means of education that conveys a moral message in most cases.

To begin with, I want you to imagine that we are watching an “Anna Karenina” play in a theatre. We see the main character Anna Karenina in one of the last episodes of the play: She is standing on the platform at the station. Noise and rattle, hissing smoke of arriving and departing trains surround her. People buzzing around like a swarm of wasps. Everything is confused in Anna’s head. In this instant of approaching madness she recalls their first encounter with Vronsky and comes up with the idea how to resolve her inner conflict – she has to take her own life. She jumps from the platform right under the rushing train towards her. In a couple of seconds we see Anna gone. Most likely we ought to be moved to sadness or tears by her death. But have you ever thought why after seeing scenes of this kind we do not immediately get up from our seats and run onto the stage to prevent Anna from inescapable death? Because we perfectly understand that Anna Karenina is a fictional character and her death is also fictional in as much as she is. But somehow her death as the death of any other fictional character will cause emotions we would feel in real life if we witnessed a similar story with our own eyes or learnt it from someone else. The paradox of fiction, namely the paradox of the emotional response to fiction, has preoccupied the minds of philosophers since Colin Radford and Michael Weston, two cognitivists, showed interest in it in 1975. That year they published an article under the title “How can we be moved by the fate of Anna Karenina?”, in which they expounded the essence of the paradox, its premises, and also proposed some solutions to it.

The “paradox set” contains three main premises that are contradictory when considered jointly. The main question of this dilemma is how humans can be moved by fictional characters that don’t exist in reality. The premises:

(1) existence beliefs in what is taking place are necessary in order for us to be moved by them
(2) such beliefs are lacking when we are aware of the fact that those are merely works of fiction
(3) we do feel emotions and can be indeed moved by fictional events

At first look these propositions seem to be quite logical but under precise investigation they turn out to be incoherent. Many solutions have been proposed to this paradox and new approaches and ideas are still being generated. In this article I will throw light only upon some of them. The problem of the debate revolves around which of the statements are to refute.

The first premise intends the cognitive theory of emotions, that is, our emotions are to be rational and based on the judgments of reason and beliefs. In order for us to understand the importance of existence beliefs, we shall imagine that something heart-rending that we had believed in the end turned out to be a lie. We are literally not going to notice how rapidly our sank to the bottom hearts would regain their spirit. Such beliefs according to Radford demand rationality: “It would seem that I can only be moved by someone’s plight if I believe that something terrible has happened to him. If I do not believe that he has not and is not suffering or whatever, I cannot grieve or be moved to tears” [1]. Not only what we see makes us upset but also what we think: “It is not only seeing a man’s torment that torments us, it is also the thought of his torment that torments, or upsets or moves us. But here thought implies belief.” This demonstrates to us that we still need rationality in our thoughts. Nevertheless, Radford does not see a problem of being moved by historical novels or plays and documentary films, for they are usually based on the stories of real people and depict their real suffering [2]. On the contrary Spinnici argues that there are no irrefutable reasons to allege that it is obligatory for emotions to imply beliefs. As an example he brings a phenomenological evidence that speaks against this theory that supposes that imagining is different from assuming, for it implies an involvement in a given situation, though without implying a presumed existence of it [3].

The second premise states that, when taken in the moment of reading and watching fiction we kind of “forget” that the nature of what we are engaged in has no existential ground in reality. Paolo Spinicci calls it a dual forgetfulness: “The reader forgets, pro tempore, both the system of her beliefs and her actual awareness of the fictional character of the tale” [4]. We get “caught up” by it and lose awareness of its fictional character. Fairy tales exemplify it quite well. Some of them are definitely very cruel in their plots. The Grimm’s version of Cinderella narrates that Cinderella’s stepsisters got blinded by pigeons. But why, would you think, this terrible suffering appears in the tale? If the reader regards it as the “long-desired punishment”, it will pave the way to a more contrasting perception of a happy ending. In other words: it will create a sort of an emotional roller coaster and give saturation to the reader’s journey. However, it is also to remember about aesthetic pleasure that accompanies even our darkest emotions, be it fear, sadness, or pity. For example, when we see a roaring lion in a movie, it doesn’t trigger in us a need to run off but gives us a feeling of trembling before the ungovernable nature of the wild. Besides, as it was stated in the very first paragraph, when seeing a well-loved character being attacked or dying on the stage or in a movie, the idea to try to do something, or thoughts that we should do something to rescue this character do not usually come to our minds.

The final premis sets a question: Do we truly feel emotions regarding fictional events? Walton offered a negative answer in order to solve the paradox. He came up with a notion of quasi-emotions, which indicate the absence of belief in them. Hence, these quasi-emotions involve us in pretending. According to Walton, “when imagining p, I can feel not a true emotion, but only a quasi-emotion, because an essential ingredient of true emotion is missing – my belief that p exists” [5]. That is how he resolves the paradox by implementing the Pretend theory, thus substituting the fact that we feel emotions in the third premise with the putative emotions.

In fact it is to see how extremely different variations of propositions combinations are. But approaching the end of my speculations on the topic of the paradox of fiction, I have to admit it illuminated for me once again the power of imagination and the impossibility to define it: resembling a bottomless hat of a magician, where he makes things appear and disappear. A newly open perspective of the purpose of fiction and thus of arts was also uncovered for me. Except for admiration, inspiration and an attempt to while away the time, arts are a great means of education that conveys a moral message in most cases. For instance, if I see Anna Karenina throwing herself under the train on the account of her unfortunate and infelicitous fate, I do not need to throw myself under a train in order to understand how much weight is at her heart in the moment of action. Owing to human capacity to read off the emotions of the character and adopt them, the necessity to literally physically go through the same action drops off. Empathy is one of greatests gifts imagination and fiction have endowed humanity with.

[1] Colin Radford and Michael Weston: “How can we be moved by the fate of Anna Karenina?” (1975), p. 68

[2] ibid. p. 69

[3] Paolo Spinicc: “The Concept of Involvement and the Paradox of Fiction” (2014), p. 81

[4] ibid. p. 78

[5] See Kendall Walton: “Mimesis As Make-Believe: On the Foundations of the Representational Arts” (1993)

Ti è piaciuto l’articolo? Lascia qui la tua opinione su La Livella.

Did you enjoy the article? Leave here your feedback on La Livella.

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on email