Thursday, August 26, 2010

Imagination is Reality Plus

Imagination is Reality Lite--a useful substitute when the real pleasure is inaccessible, too risky, or too much work.

If you enjoy winning the Word Series of Poker, flying around Metropolis, or making love to a certain someone, then you can get some limited taste of these pleasures by closing your eyes and imagining these experiences.

But in some sense, unreal events can be more moving than real ones, similar to how artificial sweeteners can be sweeter than sugar. There are three reasons for this:

First, fictional people tend to be wittier and more clever than friends and family, and their adventures are usually much more interesting. I have contact with the lives of people around me, but these people tend to be professors, students, neighbors, and so on. This is a small slice of humanity, and perhaps not the most interesting slice. My real world doesn't include an emotionally wounded cop tracking down a serial killer, a hooker with a heart of gold, or a wisecracking vampire. As best I know, none of my friends has killed his father and married his mother. But I can meet all of those people in imaginary worlds.

Second, life just creeps along, with long spans where nothing much happens. The O.J. Simpson trial lasted months, and much of it was deadly dull. Stories solve this problem—as the critic Clive James once put it, "Fiction is life with the dull bits left out." This is one reason why Friends is more interesting than your friends.

Finally, the technologies of the imagination provide stimulation of a sort that is impossible to get in the real world. A novel can span birth to death and can show you how the person behaves in situations that you could never otherwise observe. In reality you can never truly know what a person is thinking; in a story, the writer can tell you.

Such psychic intimacy isn't limited to the written word. There are conventions in other artistic mediums that have been created for the same purpose. A character in a play might turn to the audience and begin a dramatic monologue that expresses what he or she is thinking. In a musical, the thoughts might be sung; on television and in the movies, a voice-over may be used. This is commonplace now, but it must have been a revelation when the technique was first invented, and I wonder what young children think when they come across this for the first time, when they hear someone else's thoughts expressed aloud. It must be thrilling.

As another case of intimacy, consider the close-up. Certainly voyeurism has long been a theme of movies, from Rear Window to Disturbia, but the technique of film itself offers a unique way to satisfy our curiosity about the minds of others. Where else can you look full into someone's face without having the person look back at you? "Some viewers thrill to the prospect of views into the bedroom and bathroom," the philosopher Cohn McGinn writes, "but the film viewer can get even closer to the private world of his subject (or victim) —to his soul."

So while reality has its special allure, the imaginative techniques of books, plays, movies, and television have their own power. The good thing is that we do not have to choose. We can get the best of both worlds, by taking an event that people know is real and using the techniques of the imagination to transform it into an experience that is more interesting and powerful than the normal perception of reality could ever be. The best example of this is an art form that has been invented in my lifetime, one that is addictively powerful, as shown by the success of shows such as The Real World, Survivor, The Amazing Race, and Fear Factor. What could be better than reality television?

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