“The willing suspension of disbelief,” mimesis, and “Eat, Pray, Love”

In Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 1817 text of the Biographia Literaria, he records that he and William Wordsworth, while neighbors, discussed often the “two cardinal points of poetry,” with Wordsworth more invested in the “faithful adherence to the truth of nature” and Coleridge more involved in the “interest of novelty…[introduced] by the modifying colours of imagination” in their mutual work, the Lyrical Ballads.  Whereas Wordsworth composed the poems of which the “subjects….[were] drawn from ordinary life,” Coleridge says “my endeavours…[were] directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief [italics mine] for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.”  These words are among the most famous words in the English literary critical canon now, and yet so often it is easy to forget that this is that which we must practice when we meet up with something literary, whether in poetry, fiction, non-fiction even, a “willing suspension of disbelief.”  It is this which encourages us to keep reading at some of those inevitable points where our own feelings, thoughts, and personalities fail to click with that of our erstwhile authors.  Now, bookmark that series of thoughts while I pull up my second series, on mimesis, or to put it simply and complexly at once, “imitation,” as the mimicry of thoughts, feelings, actions, and characters is called in literary theory.

In Mimetic Reflections:  A Study in Hermeneutics, Theology, and Ethics, William Schweiker quotes Paul Ricoeur (from “Metaphorical Process as Cognition, Imagination, and Feeling”) thus:  “‘To feel, in the emotional sense of the word, is to make ours what has been put at a distance by thought in its objectifying phase.  Feelings, therefore, have a very complex kind of intentionality.  [T]hey accompany and complete the work of the imagination as a schematizing, a synthetic operation:  they make the schematized thoughts our own'” (p. 107).  Though I may be interpreting this too facilely, at least one thing that this passage means to me is that it is the reader as well as the writer who “mimics” the emotions, “thinks” the ideas, and even “performs” the actions which the writer is putting in the text, because the reader, according to Schweiker and Ricoeur, is part creator of the text, in following it.

Now as to the particular text I have it in mind to consider in the light of these two rather heavyweight bits of literary theory–they are heavyweight, that is, by contrast with the rather more currently topical and popular (as of 2009) Eat, Pray, Love, which I am apparently one of the least topical in reading, as I have only just finished it yesterday, and I don’t plan to see the movie.  It’s necessary to say up front that I didn’t expect to find anything much in it for me, expected to be bored or annoyed or both by the topic as well as by the execution and writing style.  I had been warned that the writer herself said something about having gone off her medication, and having had visions of sorts, and of having bizarre religious (or pseudo-religious, so the story went) experiences, as well as being well-off by average standards and therefore more privileged than the rest of us to slide by with these sorts of shenanigans.  We all know that the wealthy do as they please.  But when I actually got into the book, I found it likeable rather than not, certainly not sensible in strict terms, perhaps, but touching, exploratory, sincere, and in short, I kept reading.  I read and read, and though I have to confess that the happily-ever-after ending gave me pause (as why wouldn’t it in this skeptical age), all in all I was glad, very glad, that I had read the book.  It opened up a window and gave me fresh air to breathe, which is where the whole involved tangle of “willing suspension of disbelief,” “poetic faith,” and “mimesis” comes in.  Because I was able to suspend judgement once I got even a little way into the book, I felt at least poetic faith in Elizabeth Gilbert’s claims and assertions about her experiences in Italy, India, and Bali, and it seemed to me afterwards that I had in a more intimate sense than usual taken the trip with her, “mimicked,” in fact, her escape from unhappiness.

Who can say what exactly brought this about?  Was the freedom to read something not strictly logical or praised for its literary quality granted by the warm weather that has come and gone and teased and gone again for the last week?  Did I just fall victim to all the early spring sunlight and fresh air, and therefore reach for a book that I wouldn’t normally have read without scoffing, and therefore gained a different kind, an internal kind, of “fresh air”?  Was I responding to some other hidden more mysterious personal impetus that drove me to keep reading?  All I can say is, though I will probably never again visit Italy even briefly (I was in Northern Italy for a day or so when I was seventeen), will never join an ashram in India (or practice serious yoga again), and will certainly never find myself in Bali teaching and learning from a Balinese medicine man and woman, the book brought me, by my “imitation” of its currents and prevailing winds as I read, permission to let myself out of some dark dungeon of the mind–though I haven’t truly been depressed or anxious in any specific sense.

It is for this reason that I recommend it to my readers, because if you can find sufficient “poetic faith” (that “willing suspension of disbelief”) to allow yourself to encounter some new thing, some fresh thing, something pleasantly unexpected (even if it’s another book entirely which you have been blocking yourself off from reading), and then “imitate” its patterns of feeling and thought as you read, there’s a good chance that eventually you may land upon some more hospitable shore than that of mere humdrum habit and routine.  True, Eat, Pray, Love is not what I would call a great work of art, or a monument to the ages–but everything worthwhile doesn’t have to be:  sometimes, a book can be simply a helping hand held out by an explorer of the fraught “human highway” (as Neil Young referred to it), and sometimes that is enough.


Filed under Articles/reviews, What is literature for?

4 responses to ““The willing suspension of disbelief,” mimesis, and “Eat, Pray, Love”

  1. Richard Gilbert

    Very interesting, Victoria. She is an amazingly skillful writer! I remember being annoyed when I found out at the end that she’d had a book contract from the start (or so I dimly remember), and felt she should have revealed that situation: i.e. her journeys were professional and structured rather than organic, or even the best a writer can probably do, semi-organic, so to speak. Not sure this matters – I guess it didn’t at all to you – but I seem to recall that was my quibble and some others’. Actually you seem to have focused on the intended point of the book. I might if I read it today instead of seven years ago, probably influenced by a crowd that hated her, perhaps from jealousy.


  2. Hi, Richard. Actually, I didn’t find her writing to be of very high quality at first, but then I forgot about that point because I was practicing the “willing suspension of disbelief,” the same as her character supposedly was in the book. I guess what I would say about her contract being beforehand is just that if she robbed anyone, she robbed herself, by making a foregone conclusion, or a self-fulfilling prophecy. She certainly didn’t rob me, I don’t feel, because even though I knew that she was definitely not a guru herself, after a while I allowed her to occupy a similar position in order to gain some insight into my own inner workings. It’s like that old Eastern tenet which says that you can’t go behind the oracle (or the guru) to question the premise, you can only follow the teachings until you reach enlightenment, or perhaps even like the medieval Western church teaching that even a corrupt priest can lead a devout soul to heaven. Not that I am particularly devout or reached heaven through her work, but my spirits were definitely lifted, though I thought the romance-novel ending was perhaps a bit much. Even if true, I felt it could have been handled differently textually to spur more conviction, and a conversation with a close friend just this evening about the book has made me aware that many people don’t find it to be of much value. Be that as it may, as I said, it made me feel glad to be alive, and aware of the fact that I am glad, and that precise degree of awareness doesn’t always attend the conclusion even of some of my favorite literary works, some of which tend to be on the glum or skeptical side.


    • Richard Gilbert

      Well said. I admire your agency as well: taking from the book what you needed, which seems a mature response to me. Kind of like we must do with people sometimes. So you don’t like a teacher as a person? So? Must this mean you can’t learn, can’t take what you can from his or her expertise, have your own experience?


      • I agree with you about the teacher question entirely, but how few of us see it that way when we are in school, college, or university the first time! We waver sometimes between unhealthily sinking the individual ego in a sort of hero worship, and demonizing the teacher who doesn’t appeal to us straight away!


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