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Aaron Ridley DESIRE IN THE EXPERIENCE OF FICTION My purpose here is to suggest one way in which the experience of distressing fictions (i.e., of fictions which, movingly, represent suffering) may be related to the value which we place on those fictions. If my suggestion is found persuasive, then this will count in favor of an assumption which I make at the outset—that our feelings when we feel for fictions are not of a kind very different from our feelings when we feel for anything else. In particular, I will claim that the element of desire—pervasive in our everyday emotional experience—can also be discovered in our experience of fiction; and I will argue that certain aspects of our experience of distressing fictions, specifically, can only be understood if the role played by desire in that experience is acknowledged properly. It has been noted often that in feeling for fictions we seem to be doing something rather odd. When, for instance, I am moved to pity by the plight of Winnie Verloc in The Secret Agent, I appear to regard her as a living person, rather than as a fictional character, and to respond to the literary invention of which she is a part as if it were reality. But I certainly do not falsely believe that Winnie Verloc exists; yet the absence of this belief does not persuade me that my pity for her is either improper or misplaced. I pity her in the full knowledge that she isn't real, and suppose that only the hard-hearted reader (rather, merely, that the reader who knows that what he's reading isn't true) will fail to respond likewise. The apparent oddness of the situation springs from the cognitive Philosophy and Literature, © 1992, 16: 279-291 280Philosophy and Literature character of emotion, from the fact that emotions involve beliefs about their objects. A rational emotion, it is said, is one whose belief-component is a rational belief; and to have a rational belief about an object is to have an adequately clear conception of the kind ofthing that the object is. A frightened emotion, therefore, will be a rational emotion if it involves the rational belief that the object of fright is the kind of object which is capable of inflicting harm; and if we are rationally to feel pity we must have the rational belief that the object of our pity is the kind of thing that can suffer. But clearly fictional characters like Winnie Verloc cannot suffer, for they do not exist. So it would seem that it is either improper of us to pity her, or that we are not properly to be said to have emotions which have Winnie Verloc as their object. When the second of these two options is favored, it is usually held that in seeming to pity Winnie we in fact pity real or hypothetical persons in real circumstances relevantly similar to those in which Winnie is represented as being.1 And when the first option is taken—and it is recognized that we really do feel for Winnie (and not merely for real or hypothetical persons who are like her)—the irrationality of our response is held to follow directly and unavoidably. Most writers agree that the problem is best to be addressed by insisting that Winnie really is the object of our pity. But few find consoling the conclusion that our feelings for fictions are therefore "irrational, absurd," and "incoherent."2 As a result, vast amounts of ingenuity have been exercised in interpreting fictional characters and fictional worlds so that they become the proper objects of such beliefs as will underpin the conceptually respectable varieties of emotional experience. Now it is sufficient for my purposes if we allow that our feelings for fictional characters really are feelingsfor them (and not merely for real or hypothetical persons like them). I do not, in what follows, assume that these feelings are also rational. But if the kinship of our emotional responses to the fictional with our responses to the real can be shown to be very close, then the grounds we might have for doubting the propriety of...


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pp. 279-291
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