Thinking about fiction

A blog about fiction and imagination, from a philosopher

 

"If one loves stories, then one would naturally love the story of the story" Lorrie Moore

Imaginative resistance and the Woody Allen problem

Imaginative resistance and the Woody Allen problem

I have a problem. I love mid-period Woody Allen films. In no particular order, I love: the jokes, the affection, the humanity, the characterisation, the depiction of family life, the locations, the performances, the references to other films, books and poetry, the clothes, the music, the titles.. and most of all I love the character of the neurotic narcissist and unashamed enthusiast that Allen plays in all of them. Yet, given the well-publicised accusations about Allen and paedophilia, it's becoming less and less acceptable to say this in polite society (by which I mean impolite society; by which I mean Twitter, obviously). I'm not alone in my problem: if you have formerly loved Louis C.K., you're very probably now also in the club, for different reasons. 

A stubborn part of me refuses to give up my love for Allen films. Isn't it traditional for great artists and thinkers to be arseholes? Another of my great loves, Evelyn Waugh, was a bigoted, reactionary snob. And didn't Gauguin infect half the teenage population of Tahiti with syphilis? Didn't Schopenhauer push his landlady down the stairs? Haven't we all had a bad day? The prospect of a glorious future where, on pain of social death, we have to make our cultural enthusiasms match up with our morals (by which I mean, what Twitter tells us to feel) fills me with horror. Next thing you know, we'll all be reading Rupi Kaur poems to each other and listening to Joanna Newsom whilst eating vegan food and knitting. I dunno about you, but that's my idea of Guantanamo, right there.  (For that reason, I completely relish this interview with radical feminist Julie Bindel about her love of Snoop Dogg).

Being a philosopher, however, I don't just have stubbornness on my side; I have reason. In other words, having thought about it, I think there is a way I can continue to unashamedly and justifiably like most Woody Allen films whilst acknowledging that the man may well be a total pervert.

The solution to the problem is, to my mind, connected to an issue that philosophers of fiction often discuss: "the puzzle of imaginative resistance". This is the question of why, in response to certain fictional passages, readers tend to report "resistance" or "blockage" in imagining what they are asked to. Most obvious cases involve fictional passages which ask readers to imagine that certain moral evaluations obtain: for instance, in the example of Kendall Walton "In killing her baby, Giselda did the right thing; after all it was a girl". But you can get arguably non-moral cases too: for instance "Ian patiently explained to Claire that there was no such thing as global warning"; or even "Jonathan wears pink trousers. He's gay". Assuming that the former is presented in a fiction non-ironically and with the implicit support of the author, and that the latter implies a generalised causal relation between the two sentences, then many readers will report resistance in encountering each of these.

On the face of it, there's something strange about imaginative resistance: after all, if we can imagine that people are wizards, do magic, fly, shape-shift, and time-travel, why can't we imagine that infanticide on the grounds of gender is right? Loads of different explanations have been offered. I don't need to tell you about those, though; only about the right one. On this explanation, we resist certain fictional passages when we are led to think, via accompanying pragmatic markers in the text or their assumed presence, that those passages are asking us to engage in a specific kind of imagining (or if you'd rather: imagining with a particular function). This is counterfactual imagining. Counterfactual imagining is imagining in the service of believing what would or could or might be the case, were some given imagined scenario also the case. As such, counterfactual imagining is directed towards the having of certain beliefs. Some fictions are intentionally directed towards this sort of imagining, and moreover they intentionally steer us towards certain counterfactual conclusions, intended by the author to be believed by readers. We tend to read Walton's example as steering us towards the belief that, generally, were someone such as Giselda to exist, and who killed her baby because it was a girl, this would be the right thing for her to do. We tend to read my last example as steering readers towards the belief that generally, if someone wears pink trousers, that means they are gay. It is when the examples are pragmatically read this way, as being accompanied by these intentions on the part of an author (admittedly, not the real author in either of these invented examples), that readers tend to resist imagining them. If you can't believe  (because you haven't been presented with any good evidence to think) that infanticide on the grounds of gender is right, or that wearing a certain colour of trouser makes you gay, you will experience resistance in relation to these passages.

However, had these passages been placed in a different wider fictional context, where the intention that readers counterfactually imagine not been detectable or ascribable to an author, then, on my view, resistance would not have occurred. If it is clear from surrounding context that the character Giselda lives in a fantastic world where the moral norms are different to ours, so that there is no implication about what readers should believe about their own situation, then resistance falls away. If it's clear from context that Jonathan lives in a repressive society unlike ours, where gay people are forced to wear pink trousers, here too resistance will be absent. And so on.

What's this got to do with Allen? Well, arguably (with the possible exception of Manhattan, which I avoid discussing for the sake of not ruining my argument), there is no serious implication in any of his films, intended to be believed by the viewer, that paedophilia is acceptable or in any way permissible. There is nothing about paedophilia whatsoever, in fact. Hence there is no genuine possibility of interpreting those films as inviting, via imagining, some endorsement of a counterfactual about it. Of course, the films might well indirectly endorse some other conclusions, intended to be believed, which the viewer might vigorously reject (about the desirability of a certain liberal, middle-class, white perspective, for instance. Just don't tell me about it because I'm not listening right now, I'm reading e.e. cummings and listening to Bach).

Incidentally, the situation might not be as clear cut with Louis C.K., whose comedy material arguably can now retrospectively be seen as some kind of  a positive defence of his tendency to masturbate in front of people who "admire" him. An additional complicating factor here is that the persona of a stand-up comic tends to be much closer to that of the real person playing him/her, with knock-on effects for our ability to distinguish the statements of one from the other, or assess their epistemic weight. (Yes, I know Woody used to be a stand-up. I KNOW).

If this is right, then what we are left with is an ability to distinguish, in a lot of cases,  the content of the work from the content of the author's values. As long as those values aren't being intentionally promoted in the work as things to be believed by readers and viewers, then we can feel less compromised in liking the work. (This leaves out what we say about cases where the values are being unintentionally promoted, which I can't tackle here).

Of course, there will be people who think we should cast aside certain works simply in virtue of their being produced by morally deviant artists, irrespective of whether that deviance is advocated for or presented as permissible in the works in question. This might be to do with a reluctance to send royalties to these people; or just a fear of contamination by association. The former worry is legitimate, perhaps (piracy, anyone?); but the latter is ill-founded, as long as we can agree that people can be complex, have differing and even contrastive personality characteristics, and that even people with very bad characteristics can sometimes make and produce enjoyable, pleasant, good, true, or otherwise life-enhancing things. 

 

Moonlighting

Moonlighting

Mental imagery and the 'multiple use' thesis

Mental imagery and the 'multiple use' thesis