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How does Samuel Taylor Coleridge's theatrical term "Willing Suspension of...

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bluesman21 | Student, College Freshman | eNotes Newbie

Posted September 26, 2009 at 6:34 AM via web

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How does Samuel Taylor Coleridge's theatrical term "Willing Suspension of Disbelief"apply to the relationship between audience and performer?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted September 26, 2009 at 9:08 PM (Answer #1)

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The implications of Coleridge's definition is one that holds a great deal of empowerment for the performer in the creation of their art.  Coleridge makes the argument that it is acceptable and encouraged to feature some element of the supernatural in one's art.  The artist has an obligation to allow their sense of fantasy and conjecture to be unbound by the confines of reality:

In this idea originated the plan of the 'Lyrical Ballads'; in which it was agreed, that my endeavours should be 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 for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith. Mr. Wordsworth on the other hand was to propose to himself as his object, to give the charm of novelty to things of every day, and to excite a feeling analogous to the supernatural, by awakening the mind's attention from the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us; an inexhaustible treasure, but for which in consequence of the film of familiarity and selfish solicitude we have eyes, yet see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand.

From this excerpt, it is evident how Coleridge sees his own understanding of the "willing suspension of disbelief."  Coleridge links this ability to imagine and transfer into art and creation to the Romantic movement.  He is very quick to identify that imagination is a component of the definition of Romanticism.  In Coleridge's mind, the artist has an obligation to see reality as not so much what it is, but rather what it can be.  If the supernatural is a component, then it is logically acceptable for the artist to conceive of imagery along these lines.  Coleridge himself does this in his own poetry, most notably "Kubla Khan:"  "His floating eyes, his flashing hair."  Certainly, in this setting, the audience is expected to not employ such criticisms as implausibility or unrealism to such a conception.  Rather, the audience must strive to share the artist's view of what can be, of the transformative possibility of art and artistic expression.

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