Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Emotions towards fictional characters

You're attending a performance of Wit. Vivian is dying of cancer. If you're human, you have compassion for her. You don't want her to die.

We say stuff like that. But is this really how we feel. Emotions have an essential motivational force. But are you motivated to stop Vivian from dying?

Maybe you are motivated, but there is nothing you can do to act on that motivation? Yet there is. You could run on stage, and threaten or bribe the actors to make sure that Vivian lives. Or you could pray that the playwright had put in a happy ending.

Or imagine that you are Margaret Edson's friend, and she's just written the first half of the play and let you read it. Maybe you could plead with her that Vivian live, even though you have a nagging suspicion that art may call for Vivian's death. Surely, if you really cared about Vivian, you would plead, or, if not that, at least you'd feel guilty to be sacrificing her on the altar of art. But there is no call for guilt here.

So, I don't think we really have compassion for Vivian. Rather, there is some kind of a shadow feeling. This shadow feeling has similar phenomenology to the real thing, but its motivational force is different. If I am right about this, this blunts St. Augustine's criticism of drama that it causes inappropriate feelings. For the shadow feelings are quite right.

Fear when watching a horror film, though, may be different... It might be real fear, not just a shadow. But that's because one fears for oneself rather than for a fictional character: one fears being startled by something particularly gruesome, say.


Matthew Kennel said...

Why not simply deny the premise, that emotions have an essentially motivational force?

SMatthewStolte said...

Perhaps we often have these shadow feelings for non-fictional people, as well. Would that be a vice?

Alexander R Pruss said...

Yes, I think sometimes we may have the shadow emotions in real life. I guess it's a vice when the real thing is called for.

But when the real thing is not called for, the shadow might be better than the real thing. For instance when I'm climbing in the gym 50 feet up, I have a shadow of fear, even though I know I'm perfectly safe (solid equipment, qualified belayer). Better then the shadow than the real thing.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Why think there is motivational force? One reason is that we use facts about action and motivation to correct self-ascriptions of emotion. "You don't really hate traveling, Alex, as much as you say you do. For if you hated it that much, you wouldn't do it as often as you do."

Michael Gonzalez said...

I have actually heard of people who read early drafts for their friends who are authors, and who plead with them (tears streaming down their face) "don't kill so-and-so!" It's interesting that they are not trying to stop the character from doing it, but to stop the author....

In any case, consider this: I think the issue is that we do not think of the event the way we think of present events. We think of it as, in some way, already past. The present is open to possibilities, whereas the past is immutable. So, when we are told a story (even about actual people that lived and died in the past) we feel emotions that are appropriate to the circumstances (even to the point of wishing desperately that the person did not have to die, and crying for them), but we are not usually motivated to try and change anything. Perhaps this reveals something interesting about our natural attitudes toward the past and the present?

Having said all of that, I didn't know Augustine said anything about drama stirring inappropriate feelings. Certainly much of the entertainment available today can stir one to inappropriate feelings (lust, a vengeful mindset, anger, interest in spiritistic/magical practices, etc). But, I don't think it is inappropriate to feel sad when someone dies in fiction, any more than it is wrong to feel sad when hearing a story of real people who died. It is in our God-given nature to respond in such a way.

Joshua said...

Wasn't the Augustine admonition motivated by the fact that theater allows us to instrumentalize feeling? The story of "cast the first stone" makes this point: the focal point isn't the falseness of the adultress/actress, but instead is the intentions of the customers who use their power to seek out these cheap feelings. Using another human being a prop to create one's own desired vicarious pleasure is a particular form of idolatry. We could claim that these are merely "rehearsals" that help us become better persons, but that's a slippery slope. Paying someone to manipulate your feelings is a form of self-deception, and one shouldn't expect a tremendous amount of honesty from people who are claiming to adjudicate which self-deception is redeemable and which isn't.