Alex Neill, Fiction and the Emotions


1.       Problems about emotions directed at fiction

          a.       Are emotional responses to fiction rational/irrational?

          b.       How are they even possible?

          c.       Since what happens in fiction is not real, who can we have emotional responses to it? How can they be rational?

2.       Cognitive theory of emotions (CTE) suggests not rational/possible to direct emotions at fiction since we don’t have the beliefs that are required for those emotions

          a.       CTE: Emotions are directed at objects and based on beliefs about them

          b.       For example, if I’m afraid (emotion) of an object, I must believe it is dangerous to me

                    i.        If I don’t believe it exists or is dangerous, I can’t be afraid of it.

          c.       Applying this to fiction we get:

                    i.        We don’t believe that fictional objects exist and so we don’t have beliefs about them

                    ii.       Thus we can’t have emotions toward fictional characters and events

3.       Argument for why pity can’t be directed at fictional characters:

          a.       Because one does not believe they exist, one does not believe they are undergoing suffering

          b.       If pitying involves believing someone is suffering, can’t feel pity

          c.       Not denying we are feeling something, just not pity


4.       Alternative accounts for emotions in response to fiction

          a.       Not genuine real emotions, only pretend imaginary emotions

                    i.        Malcolm Budd: "Not literally true that we pity Desdemona or are horrified at Oedipus self-blinding, or envious of Orpheus' musical talent, or are distressed by the death of Anna Karenina, even if there are tears...for we know these people never existed"

          b.       We have the real emotions but they are directed at other than fictional characters

                    i.        E.g., the pity we think we feel for fictional characters is really pity for real people who are brought to mind by the fiction


5.       Neill’s view on which emotions are appropriate for fiction and which not

          a.       Impossible: Fear for oneself, jealousy

          b.       Possible: Fear for others, envy, pity


          c.       Note: Need to give different accounts for different emotions


6.       Fear for oneself of a fictional character not possible/rational

          a.       To be afraid of X one must believe X is a danger to you

          b.       But can’t rationally believe that fictional characters are a danger to oneself

          c.       "Ontological gap" between fictional characters and ourselves precludes being threatened by them or needing to escape from them

                    i.        Fictional characters have a kind of being that is different from both actual beings and other non-actual beings that are not fictional

          d.       Examples:

                    i.        Only monsters who can threaten me are actual monsters (not fictional ones)

                    ii.       The only people Nosferatu can threaten are fictional people   

                    iii.      I can't be threatened by or fear Lord Voldemorte just as he can't threaten or fear me


7.       Neill’s explanation of fear in response to fiction

                    i.        Not fear of fictional character or event, but

          b.       Fear of what we believe is an actual counterpart of what is represented in fiction

                    i.        Spielberg's movie Poltergeist may make us afraid of what we believe to be real ghosts (that may be lurking in our closets)

          c.       Or, shock and alarm (which feel like fear but are not)

                    i.        When someone jumps out and scares you that is shock/alarm, but not fear in the sense that requires believing something is dangerous to you

          d.       Fear for others or with others (not fear for oneself)

                    i.        These come from imaginatively putting ourselves in another's position


8.       Jealousy toward a fictional character not possible (rational)

          a.       To be jealous of someone one must believe they “have designs on something that is rightfully mine” (one must see them as rivals)

                    i.        But fictional characters can’t be rivals in this way

          b.       Later he says we can envy them (e.g., want what they have–say, courage)


9.       Neill on how beliefs about fictional characters/events are possible

          a.       He rejects the claim that we can't believe that, e.g., fictional characters suffer misfortune

                    i.        If we didn't believe (or disbelieved) that, e.g., Harry Potter was courageous or suffered because of his parents deaths, then we would not have paid enough attention to Rowling's novels or we would not have understood them

          b.       Neill argues that the beliefs we have about fictional characters and events are of a certain type

          c.       Our beliefs are to be analyzed as claiming “it is fictional that” (in the story this is how it goes)

                    i.        The belief that Harry Potter is courageous amounts to the belief that it is fictional that Potter is courageous (or “in the story, Potter is courageous")

          d.       These are real beliefs (with fictional contents), not fictional beliefs


10.     Pity aimed at fictional characters involves similar bodily sensations and experiential features as pity aimed at real events/characters

          a.       Shed real tears (not fake ones or ones similar to those caused by smoke)

          b.       Get lump in our throats


11.     How it is possible to pity fictional characters?

          a.       Problem: Can’t pity without believing actual suffering is taking place and we don’t believe this with fictional characters

          b.       Neill Reply:

                    i.        Belief in actual suffering not required

                    ii.       What is required for pity is the imaginative ability to adopt a perspective (see things from someone’s point of view).

                    iii.      We can do this with the suffering of real refugees and with the suffering of fictional characters


          c.       Not all emotions work this way: When watching a horror movie and shriek/jump from one’s seat, not imaginatively taking the point of view of the monster on the screen


12.     Neill believes there are general differences between feelings in response to fiction and feelings in response to beliefs about actual world

          a.       Hume says they feel “less firm and solid and lie on us with less weight”

          b.       Neill does not think the difference is simply one of intensity, because what one feels for or about a fictional character can be more intense than one's feelings about actual events/people, e.g., starving Ethiopians

          c.       Neill does think that our emotional responses to fiction are typically (though not invariably) of shorter duration and less intense than emotional responses to similar actual characters and events

                    i.        Agree with him?

          d.       Neill explains this difference by suggesting that in responding to fiction there are a variety of aspects to pay attention to and different approaches we can take to the work

                    i.        Watching a performance of King Lear, we emotionally respond to the characters, but when lights go on, start thinking about the play as a whole and as work of art

                    ii.       The characters we care about are part of something else that demands our attention (other aspect of the work of fiction)

          e.       Is the idea that there is lots of different things to think about when responding to a work of fiction so the emotional response has lots of competition for our attention?

                    i.        But in real life, there is also lots else that competes for our attention

                    ii.       Perhaps the more obvious explanation is that the objects of our emotions are not real and so this weakens or makes it easier to let go of the emotion?




14.     Pleasure in suffering objection: Pity directed at fictional characters not real because we enjoy the story of their suffering and pity requires distress not pleasure

          a.       If we really pitied fictional characters we would not seek out and enjoy the depiction of their suffering (but we do, so therefore we are not pitying them)

          b.       Taking pleasure in someone else’s suffering is not to pity them

                    i.        If we take pleasure in Oedipus gouging out his eyes when he finds out that Jocasta hanged herself, then we are not feeling pity toward Oedipus

15.     Neill’s response to talking pleasure in suffering/tragedy

          a.       First, sometimes our response to fictional suffering is not pleasurable

                    i.        We close the book or leave the theater

                    ii.       Or we continue to read/watch not because we enjoy it, but because we feel we should endure the story

                              (1)     Like we think we ought to suffer through Amnesty International reports of torture

          b.       Second, in cases where experience of distressing fiction does involve pleasure, the distress and pleasure must be aimed at different objects or aspects of the fiction

                    i.        Distressed at what is happening/depicted in story

                    ii.       Feel pleasure in how it is depicted (manner of depiction)

          c.       He agrees that if the object of pleasure was really the suffering depicted, we would not be feeling pity toward it

                    i.        It is possible to enjoy others suffering, but this is not compatible with pitying them


16.     Desire to help objection: Pity directed at fictional characters is not real because pity involves a desire to help and we do not desire to help fictional characters

          a.       If one pities someone, one must want to help them

          b.       But we know we can’t help fictional characters (its impossible)

                    i.        We don’t want to leap onto stage and prevent our favorite character from being killed

                    ii.       Those who write into soap-operas offering sympathy and advice have got something fundamentally wrong

17.     Neill’s reply to desire to help objection

          a.       Pity need not involve a desire to help

          b.       Examples: We can pity people of the past or people buried in a mine cave-in and yet we know we can’t help them

          c.       Because we know we can’t help them, a desire to help them plays no role in our emotional response (pity)

                    i.        We might have a desire that we have the ability to help them

          d.       Is Neill saying (and is it true?) that if one realizes that can’t help someone then the desire to help them is either irrational or not possible?

                    i.        Why can’t one want to help someone one knows fully well it is not possible to help?

          e.       Pity requires a desire to help only when one is able to help and one has not overriding reasons not to help


18.     Desire to end suffering objection: Pity involves a desire that the suffering end, but we do not have such desires toward fiction (perhaps because we know it is not real suffering, only fictional suffering)

19.     Neill reply to end suffering objection: We do desire (fictionally, that is, in the story) that the character’s suffering end

          a.       “Sit tense on edge of seats hoping heroine will get free of her bonds before the circular saw slices her up”


20.     Desire for the story to change objection (and conflicting desires objection): If pity involves wanting the suffering to end or the misfortune not to have happened, then it involves a desire that story have gone differently, but we have no such desire

          a.       Example: Suppose when the 6th Harry Potter movie comes out that Dumbledore survives and is not killed by Snape. We will be disappointed or outraged at the audacity of the director changing the plot. But if we want the suffering to end or not exist, then we should be happy; We should want the story to be written differently. But we don’t want this.

          b.       Looks like we have conflicting desires about suffering of fictional characters (we both want Dumbledore to die and for him not to)

21.     Neill’s reply to conflicting desires about the ending the fictional suffering:

          a.       First: Desires may simply be aimed at different things (the suffering and the story) and not conflict

                    i.        We want (fictionally) Dumbledore to survive. Our being upset at the movie where he survives is not because we want him to die, but because we want the film director to be faithful to the Rowling book (Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince)

                    ii.       Being upset about a change to a “happy ending” does not show we desire the characters to continue to suffer

                              (1)     Why not?

          b.       Second: Conflicting desires about whether suffering should cease is not a problem for the idea we pity these characters

                    i.        For we have conflicting desires about actual suffering (where we also pity)

                    ii.       May want a person whose spouse has died to stop suffering and also believe he/she needs to in order to recover from the loss

                    iii.      So we may want a fictional character's suffering to end and also want it not to end for some other reason (it makes for a good story?)

22.     Problem restated: Pity involves wanting things to be fictionally different, but then it seems we want the fictional story to have been written differently (but we don't).

          a.       We value works of fiction because they can cause powerful emotions (pity for characters)

          b.       But these emotions have us wanting things to be different fictionally

          c.       This seems to have us wanting the author to have made the story so it didn't evoke that emotion (pity)

          d.       But we don’t want this

          e.       So fictional pity involves inconsistent beliefs and desires

23.     Neill’s reply: Desires don't conflict because we often don’t desire things that our other desires entail

          a.       We can pity a fictional character, desire that fictionally things be different for him/her, and not have any desire about the fictional work of which she is a part

          b.       Even though our first desire can only be satisfied if the other thing we are not desiring comes to pass.

24.     Iced buns example

          a.       Even though necessary for losing weight that I stop eating Honey buns, my desire to lose weight is not in effect a desire to stop eating Honey buns; I may desire to lose weight, w/o having any desires with regard to Honey buns

          b.       This shows that we can desire things and not desire all the other things that follow from the first desire

          c.       So yes we might desire that Dumbledore not die (in the story) and yet not also desire that Rowling wrote a different story

          d.       This does suggest that our desires are not fully rational: That we desire things which require other things that we don’t desire

25.     What Neill would say about this case:

          a.       When pity Dumbledore and wish he had not been killed, am focusing on particular aspect of the Half-Blood Prince (story Rowling tells)

          b.       In focusing on this, I don't have desires about other aspects of the novel, e.g., plot structure

          c.       Adopt different stance toward novel (as a work of art), feelings likely to change; won't have particular desires about Dumbledore


26.     Summary:

          a.       Emotions like pity can be genuinely directed at fiction

          b.       In addition to pitying them, we can envy and admire fictional characters and fear for and with them

          c.       But we can’t fear them (for ourselves) or be jealous of them

          d.       Why can we envy fictional characters, but not be jealous of them?

          e.       Emotions are very different from each other and can't assume one analysis works for all emotions.