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  • Participation and Immersion in Walton and Calvino
  • M. Carleton Simpson

The novel begins in a railway station, a locomotive huffs, steam from a piston covers the opening of the chapter, a cloud of smoke hides part of the first paragraph . . . The pages of the book are clouded like the windows of an old train, the cloud of smoke rests on the sentences.1

Part of Kendall Walton's theory of psychological participation, explicated in Mimesis as Make-Believe, is that representations that display or draw attention to their fictionality discourage participation; part of our enjoyment of representational art is our psychological participation with the representation. The activity of participating comprises the game world, while the material representation comprises the work world. We play games of make-believe with representations, much as children play games with toys or other props. For Walton, the fullest psychological participation arises from the fullest immersion in the game world. Immersion means ignoring or being unaware of the materiality of the work world, attending only to the fictional reality of the work world. It is to "look past" the painted surface, or to become engrossed in the novel's narrative.

To the extent that we consider the material of the work, we are distracted from participating in the game prescribed by the work: we do either the one or the other. So, Walton claims "One obvious way in which works sometimes discourage participation is by prominently declaring or displaying their fictionality, betraying their own pretense" (p. 275).2 For example, "The conspicuous brush strokes of Van Gogh's Starry Night call attention to themselves and to their record of the process by which paint was applied to the canvas, possibly intruding on the viewer's participation in his game . . . One can ignore the brush [End Page 321] strokes enough to lose oneself in the fictional world" (p. 277). In response to prodding by Patrick Maynard, Walton tempers this position: "Prominent brush strokes, as in many of Vincent van Gogh's paintings, can have an inhibiting effect, especially if the observer isn't used to such. Then they not only constitute a plain indication that what one is seeing is a mere painted canvas, but force this fact on the viewer's attention" (italics added).3

Ernst Gombrich endorsed this position in Art and Illusion, attributing it to Kenneth Clark.4 Gombrich tells of Clark attempting to see both the brush strokes and the representation, and his failure to "observe what went on when the brush strokes and dabs of pigment on the canvas transformed themselves into a vision of transfigured reality as he stepped back" (p. 6). Walton intends his theory of psychological participation to be widely applicable to the representational arts; he argues that what holds for visual representations holds also for verbal representations. When reading a novel our ability to participate in the story is diminished to the extent the novel draws attention to its fictionality. We either immerse ourselves in the fictional world of the novel or attend to the historical production or materiality of the novel.

Attending is contained in Walton's notion of appreciation. Appreciation without participation results when some representations "positively discourage participation, especially the psychological participation that would constitute the experience of being caught up in the story" (p. 274). Works like these employ a variety of strategies, "deliberately 'distancing' the appreciator from the fictional world . . . For if one does not imagine a proposition, it is unlikely to be fictional that one knows or believes it; and if one imagines it with minimal vivacity, one is unlikely to have the experience of fictionally being concerned or upset or relieved or frightened or overjoyed by the fact that it is true" (p. 274). Just as children imagine themselves to be participants in games of make-believe, more mature imaginings require us to imagine we are participants, not simply observers. Reflexive imagining is central to Walton's theory, and is a point he extensively develops.

I argue against this disjunction of activities. My thesis is that participation need not arise from immersion at the expense of awareness. I am also critical of Walton's distinction between appreciation and participation—they are...


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pp. 321-336
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