One interesting idea discussed in Paul Bloom’s How Pleasure Works is that of ‘alief.’ Originally developed by Tamar Gendler, this concept refers to how we cannot entirely separate fantasy from reality in our minds. Even though we know better, we respond to fiction in similar ways to how we would respond to seeing the actual events described; similarly, we would hesitate at least a bit to drink from a cup marked ‘cyanide,’ even if we just saw it filled from the tap. We can quite rightly believe that the water is perfectly safe, while at least slightly alieving that it is poisoned.

Bloom highlights how children are more vulnerable than adults, when it comes to being emotionally influenced by alief. Partly, he thinks this has to do with their lesser sophistication about fiction. He points out how, when watching Free Willy II with his child, his child became frightened that characters on a raft could drown. While he was sophisticated enough to recognize that adorable children don’t drown in such films, his child was not.

In general, Bloom has a lot of interesting things to say about fiction and imagination – including why people enjoy tragedies and horror films, the appeal of varying degrees of masochism (from enjoyment of hot sauce to much more extreme varieties), to the limitations of fantasy and the effects they have on social dynamics.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Tristan June 16, 2010 at 12:56 pm

I haven’t looked into the context of the course, but this seems a fairly shallow – and incorrect – insight.

When we are concerned that characters in a movie might drown, we are not worried about whether the actors or actresses will drown – we are concerned for the characters. Everyone likes to put down TV, so think about literature – if you read Pride and Prejudice and feel embarrassed or sad or happy for one of the characters at some point, you are not having feelings about some words on a page, or about the author – but about the character. Characters are created by authors, but they exceed authorial intention – this is why a character developed by one author can be used by anyone.

When the children are scared that characters in Free Willy 2 could drown, they are not committing any more a fallacy of reasoning than someone watching Friends who feels happy that Ross and Rachel get back together, or someone watching Frasier who feels compelled to change the channel due to the anticipation of awkwardness in a prefigured situation.

If adults lose the ability to be affected by stories that they know not to be true, in fact adults lose the ability to recognize the truth in stories. Whether or not some story “actually happened” is not decisive for whether we can learn something from the way we emotionally respond to it – so shutting ourselves off from empathizing with characters because the stories are fiction, or because the form of fiction is not considered to be high culture, is something to be embarrassed and saddened by – not prized as an attainment of maturity.

Tristan June 16, 2010 at 1:01 pm

A more serious question – is fantasy entirely separated from reality? Or is fantasy a mode of reality, or reality a mode of fantasy? What “is” reality, or what “is” fantasy? What is real about reality, and what is fantastic about fantasy?

. June 16, 2010 at 5:13 pm

“The point of alief is to capture the fact that our minds are partially indifferent to the contrast between events that we believe to be real versus those that seem to be real or that are imagined to be real. This extends naturally to the pleasures of the imagination.”

(p. 169)

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