“We are professional imposters and the audience accept that.”*

*Pete Postlethwaite (7 February 1946 – 2 January 2011), character actor.

From: the Introduction to Beyond the Willing Suspension of Disbelief: Poetic Faith from Coleridge to Tolkien (2015), by Michael Tomko:

“The “willing suspension of disbelief” is a phrase, like Freudian slip or Pavlovian response, that has made the rare transition from high intellectual discourse to pop culture, appearing everywhere from television commercials to the floor of the US Congress. The romantic critic Thomas McFarland labels the phrase not only “very famous” but also “supremely famous” and claims it as “undoubtedly the single most famous critical formulation in all of English literature” (Shapes 118, “Imagination and Illusion” 337).

The romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge may have been one of the most influential thinkers within Anglo-American literary theory, but he is rarely credited for what may be his most renowned contribution: coining the term in his 1817 Biographia Literaria as “that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith” (BL 2: 6). In common parlance, it is used to describe our acceptance in art of the most fantastic worlds whose premises, actions, or outcomes we would question or reject in reality. During one week in 1997, Coleridge’s biographer Richard Holmes recorded “seven separate uses of the phrase in newspaper articles and radio programmes variously describing films, books, drama, and scientific theories”. None mentioned Coleridge. Today, equivalent Internet searches provide results too voluminous to sift, with the romantic poet playing only a small part in the algorithms’ results.

Even though Coleridge’s thought has laid the intellectual foundations for critical movements as disparate as the analytic psychological criticism of I. A. Richards, the formalism of Cleanth Brooks and the New Critics, the “natural supernaturalism” of M. H. Abrams, and the poststructuralist interplay of pragmatism and deconstruction of Kathleen Wheeler, literary critics have not given the phrase sustained academic consideration. Since “the willing suspension of disbelief” is, in McFarland’s estimate, as “well known to intellectuals as any five words in the language” (Shapes 117), critics have tended to use it as common property. In a chapter titled “The Novel and Other Discourses of Suspended Belief” in the important critical volume Practicing New Historicism (2000), Catherine Gallagher and Stephen Greenblatt—unrivaled in their attentiveness to the historically embedded, contextual origins of literary language—deploy the term with only the most fleeting, parenthetical glance toward Coleridge.

In contrast with Gallagher and Greenblatt’s unexamined appropriation, this study not only focuses on the “willing suspension of disbelief” but also does so through the manifold lens of Coleridge’s literary, philosophical, and theological thought, often so rich and fruitful in its perspicacity and yet also so frustrating and disorienting in its fragmentation. By exploring Coleridge’s characteristic turn to the theological language of belief and faith, I will argue that the “suspension of disbelief” in tandem with “poetic faith” means much more than its current connotation of a begrudging toleration of the fabulous. This approach departs from those of Richards, Abrams, and others in their wake that have tended to neglect Coleridge’s lifelong religious engagement and have even seen him as enabling a secularized literary studies whose sine qua non was the relegation of theology.

This book thus joins both the general study of “romantic religious politics” and the recent recovery of Coleridge’s intertwined religious and literary imagination by critics such as Jeffrey Barbeau, Douglas Hedley, Graham Neville, Philip Rule, Suzanne Webster, and Luke S. H. Wright. It argues that a “new” Coleridge, who is read beyond the assumptions of secularization, can offer fresh and rewarding insights into current questions about how and why to read literature that have emerged in the very titles of John Carey’s What Good Are the Arts? (2005), Terry Eagleton’s How to Read a Poem (2007), Mark Edmundson’s Why Read? (2004), and Dana Gioia’s Can Poetry Matter? (1992). In particular, Coleridge’s own reflective experience of reading amid revolution and reaction can help us to ask how we critique the social and ideological power exerted against us in literature without subsequently losing the beneficial power of literature to help us flourish as individuals and cohere as communities. The result will be what might be called a “postsecular Coleridge” who offers a literary theory that fully engages the human faculties of both faith and reason and thus enables a rich aesthetic encounter while remaining politically responsible.

Before developing these wider implications, I will outline the constitutive elements of the “willing suspension of disbelief” and the fundamental questions they raise about literature…”

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