Tag Archives: the paradox of fiction

Fiction and Patriotism

In my last post I looked at some ways in which my emotional involvement when watching a sporting event on television was like my emotional involvement when reading fiction. It seemed to me that in both cases there was a similar conscious willingness to suspend my normal commitment to the truth of the matter, for the sake of a story, with suspense and a happy ending.  And I thought that was interesting because it threw a bit of extra light on the so-called paradox of fiction. The paradox of fiction is that we can feel emotionally responsive to characters and situations that we know not to exist, so that our emotions seem to be freed from the normal belief-dependence that we might plausibly think them to have. I argued that when I watch sport I willingly succumb to a narrative of the event that omits some facts and prioritises others to the extent that that narrative is an artifice, aimed not at truth but at building a satisfying, story-shaped experience of the race. I knowingly base my response on a selection of data that I fully believe to be partial and distorting, and in that sense my emotional engagement with elements of the real world seems to have the kind of believe-independence that is involved in the paradox of fiction.

I ended that post by asking whether we sometimes need to allow our emotions this kind of partial autonomy from truth-tracking, not just for the purposes of catharsis, but in order to inform and motivate our truth-oriented engagement with the world. Where situations are complicated and the best outcome is unclear, we need a preliminary stance to guide us, some loyalties that can thrive even in the absence of the kind of beliefs that might warrant those loyalties. Frequently, our commitment to seeking “the truth of the matter” does not mean that we begin our researches in a state of cold, static objectivity. We begin instead in medias res, from some engaged perspective which we know is unlicensed by our knowledge of the facts of the matter but which nonetheless motivates us to care and to act, and then to question our actions, and to question the emotionally charged allegiances that prompted them. If we didn’t start from somewhere, we would never get anywhere.

I said in my earlier blog post that I had had two new experiences courtesy of the Olympic Games, and I’m coming now to the second of those two experiences – an unfamiliar twitch of patriotism. It is patriotism of some sort or another, quite frequently, that supplies us with a ready-made engaged perspective, a preliminary action-guiding source of emotional affiliation that is arguably unlicensed by relevant facts.

The term “patriotism” lacks a well-agreed meaning. It is sometimes taken to involve a set of beliefs about one’s country – that it is superior,  for example, or that it has special claims that trump those of other countries, that it has some “mission” in the world, and so forth.  On another account (and this is the version of patriotism I want to talk about here), patriotism is not a matter of beliefs about one’s country: it is instead an affectionate identification with one’s own country, including a propensity to take that country’s interests as an object of special concern. One might experience that affectionate identification whilst acknowledging that one does not have good reason to do so, and in that case the emotional engagement that one feels with one’s country might seem puzzling. It does seem puzzling: why, for example, should I feel elated by the fact that Britain has hosted a successful Olympic Games, or won 65 medals? I didn’t do it: I contributed nothing to the Games. Why should I throw in my lot with an ill-defined geographic-legal entity within whose jurisdiction I happen to have been born? Patriotism has it in common with the consumption of fiction that it is an arena in which our emotional engagement is not, or at the very least is not fully, warranted by relevant beliefs.

Perhaps we can go further. Perhaps we can say that patriotism is not only like the consumption of fiction: it is the consumption of fiction. My recent glimmering of patriotism was aroused by a story: the story that the Olympic opening ceremony told of Britain’s progress from rural idyll to industrial powerhouse, under the influence of a class of industrialists explicitly likened to Shakespeare’s Prospero, raising wonders on a mysterious island, relying, not on sorcery like Prospero, but on the stoic endeavours of a heroic working class. It is easy to see that that is not a fully realistic but a somewhat mythic account of British history. Over the years I have been exposed to numerous other popular histories of Britain that are similarly suffused with fiction. And when I am looking at real-world developments relating to my country – domestic politics, my country’s conduct of international affairs, and so on – I am not immune from viewing matters through the prism of such stories, so that I experience my country in a somewhat fictionalised way. I think (although there isn’t space to explore it here) that equally unrealistic myths and legends, and people’s capacity to synthesise these with their perception of real-world events, tend to be at the core of patriotisms everywhere.

A patriotic British citizen feels elated when she has no reason to (it isn’t she who has triumphed, only a part-fictional entity), because she is reading the story avidly. She feels shame and guilt in relation to Britain’s misdoings, even when she has no reason to, and apprehension at the thought of the wrongful actions Britain might yet undertake, because she is enthralled by Britain’s story.

Our patriotic engagement with a nation is like our engagement with a character in a novel. When I read Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall, about Thomas Cromwell’s role in Henry VIII’s divorce of Queen Katherine and marriage to Anne Boleyn, I feel pleasure in Cromwell’s love of his daughters, apprehension about his capacity for ruthlessness. I travel with the protagonist for the duration of the tale. I share deeply in his concerns, even though they are not mine, and even though I know that the Cromwell that Mantel writes about does not really exist, but is instead a fictional creation, only partly founded in her historical knowledge. Similarly, the character “Britain” in our patriotic stories is a fiction, but that need not stop me caring about that character and adopting its concerns as my own.

In principle, these emotional reactions to the story are capable of  informing our perception of Britain and also teaching us about ourselves, just as our emotional reactions to any great novel help to inform our interpretation of the characters in it and to see ourselves more clearly. Depending of course on the quality of the patriotic stories we tell ourselves (superficial and formulaic fiction tends to leave us pretty much where we started), patriotism might not be something static. Instead it might function as the kind of  preliminary perspective I spoke of above, an affiliation unmotivated by the relevant facts of the matter, which nonetheless motivates our actions, but also causes us to question those actions and refine or even overturn our loyalties.

As it is used, the term “patriotism” tends to be reserved for positive emotional engagement in one’s country – pride, joy, contentment. We perhaps lack a corresponding term for the shame and guilt and apprehension we feel about our country’s misdeeds. But since these negative emotions arise from the same sense of engagement with one’s country as  the positive ones, a rounder, fuller concept of patriotism might embrace them. If patriotism did explicitly embrace such shame, guilt, and apprehension, as well as elation, pride, joy, it would more easily recognised as a source of constructive criticism of one’s country. Patriotism, like all the other story-reading we immerse ourselves in, would be a resource for learning how to act well.