02 June 2009

Suspending Disbelief

Back in High School we had an English teacher talk to us about the necessity of something called suspension of disbelief in fiction. He said that, in order to truly get in to a story, the reader had to be willing to turn off their disbelief about the events in the story, thus allowing for everything from lunar princesses to White Whales that hunt ships to dark dystopian futures and everything in between. Recently I have been pondering its relation--if any--to occultism in general and spirit work in specific.

What Does It Mean?

I didn't like the term in High School, and I argued against it, because we expect (and to a certain degree demand) that stories operate on their own internal consistency, based on their own internal logic. We don't uncritically suspend our disbelief when we find that the internal consistency of the world has been violated, and consistency editors are frequently needed for this reason. We may be able to ignore (or not, depending on its severity), but we don't merely suspend our disbelief and accept whatever it is without criticism.

So when an author can't figure out the mechanics of werecritters in her own world we take notice, and while we may still enjoy the books, we will still mark it when we see it.

Sometimes stories deliberately throw out internal consistency on any rational basis, but are still basically consistent to the (loose) laws of their own universe (e.g., the Discworld concept of a million to one odds being a sure thing).

I think I didn't really understand what suspending your disbelief entails, and I am not completely convinced my teacher did either. What I have now come to think suspending your disbelief actually means is being willing to accept the premises on which the story is based, rather than once you are involved in the story itself. Once you have accepted those premises and whatever form of internal logic the story uses, you can maintain your disbelief, simply using a somewhat altered way of looking at the universe.

Thus I can accept the reality of Carl Fredricksen being able to lift his house using balloons and not feel that it detracts from the story, and accept that there are dogs running around that can talk and fly planes, but still have to wonder about how old Muntz must have been and how he managed to live that long. The previous points were explained in the context of the show or part of the premise, the last was harder for me to swallow.

So I can suspend my disbelief for certain premises, including how they build the internal logic of their universe, but I still have certain standards and expectations for what they do with those premises and that internal logic. Recently I finished reading Santa Olivia. It uses a set of premises I normally wouldn't like books drawn from. It has genetically engineered lesbian werewolves (sort of), boxing, and the US has declared a large number of people living in Texas to not exist. Somewhat difficult premises to swallow, and I don't normally see authors handle these issues well when they declare them as premises, but Jacqueline Carey wove an utterly magnificent story from them.

In Occultism

In occultism we have a similar concept, found in Chaos Magic: Nothing is true, everything is permitted. I have commented before that I prefer All models are wrong, but some are useful: The relative truth of different approaches to occultism aren't all that important--they can serve different purposes and can be learned in the same way one learns martial arts. We must accept certain premises as true in order to use a given system, but the objective reality of that truth is rarely important so long as we get the results we are after.

I cannot question my skills, or the reality of the system I am using, if I expect it to work effectively. Thus it is useful for me to be able to believe--absolutely and completely--the reality of a system while I am working with it. When I talk to Coyote while Journeying, it is not useful for me to sit there and wonder if I am talking to an aspect of myself, a spirit that I am casting in the role of Coyote, or an actual entity that has existed for thousands of years called Coyote.

On the other hand, this can lead to a certain brand of arrogance, or to an insistence that we are right and others are wrong. To try and invalidate others experiences or UPG simply because they do not mesh with our own, even those that are diametrically opposed and incompatible with our own. It can lead to us taking offense because someone else's practice is radically different from ours, or even if they take away something different.

Different people have different approaches to this problem. Some people treat the gods as being psychological manifestations, aspects of their individual psyche. Others treat the gods as absolutely 100% real, and everyone else's gods are real too. Some say the gods are completely real, but our understanding of them is aspected, or that we summon into being different facets by using different names. There are almost as many approaches to the problem of the reality of magic and to the reality of spirits as there are occultists and spirit workers.

My approach is that I accept the premise: that this somehow works, and that by accepting certain premises and following certain techniques, I can bring about effects in both myself and the world around me. I believe, for all intents and purposes completely, in the existence of the deities I interact with, understanding that no matter how firm my UPG, it must still be filtered through the lens of my own perception.

This is part of why I say that while I believe--having had experiences that convinced me--in the reality of the gods and spirits I talk with, I am not ultimately too fussed about it or about whether others who approach the path do it in the same way I do. I have suspended my disbelief on the premises, and focus instead on where the individual occultist takes it. To quote Lupa in her article on Shamanism and Subjectivity:

Really, how can I prove any of them are wrong, that they haven’t had the very experiences they claim to have had? How can I necessarily say that my experiences with shamanism are more objectively valid when in the end I really don’t have more proof of being right than anyone else? Sure, there’s looking at the shamanisms of other cultures–but that’s other cultures. To an extent, cultural context is crucial. And if a large portion of shamanic practitioners in this culture are reporting a certain way of doing things, then I should not dismiss that simply because it doesn’t corroborate entirely with the ways other cultures have described their practices. There’s something going on there, and beyond a certain point I cannot judge the veracity of what’s happening.

Similarly, when talking with others, my first step is to suspend my disbelief surrounding the premises of their disbelief and talk instead about the effects and experiences. Some things I will look at more suspiciously than others because the premises seem so far out there to me, but really, I can't invalidate their experiences based on just this. Sometimes, even if it never was true in any objective sense in years past, to quote The Matrix, "The mind makes it real." To those individuals, it is sufficiently real that they can produce meaningful results from it, and that is what matters first and foremost. So what I must do is suspend my disbelief for their premises, and look instead at other markers to gauge the subjective reality of their experiences.

To do this, I want to validate that their practices are what they say they are, see the effects of those practices, the internal consistency of their beliefs, and see that their focus is on internal development and helping others rather than on external validation, attention seeking, escapism, or wish fulfillment. That their approach is zetetic to the degree that is possible and is rooted in a sense of humility.

That even when they have 40 years experience, they still recognize the need to continue to improve, to learn, and to grow. That they show maturity and consideration, and have done a lot of self-work to help them understanding themselves. As I like to quote Dion Fortune: Above the gates of the inner mysteries are written the words know thyself. First, foremost, and always.

These things matter more to me than any claims about their premises or supposed accomplishments. It matters more to me than what books they have written or how many followers they have. It matters more to me than the severity of their practice, or how tightly bound they seem to be to the gods.

I can suspend my disbelief for their premises for the purpose of understanding their worldview, but I still have certain expectations for where they take it from there. I can also be clear that I am not necessarily accepting their premises or practices into my own framework, along with the reasons why.

Lupa wrote a brilliant piece that is worth reading in its entirety, but says in part that:

I'm not accepting things without consideration, but I am going to say that beyond a certain point my authority to criticize only goes so far because of subjectivity and the inability to climb into someone else’s head. I think a better criterion would be Does it work? There’s also the argument over semantics and who’s a real shaman, but for the practices themselves, I’m going to be less liable to dismiss something because it involves things I personally disagree with.

Further Reading

Many of these are linked above, but to put them in one place:

1 comment:

  1. This has more or less been my approach to things -- whether or not the gods actually exist or not isn't something I can ever prove, but the fact that Their influence has had a noticable and positive impact on my life speaks for itself. And I feel that internal consistency is important when teasing out theological issues for myself. If nothing else, it gives me a system and a particular world-view to work within...as well as the chance to discover for myself which parts of it are not necessarily as I first imagine them to be.