Questions of belief

The London Review of Books, v35 n7, 11 April 2013

How do we trust our judgments when we can’t trust the thing they judge?  To When we aren’t sure whether it is the thing we think it is? When the thing can’t be trusted to be the thing we think it is? We hear something by Haydn, but it might be his brother. A person may be scheming against us the whole time. We don’t need to get philosophical here, to open up issues of aesthetics. But we can’t like a thing unless we know a little about what it is. And when it seems to defy our efforts to get at it, by distracting them or tricking them or what have you, we need to make a decision without actually being sure of the thing we’re deciding about.  So: how much belief do we have to put into the things we decide about?

This is a crucial question for literary critics, who regularly make decisions about things that aren’t actually real, and take action on (indeed sometime stake their careers on) their understanding of entirely fictional situations or characters.  Coleridge tried to get at this by talking about “suspension of disbelief.”  It is, in truth, a problem of aesthetic judgment in general.  Not because it is so subjective, but because the sides or aspect of a thing it finds so important may be such a slippery a thing to begin with, too slight a thing, too thin or too wispy. How can we go about saying something about an aspect of a character, when nearly everyone knows him, quite intimately too, and yet when everybody can have a radically different picture of him?

How–to take a basic example–how do we judge that Snape’s maliciousness goes all the way down, when we find Harry Potter teasing him? And when, in the next book of the series, when we find out he was teased a lot as a kid? How we do this, when we also then see him kill Dumbledore? How do we do this, when at the very same time, we suspect that he might redeem himself? The sensible explanation perhaps is to say that we feel like we decide, but in reality we don’t make any sort of decision. We judge him now, and then we say we will sit and wait for the next book to see; or we throw up our hands and call it a decision of no consequence, ignoring that we just thought his maliciousness quite interesting. And yet we do make the judgments even here. We end up possibly saying that Snape is very multifaceted, that the maliciousness itself has many sides–and so may or may not go all the way down into that area where it renders all his motives bad (or good). Even in throwing up our hands we decide that the maliciousness is something that is of less importance than other things about the novel that we liked without ambivalence. To deny that we do make these judgments doesn’t make them mean any less; and even to regard our perceptions as meaningless is also a decision, which would not matter if they weren’t meaningful and real enough.

It is a basic question then, and one that opens up philosophic territory, but also one that art allows us to treat extremely practically, and learn much from. This is the question pondered by much of the April 11th LRB, with its ruminations on how far we should trust Wagner’s art, the use of statistics in understanding and reforming the NHS, in believing in the conventions of televised fiction itself, and in trusting a particular one volume edition of of collected poems to decide about the quality of the poet.  Nicholas Spice’s lecture on Wagner (a wonderful version is available on the LRB website), Paul Taylor’s discussion of statistics on the death rates in various NHS hospitals (which may or may not be real), John Lanchester’s review of “Game of Thrones” (both the books and the series), and Iain Sinclair’s look back at the poetry of Edward Dorn all work through this issue (which may or may not reflect the nature of the experience of the books separately).


Spice and Lanchester are especially good about this.  They valiantly take the line that we do decide on something of consequence, when we decide something about art. And yet that is precisely where the trouble starts for each of them.

Spice listens to Wagner and, like many listeners, is taken in to the point that he loses it–loses himself, that is. In particular, he begins to get insomnia, at the same time as he begins to see insomnia as the central experience of “Tristan and Isolde”–the long night of their love, in which they cannot, would not, would never, let their love end, and go to sleep. But this isn’t all. It isn’t even the beginning. He recounts a list of similar experiences, and more intense ones, where in fact people have gone mad after listening to Wagner, or working with him and his work. He acknowledges these are coincidences, but can’t quite shake the feeling that there is a grain of truth in the desire to see them as true. We enter the work, and the process is the one that takes us away from ourselves. He acknowledges it, feels he has to acknowledge it. “Wagner had no interest in the pathos of distance.”

And at its root–he can’t deny it–is the feeling, on some level, that Wagner may perhaps be bad for us, that the sort of emotional intensity we experience in listening to Wagner distorts our perceptions, makes us beholden to a vision that the author has put in our heads in order to manipulate us, and which to surrender to, would be wrong. It is the view that ultimately Wagner is unhealthy. We can tell that Spice has contempt for this feeling as it comes to be articulated–he doesn’t believe it makes sense to say Wagner might be bad for us, to characterize the feeling we feel as a sort of badness–but it is the central question of his essay, and he indeed treats it seriously enough, in trying to put it into other, more aesthetic terms–in terms of how the music works. It isn’t just a mere sort of confusion of aesthetic categories, already existing and more verifiable, that Wagner’s music encourages, in its intense appeal to one’s subjective response. It is what the music indeed means to us, and as much as Spice thinks this feeling about Wagner badly articulated, and wants to articulate it differently, in terms more sympathetic to it, he acknowledges it, doesn’t deny it, pretty thoroughly. Should then Spice allow that this effect should make us feel a certain way about Wagner? Should we really regardWagner as bad for us, and treat him accordingly? What to do?

What Spice does is to buy as much time as possible to get rid of the idea of unhealthiness that hovers over this whole perception, and which in his eyes distorts it. It is, in other words, to pull back and begin to indeed deny the existence of the feeling he believes he had and which others have had–to transform the oddness of the feeling into a skepticism about its possibility. He does this by close reading the music, excellently, showing us all its ins and outs–a process particularly vivid on the audio version of the lecture, where we hear in clear clips much of the music he talks about. There is an absolutely unbelievable comparison of the first minute of Carmen and Falstaff and other operas to the first minute of nearly all of Wagner’s great operas, and the result really is astounding. This is combined with a frank discussion of the relation of the emotions to music–that deep and strange connection always acknowledged between them and which made Walter Pater say that all art aspires to music’s condition. Out of both we arrive at some genuinely interesting propositions about the nature of what Wagner is doing, which are much more illuminating than the simple word “bad.” We learn, perhaps best, that the thing that makes us come out of ourselves in Wagner’s work, the thing that makes us feel like he is forcing us to feel his work and not allowing us any space to have any independent feelings–indeed almost any independent awareness at all–of the work and our relationship to it, can in reality be explained much more profitably as a kind of “generosity.”

Wagnerian music drama… is is unusually permeable to our search for coherence. There’s a sense in which it gives up its meanings generously and that this is the result of Wagner’s quite exceptional feel for the way our brains take in musical and dramatic information. When we have been drawn deep into the Wagnerian zone, much as we love Bach and Haydn and Bartok and Berg, the thought of their music can seem a little bit too much like hard work.

This can be demonstrated in all sorts of ways. The comparison with the other operas tells us this by showing just how much information we get in the un-Wagnerian operas, compared with the throbbing single chord of the opening of Die Walkure. And the discussion of the nature of classical and Wagnerian music also reveals that we contemplate when we encounter density, feel involved when we encounter Wagner’s simplicity: “where in much classical music, the exposition of material… stands in a very high ratio to passing time, in Wagner’s work this relationship is radically relaxed.” In getting more time to think about less musical data, we get only enough time to think. This is bizarre, but, we feel, quite convincing.

The conclusion we can see coming out of all this though is that Spice does have to acknowledge the feeling he feels exists, but only so much. What Spice searches for, of course, by trying to analyze the work down into a more forgiving set of terms, with a more detailed understanding of them, is a transformation of the feeling initially felt. And this is a transformation that would be able to be effected, he supposes, by doubting that it exists in the form we initially understood it in. But in calling what was felt to be bad, generous, he indeed shows he does indeed believe in the existence of the thing he was talking about; he thinks we have to treat Wagner in a certain way. This is not to say he merely replaces the terms. It is to say that this form of skepticism succeeds analytically because it cannot pull off everything that it intends to do.

But perhaps this is also a kind of in-between, when we believe, but then know in some way that it is wrong to believe too much in what we are speaking about, to get carried away, to seek it out only:

In the question “Is Wagner bad for us?” there’s a hint of tiresome passivity, as though we had no choice in the matter… It’s surely up to use to manage Wagner’s charisma… But whether it’s really possible to keep Wagner at a distance without losing something essential in our experience of his work is unclear to me. What I do know is that to toy with the idea of Tristan und Isolde as the foundational event in a new religion or to take it as “a sacrificial consolation for the imperfect loves of those who witness it” is to turn this great work into a fetish.

We have to acknowledge the feeling that we feel Wagner’s music may be bad for us; but what we learn through analysis is that we can refuse to acknowledge that he is good for us. We have to acknowledge what we feel when we judge and that the feeling exists, and so we have to believe in its reality; and yet in doing so we can believe that what we feel could still very easily be the opposite of what we feel. What we can’t do is deny our feeling that Wagner might be bad for us, just on the off chance that he might be good for us.


In another review, we see John Lanchester amazed that the fictions of fantasy can be believed in at all. He wonders throughout his review of the “Game of Thrones” series and the books it adapts how he could be so held and fascinated. We see him fascinated with his own relationship to the story and its characters, to the world it inhabits, to the way it treats magic, to the plot elements that seem strange and absolutely unexpected. And the nature of this amazement is that it is extremely fundamental–we witness a critic steeped in the world of culture and products seeming to find a work that actually possesses their most basic rudimentary elements. You genuinely don’t know what is going to happen next,” is a comment he makes in passing.

At the same time, we find a rather sly argument in all of this naive enjoyment against the concepts of fiction that are not fantastic in their nature. Lanchester spends a good part of his article wondering why people are so turned off fantasy in the first place:

When you ask people why they don’t read fantasy, they usually say something along the lines of, ‘because elves don’t exist’. This makes no sense as an objection. Huge swathes of imaginative literature concern things that don’t exist, and as it happens, things that don’t exist feature particularly prominently in the English literary tradition. We’re very good at things that don’t exist.

True enough. But this doesn’t seem like the rousing call to fantasy and to the imaginative in literature that it should be. It seems to be concerned with being a neat proposition, rather than a true one. Is it really true that “there is no other body of literature quite like it,” as Lanchester claims, asking us to “consider the comparative absence of fantasy from the French and Russian traditions?” First, this doesn’t seem empirically right, since as soon as we admit folktales the proposition falls apart. Second, we get the sense that there is an equation here being made between fantasy and the fictional in general.

We get some sense of what’s wrong with the latter point when we start understanding the weakness of such a claim that “huge swathes of imaginative literature concern things that don’t exist.” This is like asserting–nay, taking pride in–the claim, “huge swathes of the clouds we see are white.” Not that the assertion is meaningless. It is just that what is actually emphasized by the statement is not what Lanchester thinks it is. The point that is emphasized in such a statement is not that a large proportion of imaginative literature indeed concerns what’s made up. The point made is that it would not matter even if this proportion were smaller. The point, in other words, is that white is essential to the nature of our sense of what clouds are and what they feel like–they are white fluffy things–even when dark grey clouds exist. So it would not make sense even to admit of the possibility that we might think of clouds as essentially dark grey, even though dark grey clouds exist. For when they look different, when they are grey, the entire nature of what we mean by “clouds” changes. We think not of sunny days, and blue skies. We think of storms and a bleak future ahead for us. In fact, we’d have to be benighted entirely for imaginative literature to concern something wholly different than the non-existent.

What Lanchester wants to get at, however, by making such claims is the way that “it’s perfectly normal for widely literate general readers to admit that they read no fantasy at all.” There seems to be a gap in the nature of fiction itself between that which is not contained in fantasy, and that which is. People read fiction, yet don’t read fantasy. And this is not an argument about high and low culture, nor even a sort of argument about genre, though Lanchester can sound like he is saying this–speaking sometimes as if here is the proper, stolid, frumpy, literary novel, and there is the fantasy paperback. But no, he is talking simply about what we like. This is an argument about the nature of the stuff we find available to us, and what appeals. Most people seem to like vanilla fiction more than fantasy, and to avow their preference rather loudly. And this is odd.

What Lanchester seems to do with this interesting point however is something rather backwards. We sense him trying to make a case for the fantasy against contemporary ideas of fiction, but as he goes through what is excellent in “Game of Thrones,” we sense him all the time pointing out the merely fictional qualities of fantasy, affirming them to be fantastic all along. This is the neat trick of the article: to make fantasy sound like it can outdo fiction on its own turf. That this might encourage fantasy’s inclusion within our preference for the fictional, rather than place the burden on readers of fiction to seek out fantasy, doesn’t seem to cross his mind.

I’ve been acting as a kind of low level pusher or drug dealer for the series, shoving recommendations and occasionally box sets in the direction of friends. I tell them to forge past their elves-don’t-exist resistance at least until the end of the first episode. And that, generally, is all it takes. After that initial act of drug-pushing, I follow up on my new clients to ask how they have got on with the series. Everyone is addicted…

This feels entirely right in terms of how we might love fantasy, and love to lead others into fantasy, even as most other readers seem to shy away from it. And yet, it is also a strange description too. It is as if we needed to be ashamed of what we were doing to the normal fiction readers in the process.

It is in fact quite telling that what is most impressive to Lanchester, as he begins to go through just what is so addictive about the show, is in its sheer destructiveness of its own story-telling resources. Everything that is hovering about it, which a normal literary work would prize and treasure and make central to its project, seems toyed with and ultimately dispensed. On the one hand this shows the inherent interest of Game of Thrones itself; on the other, it proves that fantasy can in fact outdo modern fiction in every sense–there is a richness to it that beats everything. Lanchester is most taken aback by the all the characters who die as the story unfolds. He goes through them one by one, remarking:

These are not peripheral figures but richly imagined, textured, three-dimensional portraits of central characters: the kind many writers couldn’t bear to kill off. Nobody needs to give Martin any advice about how he needs to slaughter his darlings.

For “many writers,” we might read, “writers of mere fiction.” What might otherwise be an appreciation of the capacity for the show to keep going on, to develop other characters, other interesting depths, turns into a fascination at its ability to punish its readers and reward their continuing interest despite this. What is punished is the allegiance to fiction that would find the coming up with new events and new characters rather normal; what is rewarded is the belief in fantasy that thinks this never is found in fiction. In some sense what seems most interesting to Lanchester is the way that fantasy has the ability to erode our confidence in the ability of anything other than fantasy to satisfy what we want in fiction. We want the make-believe? Here is so much of it, that you won’t need to go anywhere else for it.

In a way, then, Lanchester does not have a hard time believing in fantasy; but he does have a hard time believing that fantasy is a kind of fiction–odd as that sounds. It is this link that is there and awaits belief, but he withholds the assent that might make it real. The article, then, comes to a stop here, even as it develops much more its vision of the merits of “Game of Thrones.” As to the question of whether we need to believe in the objects we criticize, then, for Lanchester, we don’t–at least in this case. We only need to get hooked by them, and get others hooked, and become users of them.  But the question is–is this too good a thought to be believed?