<<

. 47
( 82 .)



>>



In mysteries in the classical detective mode, our uncertainty about the past
usually revolves around how a crime was committed and by whom. This is why
this sort of fiction is most frequently referred to as a whodunit. The TV programs
Perry Mason and Murder, She Wrote are perfect examples of the whodunit. To
become engaged in a whodunit is to be drawn into speculation about who killed
the nasty uncle, along with the related questions of how and why it was done.We
conjecture about an event whose cause, although fixed, is unknown to us. Of
course, the cause will be revealed in the process of the detective™s analysis of the
case, but of that outcome we remain uncertain until it is pronounced.
However, our uncertainty here does have a structured horizon of anticipation.
The outcome about which we are uncertain has as many possible shapes as we
have suspects. If the nasty uncle could have been killed by the maid, the cousin,
the butler, or the egyptologist, then our uncertainty is distributed across these four
possibilities.A mystery of the classical whodunit variety prompts us to ask a ques-
tion about whose answer we are uncertain and about which we entertain as many
possible answers as there are suspects. But suspense is different.
With suspense, the question we are prompted to ask does not have an indefi-
nite number of possible answers, but only two.Will the heroine be sawed in half
or not? Moreover, when looking at the distribution of answers available in a mys-
tery fiction, one realizes that one has no principled guarantee that the competing
answers are ultimately exclusive. After all, some or even all of the suspects can be
in cahoots or, as occurs in Murder on the Orient Express, a knave can be killed by
more than one culprit. So, the classical detective story not only encourages uncer-
tainty about an indefinitely variable number of answers to the question of who-
dunit, but those answers need not bear any special logical relation to each other.
However, in the case of suspense, the course of events in question can have
only two outcomes, and those potential outcomes stand in relation to each other
as logical contraries “ either the heroine will be torn apart by the buzzsaw or she
will not. Both mystery fictions and suspense fictions confront us with questions,
but the way in which those questions structure our uncertainty differentiates the
two kinds of fictions. For with mystery, our uncertainty is distributed over as many
possible answers as there are suspects, whereas with suspense, we are “suspended”
between no more than two answers, which answers stand in binary opposition.
The answers we entertain with respect to mystery fictions are, in principle, inde-
terminate and logically nonexclusive, whereas the answers pertinent to suspense
are binary and logically opposed.
However, even if we have established that suspense proper in fictions of uncer-
tainty takes hold only when the course of events that commands our attention is
one whose horizon of expectations is structured in terms of two possible but log-
ically incompatible outcomes, we still have not told the whole story about fic-
tional suspense. For clearly, one can imagine fictions in which characters and
readers alike confess that they simply do not know whether it will snow or not
tomorrow (in the land of the story), but where, nevertheless, at the same time,
there is still no question of suspense.
THE PARADOX SUSPENSE 259
OF


Of course, the reason for this is obvious, once we think in terms of “real-life”
suspense. For in “real life,” suspense only takes charge when we care about those
future outcomes about which we are uncertain.We are not inclined toward suspense
about whether or not the bus will start unless we have some stake or concern in its
starting or not starting.Where we are impervious to outcomes, even though the rel-
evant outcomes are uncertain, there is no suspense, because “real-life” suspense
requires a certain emotional involvement with the outcome, along with uncertainty
about it. Interests, concerns, or at least preferences must come into play. I feel sus-
pense about the results of my blood test not only because I am uncertain about what
they will be, but also because I have a vested interest in them.
Similarly, when it comes to fictions, suspense cannot be engendered simply by
means of uncertainty; the reader must also be encouraged to form some prefer-
ences about the alternative outcomes.As Rodell put it, speaking from the author™s
point of view, suspense is “the art of making the reader care about what happens
next.”7 Moreover, as an empirical conjecture, let me hypothesize that in suspense
fiction, the way in which the author typically provokes audience involvement is
through morality.
“Real-life” suspense requires not only uncertainty about which outcome will
eventuate from a course of events; it also requires that we be concerned about
those outcomes. In constructing suspense, authors must find some way of engag-
ing audience concern. Of course, the author has no way of knowing the personal
concerns and vested interests of each and every audience member. So in order to
enlist our concern, the author must find some very general interest that all or most
of the audience is likely to share. One such interest is what is morally right.That
is, one way in which the author can invest the audience with concern over a
prospective outcome is to assure that one of the logically opposed outcomes in
the fiction is morally correct as well as uncertain. In the novel Airport by Arthur
Hailey, it is morally correct that the jetliner not be destroyed, but whether this
outcome will eventuate is uncertain; similarly, in the novel Seven Days in May by
Fletcher Knebel and Charles Bailey what is presented and perceived to be morally
correct “ democracy as we know and love it “ is at risk.
If the emotion of suspense presupposes not only uncertainty but concern,
then presumably a crucial task in constructing a suspense fiction involves finding
some way in which to engage the concern of audiences, of whom the author pos-
sesses little or no personal knowledge. Nevertheless, the author is typically able to
overcome this debit by resorting to morality in order to appeal to the ethical
interests of viewers and readers alike. For, all things being equal, the general audi-
ence will recognize that sawing the heroine in half is morally wrong, and this will
provoke concern about an outcome of the event about which they are uncertain.
Likewise, in This Gun for Hire, it is presented and perceived that averting war is
morally correct, whereas in The Guns of Navarone it is given and accepted that the
destruction of the Nazi battery is morally right. In suspense fictions, the audience
is provided, often aggressively, with a stake in one of the alternatives by having its
moral sensibility drawn to prefer one of the uncertain outcomes.
260 ART, EMOTION, MORALITY
AND


In general in suspense fictions, then, one of the possible outcomes of the relevant
course of events is morally correct, but uncertain. In Patriot Games, it is righteous that
Ryan™s family and the Prince and Princess of Wales survive, but when Miller and the
terrorists take over Ryan™s property, that survival is uncertain. Indeed, it is not merely
uncertain; the odds are against it. Moreover, this is the pattern that recurs most fre-
quently in suspense fictions from classic stories like Karl May™s In the Desert to best-
sellers like Robert Ludlum™s The Scorpio Illusion. There are two competing outcomes
to the relevant course of events, and one of those outcomes, although morally cor-
rect, is improbable or uncertain or unlikely, whereas the logically alternative outcome
is evil but likely or probable or nearly certain. Or, to be even more precise, suspense
takes control where the course of events that is the object of the emotional state
points to two logically opposed outcomes, one of which is evil or immoral but prob-
able or likely, and the other of which is moral, but improbable or unlikely or only as
probable as the evil outcome.
Of course, the defeat of the moral outcome cannot be an absolutely foregone
conclusion; there must be some possibility that the good can triumph.That is why
there can be no suspense about whether the protagonist in the movie Philadelphia
can survive AIDS. For suspense requires that, although what is presented and per-
ceived to be morally right be an improbable option, it must be a live option (i.e.,
not a completely foregone conclusion) nonetheless. And, for related reasons, in
stories, where it is given in the fictional world that the hero cannot be defeated, as
it is in many of the scenes in the film Crow, there is no suspense.
Summarizing then, as a response to fiction, generally suspense is
1. an emotional concomitant to the narration of a course of events
2. which course of events points to two logically opposed outcomes
3. whose opposition is made salient (to the point of preoccupying the audi-
ence™s attention)8 and
4. where one of the alternative outcomes is morally correct but improbable
(although live) or at least no more probable than its alternative, while
5. the other outcome is morally incorrect or evil, but probable.
Surely this formula works for run-of-the-mill cases of suspense “ as the heroine is
inexorably pulled toward the buzzsaw, it seems hardly likely that she will live. On
the other hand, the alternative outcome, her death, is evil but probable.
Perhaps one way to confirm this formulation would be to accept it provision-
ally as a hypothesis and to see how well it accords with our pretheoretical sorting
of the data; another way might be to use it as a recipe for constructing fictions and
to assess how viable it is in inducing audiences to experience suspense.
This analysis of suspense in fiction corresponds nicely with the definition of
suspense advanced by the psychologists Ortony, Clore, and Collins, who stated:
“We view suspense as involving a Hope emotion and a Fear emotion coupled
with the cognitive state of uncertainty.”9 What we hope for is the moral outcome
(which is improbable or uncertain), and what we fear is the evil outcome (which
is more likely).
THE PARADOX SUSPENSE 261
OF


The evil that plays such a key role in suspense fictions need not be human evil,
but may be natural evil, as it is in the novel Jaws or the film Earthquake. In these
cases, we still regard the destruction of human beings by brute, unthinking nature
to be morally offensive. Of course, it is generally the case that suspense fictions
involve pitting moral good against human moral evil: the settlers against the
rustlers, the Allies against the Nazis, civilization against the barbarians.
Moreover, the reader™s or spectator™s moral allegiances in response to a sus-
pense fiction do not always precisely correlate with his or her normal repertory of
moral responses, and, indeed, the audience™s moral responses are frequently shaped
by fiction itself. For example, caper films represent persons involved in perpetrat-
ing crimes that we do not customarily consider to be upstanding ethically. How-
ever, the characters in such fictions are standardly possessed of certain striking
virtues such that, in the absence of emphasis of countervailing virtues in their
opposite number, or possibly given the emphasis on the outright vice of their
opponents, we are encouraged to ally ourselves morally with the caper. The
virtues in question here “ such as strength, fortitude, ingenuity, bravery, compe-
tence, beauty, generosity, and so on “ are more often than not Grecian, rather than
Christian. And it is because the characters exhibit these virtues “ it is because we
perceive (and are led to perceive) these characters as virtuous “ that we cast our
moral allegiance with them.
Quite frequently in mass fictions, characters are designated as morally good in
virtue of their treatment of supporting characters, especially ones who are poor,
old, weak, lame, oppressed, unprotected women, children, helpless animals, and so
on. Good characters typically treat such people with courtesy and respect, whereas
your standard snarling villain, if he notices them at all, usually does so in order to
abuse them “ to harass the woman sexually, to taunt the child, to kick the dog, or
worse. With respect to mass fictions, we may generalize this point by saying that
the protagonists typically treat their “inferiors” with courtesy and respect, whereas
the villains treat such characters with contempt and disdain, if not violence. I sus-
pect that it is fairly obvious that when it comes to mass entertainments, there is a
clear-cut rationale for investing the protagonists with democratic or egalitarian
virtue, whereas the villains are painted in the colors of elitist vice.
As these conjectures suggest, it is my view that character “ especially at the level
of virtue “ is a critical lever for guiding the audience™s moral perception of the
action.This is why one may find oneself morally sympathetic to characters who rep-
resent moral causes with which one usually does not align oneself “ for example,
one may find oneself rooting for the colonialists in Zulu even if one is, on the
whole, anti-imperialist. Here we are drawn into the film™s system of moral evalua-
tions by its portrayal “ or lack thereof “ of characters with respect to virtues.That is,
in many suspense fictions “ involving imperialism, war, international espionage, and
the like “ the protagonists are represented as having some virtues, whereas their
opposite number are presented either as having no virtues whatsoever or, more
pointedly, only negative personal and interpersonal attributes.And in these cases, the
balance of virtue is sufficient to fix our moral assessments of the situation.
262 ART, EMOTION, MORALITY
AND


If the protagonists are represented as possessed of some virtues and their oppo-
nents are less virtuous, altogether bereft of virtue, or downright vicious, suspense
can take hold because the efforts of the protagonists and their allies will be recog-
nized as morally correct in the ethical system of the film. Of course, it is probably
the case that generally the actions of the protagonists are morally correct in accor-
dance with some prevailing ethical norms that are shared by the majority of the
audience. However, in cases in which this consensus does not obtain, the protago-
nist™s possession of saliently underlined virtues will project the moral valuations of
the fiction and, indeed, incline the audience toward accepting that perspective as
its own.Thus, it turns out that sometimes even an antagonist can serve as an object
of suspense, as long as he or she is presented as possessed of some virtues.10
The emphasis that I have just placed on the relevance of the characters dove-
tails significantly with some recent psychological research.11 There appears to be
experimental evidence that suspense is generated in cases in which spectators or
readers are said to “like” characters. However, when one looks closely at the fac-
tors that contribute to this pro-disposition toward characters on the part of spec-
tators or readers, the most important ones seem to be moral. For example,
whether the character is an antisocial recluse, a good man, or a fine individual is
relevant to the spectators™ or readers™ registration of suspense.12
Some researchers are prone to discussing this relation between the characters
and the spectators in terms of identification.13 But I, like others, think this is ill
advised, insofar as most often characters and spectators are cognitively and emo-
tionally too unalike to warrant any presumption of identity “ that is, we know
more than Oedipus does for a large part of Oedipus Rex and, at the conclusion,
when Oedipus is racked by guilt, we are not; we feel pity for him.14 Thus, it makes
little sense to talk about identification in cases like this, which are quite frequent,
and, if we can do without identification in cases like this one, economy suggests
that we can probably do without it in other cases as well.
Of course, I would not say that suspense necessarily requires that we focus on
characters who are presented as virtuous. Suspense may take hold when our atten-
tion is not riveted on individual characters but on movements that are perceived to
be morally correct “ as in the case of the socialist mass hero in films like Potemkin.
Nevertheless, I suspect that we will find empirically that more fictions project the
moral assessments relevant for suspense through the virtues of individual characters
than through the rightness of social movements perceived as aggregates.
The factors that I have hypothesized that go into appreciating the morality of
the outcomes in a suspense framework are broader than what would be consid-
ered matters of morality in certain ethical theories, because in my account, what
constitutes the morally correct is not simply a matter of ethical purposes and
efforts, but virtues, including pagan virtues, and mere opposition to natural evil.
Admittedly, this is a wider conception than what many ethical philosophers would
include under the rubric of “morality,” but I think that it does converge on the
way in which people tend to use the terms “good” and “bad” in ordinary language
when they are speaking nonpractically and nonprudentially; and, furthermore, I
THE PARADOX SUSPENSE 263
OF


suspect that one should predict that such an expanded, everyday conception of
morality would be the one toward which suspense fictions, which aspire to popu-
larity, would gravitate.
Suspense requires not only that consumers rate certain alternative outcomes to
be moral and evil; suspense, with respect to fiction, also requires that the moral
outcome be perceived to be a live but improbable outcome, or, at least, no more
probable than the evil outcome, whereas the evil outcome is generally far more
probable than the moral one.That is, readers, listeners, and viewers of fictions not
only rate the alternative outcomes in terms of morality, but also in terms of prob-
ability. Of course, the sense of probability that I have in mind here is the probabil-
ity of the outcomes prior to the moment in the fiction at which one of the
alternatives is actualized, because after that moment there is no uncertainty.
Moreover, I am talking here about the probability of the event in the fictional
world, or, to state it differently, the probability internal to the fiction, or what falls
within the scope of the fictional operator (i.e., “It is fictional that¦”). It is the
audience™s access to this internal probability (henceforth usually called just “prob-
ability”) that is relevant, because from a viewpoint external to the fiction, there is
no probability that King Kong will be killed because King Kong does not exist.15
Suspense correlates with the course of events prior to, but not including, the rel-
evant outcomes. For after one of the rival alternatives eventuates, there can be no
suspense. Morever, the sense of internal improbability that possesses the audience for
the duration of its experience of suspense is relative to the information provided
within the scope of the fiction operator to the audience by the narrative up to and
including the moments when we are gripped by suspense.This is meant to preclude
the relevance of such “real-world” knowledge, as that the hero always wins the day,
from our estimates of the probabilities of certain fictional events. Instead, we gauge
the relevant probabilities relative to the information available in the story preceding
and during the interlude of suspense but bracket the information available after and
including the moment when one outcome emerges victorious.

<<

. 47
( 82 .)



>>