We are familiar with reports in the press of how fans of some TV serial begin to take the events as somehow real. They have even written to the broadcasting stations to ask them to change the script for the sake of suffering children whom they have seen in some program. These effects are nothing new. In Victorian melodrama, when the villain was stealing up behind the unsuspecting hero, it was not so uncommon for someone in the audience to shout “Look out! Look behind you!”
Requests to change the script were not unknown even among the most highly educated. Lord Melbourne, then Prime Minister, wrote to Dickens in about the expected concluding chapter of the novel The Old Curiosity Shop : “Do not let little Nell die.”
When this same concluding number of the serial was taken by ship across the Atlantic the quay at Boston harbour was packed with Americans who shouted to the oncoming ship: “Is little Nell dead?”
The unreal characters may even acquire a real political status. The actor who convincingly depicted the God Rama in the long series of the Ramayana epic on Indian television received offers to stand as an Indian parliamentary candidate. The unreal character may even take over the life of the actor himself. The Japanese who played Japan’s 9th century universal genius and saint Kobo Daishi began to feel (as he said) that somehow he was Kobo Daishi. After the film was finished he became a priest of the Buddhist Shingon Sect which Kobo had founded.
We cannot say that the results of these beautiful illusions have necessarily been bad. Dickens was one of those who deeply touched the conscience of the British upper classes making it possible for the Factory Acts and many other reforms to be put through. The revolution that Marx had so confidently predicted was thus averted.
However illusions can also be created for destructive purposes and the great geniuses and the spiritual magicians who conjure them up have made it clear at the end that, as Shakespeare made Prospero say “..These our actors, As I foretold you, were all spirits, and are melted into air, into thin air: And, like the baseless fabric of this vision, The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces, The solemn temples, the great globe itself, Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve, And, like this insubstantial pageant faded, Leave not a rack behind: We are such stuff as dreams are made of..”
The purpose is to feel is to get us to feel into the dramas, to laugh and even weep with the characters, but not so much that we loose our insight altogether. Tragedy purifies the mind of the spectator as the Greeks put it, but it must not capture that mind completely. The far eastern doctrines of detachment do not, in general, reject the world, but they do reject it’s absolute reality.
© Trevor Leggett