Monday, November 16, 2009

Really Moved, By The Unreal

I’m a weeper. I rarely make it through a decent book, or a movie, without the tears flowing. I bawl like a baby when Jimmy Stewart begs Clarence, in It’s a Wonderful Life, to let him live again. In the cinema I could not suppress an embarrassingly loud sob when the Beast, astonished, murmurs to the Beauty, “You came back, Belle; you came back.” And Humphrey Bogart putting Ingrid Bergman on that Casablanca plane? Always good for at least three hankies.

What I don’t understand is why.

Why am I moved when the joys and sorrows in fact are not my own—nor even real?

One idea, perhaps, is that when immersed in a movie we temporarily forget that we’re observing a fiction. But that seems hard to accept. If I’m watching a DVD I may well get up, make a phone call, then resume watching and weeping. Or I might continue to munch on popcorn right through my tears. I certainly wouldn’t do any of those things were I witnessing some real-life sorrow. And similarly I might be moved to experience great fear when watching Jurassic Park—yet I’m never tempted even slightly to run screaming from the cinema, which I surely would do were I even briefly forgetting that those raptors aren’t real.

Another idea is that we are moved out of empathy or compassion. After all, I rarely make it through the evening news, either, without weeping at whatever terrible events are reported, and those events are perfectly real. Yet even so, it seems, the question remains. The pain I may learn about this way is not my pain. The awful events depicted did not happen to me, nor, typically, have I even experienced anything very similar in my own life. To say I have empathy is to say that I am moved by those stories. But it is not to explain why I am moved.

And surely not to explain why I am moved by things which aren’t real.

So no, nobody is really put on a plane when Bogart puts Bergman on that plane; and nobody really comes back when Belle the Beauty comes back. But for some reason that doesn’t stop me from really reaching for yet another box of Kleenex.


  1. Unless, of course, you follow the theory of Response Moralism, which holds that those emotions actually are quite real, because you are responding to the non-fictional aspects of the fictions. For all fictions have non-fictional content - humans can't really create anything 100% fictional - or can they?

    Interesting issue, quite central to my thesis! I should get back to that, actually. Happy Thanksgiving Professor!