Saturday, March 12, 2016

Fictional Love

I've always been interested in the philosophy of fiction (see this link, for instance), but until recently I'd put it on the back-burner, so to speak. However, nowadays my interest in fiction has redoubled, and questions like "what is fiction?" and "is fiction real?" have come back to the front of my mind. And I posed these questions to myself alongside some developments I've had in reading fiction: reading Brandon Sanderson's Warbreaker or The Well of Ascension in the past few months, I've made a real effort to immerse myself in its story. In essence, that means putting my own concerns out of my mind so that I can occupy my concern with the characters in Sanderson's books. This took some effort, but the experience that came of it was amazing: I effectively became his characters. I not only felt their emotions, but I could see what they saw, hear what they heard. Sometimes I even got a sense of the characters' location in space, as if I was physically there in Luthadel or Hallandren.

I could write a whole post on the topic of vicarious sense experiences when reading fiction, but I'm going to focus on something else today. Specifically, I'm going to discuss the idea of a love that can exist between you and a fictional character. To begin, consider this passage from James Hillman (in his book Lament of the Dead: Psychology after Jung's Red Book) that talks about a psychological function for fiction reading:
"You read Dostoyevsky, you read Tolstoy, you read Tennessee Williams, you read whatever you want to read, you read the Greeks, you read literature, drama, theater, plays, and you see the human comedy, the human tragedy presented to you in specific characters with whom you can identify, witch whom you can feel the same things going on in them that are going on in me....You'd still be able to use all your diagnostic terms but you'd be able to see obsessions, you'd be able to see them in terms of figures that help you carry your personal load of this weight, because you can't carry these things alone. You do need something to help you carry them, and the concepts help you carry them. But they don't feed you. These figures can feed you in the same way as the figures fed Jung through his dialogues with them [in the Red Book].Personifications can be nourishing."
And he continues these observations a few pages later when he gives a specific example of this principle:
"In literature, if you read Trollope or Jane Austen, it doesn't matter, these nineteenth-century novels that people read and which contained their psyche. How did the housewives of then nineteenth century contain their crazy psyches in their oppressed conditions of being women in the nineteenth century? They read novels, they had backgrounds, they had stories, in which they could hold what was happening to them, they had figures. That's what's missing."
Fictional figures like those in Brandon Sanderson's books nourish me in the way that Hillman discussed. This is especially true with Sazed, a character from his Mistborn series who resembles me in many ways. When I read those books and use them to enter Sazed's perspective, I get a chance to "feel the same things going on in [him] that are going on in me." He helps me not only articulate my own experience but to reflect on it, to see it with different (perhaps Tin-enhanced) eyes. But I don't just get insight; as I said above, I feel love when I discover myself in fiction.

Lest you think me crazy for feeling loved by a fictional character, let me explain myself a bit more. Think of a character like Sazed as a mirror in which I can see my own being from a removed perspective. To use an idea from Sufi Islamic thought, my being is "a hidden treasure that longed to be known," and through the Mistborn series' "mirror," that hidden treasure becomes known by knowing itself. If we were to strictly follow the Sufi parallel as I've explained it, that would make me into God and Sazed into one of God's creations. But it's not so simple. In reality, Sazed and I are both revelations of one of God's "eternal names" (an aspect of His being), and by my seeing myself through Sanderson's character, the divine name that makes up my being discovers itself. To use the mirror metaphor again, Sazed and I are like the double mirrors in the temple's sealing room. Whereas Sazed reflects my being and, through me, the infinite chain of celestial beings that incarnate in my life, each of these infinite reflections is really just manifestations of a single light that bounces back and forth between the two mirrors. The light, in itself, is invisible. It is "a hidden treasure that longs to be known" and it can only "be known" by realizing itself in two-dimensional glass.

That metaphor is imperfect, but it demonstrates the idea I'm trying to get across. When I discover myself through a fictional character, it's not that I'm narcissistically lusting after my own being. Instead, the reality which expresses itself through my life becomes further manifest through someone like Sazed, and when I discover my being through him, in all reality the metaphysical reality "behind" my life is discovering itself. Fiction, then, is a way to glorify God.

But why did I say that I feel "loved" by Sazed? Well, if we're to believe Emanuel Swedenborg's theological metaphysics, the invisible "substance" of all the forms that we encounter is love. And he writes that love in its essence is a focus on the "other" (whether as the neighbor or as God. When I read The Well of Ascension and see my life reflected in its pages, I see myself as the other. My own being empties itself into Sazed's life, and I get it back, only richer.

And finally, doing this is a way to emulate Christ. Speaking of Christ and His atonement, the apostle Paul writes in 2 Philippians:
"5 Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God:
7 But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men:
8 And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.
9 Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name[.]"
When I read fiction and forget my own life, I "make myself of no reputation" and "take upon myself the form of a servant." I become a fiction, something unreal in the normal sense of the word. I undergo what the Bible calls kenosis--self-emptying--and re-enact Christ's descent from the heavens to "become obedient unto death." But in doing this, I also re-enact the purpose of creation as described by both Joseph Smith and mystics such as Swedenborg: to become an "other" so that I can truly love myself in him. For love can only really be love if it's selfless and if all "self" has been emptied out into the other. Fiction, therefore, is a private kind of selflessness. Through your regular mass-market paperback, you can lose your own life so as to save it.

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